Let me paint a picture for you in words; this is how a home-cooked meal looks in an Indian home (no one-pot-meal wonders here.) At the dinner table, a curried or dry vegetable preparation like this spinach curry or okra takes center stage along with the well-known staple, Daal- an Indian lentil preparation (meat is usually reserved for weekends.)
Accompaniments are varied and almost as important as the main course: a hot-box with warm chapattis or roti- the Indian bread used at most home and warm Basmati rice, a plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumber and raw onion with a lemon dressing, extra lemon wedges and raw green chilies and a bowl of yogurt…
Quite a list, am I forgetting something? Yes, the Indian chutneys and pickles (called achaar) are right there in every Indian pantry; ready to go with any meal.
Nothing out of the ordinary out here for an Indian family but in the world of food experts and as per the Choosemyplate.gov guidelines, this spread qualifies as a complete meal. Grains (rice, Indian bread), Vegetables & fruits (cooked and raw), lean protein (lentils) and dairy (yogurt) make this ‘one healthy plate’.
Indian food has a lot going for it; healthy ingredients used in balance make it an ideal choice for a home-cooked meal. In this piece, I am going to reveal 5 essential elements that form the backbone of Indian cooking; their nutrition-packed versatility truly pushes this cuisine into the Food Hall of Fame:
Element One: Ginger Garlic paste
To most, its two ingredients…in Indian homes, it’s just one bottle that comes out of the refrigerator every time you cook.
Ginger has been touted for its digestive properties while garlic comes up in the health list most often for its anti-inflammatory ways. This ‘one’ element makes its way in to almost every Indian curry, vegetable and meat dish. Click here and here…and you will see what I mean.
At the end of this post, you will find a simple Ginger Garlic Paste recipe and hints and tips to store and freeze it. Keep this staple in your refrigerator; good to go when the urge for Indian food strikes you.
Element Two: Onion
I remember an Indian cooking club gathering at my home, where my friends had a unique complaint. As we cooked, the smell of onion and ginger-garlic had permeated not only their clothes; but even their hair. Fortunately, the delicious Indian food more than made up for our stinky hair and the long shower awaiting us at the end of this cooking experience.
The onion element is inescapable in Indian cuisine; it is the base to most curries and a bed for cooking the spices. Without it, you may have thin soupy curries and raw spices passing off as Indian food. Any benefits to consuming onions? Yes, onions are known to help prevent heart disease and cancer while also being a digestive aid.
Element Three: Garam Masala (recipe here)
Although my article on Indian spices covered Garam masala in detail, it has to make this list.
A list of healthy spices must include the individual wonders of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper…put them all together and you have the quintessential pantry staple in every Indian home: Garam Masala. Regulating body temperature, antioxidant rich, anti microbial, controls blood sugar…the list of benefits is long and leaves you in no doubt that Garam Masala needs to be a part of your meals. But remember, a little pinch goes a long way with Garam Masala.
Element Four: The Sour Element
Lemon, lime, sour curd or yogurt, cider vinegar- especially in Parsi food, tamarind- in south Indian food, Amchur or mango powder and Chaat masala- in west and north Indian food; all lend that essential tang to balance the flavor of spices in Indian food. You will find one or a combination of these flavors in Indian kebabs, curries, Biryani (rice & meat/vegetable preparation) and Daal (lentil preparations.)
Element five: Cilantro or Coriander leaves
I actually heard a prominent cook show host once say that she dislikes cilantro…while that is a matter of personal taste; I was surprised when she suggested replacing it with parsley. Anyone conversant with Indian food will tell you that the unique aroma of the essential oils of cilantro are irreplaceable in this cuisine…and anyone conversant with food in general, will tell you that though the leaves appear similar, the flavors of parsley and cilantro are not interchangeable. Each one is delicious and has a place of pride all their own.
Cilantro leaves (and its seed version, coriander) are natural detoxifying agents with a host of minerals and iron, known for their anti-inflammatory and digestive properties. Here is an amazing article outlining the little known benefits of something as simple as cilantro (who knew cilantro could help with mood swings.) For me, cilantro leaves are the ‘fresh element’ of Indian meals since they are added at the end of the cooking process, so their color remains bright and fresh.
To summarize, I will leave you with this handy formula for cooking Indian dishes: onion + ginger-garlic paste + dry spices + the meat or vegetable + tomatoes + the sour element + the fresh element = One Delicious Indian Curry. See this process in play in this 5 Step Indian Curry.
And now, a short and simple recipe for Ginger-Garlic Paste.
Homemade Ginger-Garlic Paste
4 oz ginger, peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
8 oz peeled garlic cloves
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon canola oil
1-2 tablespoons of water only if required to grind the paste
Using a food processor, grind all the ingredients to a fine paste. Stir the paste while grinding so you don’t land up with bits of ginger and garlic. Based on the moisture content in the ginger and garlic, you may need to add water, don’t add more than 2 tablespoons of water for this quantity.
Store the paste refrigerated in a glass bottle, to use as required in recipes. Ginger-garlic paste can be made in bulk and stored in the freezer for 3-6 months.
Tips for Freezing:
- If freezing use glass bottles and don’t fill them all the way to the neck of the bottle, leave 1-2 inches for expansion; else the bottle could crack in the freezer.
- Thaw frozen ginger-garlic paste by leaving it in the refrigerator for 24 hours or in a bowl of warm water for quicker thawing.