India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan

Charmaine Solomon
162 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

Most Westerners, when asked what food they associate with the Indian subcontinent, will say ‘curry’, but not every spiced dish is a curry, and curry is not just one dish. It embraces a whole range of dishes, each distinctly different according to the spices and herbs used in varying combinations.

Spices, imaginatively used, are the outstanding feature of Indian and Pakistani cookery — subtle or pungent, hot or mild, there is something to suit every palate.

Much of the cooking of northwestern India and Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) is so similar that I, for one, would hesitate to say which dishes belong to one country and which to the other. Pakistan, being a Muslim country, uses no pork but it boasts a diet rich in other meats and has as many sumptuous biriani and pilau as does the celebrated Moghul cuisine of the neighbouring Indian provinces. Lamb is predominant in both countries, and both use spicing and ingredients such as yoghurt and ghee in dishes that are elaborate without being hot; both, too, rely more heavily on wheatflour chapati than on rice.

Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) is more than 1500 kilometres from Pakistan. With the eastern lndian province of Bengal, of which it was once a part, it shares more pungent spicing, a tendency to cook in mustard oil rather than ghee, and places an emphasis on a variety of seafood instead of lamb.

The culinary offerings of southern lndia are different again. The coconut plays a commanding role, rice largely replaces wheat, mustard seeds are widely used as a spice, and chillies come into their own — as anyone who has tackled a really hot Madras or Mysore curry will readily acknowledge!

Throughout the subcontinent, different religions impose food taboos that are rigidly adhered to: Hindus will not eat beef, Muslims will not eat pork, Buddhists will not take life and some will not even crack an egg. Many Indians are strictly vegetarian, enjoying a cuisine that is in a class by itself and which could convert the most dedicated meat eater. It includes superb curries; bartha (purées) and bhaji (fried vegetable); pakorha (fritters) and vadai (rissoles of lentils and pulses); homemade bread with spiced vegetable fillings; high-protein dishes based on lentils and homemade cheeses; and rich sweetmeats made with vegetables and fruit.

When I think of Indian sweets I think of an Indian sweetmaker I knew. He was over six feet tall, had a ruddy complexion, dark hair and dark flashing eyes. I guessed his age at around sixty, but he stood erect and looked strong and healthy; he was one of the proudest, most dignified men I have ever met. I cannot remember ever seeing him smile. While not surly, he saw no reason to smile at his customers. Was it not enough that they were able to purchase the exquisite work of his hands?

His shop, which was nestled close to a Hindu temple covered by stone carvings of gods, goddesses, mortals and animals, was stark and unrelieved by any kind of decoration. Inside, there was only a glass showcase to protect the sweetmeats from the ever-present flies. Further inside, partly hidden by a curtain, was the small stone fireplace on the stone floor where he squatted on his heels to prepare his delicacies. In the bazaar area were a variety of lesser sweets, but he made only the expensive, exquisite, rich varieties and his clientele knew they were privileged to taste the work of a master craftsman and cheerfully paid his high prices.

Eastern sweetmakers are a race unto themselves. They guard their secrets as jealously as they guard their money and yet, somehow, the secrets leak out. Recipes, good and not quite so good, are printed in cookbooks. But they are no great threat to the sweetmakers, for who would take the trouble to make these morsels? As long as I lived in the East, I was content to buy the sweetmeats. But when we settled in a Western country at a time when such sweets were unobtainable, I knew it was necessary to do something about it.

And so began the search for recipes, the repeated experiments, the ultimate triumph. Was it worth it? Oh yes! Once you have tasted rose and cardamom-scented rasgula, barfi and gulab jaman, you will not rest until you know that you can make the glorious confections yourself. If you have a sweet tooth and a taste for the exotic, you will enjoy these recipes as much as I do.

Serving and eating Indian and Pakistani meals

ln southern India, banana leaves are often used as plates, but more universal is the thali service — the thali being a circular metal tray on which are placed a number of small bowls called katori, also made of metal. Rice or chapati are placed directly on the tray; curries and other accompaniments are served in the bowls. The food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand only, for it is considered impolite to use the ‘unclean’ left hand to touch food.

Some orthodox Hindus feel that spoons, forks and plates that are used again and again are quite unhygienic, but in most Indian cities Western customs have taken over and food is served on dinner plates and eaten with a spoon and fork.

Rice is served first in the centre of the plate, then various curries and accompaniments are placed around it. The rice is the base, and only one curry should be tasted with each mouthful of rice in order to appreciate the individual spicing of each dish.

The matter of proportions is all-important. One needs to forget the Western idea of a large amount of meat or fish with a small amount of rice. Rice is the main part of the meal and curries of meat, fish or vegetables should be served in much smaller portions. There is wisdom in this too, because when food is spiced it needs the bland background of rice to delight the palate and placate the digestion.

When eating Indian breads with a meal, there is no choice but to eat with one’s fingers. Tear off a piece of chapati or paratha, use it to scoop up the accompaniment, fold it over neatly, then eat it. Just as Chinese or Japanese food tastes better eaten with chopsticks, Indian food tastes better eaten with the fingers. Finger bowls are provided, of course.

