Keep Korma and Curry On
March 3, 2015 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Scientists have figured out what makes Indian food so delicious. [Washington Post]
In a large new analysis of more than 2,000 popular recipes, data scientists have discovered perhaps the key reason why Indian food tastes so unique: It does something radical with flavors, something very different from what we tend to do in the United States and the rest of Western culture. And it does it at the molecular level.
posted by Fizz (113 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
Next time I'm cooking, I'm going to be telling my wife "Trust me, I'm a molecular scientist!"
posted by arcticseal at 11:41 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's the fact that it's Indian food.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:42 AM on March 3, 2015 [10 favorites]


#NEVERFORGET the time Metafilter lost its damn mind over Indian food.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:43 AM on March 3, 2015 [19 favorites]


I'm pretty sure the answer is cumin, but I'll go read the article anyway...
posted by maryr at 11:44 AM on March 3, 2015 [11 favorites]


Complex food with unlike taste pairings tastes better than bland food with monotonous taste pairings. Who woulda thunk it?
posted by bearwife at 11:44 AM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


It still makes me sad that I managed to live for nearly 30 years without having the chance to experience the greatness that is Indian food. It's proof that Vishnu loves us and wants us to be happy.
posted by evilangela at 11:47 AM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


OK, that's gotta be among the best FPP titles ever.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:47 AM on March 3, 2015 [13 favorites]


The article does not mention cumin at all, FRAUD, FRAUD AT BEST.
posted by maryr at 11:48 AM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


Damn you. Just went on Yelp and found an Indian buffet near the office, which I will recommend to my coworkers for our weekly Wednesday lunch...
posted by suelac at 11:51 AM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Complex food with unlike taste pairings tastes better than bland food with monotonous taste pairings. Who woulda thunk it?

It's not just taste pairings, it's molecule pairings!
posted by advil at 11:53 AM on March 3, 2015


The important message to take away from this article is to always ignore the math symbols.
posted by skyscraper at 11:54 AM on March 3, 2015 [14 favorites]


But the upshot should also be a thought that we might be approaching food from the wrong angle.

I was with this article right up until that blindingly stupid sentence. Did Monet approach painting from the wrong angle because he liked soft, blended, complementary colours with occasional contrasting notes?

No, of course not. Western chefs tend to like putting things together that blend into each other and play off each other. Indian chefs seem to like putting disparate things together with spicing as a glue. Both of these approaches are equally right, and both have equally delicious outcomes. And actually Western/Indian is a poor dichotomy to use--look at the principles of much Japanese cuisine, for example.

This just makes me so mad. There's no 'wrong' way to approach food; there is only one relevant question: "Does it taste good?"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:54 AM on March 3, 2015 [65 favorites]


In a large new analysis of more than 2,000 popular recipes,

Thats the reason, there are at least 2,000 popular recipes. I don't know of any Desi families that have "meatloaf night".
posted by hal_c_on at 11:56 AM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


This also goes far to explaining why some of us, despite repeated and consistent exposure in India over many many years, still cannot abide most (north) Indian dishes. At any rate, I found the article fascinating, and very telling of why it always feels like there's an unhappy riot in my mouth when I sit down to a Mughlai-style meal.
posted by artemisia at 11:57 AM on March 3, 2015


Beat me to it, Fizz. Your title's better than mine (Vive ला फर्क).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:59 AM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


TarlaDalal.com.

I'm used to journalists half-assign stuff, but Tarla Dalal was a person, like Nigella Lawson. Or Julia Child. My dad sent me one of her Gujurati cooking books.


From Wikipedia:
Tarla Dalal was an Indian food writer, chef, cookbook author and host of cooking shows. Her first cook book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, was published in 1974. Since then she wrote over 100 books and sold more than 3 million books.

I'm probably being too hard on him, but his picture looks smug and he reminds me of this ridiculous lazy guy in my masters program. Like too lazy to Google something he's referring to.
posted by discopolo at 11:59 AM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


#NEVERFORGET the time Metafilter lost its damn mind over Indian food.

And on the day before Worf Day Eve!
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:00 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm skeptical of this article and believe further research is needed. To the buffet!
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:01 PM on March 3, 2015 [15 favorites]


I just finished my lunch of lamb saag. I've been feeling poorly these past few weeks and all I want to eat is Indian food.
posted by Ruki at 12:01 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Read the article (kinda). Seems like its because a dish has several flavorful ingredients (including spices, onion, garlic, ginger, etc).

