How a touch of Indian flavor can add spark to everyday meals
Cookbook author Maya Kaimal can turn broccoli into a crave-worthy dish in minutes.
The garlicky tadka broccoli from her new cookbook, "Indian Flavor Every Day," serves as a delicious example of what she calls "applying the Indian touch" to common ingredients.
First, she makes a tadka, a spice-infused oil. Kaimal heats oil in a skillet, then adds mustard seeds, cumin seeds and black sesame seeds until they sizzle and pop, followed by garlic and red chile flakes. The oil is ready in about three minutes, and then is tossed with lightly stir-fried broccoli.
"You're cooking with Indian flavors, but you're making what you're already making," she said of the dish. Her latest book, which also includes streamlined Indian curries and dals, offers tips for using Indian spices even when not cooking Indian food, per se: slipping a pinch of garam masala into cookie dough or pie crust, or brushing ghee and chai spices on pineapple before grilling it.
Kaimal, who has been on the food scene for more than 20 years, has watched as U.S. home cooks have become more comfortable with global cooking. That is reflected in the success of Maya Kaimal Foods, a business she started with her husband, journalist Guy Lawson, in 2003. It filled a gap in the U.S. market, she said. Many Indian food products at that time were imported from the United Kingdom and leaned too heavily on sugar and preservatives. Kaimal wanted to offer homemade flavor and natural ingredients.
The couple now live with their two teenage daughters in New York's Hudson Valley, where they employ 13 people in the business that sells what Kaimal calls "speed-scratch" sauces as well as dals, chanas and rice in more than 10,000 stores, including Target, Costco and Whole Foods.
"So much has changed since I wrote my first book in 1996," she said. "People are much savvier now about spices and how to use spices."
That cookbook, "Curried Favors," was written as an introduction to Indian cooking when it was much harder to find the ingredients. Her second, "Savoring the Spice Coast of India," published in 2000, focused on dishes from Kerala, where her father was born.
Now, with the third book, the author and entrepreneur posits that with a pantry of the right ingredients - many with a long shelf life - "Indian flavors can be woven into your meals with delicious ease."
"I tried to take into account what dinner looks like on American tables," she said. "I have a family to feed. I am running a business. I don't want dinner to take a lot of my life, but I want a lot of these flavors in my everyday cooking."
Her Red Chili Shrimp recipe, with its long ingredient list for a dry rub, sauce and tadka, is an example of how a recipe can look intimidating but come together in about 30 minutes. She hopes to encourage home cooks curious about Indian flavors and techniques to try dishes like this and discover how simple they can be.
"It's hopefully bringing in people who are right on the edge: They're Indian-curious, but still intimidated by it."
She breaks the essential spice blends for tadkas and masalas into mini recipes within recipes and explains how to deploy them. She explains that tadkas, the infused oils, can be made at the start of cooking a dish or used to finish a recipe with a flavor boost. She offers recipes for masalas - dry or wet spice pastes that can be just a couple of ingredients or a dozen - and tells how to use them to layer flavor in various ways.
Once home cooks gather the ingredients and understand those two concepts, they can apply "the Indian touch" to almost any meal.
She credits her father, Chandran Kaimal, with building the foundation of her Indian cooking that led to her career in food. Her mother, Lorraine, who was from New England, cooked during the week, but on weekends, her father, a physicist, took over in the kitchen, making meticulous notes as he cooked.
"He had to make sure things could be replicated like an experiment," she said. "He paid so much attention to the flavor, dialing in an exact balance. We were eating his experiments every weekend."
Kaimal, who grew up in Boston and later Boulder, Colo., cooked from a binder of her father's typed recipes throughout college and when she started a catering business. Those recipes helped her secure a publisher for her first cookbook, she said.
They also provided comfort after her father died in 2021 and her mother in 2022.
"It's how we keep them alive and in our thoughts," she said. It's why even her father's non-Indian recipes have been woven into her cookbooks, including the Southeast Asian dish Tangy Mee Goreng, a noodle stir-fry with vegetables, egg, and a light soy and vinegar sauce.
Her brother, Narayan Kaimal, found that recipe written in her father's neat handwriting on an index card from the 1970s. When Kaimal's father was little, his parents lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya (now Malaysia), where his mother made the dish for him and it became a favorite.
"That's a real ode to my father, even though it is not technically Indian," she said. "I remember watching him fry up the egg in that thin omelet way. I'd see those chiles floating in that sauce and then looking a little scary for me perched on the noodles."
No matter what he was cooking, Kaimal says, her father was "religious" about taking a final taste test before serving. She remembers him giving her a spoonful from the pot to taste to "see if it needs anything."
That attention to the nuances of flavor and the impact of time-tested cooking techniques is something that he passed down to her and that she wants to share with others.
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Red Chili Shrimp
To prepare this dish more efficiently, prep the sauce ingredients after seasoning the shrimp and set them near the stove so everything is within reach.
Total time: 30 mins
Where to buy: Fresh and frozen curry leaves and Kashmiri chili powder can be found at Indian markets and online.
Storage: Refrigerate for up to 2 days.
Substitutions: If you don't have Kashmiri chili powder, use a mixture of 3 parts sweet paprika to 1 part cayenne.
For the shrimp:
1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20 count), peeled and deveined, tails left on, and defrosted if frozen
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder (see Substitutions)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
For the sauce and tadka:
1 large yellow onion (12 ounces), diced (1 1/2 cups)
1 large garlic clove, minced (2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon minced or finely grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced serrano or 2 teaspoons minced jalapeño
1/4 cup water, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon Kashmiri chili powder
1/2 teaspoon Kerala garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed (see Note)
3 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil, divided
10 to 12 fresh or frozen curry leaves (1 inch or longer; optional, but ideal)
cooked rice, for serving
Season the shrimp: Pat the shrimp dry and place them in a medium bowl. If you prefer the tails removed, take them off. In a small bowl, combine the salt, chili powder, pepper and turmeric. Add the spice mixture to the shrimp and toss well to combine. Set aside while you prepare the sauce.
Make the sauce and tadka: Set the premeasured onion, garlic, ginger, chile, water, tomato paste, coriander, chili powder, garam masala, salt and fennel seed near the stove, so all will be ready to quickly add to the skillet.
In a large skillet or wok over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the coconut oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and fry until it starts to brown around the edges, about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed. Add the garlic, ginger and chile and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the water, tomato paste, coriander, chili powder, garam masala, salt and fennel seed and cook, stirring, until combined and fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the seasoned shrimp, stirring constantly until the shrimp curl and turn pink and opaque, about 5 minutes. (Smaller shrimp will take less time.) This is a dryish curry, but if it is too dry and sticking to the pan, add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you get a thick, sticky sauce that mostly clings to the shrimp. Remove from the heat.
In an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon coconut oil until it shimmers. Add the curry leaves and fry until they crackle and just start to curl, a few seconds. Pour over the shrimp in the skillet and serve family-style, with rice on the side.
Note: To crush the fennel seeds, use a mortar and pestle to pound the seeds until a coarse powder forms. (Alternatively, use a spice grinder to pulse the seeds 6 to 7 times, or chop them with a chef's knife.)
Nutrition | Per serving (1 cup shrimp and sauce): 216 calories, 7g carbohydrates, 183mg cholesterol, 11g fat, 1g fiber, 25g protein, 9g saturated fat, 752mg sodium, 2g sugar
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.
Adapted from "Indian Flavor Every Day" by Maya Kaimal (Clarkson Potter, 2023).
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