Samui Wining & Dining
Vital Ingredients

Spices, protein, vitamins and minerals all go into a great dish but perhaps the most vital ingredient of Indian cuisine is the teacher.

 

17What does it take to make great Indian food? It’s a question I posed to D.D. Pande, partner and General Manager of Noori India restaurant in Chaweng. The answers are, of course, as diverse as his country and its peoples.

 

Home to around 1.2 billion, India has a long and often troubled history. Its land mass is 3.3 million square kilometres with 7,500 kilometres of coastline and a multitude of deserts, mountains, lakes, rivers, plateaus, forests and jungles. Over the centuries, India has caught the attention of Aryan settlers, Arab and Chinese traders, and conquerors such as the Persians, Mongolians, Turks, the British and the Portuguese. And all have influenced the cuisine in various ways. Religious and cultural beliefs have also shaped the evolution of food, in particular vegetarianism, and each region has its own specialties, primarily at regional level, but also at provincial level. Indian cuisine is also seasonal with priority placed on the use of fresh produce.

 

However, D.D. believes there’s another important factor in why Indian cuisine has become the ‘global brand’ it is today and why there’s no straightforward answer to my original question. “Taking aside the vast number of regional styles in India, something much more subtle has happened over the last 50 or 60 years to define Indian cuisine. Indians emigrated, at first to the UK, Canada and Australia, and then to other European countries, the USA and beyond. Indian workers have also long been employed in massive construction projects in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia. And they would all quickly form their own communities and distinct styles of cooking. Before long, the locals would hear about it, and most probably smell the aromas, and want to try it out. And within a short period of time Indian restaurants would appear in the main streets of towns and cities.”

 

In the UK, there’re approximately 10,000 Indian restaurants and, over time, the original recipes have been adapted to suit local tastes. D.D. smiles when things like ‘chicken tikka masala’ and ‘chicken Madras’ are mentioned. “In Madras (now known as Chennai), 85%-90% of the population are vegetarian; they’d run a mile at the thought of a chicken-based dish. And tikka and masala are two entirely different dishes that you’d never find together in India; they are wholly British, albeit created for them by Indian chefs.” He does counter though with the fact that relatively new Indian-inspired dishes, like those, can also be great. “Our cuisine has been modified and shaped by others for centuries and no doubt it will keep evolving. Indian restaurant cuisine has also been influenced by Indian chefs who have had their culinary training in France. They created a fusion by adopting cream sauces in their recipes. And that, certainly for the British, made very dry tikka dishes more enjoyable as gravies and sauces are an integral part of many British recipes.”

 

Ask any chef what makes a great dish and they’ll always say the best quality products and authentic produce from the country of origin. It’s such a cliché that you could ask your plumber the same question and he’d come up with the same answer. But there’re wonderful subtleties in the simplest of ingredients. For instance, D.D. imports more than 50 spices from India every month and he uses chilies from Kashmir in some of his dishes. Now you might think that Thailand isn’t short on chilies. And you’d be right – it isn’t, but the Kashmiri chilies give colour and oil but don’t produce an intense heat that some Thai chilies do. Even the most jaded of palates can tell the difference between a Thai and an Indian curry. And that’s the real meaning of authentic produce and it’s an area that home cooks can falter in when they substitute one ingredient for another they believe to be similar.

 

Over the years D.D. has adapted many of his recipes. He knows what Europeans order the most often and how they like those dishes to taste. In contrast, he also caters to a great number of Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern guests at his restaurant and it’s not just their geographical origins he takes in consideration, he also has to think about their religious and cultural beliefs. Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are the major religions in these areas and to offer, say, pork, beef or even any kind of meat can be blasphemous. And D.D.’s makes the point, “I can make the best chicken Madras you’ve ever tasted; its great Indian cuisine as far as you’re concerned, but to another guest the very sight of it could be abhorrent. Great cuisine is subjective, I know what makes a dish truly fantastic, but I’m not cooking for me. I’m preparing and serving guests in our restaurant and their perception is very important. It’s not the same at home; you know your family and friends very well and their culinary foibles.”

 

It’s a good point and you’ve probably adapted recipes at home without thinking about it, either because you don’t have all the ingredients or the cupboard is simply bare. And experimentation is often interesting and worthwhile. D.D. has just changed one of his recipes for his homemade paneer (cheese) as some of his regulars prefer it softer. “It took some time to understand it was all about the fat content in the milk that we use that was directly affecting the texture of the paneer. But we came up with a solution and our guests are very happy with the end result.”

 

You can try a little experimenting of your own with D.D. Last year he opened the Noori India Cooking Centre in the very southern part of Chaweng Beach Road and it’s proved to be hugely successful. He offers a choice of five menus that you can prepare, cook and, of course, eat, including a vegetarian and a vegan menu. You can also have a chat with him beforehand and devise a menu that you’d particularly like to learn how to cook in true Indian style. A three hour master-class costs just 1,800 baht and if you are a couple just one of you can pay and do the cooking while the other takes notes. You both get to eat all the food at the end of the class though and that’s great value-for-money.

 

What does it take to make great Indian cuisine? Clearly lots of things, but learning from a great teacher must surely be a wonderful starting point.

 

Johnny Paterson

 


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