So yeah, of course Indian food is better...because of the spice. How is this new to anyone?

I'm probably being too hard on him, but his picture looks smug and he reminds me of this ridiculous lazy guy in my masters program. Like too lazy to Google something he's referring to.

I'd say you weren't hard enough. You know this dude would be all "oh, I guess you've never known James Beard outside of his Foundation..."
posted by hal_c_on at 12:03 PM on March 3, 2015


It still makes me sad that I managed to live for nearly 30 years without having the chance to experience the greatness that is Indian food.

How is this possible? How?
posted by 1adam12 at 12:03 PM on March 3, 2015


There's no 'wrong' way to approach food;

not to be perjorative, but you never had roommates I guess...
posted by sammyo at 12:04 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


It isn't just the Tarla Dalal thing, or that I'm Indian, but I don't really trust how journalists/laypeople explain math or science information anymore. I know they like to feel badass and can pass stuff off to people, but I really prefer the scientists to do the explaining before journalists start cherry picking graphs and charts and summing things up. There are too many people who claim they "Fucking Love Science" on FB and I don't know if that's enough anymore.
posted by discopolo at 12:04 PM on March 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


hal_c_on: "So yeah, of course Indian food is better...because of the spice. How is this new to anyone?"

Maybe you didn't read the article? At all?
posted by boo_radley at 12:08 PM on March 3, 2015 [14 favorites]


evilangela: It still makes me sad that I managed to live for nearly 30 years without having the chance to experience the greatness that is Indian food.

1adam12: How is this possible? How?

The world is full of people who are frightened of novel experiences that vary from their scope of "normal." I know nice people who are still wary of sushi and such "strange" dishes (heck, one person couldn't comprehend why you would put green chiles on anything but New Mexican food!), and don't trust any meat they can't identify (making most "ethnic" food out of bounds). Gather enough of these people together in a city and/or keep a city uninteresting for outsiders to come in, and dining choices are limited.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:09 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


hal_c_on: Read the article (kinda). Seems like its because a dish has several flavorful ingredients (including spices, onion, garlic, ginger, etc).

TLDR: it's the combination of flavors that don't have overlapping taste elements, not just the use of good spices.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2015


Hmm, it looks like they controlled for recipe size (i.e., how much paneer you're making) but not the relative proportion of spices in a given recipe size. I wonder if Western food uses a lesser quantity of flavors per dish, and therefore must use more similar flavors together to create something delicious, and Indian food uses a greater quantity flavors per dish, so to taste something interesting you have to have contrasting flavors.
posted by nicodine at 12:11 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


So it's not just a matter of taste. We've now got proof that Indian food is objectively good.

This fits nicely with my long-held opinion that the British Empire was essentially about food. Their own food was just abominable, so the British went rampaging around the globe looking for something better, until they reached India and went, "Oh. Oh, my. Yes, this is good. Quite good."

Then they went back home, built curry shops on every corner, and allowed the empire to fall through genteel neglect. It had served its purpose.
posted by Naberius at 12:13 PM on March 3, 2015 [69 favorites]


not to be perjorative, but you never had roommates I guess...

That's where the relevant question of 'does it taste good' comes in :P

I really prefer the scientists to do the explaining before journalists start cherry picking graphs and charts and summing things up.

Eh... I get your larger point, but the food pairing hypothesis is fairly well-proven, and is what drives many of the more bleeding edge restaurants and chefs; Blumenthal is known for deriving new/unusual flavour combinations by mapping out common compounds, for example. It's not super-complex science at the surface level, is what I'm saying.

Basically, the article suggests (and is largely true) that Western cuisine is based on something like these hypothetical three ingredients with four flavour compounds each:

1: ABCD
2: __CDEF
3: ____EFGH

Overlapping compounds = foods that taste good together. (Let's leave aside ideas of contrast for now.)

Whereas Indian cuisine would be more like
ABCD
EFGH
IJKL

+ spicing. Depending on the recipe--as the article points out, this breaks down in rice-based dishes for example.

nicodine, that sounds kind of chicken/egg to me. I think it's just a philosophical difference; some cuisines are more like painting, where one blends everything together for a harmonious whole, and some cuisines are more like mosaics where you can see each part, held together by an underpinning of spicing. Obviously though, all cuisines span a spectrum. They just bulge in different places on various axes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:15 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I absolutely love Indian food. But despite having a Hispanic mother who makes still makes a lot of her own dishes from scratch for any family member who so much as says the word "tortilla," my family are your stereotypical non-adventurous eaters to a one. The closest to exotic I think we ever got in my childhood was occasional Chinese take out. I have tried to introduce them gently to the delights of Indian food, but for some reason, they are just not having it.

