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Cookbook of the day – The Great Curries of India

Great curries of India

Great Curries of India

by Camellia Panjabi

Publisher  Simon & Schuster
 ISBN 10: 0684803836

ISBN 13: 978-0684803838

This book reminds us that Indian cooking is as regional as our own American cuisine is. Sometimes we forget that India is a subcontinent, as large as Western Europe with twice the number of people.  There is no common language and while the climate of India is considered tropical, it also has deserts and mountainous regions. The varied climate and topography of India influences the various regional variations of Indian cuisine and this book takes pains to underscore that point.

Ms. Panjabi spends a lot of time on the various ingredients that you need to create authentic Indian flavors and this lavishly illustrated volume picks 50 well-chosen dishes, some obvious and some not-so-obvious.

You’ll learn a bit about the culture and history of India as you learn to build the flavor profiles important to Indian cooking. She starts you off with the simplest curry and then branches off into more exotic and complex dishes. That’s a good approach – I wish that more cookbooks employed this tactic.

I highly recommend this book.


Lamb cooked in milk.

My foolproof way of cooking basmati rice

When I watch Top Chef, I’m amazed how many times rice is the downfall of a cheftestant.

I rarely have to cook mass quantities of rice, so it’s possible that it’s more difficult to cook rice for 10 or more people. But if you have to cook rice for less than 10 people, rice isn’t all that difficult, especially with basmati, my favorite rice (jasmine rice, a close cousin, is a close second).

First of all, for basmati, it’s very important to rinse well. You need to get rid of a little of the starch that’s on the outside, plus, occasionally you’ll find small grit and tiny stones that have to be eliminated. You need to rinse 4 or 5 times, or until the rinse water is clear and not cloudy.

I usually don’t measure, but most people think that a cup of cooked rice per person works pretty well. That’s about a half cup of raw rice.

The traditional ratio of rice to water is 2 parts water to 1 part rice. But I don’t worry about measuring. Here’s my trick, as taught to me by an accomplished Indian cook – add the rinsed rice to a pot and add enough water to be one inch above the rice.

I add some salt and ghee (although you can certainly use butter or vegetable oil – for an even more exotic flavor, you can add a dash of light colored sesame oil as well, but only a couple of dashes, because it’s quite strong in flavor). You put it on high heat and bring to a roiling boil. As soon as it hits the roiling boil, immediately turn down the heat to a simmer and cover.

Don’t peek until you get to the 12 minute mark. If you have a small amount of rice (say for 2 or 4 people), the rice will just about be finished. You’ll probably need to cook for another couple of minutes. How do you tell if it’s done? There will be steam holes on the top when it’s close. Take a chopstick and carefully open up the middle of the rice and expose the bottom. If there’s still a little water in the bottom, you’ll need to cover and continue to cook for at least 2 more minutes. Never stir the rice. This will make it gummy. Check again after 2 minutes. If all of the water has evaporated, you’re done! If not, cover and check every minute.

If you are cooking larger amounts, you’ll probably have to cook a little longer. You still want to check at the 12 minute mark just to see how close you are. You’ll basically be judging by the amount of water left in the bottom. After you cook a few batches, you’ll get a feel for how long it will take to evaporate the remaining water.

I like to leave just a tiny amount of water in the bottom, cover and remove from the heat. The rice will continue to cook off the remaining water even when it’s off of the heat if you keep it covered. If you do this, you won’t risk scorching the bottom of the rice.

When serving, take a large spoon and scoop it out, trying not to disturb it too much. It should be light and fluffy without having to “fluff it up” with a fork as is sometimes suggested.

If you follow these instructions, you’ll never have a problem with basmati rice.

Food item of the day – ghee

I’m surprised that more American households don’t have ghee in their pantry.

What’s ghee, you ask?  Ghee is clarified butter that has had the milk solids and excess moisture removed through cooking. The milk solids sink to the bottom, the water rises to the top and the middle layer is removed and allowed to cool. Once cooled, it has the texture and body of a soft butter spread. If prepared properly, it can be stored in an airtight container and doesn’t have to be refrigerated.  It has a sweet, nutty flavor that goes well in a lot of cooking, plus, it has a much higher burning point than many oils, so it’s useful when frying. It’s also considered a little healthier than many poly-unsaturated oils. It’s a “saturated oil”, a non-trans fat. It’s basically the essense of butter.

I like it because it can be stored in the pantry and doesn’t have to go in the cooler. It’s always at room temperature (read spreadable) and I actually prefer the flavor to regular butter. It’s a staple of Indian cooking (the name ghee is derived from Sanskrit). Naan bread is best when made with ghee. Ghee is also a great substitute for oil when making rice. I like to use on bread and toast just as I would regular butter.

