My grandmother cooked in an embroidered cotton caftan and rubber flip-flops, getting all of her prep out of the way in the morning, sometimes enlisting my help with tedious potato-peeling or kneading.
Blasting Hindi movie soundtracks on the radio, she built the seasonal Gujarati dish undhiyu, a specialty of the city of Surat, with purple yams and plantains, flat hyacinth beans and teeny eggplants, all of it layered in a giant, lipped stainless-steel pot and left to cook slowly over the charcoal outside.
This didn’t happen in India, but in Kenya.
I’m a part of the diaspora. Born in London to East African and Indian parents with Gujarati and Konkani roots, I immigrated to the United States as a teenager. As I was growing up, my connections to these cultures were maintained in my family’s kitchens, if nowhere else.
On the day of a big party, my grandmother and grandfather would sit down side by side at the kitchen table and form an efficient factory line. Together, they would stuff hundreds of samosas with cinnamon-scented ground lamb and blanched peas I’d helped shuck, sealing the delicate triangles with a glue of flour and water.
Their work was fast but precise, and they shooed me away if I tried to distract them. (A hole in the pastry seal would result in a small explosion in the fryer, and a sad, oil-soaked samosa.)
For weekend breakfasts, my grandmother cooked trays of pale yellow dhokla — the airy chickpea batter fermented overnight as we slept, then seasoned lightly with crushed green chiles and garlic and steamed into tall, round cakes freckled with sesame seeds. My brother and I swiped the still-hot, diamond-shaped pieces through puddles of oil dusted with chile powder.
During the day, when everyone else was at work, I’d stand on the wobbly stool in my grandparents’ vast, well-organized pantry and open every container to sniff or taste its contents — thick, sludgy jaggery; crisp, fried chickpea noodles of every shape and size; bags of dark, sweet, home-fried onions; and heavy steel tins of homemade ghee.
More than any European or American restaurant kitchen I worked in as a line cook in my 20s, or dined in as a restaurant critic in my 30s, this is the one that has shaped me: my family’s Kenyan-Gujarati kitchen.
It can tell you who I am, but it cannot tell you, at least not with any accuracy, what the Indian kitchen is like — the uniformity of that place is a myth, because the uniformity of Indianness is a myth.
India is currently struggling with a powerful wave of Hindu nationalism that threatens its Muslim population with deadly violence. The news is hard to ignore, even in a food story: Hindu supremacists, who push a narrow definition of Indianness, also push a narrow definition of India’s food culture.
When my editors asked me to choose 10 essential Indian recipes, I wasn’t sure if the task was possible. But I came to see it as a way of celebrating the breadth of Indian home cooking.
This is a cuisine defined by its multiplicity. It is many cuisines in one, each resisting generalization and abridgment. I’m grateful for that, but it does make the task difficult. Where to start?
I picked these recipes, after reading dozens of Indian cookbooks, and interviewing a number of home cooks outside my family, because they represented, to me, the vast pleasures and ingenuities of Indian home cooking, each in a totally different way — from matar kachori, the deep-fried pea-stuffed dumplings, to kosambari, a quick raw salad of grated carrot, seasoned with coconut and lemon.
I didn’t want the project to be limited by my biography. Yes, there is a taste of my childhood here: a basic Gujarati-style toor dal bobbing with boiled peanuts and toasted cumin seeds, and a tangy Mangalorean fish curry, shimmering with coconut oil. But you won’t find my family’s recipes for undhiyu, dhokla or samosas.
Instead, you’ll find a hodgepodge of ingredients (meat, fish, vegetables, eggs) as well as techniques (fermenting batter, tempering fat, crushing curry paste). These are introductory recipes for the home cook, and though they don’t all belong to one region, caste or religious group, they do all welcome you into the kitchen.
The 10 Essential Recipes
Dal can be made with all kinds of lentils and cooking methods. These vary not just from region to region, but also from day to day, mood to mood. Some cooks like dal soupy, others chunky. There are dals for special occasions, seasoned with charcoal smoke and butter or padded out luxuriously with cream, as well as lighter, leaner dals that can restore you when you’re not feeling well.
The flavor of this everyday, Gujarati-style dal comes from the pure nuttiness of split pigeon peas, boiled until tender and bolstered with spices bloomed in hot ghee. This fat-tempering technique, called vaghar in Gujarati, has many names and many uses across the country. In this case, the tempering is a great introduction to the resourcefulness and finesse of Indian home cooks: Just a few tablespoons of carefully seasoned fat, tipped in at the very last moment, transform an entire pot. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Though elite, upper-caste Hindus tend to be vegetarian, most Indians eat meat, and many millions of Muslim Indians eat beef. This saucy kheema, which can be made with chicken, lamb, beef or a combination of meat, is simple, comforting home cooking — the meat stretched out and made luxurious in a reduction of spiced tomato.