Oh well! More chana masala for me!
posted by Kitteh at 12:17 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


As far as how one might have gotten through thirty years without any Indian food whatsoever - another factor is the revolution in food distribution of the last fifteen years or so, probably coupled with there simply being an increasing number of Indian-American and/or Indian people in the US.

When I was in college - not yet twenty years ago! - to get ramen required a trip into the big city. Oh, you could get Cup O'Noodle, and probably Top Ramen, but anything else meant a trip to a specialty Asian grocery store. I mean, things I can buy at my mediocre underserved-neighborhood Cub were totally unavailable - red lentils, for instance. Curry was "curry powder", it came in a little glass jar and it was mostly elderly cumin and turmeric.

Unless you were yourself of Indian descent and had some connections/a neighborhood store or you were very fortunate, you just couldn't get a lot of stuff.
posted by Frowner at 12:19 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


But the upshot should also be a thought that we might be approaching food from the wrong angle.
I was with this article right up until that blindingly stupid sentence. Did Monet approach painting from the wrong angle because he liked soft, blended, complementary colours with occasional contrasting notes?
Perhaps I'm being too charitable but I read that sentence and the rest of that paragraph as the wrong part being the assumption that there was only one valid approach.
posted by adamsc at 12:19 PM on March 3, 2015


Kitteh: if you want to try the education approach, perhaps share a copy of Cuisine and Empire or The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection (previously) to point out that the major cuisines have been sharing ingredients and techniques for centuries.
posted by adamsc at 12:24 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


So it's not just a matter of taste. We've now got proof that Indian food is objectively good.

No. The framing of this piece is so irritating. What scientists have discovered is what makes Indian food distinctive. It's up to each of us to decide if we think it is "delicious." I happen to, just as I also think French cuisine is delicious, and Oaxacan cuisine is delicious, and Thai cuisine is delicious, and Vietnamese cuisine is delicious.

So far as I can tell no research whatsoever was done to see whether people, in general, prefer dishes constructed on the "overlapping flavor" model or the "complementary flavor" model.
posted by yoink at 12:27 PM on March 3, 2015 [12 favorites]


This fits nicely with my long-held opinion that the British Empire was essentially about food.

I know you are joking, but keep in mind that the British had trains full of food shipping food away from Bombay while millions of people starved to death from a famine they helped induce. It wasn't some lighthearted romp.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:28 PM on March 3, 2015 [15 favorites]


You could ask some Irish about that too.
posted by bonehead at 12:30 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was just thinking on Sunday how much I appreciate Metafilter for introducing me to 660 Curries because it is filled with so many delicious Indian recipes.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:32 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


When we went out for lunch at a local Indian place last week, a friend remarked India seems to be one of the most advance culinary cultures, whereas American cuisine is often largely just above the stone-age level, which he illustrated with the following explain-it-to-a-Martian style dialogue.

"What are you eating?"
"Steak"
"What's that?"
"You take a chunk of cow, and cook it over a fire."
"That's it?"
"Sometimes you add salt."
posted by fings at 12:33 PM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


complexity != advanced

I love me some chana masala. Is that more advanced than a slice of tomato with a little salt on it? Or vice-versa? What does 'advanced' even mean, culinarily?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


You'd better add salt every time.
posted by kenko at 12:36 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


a friend remarked India seems to be one of the most advance culinary cultures, whereas American cuisine is often largely just above the stone-age level, which he illustrated with the following explain-it-to-a-Martian style dialogue.

Imagine trying to explain a Twinkie to a Martian. By this metric, American food is about the most "advanced" imaginable.
posted by yoink at 12:38 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


Surely I can't be the only one seasoning going "chigga chigga chig, I'm cumin."
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:41 PM on March 3, 2015


Imagine trying to explain a Twinkie to a Martian. By this metric, American food is about the most "advanced" imaginable.

Seriously. High Fructose Corn Syrup requires a ludicrously elaborate industrial process for what you actually get, but we do it anyway 'cause that's how we roll. (Also politics and big agribusiness and perverse incentives and shit like that.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Scientists have figured out what makes Indian food so delicious.

Does this mean that the answer isn't "love"?
posted by clockzero at 12:45 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think I'd be more surprised of foods not doing things at the molecular level.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 12:47 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Kitteh: if you want to try the education approach, perhaps share a copy of Cuisine and Empire or The Mexican Kitchen's Islamic Connection (previously) to point out that the major cuisines have been sharing ingredients and techniques for centuries.

