In his cookbook, American Masala, chef Suvir Saran applies Indian flavors and techniques to all types of food, including American classics like fried chicken. "There's a bigger connection between American and Indian food than most people realize," he says. "America wouldn't have been founded in the way that it was if explorers hadn't been looking for a faster way to get black pepper from India."
Here, Saran shares his tips for punching up food with Indian flavors:
1. Use spices creatively
"I love to have a lot of spices around, especially black peppercorns, cumin seeds, dried red chiles, green cardamom and coriander seeds, and I use them in all kinds of dishes—I even add them to my fried-chicken brine. But my mother, a true Indian cook, can get by with just a few spices. Sometimes all you need is coriander, which gives a dish a lovely citrusy note, and cumin, for a toasty, woodsy flavor. I think it's generally better to get a few good-quality spices than to buy a commercial blend."
2. Buy spices whole
"Whole spices keep their flavor for so much longer. It's best to grind them as you need them, but when they're freshly ground, they will stay fresh for a good two months. You can get a separate coffee grinder just for spices, or just make sure to clean your regular coffee grinder by pulverizing some uncooked rice in it. Or, instead of grinding the spices, I'll just add them whole to the dish. It's like when the French add a bouquet garni—a bundle of herbs wrapped in cheesecloth—to a dish. Only in India, we are greedy for flavor and let the spices float freely in a sauce."
3. Toast spices and herbs
"I make a macaroni and cheese that's rich and decadent, with plenty of cheese, but the secret to my recipe is that I toast rosemary, thyme, peppercorns and red pepper flakes in butter—an Indian technique that brings out the essential oils in herbs and spices—before making the white sauce. Heating herbs and spices first coaxes out their flavor. I use the same trick when I make guacamole: I toast cumin seeds first to give the dip an extra hit of flavor."
4. Use chutney to add a burst of flavor
"Chutneys are the Indian version of pestos or salsas. Sadly for Indians, the most well-known chutneys are too-sweet mango ones, but there are so many other types. They are more than just a condiment. I mix herb chutneys, like mint and cilantro, into mayonnaise to use on turkey sandwiches. I've used tamarind chutneys on chicken wings—during the last 15 minutes of cooking, I coat the wings in the chutney with plenty of black pepper, and they get sticky and delicious. I often make my own chutneys, but I like Royal Cuisine's brand of coriander chutneys and Deep brand tamarind."
5. Don't be afraid of chiles
"I cook with chiles as much for their flavor as their heat. Fresh chiles, especially green ones like jalapeños and serranos, add a fresh citrusy quality and a heat that prickles the tongue. I usually just leave the seeds in, but I remove them occasionally if I don't want something too hot. Whole dried red chiles add heat to a stewy dish that warms your whole gullet. I call it the 'back heat.' You can add just one for a slight burn, or more to make it extra-spicy."
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