One of the other main features that sets an Indian meal apart is the number and variety of accompaniments to the main dishes. In fact, these accompaniments are as important as the main meal itself. They include dried fish or pappadams (lentil wafers), fresh chutneys made from herbs, coconut, acid fruits and other ingredients; and also bland cooling yoghurt raitas. These raitas are called pachchadis in South India, and incorporate more spicy seasoning.

An Indian salad presupposes hot chillies as an ingredient, or a sufficient sprinkling of chilli powder to give it a ‘kick’. If the raw vegetables are dressed with enough chilli, then the salad becomes a sambal. Use your imagination and create raitas, salads and chutneys from fruit and vegetables in season.

Other popular accompaniments include Bombay duck, dried sprats, fried nuts, grated coconut or fresh fruits. Ripe bananas are served, sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice, as a foil to a very hot curry. They may be served raw or cut into chunks and fried, and take the place of a sweet chutney.

Unripe mangoes, stones removed, peeled and sliced, sprinkled with salt and chilli powder, are also served as an accompaniment, like a fresh chutney. Ripe mangoes are never served with a curry meal, but may follow as a dessert. Half-ripe pineapple is another favourite fruit accompaniment. The ‘eyes’ are removed, the flesh is diced and then sprinkled with salt and chilli powder.

What to drink with an Indian meal has always been the subject of much argument. Cold water is the most authentic, but many Indians prefer a sweet drink such as sharbat gulab or falooda. Even lassi, the cooling yoghurt drink, may be offered in sweet and salty versions. It can be simply sweetened, flavoured with mango or spiced with cardamom and rosewater or served salty using garam masala. These are certainly effective in quenching fiery spices. For those who want an alcoholic beverage, a chilled lager or shandy, or wine cup filled with a semi-sweet white wine or rosé is permissible, but fine dry wines and curries just do not go together. One warning: carbonated or ‘fizzy’ drinks, including lager beer, tend to exaggerate the burning sensation of a really hot curry; as does ice-cold water.


The well-equipped modern kitchen with gas or electric stoves, blenders, coffee grinders, refrigerators and freezers makes cooking much easier than it is in a traditional Indian kitchen.

The brass degchi used throughout India is like a saucepan without handles. The sides are straight and have a horizontal rim. The flat lid fits over the rim of the pan, and is sometimes sealed with a flour and water paste, making a sort of oven or steam cooker out of the pan, for what is called dum cooking. Hot coals are put on the lid to provide cooking heat from above as well as below, for ovens are almost unknown in the average Indian household. Nowadays the degchi is also made from aluminium.

Saucepans with well-fitting lids are just as suitable as a degchi, and a casserole in the oven is the answer to dum cooking. Wooden spoons substitute for the coconut-shell spoons mostly used in India, and a deep frying pan takes the place of the karahi, a rounded pan used for frying. A griddle or heavy iron plate replaces the tawa on which chapati or paratha are cooked; even a heavy frying pan will do. The ever-present grinding stone for spices, and the coconut grater, are replaced by the versatile electric blender, a coffee mill used to grind spices only or failing that, a mortar and pestle.

Common ingredients

Garam masala: Meaning, literally, ‘hot spice’, this is a staple blend for your Indian spice shelf. There are many versions of garam masala, some using hot spices, such as pepper, and others only the fragrant spices. If stored in an airtight container away from heat and light, garam masala will stay flavoursome and fragrant for six months or longer and amply repay the effort of making it. Here again, if you find a good commercial garam masala, by all means use it — but if you are a real enthusiast about spice cookery, you owe it to yourself to try a homemade blend or two. They are so marvellously adaptable to your own taste.

Ghee: Clarified butter or pure butterfat, ghee is what gives the rich, distinctive flavour to north Indian cooking. Having no milk solids it can be heated to much higher temperatures than butter without burning. It is sold in tins, packets or tubs. If you find it difficult to buy ghee, make your own by heating butter in a saucepan until it melts and froths. Spoon the foam off the top and pour the melted butter into a heatproof glass bowl, discarding the milk solids in the pan. Leave to cool to room temperature, then chill until set. Spoon off the fat from the top. Heat the fat again, then strain through fine muslin (cheesecloth) to remove any remaining solids. This ghee will keep for three to four months without refrigeration.

Khoa: Used to make Indian sweetmeats, khoa is unsweetened condensed milk made by boiling milk quickly in a shallow pan (such as a large, heavy-based frying pan) to allow for as much surface evaporation as possible. It must be stirred constantly. When ready, khoa has the consistency of uncooked pastry. One litre milk yields about 90 g khoa.

Malai: Malai is thick cream. This is not the separated cream sold commercially, but it is collected from the top of the milk. The milk is kept boiling steadily in a wide pan, usually with a fan playing on the surface to cool the top of the milk and hasten formation of the skin. When cool, the skin is removed and the process repeated. It is possible to buy this type of cream from Middle Eastern grocery stores, where it is called ashtar.