Aw, thanks for the suggestion, but my folks are pretty set in their ways. As I only visit once a year, I am happy to eat my weight in my mom's Mexican cooking! (A pity there is a dearth of decent Mexican food where I am; which is to say, pretty much hardly any.)
posted by Kitteh at 12:48 PM on March 3, 2015


you fools

it's the ghee
posted by entropone at 12:52 PM on March 3, 2015 [12 favorites]


Coriander and Mint, I guess. I've become addicted to Bombay Sandwich Spread so I may be biased.
posted by jonmc at 12:52 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have never had a freshly-made dosa, all I've ever done is pick up frozen Udupi Masala Dosas at the market and crisp them up in my oven, but they are one of my favorite foods. Even the frozen versions and pasteurized vacuum-packed versions of Indian food are incredible.
posted by XMLicious at 12:56 PM on March 3, 2015


I think something that's understated when it comes to commercial Indian food is the vast amount of fat and salt in it. Indian can be very healthy indeed, but I think if most people realised how much ghee and salt (and oft-times cream as well) went into the Indian they get in restaurants, they would be genuinely staggered.
posted by smoke at 12:58 PM on March 3, 2015


That's basically true for all restaurant cuisine though, no matter its geographical origin.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:59 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]




I think something that's understated when it comes to commercial Indian food is the vast amount of fat and salt in it. Indian can be very healthy indeed, but I think if most people realised how much ghee and salt (and oft-times cream as well) went into the Indian they get in restaurants, they would be genuinely staggered.

This would be a more persuasive argument if home-made Indian food were not also delicious, though. Oftentimes even more delicious, given someone who is a pretty decent cook.
posted by Frowner at 1:06 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found the "molecular level" thing a bit disappointing. It's not like there's some weird chemical reaction or something, it's just that flavors are made of molecules. It's just trying to sound more scientific than it is.
posted by snofoam at 1:09 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


It still makes me sad that I managed to live for nearly 30 years without having the chance to experience the greatness that is Indian food.
How is this possible? How?


The first 18 years, I was in Lansing, MI, with parents that weren't exactly well-versed in culinary options. Canned vegetables, Hamburger Helper, hamburger patties in cream of mushroom soup. I don't even know if there were Indian restaurants, and I likely wouldn't have tried them, considering that for a long time, I got my Taco Bell tacos with only meat and cheese, and wanted beans left out of chili. I also became convinced I hated all Asian food because my parents took us to a crappy local Chinese place.

It took a long time for me to learn better. First, opening up my palate and convincing me to be more adventurous in food. Then an Indian co-worker who insisted on a small group of us going out to for Indian food. Now if you told me I had to eat Indian food for the rest of my life, I'd wonder what the downside was! :)
posted by evilangela at 1:12 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I should send this to dad to inform mom that she's now a molecular whatsit. After all, when I was studying Inventory Management in 3rd year engineering, he pointed me to her kitchen as the best way to understand it - perishables, non perishables, storage, regular use etc
posted by infini at 1:13 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


it's the ghee

Someone should make a TV series about a highschool culinary club who dream of winning the regional cooking competition with their mastery of Indian food, and who keep bursting out into spontaneous Bollywood song-and-dance routines: Ghee!
posted by yoink at 1:16 PM on March 3, 2015 [10 favorites]


I know nice people who... don't trust any meat they can't identify (making most "ethnic" food out of bounds).

Huh? Every ethnic restaurant I have ever eaten in has identified what kind of meat (if any, particularly relevant to Indian food with its strong vegetarian tradition) is in their dishes. Indian restaurants I've been to have generally included a short description of what's in a dish on the menus, just like other restaurants do.

This fits nicely with my long-held opinion that the British Empire was essentially about food. Their own food was just abominable, so the British went rampaging around the globe looking for something better

The Hundred Years War may have been the start of this quest.

hamburger patties in cream of mushroom soup

If I've seen a stronger argument than this for "there is a wrong way to do cooking," I'm not sure what it is. I'm not sure I want to know, either.
posted by Anne Neville at 1:16 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've been cooking Indian meals a couple times a week for about 2 months (New Years resolution). It's interesting to me how sometimes the flavors all gel and it comes out great... and sometimes they just don't, even though I think I've followed basically the same steps. I wonder if this is related.
posted by miyabo at 1:29 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure the author knows the difference between Thai and Indian curries, "More specifically, many Indian recipes contain cayenne, the basis of curry powder that is in dishes like red curry, green curry, or massaman curry."

