Getting Started: Ingredients, Cooking Methods and Utensils

Before beginning to explore a new cuisine, one must delve into a few fundamentals: what, when, where, why, and how. The following alphabetical entries introduce the ingredients, simple techniques, and specific utensils used in this cuisine. Each entry contains useful information about appearance, availability, nutritional attributes, its significance in our cooking, the origin and history of the ingredient, medicinal qualities ascribed by ayurveda, the Indian holistic system of medicine, and interesting folklore.

My mother always insisted, "Never skimp on the quality or quantity of ingredients," and I believe it is the first lesson in good cooking. For each ingredient, I have listed the commonly used English name, followed by its name in Malayalam, in parentheses. Since ingredients are often labeled differently in Indian grocery stores, their botanical names are also included (in italics) to eliminate any confusion.

This chapter is divided into following sections:

The Kalavara (Pantry) Staples: The two indispensable ingredients of our vegetarian pantry are rice and coconuts. Jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and salt are two other components. Different kinds of legumes (beans , lentils, and peas) are another mainstay of South Indian vegetarian cuisine. Grains and grain products such as different types of flours, semolina, and semiya noodles, oils, and milk and milk products are other important ingredients.

The Spice Rack: Understanding spices is the cornerstone of the art of Indian cooking; they provide endless possibilities for flavoring. Spices distinguish one dish from another, define the flavor, and heighten the taste. The essential ones used in our vegetarian cuisine are asafetida, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cardamom, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, sesame seeds, and turmeric. We prefer whole spices to powdered spices, as they impart fresher flavor. Even when they are used in powdered form, whole spices are generally either dry-roasted or pan-fried with a touch of oil and powdered just before using. Except for fenugreek and asafetida, all of the spices used in this cuisine are available in American supermarkets. Though it is traditionally used in a lot of recipes, asafetida can be omitted without really sacrificing the taste; in those recipes, I have noted that its use is optional.

The Herb and Vegetable Basket Our cuisine uses many familiar fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, potatoes, onions, squash, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, green beans, black-eyed peas, okra, and lemon. In addition, many tropical fruits, vegetables, and herbs have been a part of this cuisine since ancient times. Fortunately, most of them are available in Indian, Southeast Asian, Chinese, or Latin American grocery stores. These tropical fruits, herbs, and vegetables include breadfruit, cooking bananas, coriander leaves, curry leaves, cucumbers, ash gourd, bitter gourd or bitter melon, snake gourd, yellow cucumber, pumpkin, drumstick or moringa, elephant's foot yam or telinga potato, ginger, gooseberry, green chilies, jackfruit, lemon leaves, mango, plantains, plantain stems, tamarind, taro root and various types of yams.

Cooking Methods: Simple cooking methods - steaming, boiling, simmering, seasoning, panfrying at low heat, dry roasting, and deep-frying - are used in our cuisine. The two methods that are slightly different from Western ways of cooking are seasoning and the special way of salting while deep-frying. They are not complicated and are described in detail.

Utensils: As all dishes in our cuisine are cooked on the stove top, a couple of heavy skillets; a chef's pan or other deep-frying pan, such as a wok; a Dutch oven; a variety of regular pots, such as two-, three-, and four-quart vessels; a steamer insert that fits inside a vessel; perhaps a pressure cooker (in which to cook beans and dal quickly); and a heavy griddle are sufficient for most cooking. As for appliances, a coffee grinder for powdering dry spices; a blender to grind wet spice blends, rice, and dal; and a food processor to prepare thick batters and dough would be more than enough.

Six utensils required to make certain recipes in a traditional South Indian kitchen are described. For all of them, except for the snack press, there are alternatives.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN