BLOG — Spice the new salt
- Published: August 14, 2010
I’ve had a long-term romance with Indian food. It stems from a time not so long ago that I developed a heart condition and was hospitalized at the University of Cincinnati with strict dietary restrictions on salt intake. Most of us don’t appreciate the complexity of salt and the deep dependency we have on it to give absolutely everything, from the toast at breakfast to the ice cream at dessert, taste. Well maybe you have if you’ve been denied it. And when that happens, you can bet that the number one thought in your mind is how much salt you’re allowed in a day, how much you’ve already eaten, and how much more than you’re allowed you can eat without feeling extremely ill. All of that competes neck and neck with drinking water (so you can eat more salt).
Indian cooks, I happily discovered, are the salt kings of the world. On another one of those days when hospital food just wasn’t cutting it, my parents brought Indian carry-out, and I took one bite and knew I was a sinner broken clear through heaven’s doors. We all knew I wasn’t supposed to have it, but it made me so happy, that we all just pretended that as long as I wasn’t eating it at meal times per se, that I was really only having one or two bites. It didn’t take long for the evidence to appear in my blood tests, so I was cut off by the heartless lab coats and forced to dream of saltier, spicier days ahead.
I don’t know how it got into my hands, but I soon developed an umbilical cord-like attachment to Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India. Published in 1985, the recipes reflected a food culture and spice palette that probably hasn’t changed that much over the last century and seemed as timeless as the stars to me. Having plenty of time to kill in bed for three weeks, I read Jaffrey’s tome from cover to cover, studying the way the ingredients varied by region and comparing minutiae like the difference in ratio between cumin and coriander in garam masala versus chole masala. And I swear I got better in order that I be able to leave Cincinnati and stop at Jungle Jim’s on the way back to Yellow Springs to buy all the colorful ingredients for Jaffrey’s spicy prawns in coconut milk, fried poori with tamarind chutney and Hyderbadi rice pilaf.
She didn’t disappoint me, and with each dish I was more determined to thrust my family deeper into a flavor abyss, until some nights they had neither the patience nor the tastebuds to tolerate another “try this one!” Well, that is except for my mother, mon ange. I could have burned off her tongue with all the fresh green chilis, dried red chilis, cayenne and chili pickles, and she wouldn’t have told me to stop. And I discovered that salt doesn’t have to be the star with all those spices and fats around to amplify flavors and startle the tongue.
But after about a year, I realized that there are two things Jaffrey never uses in her recipes: paneer or garam masala. These are two of the most mind-bendingly delicious ingredients to eat from the Indian tradition, especially when paired together. And I felt a little betrayed that she hadn’t at least admitted that she doesn’t like cloves or that she is lactose intolerant or something to explain the ludicrous omission! You don’t have to use loads of salt, but if paneer and garam masala aren’t in the show, I’m getting up and walking out in the middle of the performance.
And so I put my sensors out again for a source that could reveal the secret to the cheese. I was given another Indian cookbook, which contained the milk, lemon juice and cheese cloth solution to making your own fresh paneer. But the recipes that call for it weren’t very compelling. So at Christmas this year, my aunt gave me a copy of Nani Power’s Ginger and Ganesh, a food memoir with recipes using all the paneer and garam masala one would ever want. The shahi paneer is excellent, as is the palak paneer and the dosa recipe for fermented rice crepes.
I’ve adapted one of them here for all the recovering salt fiends in the world.
- 1 block paneer (frozen is fine)
- 6 garlic cloves
- three green chilis or two jalapeno or serrano chilis
- 1 med. red onion
- 6 medium tomatoes
- 5 inches fresh ginger
- 4 T butter
- 5 cloves
- 15 curry leaves
- 1/2 t turmeric
- 2 T tomato pickle or paste
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 t salt
- 1/4 C chives or cilantro
- 11/2 C half and half
Food process the garlic, chilis, onion, tomatoes and ginger together briefly. Saute cloves and curry leaves in hot butter until fragrant, then add tomato mixture and cook on med-high heat, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Add turmeric, tomato pickle, garam masala and salt. Mix. Then add cilantro and dairy. Cook on low five minutes, add paneer, cook another five minutes to heat through and unify flavors.