to Mike Wolfberg's Home Page

to Mike Wolfberg's Recipes

Mike Wolfberg's Indian Dinner

Mike was active in the Concord/Carlisle Newcomers Club Gourmet Group in the first half of the 1970s. In addition to his writing software to manage the organization, he created a couple of the menus for the group. His crowning achievement was an extensive multi-dish menu for an East Indian dinner. The group held a few dinners each year which were meant to help new residents of the towns meet each other.

A dinner evening began at one or two cocktail parties at houses large to accommodate large attendance. It was a BYOB party, with food prepared by volunteers. Then couples moved onto host homes, where the attendees were responsible to follow the published recipes. Since Indian food required so many different spices, Mike bought these in bulk and packaged them for everyone cooking, distributing them in little plastic bags.

The Indian dinner was held on 1-Mar-75; it was the fourth dinner of the Gourmet Group of the 1974-1975 Season. Here is the lineup of what was chosen for the cocktail party appetizers and the dinners.

Jhinga Kari #1 -  Mild Shrimp Curry

Jhinga Kari #2 - Hot Shrimp Curry

Poppadums - Fried Thin Lentil Bread



+ + + + + + + + + +

Soor Vindaloo
- Vinegared Pork Curry

Massaledarh Haddock - Spiced Haddock

Basmati Chawal - Plain Boiled Basmati Rice

Bagara Bengan - Eggplant Curry

Pancha Dal - Five Dals

Palak Raita - Spinach-Yogurt Salad

Parsi Kheera Salat - Parsi Cucumber Salad

Majur Chutney - Date Chutney

Kayla Halva - Sweet Mashed Bananas

+ + + + + + + + + +

Paan-Supari Masala - Aromatic Seeds, Nuts, Mints

Tea or Coffee

Background

One out of every seven persons in the world today (as of 1975, and this is less than six in 2018) lives in India, and so it is appropriate that the Newcomers Gourmet Group features the food of this country as one of its seven functions this season.

Indian cookery has been influenced considerably by climatic conditions: outdoor temperatures exceeding 100° are common in India, and through the ages it was discovered that foods cooked with certain combinations of spices would not spoil for some time. Hotness is considered healthy in India since perspirations is induced which, in turn, helps cool one's body. Although the universal characteristic of Indian food is the generous use of spices, not all Indian food is extremely hot. Unlike the use of spices in other cultures, Indians tend to bring out the flavors of spices by frying them in oil or ghee (cooked clarified butter). Ghee is used because its burning point is very high, higher than most oils.

Many American think that curry powder is made from grinding one particular spice, which is then used to flavor a dish called a "curry". WRONG!! Curry powder is a combination of spices blended together in varying proportions, usually consisting of coriander, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, and others. Rather than using a commercial curry powder, Indian cooks use separate spices, either while or ground, to impart an individual flavor to each dish.

Although the hotness of Indian food is due mainly to the use of capsicum peppers (i.e., chilies), these were not originally native to India, but introduced by the Portuguese via Columbus after he discovered them in America! The food of India had already been developing over centuries -- borrowing ideas from the Greeks, Phoenicians, Chinese, Muslims, and various Europeans.

There is considerable variety in Indian cookery according to geographical area, available ingredients, wealth, religion, and customs, etc. For example, the veneration of the cow prohibits Hindus from eating beef, but not necessarily lamb, pork, and poultry. Millions of Indians are vegetarians, but there are all degrees: those who eat fish but not eggs, those who eat eggs and chicken but not fish, those who eat no vegetables grown underground (pulling one from the ground may harm a worm), and those will not touch anything that has a "germ" of animal life.

Indian meals are not served as courses. Each guest is usually given his meal in a particular arrangement on a "thali", a shiny circular platter made of brass, copper, silver, or stainless steel, 12" in diameter with a 1" lip. Some foods are placed directly on the thali, with others in small cups. Plantain (banana) leaves are used instead of a thali for wedding feasts and other special occasions. Indians eat with no utensils, but rather with the fingers, and the table manners vary according to locale. For many, the left hand may not be used, except to pick up one water tumbler; only the tips of the fingers of the right hand may be used to eat, and the palm of the hand must be kept clean. (We plan to use traditional Western tableware!) Breads are commonly used by Indians to scoop and sop up food.

