India's cuisine reflects the history of its varied regions
Boston — THE Festival of India program so much in the news lately has featured major art shows across the United States. But it's not just jewel-like, gilded, miniature paintings and ornate clothes that have worked their way across the waters. Some of India's best chefs have been a part of this latest program and have left their kitchens to educate the palates of Americans.
``Probably the biggest misconception about Indian food is that all we eat is curry,'' Richard Graham, an executive chef born and educated in India, remarked here as he reluctantly nibbled a nacho during a recent interview over lunch.
``Actually, only 10 to 12 percent of Indian food consists of curry.'' It's surprising, he notes, how little is known about the cuisine of the second most populous country in the world.
Mr. Graham, who oversees 21 hotel kitchens in India, was in the US on leave from the Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi. With two other chefs he toured nine cities, culminating in Boston in conjunction with a current Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, ``Life at Court: Art for India's Rulers, 16th-19th Centuries.''
The breakup of the princely courts in India, Graham explained, was similar to what took place in France after the revolution. With the demise of the royal homes and palaces, master chefs who had cooked exclusively for the pampered few suddenly found themselves on the street looking for work.
Their recourse was to start restaurants in local villages, thereby introducing their cooking styles to the populace. Since then, people have become more educated and mobile -- moving from village to village and state to state, Graham says.
``This has brought about a new awareness of the many regional foods in our own country,'' he explains. ``Food in India is influenced by location, availability, weather, and especially religious beliefs.
``Hindus and Sikhs will eat meat but not beef, for example. Muslims and Jews, for different religious reasons, are prohibited from eating pork. Certain Hindus are strict vegetarians. And the Christians? They eat anything!''
In the south alone, Graham notes, there are at least five cuisines; the regions of Madras, Mangalore, Mysore, Hyderabad, and Goa all have their specialties.
``In Madras, there is an array of vegetarian food flavored with mustard, coconut, palm juice, and coriander. Mangalore has a very large Christian populace. Mysore has perhaps the greatest collection of non-vegetarian dishes.
``Hyderabad used to be Muslim. The people came from the Persian Gulf -- Egyptians, Lebanese, and Arabs. They have a vast, wonderful cuisine. We have found many excellent cooks there -- local people who cooked for banquets, weddings, and festivals.
``Now they work in our hotel kitchens and have learned how to handle gas, microwave ovens, and modern equipment. And so now the cuisine from Hyderabad is becoming quite popular in India.''
In contrast, Graham continues, the simplest cooking is done in Bengal, in the east -- ``mostly consisting of lentils, potato mash, boiled rice, and tomato relish.''
On the west coast is Goa, a Portuguese colony until 20 years ago. ``That's where I'm from,'' says Graham. ``It is influenced by the Spanish as well as the Portuguese. We cook a lot of fish and season with vinegars and fruit juice extract.''
Graham's training in Europe has also worked its way into his kitchens. ``I spent some time on the Continent with Paul Bocuse in France,'' he says, ``and so now I cook broccoli that's still crunchy and peas so they're a little hard and crackly. And when I make a shrimp curry, the shrimp go in last and cook only for seconds.''
It is the Punjabi food from the north, however, that is still most popular outside India. ``When money was spent in India by entrepreneurs, it was in the north,'' Graham explains. ``When they branched out, it was this cuisine that was projected outside the country. It's the Punjabis that use a lot of curry in their cooking.''
Mr. Graham has little good to say about most commercial curry powders. ``You can get the ingredients for a good curry in any supermarket around the country these days.'' That way, he adds, you can do curry dishes to your own taste.
Indian food may intimidate many Western cooks, but Graham insists that ``it's not any more difficult than cooking European dishes. It's intricate,'' he says, ``but still simple. It's mainly getting your spices and garlic together.''
In his view, Indian food is best served as Chinese meals are, with several dishes brought to the table and everyone getting a share of each one.
Although curry dishes aren't the sum of Indian food, here is one of Chef Graham's classic recipes. Lamb Curry 1 1/2 pounds of lamb, cut in cubes 1 cup red onion, chopped 1 cup tomatoes, chopped 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced 1 teaspoon garlic, minced 2 bay leaves 3 whole cloves 2 sticks cinnamon 3 whole cardamom seeds 1 teaspoon coriander powder 1 teaspoon cumin 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1/2 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste) 1 cup plain yogurt Salt and pepper to taste Currants or raisins, and jalapeo peppers as optional garnishes
Combine all ingredients except lamb in large saucepan. Mix thoroughly. Add lamb, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes until lamb is tender.
Serve with boiled rice and garnish with currants or raisins and jalapeo peppers.
For a cool, refreshing fruit drink, Graham recommends this popular Indian beverage. Lassi 1 cup plain yogurt 1 banana or mango 1 cup water 2 teaspoons sugar 2 ice cubes Dash of rose water, optional
Blend all ingredients in blender or food processor about 30 seconds. Serve in tall glasses.