I have adored Indian food since I first tasted it at a fine Indian restaurant as a young adult. And I loved it so much that I wasn't content only to keep coming back to that restaurant (though I certainly did that); I wanted to learn how to participate in the alchemical art of Indian cooking.
Indian food isn't just a full bouquet of sensory pleasures, it can also be exceptionally healthy. Like the Mediterranean diet, traditional Indian food packs in a variety of whole grains, fresh ingredients, vegetable proteins, and immune-boosting herbs and spices.
It's also very labor-intensive and complex, requiring quite an arsenal of spices and herbs, some of which can be hard to find outside of specialty Asian markets--but, for me, the time and investment are so worth it! And shopping at Asian markets is a delight.
Realistically, made-from-scratch Indian food is not something I can have every day. I can't afford Indian restaurant meals of the quality I prefer very often, and I can't spend every day, all day, in the kitchen, alas!
So I have discovered, over the years, that prepackaged Indian foods can do in a pinch. They aren't great compared to homemade, but they are quite good compared to other prepackaged convenience foods like bland soups, pasta, and rice microwave packets. Fortunately, Indian flavors have become so globally popular that it has become easy to find brands like Patak's and Tasty Bite at most U.S. supermarkets.
To elevate the experience of Indian jar sauce and microwave meals, it's fun to listen to classical ragas as I heat-and-eat my "fancy fast food." Some of the boxed curries I used to buy as a busy young adult used to come with these "Kitchens of India" CDs taped to them, which I absolutely vibed to while I simmered my chicken in a jar of pre-made sauce and pushed "Start" on the microwave to heat up my bag of vegetable curry.
When I have more time on my hands, I can really get into the whole, multi-sensory processes of cooking Indian food from scratch. I'll do everything from a pot of lentil soup (so easy; dump in lentils, water or broth, and whatever spices seem good in the moment and simmer on the stove until done) to a multi-day dhosa recipe that involves fermentation and multiple rounds of hand-grinding with a stone mortar and pestle. Sometimes I use my wood-burning oven for certain recipes, like naan bread, to make them extra special.
My husband is a fine lumberjack, which makes this all the more fun.
When we get a fire going at about the right size and temperature, we can cook on our wood-burning stove top or place a cast iron skillet inside.
We've experimented with making naan bread ourselves and with friends who have more culinary skills and baking knowledge.
Naan bread can be personalized with all kinds of toppings such as melted butter, garlic, onion, herbs, and even poppy seeds as we did here. Indian cooking embraces spontaneity and working with whatever you have on hand or whatever you feel like trying out. It's complex and experimental, just like those ragas we listen to as we cook.
Many of these recipes are deeply hands-on, sensual, and intuitive, so cooking becomes an immersive activity that can get you into a meditative zone.
And there is something primally satisfying about cooking with a fire you've started.
The fire lends a depth of flavor and a particular texture that you cannot replicate in an electric or gas-powered appliance oven. The house smells and feels so incredibly good after cooking an authentic Indian dinner.
If we use the wood stove, sometimes we set a table right there next to the crackling fire in the downstairs family room instead of eating in the upstairs dining room.
Preparing and sharing Indian food is a passionate, luxurious experience that can make for a steamy, spicy date or a fun way to extend an intimate dinner party with friends. As more people get vaccinated and look forward to a future of shared meals that bring new flavors and deeper experiences into a healthy lifestyle, I hope to share the joys and benefits of Indian food with loved ones more than ever before.
Atithi Devo Bhava!
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.