Depending on the affluence of the family, and Indian meal might consist of a rice and curry, dal (cooked split lentils) or a cooked vegetable, poppadums or other bread, pickles (such as mango or citric), yogurt, and a "sweet". We have selected a more extensive menu which is representative of a festive or special occasion. We will be sampling dishes from different regions of the nation with a variety of flavors, aromas, textures, and appearances.

Whereas there is a classic French cuisine, particularly due to cooking schools and restaurants, Indian food is prepared almost exclusively in homes by individuals and families. As with the music of India, much of the food preparation is improvised around basic themes. Each Indian cook or household has its own version of a dish; thus there is no authoritative Indian cookbook. The recipes for this dinner have evolved out of varying and combining recipes from several Indian cookbooks published in U.S. or Britain, each with its own version of preparations.

For most Indian dishes, the quality, quantity, and freshness of the spices used affect the resulting taste. In an attempt to standardize the intended tastes for this Gourmet Group dinner, we supplied nearly all of the spices. Most of them were obtained in 1975 from the only all-Indian food shop in the area, but that shop has gone out of business since then, and there are many such stores more than 40 years later. There is a well-respected Penzeys spice store in Arlington, MA, where most of the needed spices can be found.

General Description of the Dinner

Fish and Shellfish - India has a long coastline and many large rivers and lakes; it boasts of more than 2000 varieties of edible fish. Both fresh and salt water fish are eaten extensively throughout India, usually in the form of a curry or in a pulao (pilaff or pilau). Coastal areas use fish daily and are fortunate in having some of the best prawns, lobsters, and crayfish. The largest of these prawns weigh one pound after cleaning! For the cocktail party, we are having pieces of medium shrimp in a mildly-spiced sauce and in a somewhat hot sauce. At the dinner, we are having haddock" in a mildly-spiced sour cream sauce featuring cardamom.

Poppadums - Indian cookbooks don't even attempt to describe how to make these paper-thin wafers. Even in India, they are made only by families who have followed this trade for several generations. The work requires great accuracy in rolling out the dough, dry weather, and plenty of sunshine. This bread is available numerous varieties: different kinds of lentil flour are used, and various spices are sometimes included. Poppadums are often served to accompany a meal, but we are having four versions as crunchy munchables along with cocktails.

Pork Vindaloo - This is a lusty Western Indian pork dish for which the pork is marinated and cooked in vinegar. Although it is used in this meal as a hot main dish, it is also prepared as a pickle. Note that a blender is needed to prepare the dish.

Basmati Rice - Rice is the staple food of South, Central, and East India, and it is eaten in the North on festive occasions. There are over 10,000 kinds of rice grown in India, and the highest quality being Basmati. To eat this long, thin hulled rice is the dream of many Indians who cannot afford its extremely high price. Basmati rice has a nutlike flavor and a savory fragrance. Basmati was not a common back in 1975, but you can now find it as a standard item in most supermarkets. I tend to use Bombay brand, which comes in a burlap outer bag. To prepare it, follow the attached cooking instructions. The recommended amount of uncooked rice to use for the Gourmet Club dinner is 2 cups. When served, 2 TBL. of ghee was recommended to be mixed into the cooked rice.

Eggplant Curry - This is a good vegetable dish with a variety of flavors. One particularly interesting ingredient (used also in other dishes at this dinner) is tamarind, the brownish pulp of the pod of a tropical tree, tasting acid-sweet.

Dal - Dal is a generic term for various split lentils, peas, and beans. These form the main source of protein for many poor and/or vegetarian Indians. We are having one dish containing five different dals:

   

toor

-

a lentil sometimes called pigeon pea,

chana

-

chick pea or garbanzo bean,

mung

-

skinned mung bean,

urad

-

a small black bean which becomes dusty white when skinned and split, and

masoor

-

a small flat brown lentil which becomes bright orange when skinned and
split (sometimes called red lentil or Egyptian lentil).

An ingredient and garnish for the dal dish is fresh cilantro (coriander leaves), an herb used extensively in India, where it is called "dhania". It is also known as "Chinese parsley".

Raita - A raita is a yogurt-based dish that is usually served to impart added flavor to a snack, salad, or main dish, rather than as a main dish. Most raitas contain "rai" (mustard seeds) and are made with yogurt mixed with fruit or raw or cooked vegetable. Ours is with steamed spinach.