Ghee isn’t difficult to make at home but you have to use typical canning techniques to avoid contamination. I prefer to buy it. It’s a little expensive but it goes a long way because it’s more concentrated a flavor than butter is. This is the brand that I find most often, but there are other brands that you might see in international markets:


Stay away from “vegetable ghee”, which sounds healthier because of the name, but isn’t because it’s a trans fat, which we know isn’t very healthy at all. It’s actually less healthy and is used because it’s cheap. You can be sure that it’s real butter ghee if it has “cow” somewhere on the label. the Ziyad is made from butter, so it’s good to go.

Ghee – it’s something you should consider making a special place in your pantry for.

Cookbook of the day – A World of Curries

A World of Curries

A World of Curries: From Bombay to Bangkok, Java to Jamaica, Exciting Cookery Featuring Fresh and Exotic Spices (Paperback)

by Dave DeWitt and Arthur Pais

  • Publisher: Little Brown & Co (P); 1st edition (March 1994)  
  • ISBN-10: 0316182249
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316182249
  • If you say “curry” to the average American, they’ll think of curry powder and curried rice or chicken. Say “curry” to a Brit and she’ll think “Indian”. Say “curry” to the average foodie and the mind wanders to Thailand and Vietnam in addition to India. But there’s a whole world of curries out there that’s just begging to be exposed. And Dave DeWitt, the famous chile pepper author-dude, is just the guy to do it, with a lot of help from Arthur Pais.

    If there’s a more comprehensive book on curries around the world, I don’t know what it might be. For instance, there’s a whole chapter just on Spice Island curries, in which they roll in most of Indonesia (Bali, Java, Malaysia, Sumatra, etc.) There are discussions and recipes of Caribbean curries, a detailed roll-call of African curries, from the well known  Saharan harissa and ras-al-hanout based dishes to the more exotic Nigerian and Ethiopian varieties of curry dishes. Fiji gets into the act and even New Zealand and Australia aren’t exempt. Obviously, there’s a lengthy discussion of Indian and Thai, and includes other neighbors such as Laos, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (formerly Burma). It includes in its recipes the main difference between Vietnamese and its close cousin Thai (the addition of potatoes/taro root/sweet potatoes in Vietnamese is one of the things that differentiate the very similar flavor profiles, although some US Pho shops seem to unfortunately take the easy way out and do bascially a Chinese curry powder verson). Cambodia is even covered.

    Hell, there are 6 pages just on the origins of the word and the various internecine arguments between cultures as to what a curry is (and isn’t). Each region gets a comprehensive history and cultural lesson that’s as complete as an Encyclopedia Britannica entry (probably more so). Lots of antique woodcuts of camels and Rajes and no photographs of dishes at all. This is pure knowledge at its best.

    Well-researched and well-written, this is the one book to own if you were to only own one book on curry.

    Indonesian chicken curry

    Indonesian Chicken Curry (Kalio Ayam)

    Photo courtesy of Dhita Beechey. See her great cooking blog, Cooking Etcetera at


    Hottest chile pepper in the world

    And no, it’s not the habanero. No, it’s not the Red Savina, a special variety of the habanero specially bred to be especially hot and the previous top dog.

    No, dear friends, it’s the Naga Jolokia, from the home of some fiery cuisine, India. The name translates as king cobra chile. And for good reason, because this pepper has some serious bite.

    Let’s put this in perspective. Experts use the Scoville scale. Pure capsaicin, the ingredient that makes a chile pepper hot, is between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 units. A fresh jalapeño (not the pickled kind) has somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 – 10,000 units. A habañero and its kissing cousin, Scotch bonnet has between 100,000 and 350,000 units. The Red Savina has between 350,000 and 580,000. A cayenne has 30,000 – 60,000 units. The fiery Thai bird pepper has 50,000 – 150,000 units. Police pepper spray has around 5,000,000 units.

    A Naga Jolokia has between 855,000 – 1, 050,000 units.

    No, that’s not a misprint.

    855,000 – 1,050,000.

    Chile peppers of the same variety can vary according to the climate (water and heat from the sun). That’s why you’ll generally see a range and you’ll see different figures quoted from different sources. Different testing facilities get different results over time. Yes, there are people who test these things. One of them is the India Armed forces, who initially tested the Naga Jolokia at 855,000. It was up to another chili expert to get the larger figure, which was the first pepper test found to exceed a million units.

    If you think that the habanero is a killer, the Naga Jolokia is about twice as hot!