All of which happen to be Thai styles of curry, and as different from Indian curries as a Big Mac and Subway sandwich. And green curry doesn't contain cayenne.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:32 PM on March 3, 2015 [17 favorites]


It's interesting to me how sometimes the flavors all gel and it comes out great... and sometimes they just don't

Do you sometimes find that the day after it tastes infinitely better? My experience with cooking Indian food is that time is often crucial to getting the disparate flavors to 'gel.' There are some dishes I make a day or two before I plan to serve them. Otherwise, if there's a long slow "let it simmer for an hour" step in the recipe then make absolutely sure you give it at least the time allotted in the recipe. This is the kind of thing where recipe-book publishers sometimes lean a little on the author to cut corners ("no one will buy it if we say that half of these recipes take four hours to cook!), and it might be worth experimenting with pushing the time longer--even doubling or trebling it sometimes.
posted by yoink at 1:39 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I suspect there was something interesting in the research, but I can't tell from the lazy article. I should have known... the second sentence called Indian food "labor intensive."
posted by zennie at 1:44 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


All of which happen to be Thai styles of curry, and as different from Indian curries as a Big Mac and Subway sandwich. And green curry doesn't contain cayenne.

Southern Indian food is spicy and tends to use many of the same spices and ingredients found in Thai curries (including cayenne, coconut milk, cardamom pods, cilantro, etc.). There are differences but there is overlap, as well.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 1:44 PM on March 3, 2015


I wish this article were better. The statistics paper the article is cribbed from is pretty rough reading, so the rewrite does help to make it accessible. But the article contains a lot more precision. Also some fascinating extra hypotheses, like "a copy-mutate model of the Indian cuisine explains the negative ingredient pairing". Also they observe "Spices are key contributors to the negative ingredient pairing". That makes sense; spices have historically been more available to Indian chefs than almost any of the world's high cuisines, and if using spices gives more negative ingredient pairing that's why you'd see this result.

The flavor model they're testing against is from the paper Flavor network and the principles of food pairing. I can't tell on a quick review whether this analysis of flavor is a scientific consensus or some vague theory or somewhere inbetween.
posted by Nelson at 1:45 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


This topic is near to my heart (and stomach) because I just got back from Indian. And oh man is the food their good. I like the Indian food we get in the United States but it's so constrained by what the customers will buy, by ingredient availability, and mostly by the way Indian food has been shoehorned into $8 lunch buffets in the US. Naturally the food in India can be more sophisticated.

And diverse. I vaguely knew that what we see in the US is mostly North Indian cuisine, but no idea what that really meant. Until I ate at Bukhara in Delhi and Khyber in Mumbai and had really well made Mughlai cuisine, the court cuisine of the Mughals of North India. So beautifully made and so rich with cream and butter. And quite a contrast to the Kerala food I ate at the Spice Route restaurant (cocunut!), or the Bengali food I had in Kolkata (mustard!), or the Hyderabadi food I had in a couple of places (black pepper!). I was particularly lucky to get a cooking class in Chettiar cuisine, different again, and where I hope to start on my own.

I got back a couple of weeks ago and since have ordered like 5 different cookbooks and $100 worth of spices, a giant pile of little bags of various forms of aromatic seeds and resins and herbs. I'm not going to build a tandoor so there's no way I can match the bread or kebabs. But maybe with some care and love I can reproduce some of the rich flavors in my memory.
posted by Nelson at 1:53 PM on March 3, 2015 [9 favorites]


>> I know nice people who... don't trust any meat they can't identify (making most "ethnic" food out of bounds).

Huh? Every ethnic restaurant I have ever eaten in has identified what kind of meat (if any, particularly relevant to Indian food with its strong vegetarian tradition) is in their dishes. Indian restaurants I've been to have generally included a short description of what's in a dish on the menus, just like other restaurants do.


I think it has to do with the Western culinary ethos of typically serving proteins in large, identifiable pieces with relatively more limited seasonings or sauces added after cooking, versus the technique most commonly used in Indian, Chinese, etc. cuisines of meats being chopped to bite size or smaller, and incorporated in the dish. I suspect this difference, along with our old friend racism of course, is what is behind the suspicion mentioned above, as well as frequent "mystery meat" charges most commonly applied to Eastern ethnic restaurants, jokes about eating cat/dog/rat, and so on.