It can be dinner with a couple of soft, shiny bread rolls, or a chapati and a dollop of yogurt. A friend of mine even mixes it with spaghetti and a moderate squirt of ketchup. (Don’t judge!) The secret to this version is to take your time: Caramelize the onions properly for a strong foundation, and once you’ve added the beef, simmer it patiently until the sauce is dark and silky, and the fat has split away, risen to the top, and pooled in every nook. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Roti is a basic, everyday bread, but making it takes a lot of skill. The dough is kneaded with just enough water to bring it together and keep it soft and pliable. And though it’s not yeasted, a ball of well-mixed and -rested dough will be supple and almost spongy, as if it were. Cooks who are used to making roti at home can roll out thin, round disks that puff up as if by magic. But the real magic of roti is how a few of them can turn anything — a little kheema, or a few spoonfuls of aloo masala — into a satisfying meal. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
There are countless variations of this style of salad from Karnataka, but my favorite is a simple version made with crunchy raw carrots, dressed with a little tempered fat, coconut, citrus and chopped herbs. If fresh coconut isn’t available, keep a bag of frozen grated coconut in the freezer. It’s easy to find at most Indian grocery stores and, when you have it on hand, you can bring this salad together in less than five minutes. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
5. Lamb Biryani
In India, you’re just as likely to have biryani as a lunchtime delivery at the office as you are to see it as a stunning centerpiece at a wedding feast. The dish is pervasive, with many modern interpretations and regional permutations rooted in Muslim communities of the subcontinent. Hyderabad is famous for its style of biryani, which traditionally involves a layer of raw meat and gravy that cooks the rice as it steams in a tightly sealed pot. This Sindhi-style biryani is the one I make for special Sunday lunches and parties. With multiple layers of parcooked rice, fresh herbs, caramelized onion, saffron-infused milk and braised lamb, it’s a project, but a rewarding one. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Many diners in the United States know dosas as the crisp, oversize folds served at South Indian restaurants. But those dosas have a large extended family: dosas from Karnataka made with grated cucumber; dosas from Tamil Nadu made with pearl millet flour; and dosas from Kerala made with jaggery. There are lacy-edged dosas and cakelike dosas, delicate dosas that crumple like hankies, and fat, deeply pocked dosas that break where they’re creased. If you’ve never made dosas at home, a good place to start is a simple rice and urad dal batter. Traditionally, the batter relies on a wild fermentation that flourishes in warm kitchens, but many cooks hack this, reaching for packets of dosa mix or adding yeast to ensure that the fermentation kicks off properly. You’ll know it’s ready when it’s very foamy and smells a little sour. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
A little bowl of simply spiced half-mashed potatoes and onion, glistening with fat, is a standard side dish at bustling restaurants that serve dosas. It’s also one of the best vegetable dishes — inexpensive, quick and delicious — to add to your repertoire as a home cook. The key to these potatoes is water, not fat. Overcooking them just slightly ensures that they’re tender, and that they hold enough moisture so when you drop them into the hot pan, they break up and meld into the sautéed onion mix, becoming almost indistinguishable from it. Though aloo masala is great with a hot dosa, it’s a versatile dish that can also work as a side with other meals. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
8. Egg Curry
Food has always been politicized in India, a person’s diet often revealing the specifics of her cultural identity. And under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the surge of pro-vegetarian Hindu nationalism, even the simple practice of serving eggs at school lunch has become fraught.
But eggs have long been an important source of nutrition across the country, and form the base of many classic regional dishes. In Andhra Pradesh, this spicy, tomato-rich egg curry would have firmer, more crumbly yolks (boiled for about 11 or 12 minutes), but I like to cook them a little softer (8 minutes, max). (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Kachori started as street food in Rajasthan, where Marwari cooks sealed food in pastry and deep-fried it, making it ideal for the hungry traders doing business at outdoor markets. Kachori can be filled with potatoes, dal and vegetables, but when peas are in season, they make what I consider the pinnacle of the genre.
The filling is fresh, green, bright, juicy and lightly seasoned with herbs and lemon, all tucked inside a thin, flaky crust. The dough behaves nothing like pie dough, but somehow achieves the same effect after it’s deep-fried. Though the snack was originally made to be portable and to keep for a long time, these kachori are best the day they’re made. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Sour with tamarind, full-bodied with coconut and smoldering with dry red chiles, this dish has roots in the coastal city of Mangalore. In India, a cook might reach for Byadagi chiles from Karnataka to stain the sauce a bright red color. In the United States, chiles de árbol are easier to find. A stone mortar and pestle is the best tool for grinding the curry paste; the finer you can get the coconut and chile, the smoother and richer the texture of the final sauce. From there, the recipe is very adaptable — replace the fillets with any fish you like, including nice oily ones like mackerel or sardines. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)
10 Essential Recipes is a new occasional feature that explores different cuisines.