It all started with a gift card from Amazon.com… I saw a cookbook on sale from the “Indian Rachel Ray” and I thought, “Wow, I must own that.” I bought the book and when it came, I poured over the pages and was mesmerized by the strange vegetables and spices I’ve never heard of. I was ready for my next culinary adventure. So, with curiosity driving my urge to create a meal that would whisk me away to India, I set off for an Indian market in Waltham, Massachusetts.
As I entered the store, I was immediately astonished at the amount of fresh produce that greeted me. Fresh “methi” or fenugreek leaves, amaranth leaves, cilantro, long beans, ridged gourd and tindora. I was in foodie heaven! I soon realized I had no idea what was on my list. What in the world are “cluster beans”? They were labeled “gavarfali” in the store. They weren’t what I had pictured at all! I stood blocking the aisle with cell phone in hand looking up “gavarfali” on Wikipedia and trying to make sense of my shopping list. Finally, I decided to just look around and grab a few things that were familiar in the produce department and then move on to the spice aisles that taunted me from the rear of the store.
I’m a little OCD when it comes to shopping. I tend to wander in the same pattern in stores. I circle the circumference of the place and then dive into the middle later on. The next section was dairy. Man alive! Only $5 for a half gallon of yoghurt? I’m already sold on the store based on that. I picked up some paneer, ghee, and a mango lassi to drink on the way home.
I stood in front of a wall of dried chilies. Pasilla, chipotle, ancho, cayanne, aji, arbols… Heaven. Without thinking, I grabbed one of each just in case I didn’t have it at home. I was blown away on the prices. They were cheaper by dollars compared to my local grocery store for the same brands!
As I came around the corner, I could smell an odor that I can only describe as a dried, rotten onion. On both sides of the aisle, I saw bags and containers of powders, leaves and whole spices. I eyed a small plastic round container about the size of a shot glass and picked it up. The dried rotten onion smell was stronger. I took a whiff and verified that the odor was coming from that tiny little container. It was asafoetida or “hing”. I looked at my rather long shopping list and it was on there. Reluctantly, I picked it up and put it in my basket. My hand now smelled strongly of onion and garlic.
I picked up bags of whole coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Fenugreek is a small seed that has notes of maple syrup. I found nigella (kalonji) seeds and green and black cardamom. I was in heaven. I also had “black salt” on my list. Like a fool, I was looking for black salt. Being a proud male, I refused to ask anyone. Instead, I picked up my trusty phone and looked it up. Ah! Black salt is not black… It’s pink. It smells like… sulfur. Great. I put it in my basket next to the as(s)afoetida and continued down the aisle and down my list. Ajwain, amchur and anardana make their way into my basket. I picked up some different flours and and other unique ingredients and headed for the check-out.
On my way home, I was brimming with excitement to try out all the new ingredients. I couldn’t wait to make a nice “dal” or lentil stew and make naan and top it with nigella seeds. When I finally got home to my kitchen, I began unpacking the bags and opening each spice and to breathe its perfume. The ajwain smells like thyme but looks like little dill seeds and the anardana has a sweet-sour pomegranate aroma (it’s dried and ground pomegranate seeds). I was like a kid discovering something new and I couldn’t wait to cook something and share it with my friends.
I turned the pages of my pristine new cookbook and looked at a recipe called “Amti’, a sweet and sour lentil dish. It called for a spice mix named “Goda Masala”. It is a blend of coriander, cumin, lichen stone flower, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, caraway, black pepper, bay leaves, cobra saffron, mace, dried coconut, white sesame seeds, chilis and asafoetida! I roasted each of the ingredients and put them in one of my many spice grinders and whirred away. When I took off the top, a blast of a sweet and earthy aroma took me on a mini vacation. Ok, it really just reminded me of Christmas and spiced cookies. I knew this blend of spices were meant for a savory dish and that my new culinary adventure was about to begin. Even though I have never been to India, I knew that by learning about the food of its people would somehow take me away, if only just for an afternoon.
I made the Amti and, well, it really wasn’t my favorite, but it was filled with flavor. The smells that came from my kitchen while the spices and lentils cooked took me on a journey to Maharashtra. Even though I didn’t really like it, I wasn’t going to let one recipe stop me from my taste adventure. India does have over 1.2 billion people and plenty of culture. Next stop: Gujarat!