Indian cooking with just 10 (or less) common ingredients

Chicago TribuneNovember 6, 2013 

Raghavan Iyer is a born teacher who learned to cook the foods of his native India when he arrived in Minnesota as a college student. His latest cookbook, “Indian Cooking Unfolded” (Workman, $19.95), was born from memories of that experience.

“I’ve faced the challenges a person can face firsthand,” says Iyer, a resident of Eden Prairie, Minn. “I have been a teacher for over 22 years. It still comes back to what makes cooking more accessible.”

Iyer responds to that challenge in various ways in the new book. The most obvious is the format: Seven of the eight chapters open with recipes displayed on pages that fold out, giving space both to Iyer, so he can write detailed directions, and the book designers, so they have plenty of room to arrange step-by-step photographs that support the text.

“In a literal and figurative sense, the book folds out and unfolds the cuisine. It demystifies it,” Iyer explains, noting that you can use the recipes on each of the fold-out pages to create a “get-started” Indian meal.

Also helping to make that Indian meal happen more easily is Iyer’s decision to limit each recipe to 10 ingredients or fewer — and all ingredients must be available at the average supermarket.

“When I started creating dishes I thought I was cheating by not going to an Indian grocery store,” Iyer says. “It was one of those freeing experiences. It was very exhilarating to keep the recipes within 10 ingredients.”

One way he did that: visiting supermarkets on his travels and noting which ingredients and which spices were stocked. He developed a list of the top five spices one could find pretty much anywhere: cardamom, turmeric, coriander seeds, mustard seeds and cumin.

“It just opened doors,” he says of the exercise. “When I cook at home and make Indian food I find myself sticking to the simplicity of 10 ingredients.”

SMOKY YELLOW SPLIT PEAS (TAMATAR CHANA DAL) 1 pound potatoes, russet or Yukon Gold

1 cup yellow split peas

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 to 4 dried red chilies (such as chile de arbol), stems discarded

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 medium-size tomato, cored and diced

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

11/2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt

Note: “For me, the epitome of comfort is simple dal and rice,” says Raghavan Iyer, author of “Indian Cooking Unfolded.” This dish of smoky yellow split peas, native to southeastern India, contains no oil but has a surprising warmth and richness — with just a little zip of spice. A vegan and gluten-free dish, the dal may be served with a rice pilaf for a special dinner or with steamed white rice for an everyday meal.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer the cubed potatoes to a bowl large enough to hold them. Add enough cold water to cover the potatoes to prevent them from oxidizing and turning black.

Place the split peas in a medium-size saucepan. Add water to cover and rinse the peas, rubbing them between your fingertips (I just use the fingers of one hand to do this). The water will become cloudy and may have some debris like the odd skin from the peas (even though they are skinless) or dust from the packaging. Drain this water. Repeat 3 to 4 times until the water, upon rinsing the peas, remains clearer. Add 4 cups water to the pan with the peas and let it come to a boil over medium-high heat. You will see some foam rise to the surface; scoop it out and discard it.

Drain the potatoes and add them with the turmeric to the peas, stirring once or twice. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan. Cook the melange, stirring occasionally, until the peas are tender but still firm looking and the potatoes are cooked, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the skillet feels hot, usually after 2 to 4 minutes, add the chilies, coriander and cumin. Toast the spices, shaking the skillet every few seconds, until the chilies blacken and smell smoky hot and the seeds turn reddish brown and smell incredibly aromatic (nutty with citrus undertones), 1-2 minutes. Immediately transfer the spice blend to a blender and plunk in the tomato. Puree, scraping the insides of the blender as needed, to make a smooth, reddish brown paste with a smoky aroma that is sure to knock your socks off.

Once the peas are cooked, add the tomato and spice paste to the pan. I usually pour some of the liquid from the peas into the blender and process it for a brief second to make sure I get every last bit, and then pour it back into the pan. Stir in the cilantro and salt.

Increase the heat to medium-high and let the dal boil vigorously, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the flavors mingle and the sauce thickens slightly, 12-15 minutes. If you would like the sauce to be thicker, mash some of the peas and potatoes with the back of your spoon. Serve the dal warm.

Per serving: 177 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 490 mg sodium, 9 g fiber.

Prep: 20 minutes Cook: 1 hour 20 minutes Servings: 6, about 6 cups

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