If you have ever tried Indian food, you notices that it has some major differences from American food. It is usually served with rice that the serving of each dish is mixed with to the right consistency. It generally has a higher number of spices, more liquid (gravy) in dishes, and generally a larger number of individual dishes are served per meal. Also, Indians at home tend to use their hand to eat and dishes are served in the order based on which dish has the least complex flavors to the dish that has the most complex flavors. It’s all very interesting to me and the food is some of the best I’ve ever had.
Side note: Indian food has become my absolute favorite type of food. As you know, we cook Indian/Bengali food at home about 75% of the time, which is strange for someone who had never even tried Indian food prior to the last couple of years of college. Eating Indian food, specifically the homemade type, usually prepared with less oil than in restaurants, has really awakened my taste buds, helped regulate my digestive system, and made me love food even more. These days, if I go a few days with no Indian food, my body craves it like nothing else. Something about the spices makes me feel so good! It is no wonder that ancient cultures have used spices not only for their taste, but also their medicinal qualities. I am the luckiest girl to be married to an Bengali man who enjoys cooking with me.
I want to share a list of my favorite Indian/Bengali foods/dishes I’ve had so far. And if this list makes you hungry, go to your nearest Indian restaurant for lunch!
#1: Dal (Lentils)
There are so many types of dal in Indian cuisine. I had never really had a dish that was primarily dal here in the US. I had eaten dishes where some dal was thrown in, like in soups, but they never were the main character in the dish. We cook dal at home very regularly, mostly moong and masoor varieties. Something about those little beans packed with healthy things makes such a satisfying dish. B even says that dal is what they eat when they are feeling sick, much like we here eat chicken noodle soup or something like that. My favorite way of cooking and eating dal is very simple with toasted cumin seeds, turmeric, and salt. I also like it when vegetables have been boiled with the dal and when other types of dal are used. It is such a flavorful, comforting dish that has many options when choosing how to prepare it.
#2: Ma’s Cucumber & Potato Curry
This is a strange sounding dish to us Americans. We tend to think that cucumber can only be eaten raw. We imagine that if you try to cook cucumber that it will be terribly watery and unpleasant to eat. But let me tell you, this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. B cooks this dish according to a recipe his mom gave him and I think he probably cooks it really close to what it would taste like when Ma makes it. This dish manages to keep the freshness and bright “green” flavor of the cucumber and combines it with the comfort of potatoes and fragrant spices. It is amazing.
#3: Aloo Methi
We just had this dish a couple nights ago. Aloo is potato. Methi is this fragrant plant that has small oval shaped leaves. I can’t remember if there is an English name for it… But it has a slightly smoky, earthy flavor in addition to it’s green, fresh flavor which makes for a very tasty combination. We boil the potatoes (but you can add other vegetables), add the spices from Ma’s recipe, then throw in the methi leaves almost at the end. Once they are wilted, the dish is ready to eat. It usually disappears pretty quickly in our house.
Ah, samosas. These are usually not a dish that is made at home because they are a little complicated. These babies are similar to the fried pies served here in the US, but with much more complex and spicy fillings. They are also shaped like pyramids almost. The best ones we get around here come from the Indian grocery store. We love the Indian grocery here! It always smells so wonderful when you step in and they serve freshly fried samosas and sometimes biryani and sweets. Their samosas are filled with a potato and green pea mixture, fried fresh to a golden crisp, with the flakiest of flaky crusts. Every time we go there, we at least order four. Oh, and they are only a dollar!
This is another strange sounding dish to us Americans. Shondesh is a famous Bengali dessert that is made from paneer, which is like a homemade ricotta or farmers cheese. It is very simple to make at home and I have made it a few different times. Basically you boil milk, add lemon juice to separate the curds from the whey, strain the now paneer/chana, rinse the lemon flavor from the chana, press to remove excess moisture, then add your sweetener of choice and cardamom powder, knead, cook, shape into bite sized pieces, and finally chill. It sounds like a complicated process, but it goes much quicker than it sounds like. Once chilled, these morsels are sweet, creamy, chewy, and very satisfying. It only takes about two of these until your sweet tooth is satisfied. Yum.
#6: Ma’s Fried Eggplant
I must admit that I have so far been unable to re-create this dish to be close to as tasty as Ma’s. Also, I was never a fan of eggplant until I started having it in Indian/Bengali dishes. Nowadays it is one of my favorite veggie dishes. I can’t tell you how Ma cooks her’s, but I can tell you how tasty it is. There are pretty thick slices of eggplant, with spices and turmeric rubbed generously on both sides, the slices are then fried/sauteed, most likely in mustard oil until they are cooked through, but somehow they maintain their structure and integrity of shape. These slices are packed with flavor and comfort. When mixed with rice, they are lovely. And they are lovely when eaten with roti/flat bread. I will look forward to having these next time we visit India.
#7: Okra & Potato Curry
This dish we also had very recently, and that will also sound strange to at least us Southerners who like to eat okra only if it’s battered and fried. Okra and potato curry is another comforting dish that is pretty simple, but so satisfying. We cook this at home when the okra looks especially good at the grocery store. We chop the okra and potatoes, garlic, and green chilies. If you want the okra to keep its round shape, stir-fry the potatoes for a bit first, then add the okra. Fry, stirring continuously until they begin to soften. Add salt and turmeric (and any other spices you want, we just keep this one simple), then add a little water, cover and boil until cooked through. This is good served with rice or bread. As long as your okra dish is not too oily, it will be very tasty.
As I typed this, I realized that these dishes are not necessarily listed in any particular order. I guess it just depends on the mood I’m in as to which is my favorite. If you have been too afraid to try Indian food, please consider it. You could be missing out on something you would love and your body could thank you for. Step out of your comfort zone, ask your Indian friends to share a dish with you; they would probably be proud to share some of their rich, spicy heritage with you!
P.S. Spellcheck did NOT like these non-English words, ya’ll.