When I got off the plane after a month in China, I had my mother drive me directly to a steakhouse do not pass go, because I was craving a piece of meat that just looked like a big hunk of meat and tasted like a big hunk of meat, and that you had to eat with a knife and fork. Not that I didn't eat like a champ overseas, but every cuisine has things it does and doesn't do.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:58 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Long story short, it took me about 15 years to really nail Indian Cuisine, and yeah, it's gotta be science.

It's not the combination of ingredients, but the combination of ingredients + techniques -- if you don't go in the exact correct order, or try to throw everything into the same pot at the same time -- it will NOT taste like restaurant quality food.

If you want authentic flavor, you have to discern and follow the formula for creating it. Lots of Americanized recipes skip the "formula," so you have to apply advanced knowledge when looking up recipes and figuring out what techniques and flavor profiles they are re-interpreting or short-cutting, and how to come up with the really delicious results you are looking for.

Knowing this information ruins your enjoyment of shitty buffet Indian food, too. *sighs*


My fav local buffet recently fired the chef there that knew his stuff. Or his schedule changed. I haven't asked the owner yet, but I can tell from the quality of the food. So annoying. The only other restaurant I know of that makes great Indian is 2 hours away in Palm Springs.

I can't wait to go back and read the rest of this thread when I have a chance! Thanks!!
posted by jbenben at 2:21 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's not the combination of ingredients, but the combination of ingredients + techniques -- if you don't go in the exact correct order, or try to throw everything into the same pot at the same time -- it will NOT taste like restaurant quality food.

This isn't specific to Indian cuisine at all. It is literally every cuisine ever.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:29 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


One technique specific to Indian cooking is tadka or tempering. Basically you cook spices in very hot oil and add them to the dish at the last minute. Or sometimes at the beginning. Of course roasting spices to bloom their flavor is known in all sorts of cuisines, as is using oil to carry the flavor of spices. But the Indian version of the technique seems much more specific and various and essential. I don't really understand how it works in detail but having now learned a bit about Indian cooking you bet I'm going to follow the instructions exactly and not try to cut a corner by, say, throwing the cumin in early.
posted by Nelson at 2:59 PM on March 3, 2015 [7 favorites]


hamburger patties in cream of mushroom soup

That brings back some repressed childhood memories.
posted by junco at 3:20 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


My experience with cooking Indian food is that time is often crucial to getting the disparate flavors to 'gel.' There are some dishes I make a day or two before I plan to serve them.

Sometimes it's amazing what a difference this makes. I made Meera Sodha's daily dal for lunch one day and thought it was okay but nothing memorable. I put the rest in the fridge until dinner, then reheated it and had my mind blown by how much fuller and more vivid the flavors were. Now I try to make it a day ahead of time, if at all possible.
posted by Lexica at 3:40 PM on March 3, 2015


Does this mean that the answer isn't "love"?

Love and Fear is what makes Indian food delicious.
posted by srboisvert at 3:49 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hot indian food tips: Don't confuse your homemade garam masala with your fish curry masala because you're tired and just pouring containers of spices into pots. It will not work out well.
posted by Ferreous at 3:51 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


So it's not just a matter of taste. We've now got proof that Indian food is objectively good.

I know this was kinda lighthearted, and I also know I'm offering myself up for judgement and ridicule here. But... I don't like Indian food. And I've had quite a bit of it, at some of the most well-regarded Indian restaurants on the west coast of the US and Canada, plus London (largely because my wife loves it, and I love her, so I go along with her). I'm a pretty adventurous eater, and I love spicy stuff too, but for some reason the flavor combinations of Indian food don't work for me.

But the article was still interesting.
posted by primethyme at 3:56 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh noes.

"This isn't specific to Indian cuisine at all. It is literally every cuisine ever."

There is an incredible amount of leeway in most other cuisines. Not Indian. If you forget the right spices at the wrong time, and it doesn't get to "marry" in some peculiar way particular to that dish - forget it. You can't add it in at the end and hope it turns out OK. It won't.

I can think of dishes in every other regional cuisine I have learned where this is true, but I can't think of any other entire cuisine where the recipe formulas are so particular that any variation produces mediocre results.

This is the one cuisine where I can't just throw it all in a crock pot (including making Dal) and know it will turn out great. It's never even crossed my mind to try such a stupid thing. (although I am sure there are Indian slow cooker recipes out there, now that I bring this up...)

A quick perusal of online slow cooker Indian recipes bears me out on this point. Pretty much every recipe includes a sauté step before everything jumps into the slow cooker pool!