Cooking oils: Different oils used in various parts of India give the cookery of each region a distinctive flavour. Til, or sesame oil, and coconut oil are much used in southern India, while in Bengal the favourite cooking medium is mustard oil. It is up to your personal taste what type of oil you use, but extra-virgin olive oil is not used in Indian cooking. Maize, sunflower or light olive oil are the best substitutes and may be flavoured with ghee.

Panch phora: ‘Panch’ means five in Hindi, and panch phora is a combination of five different aromatic seeds. These are used whole and, when added to the cooking oil, impart a flavour typical of certain Indian dishes. Combine 2 tablespoons each of black mustard seed, cumin seed and nigella seed and 1 tablespoon each of fenugreek seed and fennel seed. Store in an airtight jar and shake before using. There is no substitute.

Panir: Panir is homemade cream cheese. To make your own, bring milk to the boil, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin forming on top. As the milk starts to rise in the pan, stir in lemon juice in the proportion of 1 tablespoon to 625 ml milk. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes, by which time firm curds will have formed. Strain through muslin (cheesecloth) and leave to hang for at least 30 minutes, then press to remove as much moisture as possible. If it has to be very firm, weight it down and leave for some hours in a cool place (this is necessary when it is to be cut into cubes and cooked with vegetable dishes). It may be added to any of the vegetable preparations for extra nutrition.

Rice: The preferred rice in Indian, especially Mogul, cooking is basmati rice. Its long, fragrant grains make perfectly fluffy pilau and biriani.

Tamarind: This sour fruit is available dried, pressed into blocks or sold as a purée in jars. The liquid version is generally less sour, so add up to twice what the recipe calls for but, as always, be guided by taste.

Tandoori mix: A blend of hot and fragrant spices including cardamom, chilli, turmeric, saffron and garam masala. If commercial brands are not available, substitute the following: 2 teaspoons ground turmeric, 1 teaspoon paprika, ½ teaspoon chilli powder (optional), 1 teaspoon garam masala, ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, 1/8 teaspoon powdered saffron. You may also add ½ teaspoon of garlic powder, but this is not necessary if fresh garlic is used in the recipe.

Yoghurt: In India this is called dahi, or curd, and is always unflavoured. Plain yoghurt should be used, and if possible choose one with a definite sour flavour. I have found that goat’s milk yoghurt or Greek-style yoghurt is most suitable.

Curry powders and pastes

Curry powder, as it is sold commercially, is almost never used in India or other countries where curry is made and eaten every day. Rather, the individual spices are freshly ground each day and added to the food in various combinations and proportions. Even when there is a grinding mill in the town and home cooks, yielding to the pressures of modern living, have a month’s supply ground at a time, the dry ground spices are kept separate.

There are many good curry mixtures sold commercially, but there are also many that lack good flavour because of a skimping on the more expensive spices and a reliance on ‘fillers’, such as rice flour, to make up the bulk. If using curry powder, make sure it is fresh by buying from a store that specialises in spices with a high turnover, buy in small quantities so it does not stay on your shelf for too long and look for a brand in a bottle or tin, because cardboard containers absorb a lot of the essential oils of the spices.

In most of the recipes in this book I have used the individual spices to allow for as much variation as possible. Spicing is an art you can learn, and eventually you can tailor your curries to your own taste and not rely on a ready-mixed formula. However, if you cannot obtain the spices mentioned or have a liking for a particular curry mixture, substitute a similar quantity of the blend for the combined amount of turmeric, coriander, cumin, chilli, fennel and fenugreek used in the recipe. Curry powder does not include the fragrant spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon, so these must be added separately. A curry paste I like to buy or make is green masala paste, based on fresh herbs. Because these are not always in season it is a good idea to make a batch when they are plentiful and preserve them in oil for later use. It can take the place of fresh ginger and coriander leaves and even part of the garlic in a recipe, or it can be used as an extra flavour accent.

Another, important ingredient is garam masala, a mixture of ground spices, which is added to many types of Indian dishes. Sometimes it is added with other spices at the frying stage, but more often it is sprinkled on during the last few minutes of cooking.

Your Indian and Pakistani shelf

These ingredients will put an entire range of Indian spice dishes at your fingertips. Fresh ingredients are not included, only those that have a good shelf life. Buy in small quantities and store in airtight jars away from heat and direct sunlight.

—Amchur powder


—black cumin seeds

—black mustard seeds

—black peppercorns, whole and ground

—besan (chickpea flour)

—cardamom, whole pods and ground

—cinnamon sticks

—chilli powder

—cloves, whole and ground

—coriander, seeds and ground

—cumin, seeds and ground

—curry leaves

—coconut milk

—curry pastes

—desiccated coconut

—fennel, seeds and ground

—fenugreek, whole seeds and ground

—garam masala


—kencur (aromatic ginger) powder

—kewra essence

—mace, ground

—nigella seeds

—nutmeg, whole

—panch phora


—saffron, strands or ground

—tandoori mix

—turmeric, ground

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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