Cucumber Salad - This dish is a somewhat elaborate version of a typical Indian salad, containing a fresh vegetable along with lemon juice. Many are made with slices of fresh hot green chilies.

Chutney - Chutneys, which are similar to Western condiments such as mustard, relish, and ketchup, are used as an added flavor and appetite stimulant. Chutneys are served in very small quantities, since they are very hot and spicy. A teaspoon or less is an appropriate amount to take on your plate. Some chutneys are made fresh for use on the same day. Others, called "pickles", are bottled and preserved for at least one week before eating. We are having freshly-made date chutney which is considerably less hot than typical.

Sweets - Indians have an intense craving for "sweets", which are candies, but more like desserts. Most sweets are made from a milk-based preparation and are so difficult to make that professionally-made ones are often superior. Although it is not customary to end a meal with a dessert, a sweet is often served as part of a meal, as is the case for this dinner. Individuals may prefer to eat the banana dish towards the end of the meal.

Beverages - Indians generally do not drink alcoholic beverages. The qualities of wine are lost when used to accompany a meal such as this one. However, beer does go well with Indian food. Indians drink only water in a metal tumbler to accompany a meal. The use of tea in India is more prevalent, although coffee is popular in Southern India where it is grown.

Paan-Supari Masala - This mixture of "bright" tastes serves to freshen your breath after the meal. In India, it is common to chew "paan" after a meal, as well as between meals, and in India is more widespread than gum chewing in America. It consists of folded betel nut leaves stuffed with aromatic seeds and nuts (such as what we are sampling) and possibly tobacco.

Suggested Menu Breakdown

For 8 persons

   

For 10 persons

   

For 12 persons

1. pork

1. pork

1. pork

2. haddock, rice, chutney

2. haddock, rice

2. haddock, rice

3. eggplant, raita

3. eggplant

3. eggplant

4. dal, cucumber, banana

4. dal, cucumber

4. dal

5. raita, chutney, banana

5. raita, chutney

6. cucumber, banana

The host is responsible for the paan-supari masala and the tea or coffee.

Shopping Suggestions

Handling Hot Chilies

Care must be taken when handling chilies, whether they are fresh or dried, since their volatile oils can irritate your skin. Either wear rubber gloves or handle the chilies through a plastic bag, with your hand inside the bag, holding the chili outside, while using your other hand to cut it with a knife. Be careful not to touch your face or eyes while working with chilies. You may prefer to avoid wetting a dried chili if you intend to crumble it. For working with fresh green chilies, rinse each one under cold running water, and working under the running water, cut off the stem and then cut the pod in half lengthwise. Use your knife to scrape away the seeds. Indian cooks sometimes retain the seeds, which are the hottest parts of the chilies. When preparing a fresh chili, cut away those ribs which seem thick and flashy. Continue wearing gloves or the plastic bag while slicing or dicing the chili.

Ghee

Any amount of ghee may be made at one time. One pound is usually convenient, and it keeps for months in the refrigerator. One pound of butter yields 1 3/4 to 1 7/8 cups of ghee. Cooking the butter evaporates its water content and separates the pure fat from the milk solids, thus creating a substance that resembles clarified butter. However, cooking the butter over low heat for a relatively long period not only clarifies it, but also gives it a distinctive nutlike flavor.

  1. If the butter is not already in 1/4 lb. sticks (or smaller), cut it down to 1/4 lb. sticks. In a heavy saucepan, heat the butter over moderate heat, turning it to melt it slowly and completely without letting it brown. When it has melted, reduce the heat to the lowest possible point. Simmer uncovered and undisturbed for 45 minutes, or until the milk solids on the bottom of the pan are a golden brown and the butter on the top is transparent.
  2. Cover a bowl with 4 layers of dampened cheesecloth. Slowly pour the clear liquid ghee through the cloth. Do not squeeze the cloth, as particles may get into in the ghee. If there are any solids left in the ghee, strain it again; this is not so important if you are going to use it all immediately. In order for the ghee to keep, it should be "one thing made perfectly clear".
  3. Pour the ghee into a jar or wide-mouthed bottle, and store in the refrigerator until ready for use. Cookbooks claim it can even be stored at room temperature!

back to the top of this page This page, maintained by Mike Wolfberg, was last updated on July 27, 2018 .