Here is a treatise on how to convert Indian recipes for the slow cooker. First, there is a recommendation to add a paste of flour and water to the slow cooker to completely seal the slow cooker for moisture evaporation (mimicking an old technique called Dum Pukht.) The second recommendation (of course) calls for sautéing all the onion, fat, and spices together before adding to the slow cooker.

Via comparison, French recipes often call for searing meats before slow cooking, and I have successfully skipped that step a zillion times for the crock pot. You can always throw seasonings in at the end of Italian or French cuisines if you forget something along the way. If you forget the wine, you can always do a quick reduction in an adjacent pan and throw it into the finished dish. Knowing that the slow onion + fat + precise addition of spices at different times during the cooking process of Indian recipes is literally the key to certain flavor results pretty much guarantees you can't just dump it all in, set the timer, and walk away. You can do parts of an Indian dish this way, but never the whole thing.

And by the way, garam masala is one of those spice mixtures that can not be dumped in at any old time, and in fact, is commonly used only to finish a dish. From the Wikipedia entry on Garam Masala:

"The order in which spices are added to food may be very elaborate in some dishes. In the case of the Kashmiri speciality rogan josh, for example, coriander, ginger and chilis are each ground individually, and a garam masala of cloves, cardamom, fennel, red or black chilies, cumin, turmeric and nutmeg is prepared separately. The cook tastes the dish carefully to determine the precise moment when the next spice should be added. The order is coriander first, then the ground ginger, then the garam masala, and finally the chilis.

In the chicken dish, murgh kari (chicken curry), the procedure is also precise. First, the chicken is fried and removed from the pan. Onion, garlic, and fresh ginger are added to the pan and cooked slowly for 7 to 8 minutes. Next cumin, turmeric, ground coriander, cayenne, and fennel seed are added with water and fried for a minute or so. Next tomato concassé is added with fresh coriander, yoghurt, and salt. The chicken is returned to the pan and more water is added. Finally, some garam masala is sprinkled on top, the pot is tightly covered, and the dish cooks another 20 minutes before serving.

In Pakistan, garam masala is a common additive in various types of pilau (pilaf). It is usually added to hot oil in which onions have been fried golden brown."


One of the first "tells" I use when evaluating an Indian Recipe is noticing at which stage something like Garam Masala is added. Whenever an Indian recipe I'm reading calls for adding a Garam Masala at the same time as the rest of the spices, I know the recipe needs to be re-interpreted and has been "easified" for folks who don't cook a lot.
posted by jbenben at 4:00 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


A surprising number of American MeFites grew up eating only Twinkies, steak, and meatloaf for every meal.

Or so I'm guessing based on the baffling comments above about how American food/cooking is all "bland food with monotonous taste pairings", simple to the point of being "largely just above the stone-age level", and that Americans don't use a variety of recipes unlike Indians.

It's seriously weird how articles like this always bring out these kinds of comments. It seems like it's well-meaning but pretty Orientalist.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


Nothing beats the sensation of cumin in the mouth, or so I have read.
posted by Renoroc at 4:23 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]


Boooo! Hissssss! Get off the stage!

/clicks + sign.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:29 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of the first "tells" I use when evaluating an Indian Recipe is noticing at which stage something like Garam Masala is added.

Maybe. Order of ingredients does make a difference, but like anything, there are diverse opinions about what order to add things.
posted by zennie at 4:35 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


How is this possible? How?

I grew up with parents who were born, respectively, in Scotland and Finland. All joking aside, there are some foods from both of those places that I like and are unique, as other MeFites have mentioned, but in my experience it's never a "HOLY SHIT THIS IS AWESOME" experience. That said, I like haggis.

Anyhoo, they were raised in homes where the relatively subtle, bland-ish ethnically-based cuisine that they brought with them kind of collided with the mid-fifties sort of small town and working class Canadian grocery store options that were available, so particularly on my Mom's side (Scottish), it got real bland, man.

So this is her story: My grandparents boiled vegetables until they were an undifferentiated pulp. Like, serious violence. Ever had vegetables, unseasoned, thrown in a pressure cooker? Oh, my friends. You have never seen organisms so suctioned of the contents that its cells were holding within, everything that gave it life and flavour and colour.

But. Fast forward a bit. My mom swore off vegetables based on that life experience. Then she discovered stir-frying and lightly steaming and all that good stuff. Anyway.

