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One curry at a time

Americans who eat Indian food are often rabid fans; those who make it are… more adventurous souls. Since my husband and I are in both categories, I thought I should write a bit about it.

First of all, for most Americans there’s the huge spice learning curve. Turmeric? Cardamom? And I may be dating myself here, but when we first started cooking Indian food, you didn’t see packaged “heat’n’go” Indian food in your supermarket. Finding unusual spices was an adventure in itself. I remember my years-later-to-be husband telling me about his odyssey finding “curry leaves.” I’d been cooking Indian food for years yet I didn’t know what he was talking about. It’s a whole sub-continent of cultural information we didn’t grow up with.

A few things have guided our adventure. One is going to eat really great Indian food. As far as we are concerned, there is only one place in Santa Cruz County that you can do that: Ambrosia. We’ve had some other decent places come and go, but if you don’t see your favorite listed here, believe me, I’ve tried it and I’m telling you it’s not someplace you’ll learn what good Indian food is!

Indian food is generally broken into two main categories, north and south. Most restaurants are north. You’ll have to go to Sunnyvale, the epicenter of Indian food in California, for good south Indian food. I’ll leave it at that — I could go on for days about what makes a fine dosa.

The next thing that guided our adventure in Indian cuisine was a few good cookbooks. The very best for the novice Indian cuisine cook is Yamuna Devi’s Lord Krishna’s Cuisine. Perhaps she’s able to translate the cuisine so clearly to American readers because she’s an Italian girl from New York (renamed when she went to India to follow her guru). But the range of these recipes is incredible. And amazingly, she has a great number of recipes that will jibe a bit better with the average American’s concerns: in other words, not all of her recipes end with “add a cup of heavy cream,” as do many of the recipes by the other Indian Cuisine author we love, Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey’s books that we have contain lots of the standards of northern Indian cuisine; they’re complex, heavy, fattening, and wonderful. Devi includes a variety of recipes that would be served at banquets as well as on the street. We have lots more really great Indian cookbooks that I won’t recommend, since I’m talking about starting from the beginning.

So two really important questions come up now: what about kids? what about those ingredients?

Well, first of all, I have to tell you that kids will eat Indian food. In fact, some hundreds of millions of them do every day. And the two that live in our household. There are, of course, some Indian staples that will appeal to American kids more than others. I suggest that you start with what you know your kid likes: for example, every single Indian meal I used to make contained chickpeas, because I knew my “pickier” daughter would eat them. I’d take any recipe, and either make some Indian-spiced chickpeas on the side (slice up some onions and garlic, brown them in oil or clarified butter, add a few mild Indian spices, dump in a can of chickpeas, heat, and serve), or sometimes I’d just dump a can of chickpeas into whatever I was cooking.

OK, now you KNOW I’m not talking gourmet here. I’m talking about introducing Indian cuisine to your family, by hook or by crook.

If your child is still a baby, start now. Dal, the ubiquitous bean dishes of every Indian meal, can be made mild, soft, and easy to eat by those without teeth. Raita, a standard north Indian component of the meal, is a sweet (make it really sweet at first) yogurt and cucumber relish. My daughter, if she eats nothing else from an Indian meal, eats rice, beans (dal), and raita. Any baby brought up on this stuff isn’t going to balk when you add a chicken curry or charchari vegetables later.

If you’ve got kids who haven’t had much Indian food, get them hooked on the stuff that’s the Indian equivalent of junkfood: deep fried breads (can’t go wrong with that), sweet chutneys, and Indian versions of pretty much anything they like. If you have a kid who loves potatoes, or beans, or broccoli, find an Indian recipe, perhaps tone it down a bit at first, and keep going.

Many Indian foods are not nearly as hard to make as you think if you haven’t tried yet. First of all, you need to find the ingredients. If you live near the Bay Area, go to India Cash and Carry in Sunnyvale. If not, your health food store might have overpriced spices and ghee (clarified butter — really, if you can get to an Indian grocery store, don’t pay the prices that your health food store charges; it’s like they’re selling clarified gold!). You can even clarify your own butter.

Other pre-made stuff you might want to pick up: Our kids LOVE and DEVOUR frozen paratha (flat bread, which in some places you can get whole grain versions of) and chapatis (another flatbread which are whole grain). Back in my early days I loved having some Patak’s spice mixes around, though we don’t use them much anymore. Once you get the hang of it, mixing your own spices is easy and somewhat like meditation, assuming you can get your kids to leave you alone while you’re doing it. Our daughter loves to munch on popped mung beans, which they sell spiced as a snack and as an ingredient in chaat (Indian street food).

The main rule to follow is to remember that kids need to be offered something over and over before they’ll adopt it. If you keep making good food that you enjoy, eventually your kids will notice. Don’t make them their standard mac’n’cheese until they really have tried the stuff you’re eating. And have I written about the incredible value of family dinners? Gotta do that one of these days. In essence: don’t feed them separately or they’ll eat separately and stay picky!

Our “picky” daughter has recently fallen in love with Indian eggplants (which we get from our farmer’s market) stuffed with spices. She swears she doesn’t like eggplant otherwise, but we’re patient. We know that we’re breaking down the barriers, one curry at a time.

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

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