Indian Food, Simplified
Learn how Indian lunches are typically packed (a method that is gaining popularity in the US), how the English are more attuned to Indian food than Americans and what Anjum likes to cook for herself in our interview with this England-based chef.
What are some of your favorite ingredients or flavors to work with?
I love spices and fresh herbs, just one of which can liven up a simple ingredient. I love white truffles, the flavor of chilies, lemon, ginger and the flavors of fried onions and garlic. I think milk is an amazing and versatile ingredient. I make my own fresh (Indian) white cheese (paneer which is similar to ricotta and can be used in a starter, main course or a dessert) as well as yogurt from it which I also use in many ways. In India they would skim cream from the top of whole milk, truly versatile. I do also love butter or ghee for flavor but try not to use too much of it!
Do you have a favorite dish that you cook a lot, or a go-to dish that you make for yourself?
I don’t have a favorite dish as such; it really depends on my mood and the weather. If I’m cooking just for myself I often stick to simple dishes like a soup, salad, some lentils and rice or some easy tandoori food (spice and yogurt-marinated food that are cooked in a hot oven).
Would you say that Indian food is more popular or cook more often in England than America?
Definitely. The British have had an appetite for Indian food for over 50 years and it is a mainstream cuisine, although the first Indian restaurant would be even older than that. In England, we are now really familiar with the flavors and spices, and sales of Indian cookbooks, ingredients, ready-made meals and takeaways are very high and not just bought by British Indians. I have found that there are as many Indians as non-Indians writing to me via my website to ask questions or to tell me how much they love the food. I know I am biased but it really is a great cuisine with so many addictive flavors!
Are there certain Indian flavors or dishes that Americans seem to be more attracted to than others?
From what I can tell, many Americans who are trying Indian flavors for the first time look for a dish that is already familiar and that they feel comfortable with, for example, spice-roasted chicken or spice-roasted potatoes. I did a radio interview with a New York station in late fall, and they focused on American seasonal ingredients, and we talked about my Bengali squash and chickpea dish, my Indian corncakes as well as one of my fusion chicken dishes. There is nothing wrong with that, we all prefer to start somewhere familiar when jumping into something new, and it is a great way to understand new flavors.
Within India, ‘Indian food’ covers a broad range of cuisines geographically, so how did you decide how to organize your cookbook?
It was really hard to choose only 6 regional cuisines from such a broad and delicious selection of Indian regional food. It was done in collaboration with the production company of my series, Indian Food Made Easy. We had to limit it to 6 and choose regions that people in the UK could connect with, either through their holidays in India (Goa is a really popular beach holiday destination) or through the majority of the regional ethnicity of the Indians who live in clusters around the UK or through history (Calcutta was the capital of the Raj, so there is a strong British influence of the cuisine there that makes it unique). Having said that, I did include recipes from all around India in Anjum’s New Indian, even if the series did not feature that region.
How does the Cooking Channel differ from the Food Network?
I think the Cooking Channel is great. It offers a fantastic platform to chefs from around the world to showcase their culinary passion to America. The Food Network seems to feature mainly the “big” names in the American food world and competitions whereas the Cooking Channel is more food driven, more cosmopolitan and more varied.
Are there certain things that you are trying to teach Americans about Indian cuisine?
I suppose I am hoping to whet their appetite for the food as well as show people how easy it can be to incorporate Indian flavors and food into their daily life. I did want the book and series to be a little more informative than a cookery show or book and included information about the history or geography of the regions for people, like myself, who are interested in the history and provenance of foods.
In your cookbook, you mention tiffins and how they are common in India for lunch, could you explain more about that concept?
Tiffin was a word introduced by the British to mean an afternoon meal but is now used mainly for a packed lunch. Indians would always take their lunch to work or their wives would bring it to them at lunchtime. There was no other option in those days, there were few places where one could ‘grab a bite’ in the fields or even around the offices and often these would have been expensive options.
Today India is a different place with many quick and cheap street food lunch options but even today many office workers around India will get their lunch from home brought to them in a tiffin box. A tiffin box is an insulated, cylindrical container which has several layers stacked on top of each other. One layer might have rice or Indian breads in it, one will have a curry, and another will have a vegetable and lastly a dessert or some pickles. It will all depend on the region and, of course, the preferences of the cook and the eater.
Mumbai is notable for its amazing tiffin box delivery system. Housewives around the city and the suburbs prepare a fresh meal and place it in the tiffin box. This is then picked up by a tiffin “walla” who will mark it and take it, along with hundreds of others from that neighborhood, on a large wooden trolley to the offices of the husbands and then will pick them up and take them home again. The level of accuracy of delivery is so high just by markings on the box and the memory of the tiffin walla that no one goes without lunch or has to eat someone else’s.