All I can say is that I grew up eating a lot of Indian food when we could get it eating out, and obscene shit tons of garlic in Italian-esque home cooking because my mom was like "Fuck it! This shit is tasty!" and spicy stuff because my dad was like "Well, why wouldn't you put dried chilis on a take out pizza?" Because they were all like "Holy shit, this is tasty, mooaaar!"

But it took me a while to get the toasting-spices-and-order-of-operations thing for Indian cooking, so I didn't bother owing to disappointing results in my early attempts at it. Then I learned. Now I know. Bwa ha ha.

I've slipped cumin to my SIL, who will swear up and down "cumin is like BO." And she liked it. Because it was secretly toasted and added at precisely the moment required. Bwa ha ha.

Variety is, as it ever was, the spice of life.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:37 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


So here's my burning question about Indian food. What is the deal with curry leaves? Why are they so hard to come by in the US? Why do they only show up in Indian food and nowhere else? I know they are best fresh but why aren't they available in dried form? Is freezing them reasonable or hopeless?
posted by Nelson at 5:23 PM on March 3, 2015


Fresh curry leaves freeze very well. I've found them in small Indian shops and in large pan-ethnic groceries. They are the bees knees in all kinds of stews and soups. I use about a dozen instead of a bay leaf, for example. Good luck finding them.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:47 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


"What is the deal with curry leaves?"

Curry leaves and curry powder are two different things, which I bet you know. If they are easy to grow (unlike asparagus) then you could probably order seeds online and go for it.
posted by jbenben at 5:53 PM on March 3, 2015


Nelson: it's not as good as it was in San Diego where we had our own tree but dried leaves have been available at the Indian markets I've been to in MA, CT, NJ, and DC/MD. Maybe it's a regional supplier issue – the packaging has been identical (unlabeled plastic bags) in all of those stores and none were more 5 miles from I-95 so it could even be the same company supplying them.
posted by adamsc at 6:30 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


One thing I've been wondering recently is why high-end restaurant food (the kind you'd get at a Michelin-starred place) hasn't really incorporated flavors and techniques from Indian cuisine. It's easy to see the influence of other food traditions; fusion cuisine is, what, 30 years old at this point, and places like this are expanding beyond traditional fusion, but other than this place I can't think of anywhere that's doing that kind of crossover with Indian food. (And even that restaurant is decidedly downmarket from a one-star restaurant, let alone a two- or three-.) I wonder if the differences in approach to flavors that the article outlines are part of the reason.
posted by asterix at 6:44 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I got off the plane after a month in China, I had my mother drive me directly to a steakhouse do not pass go, because I was craving a piece of meat that just looked like a big hunk of meat and tasted like a big hunk of meat, and that you had to eat with a knife and fork. Not that I didn't eat like a champ overseas, but every cuisine has things it does and doesn't do.

That reminds me of this article, in which a group of well-known and -respected Sichuanese chefs spend a few days in Napa and go to the French Laundry. (Spoiler: they hate it. And they can't stand meat cooked to anything less than medium well.)
posted by asterix at 6:47 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nothing beats the sensation of cumin in the mouth, or so I have read.

Did you read that on the side banner of a bittorrent download site?
posted by clockzero at 6:48 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've slipped cumin to my SIL

Oh fuck. That was poorly thought out. Welp, that's on the intertubes forever.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:16 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I feel that this article could have been about one to two sentences long and still conveyed all the relevant information, and I also feel that the use of the word " molecular " in the title, while not incorrect, was perhaps a bit misleading.
posted by bracems at 7:28 PM on March 3, 2015


There is an incredible amount of leeway in most other cuisines. Not Indian. If you forget the right spices at the wrong time, and it doesn't get to "marry" in some peculiar way particular to that dish - forget it. You can't add it in at the end and hope it turns out OK. It won't.

This is both true and false of every cuisine. Cooking is what I do for a living, food is my obsession.

I can think of dishes in every other regional cuisine I have learned where this is true, but I can't think of any other entire cuisine where the recipe formulas are so particular that any variation produces mediocre results.

French. Modernist. Most of Japanese cuisine. Almost everything in the Western pastry canon.

This is the one cuisine where I can't just throw it all in a crock pot (including making Dal) and know it will turn out great.

Speak for yourself, really. There is a precision in very good Indian cuisine that is no more or less than the precision in very good French or Italian or Szechuan or Peruvian cuisine.

One thing I've been wondering recently is why high-end restaurant food (the kind you'd get at a Michelin-starred place) hasn't really incorporated flavors and techniques from Indian cuisine.

I worked at a fusion place that did exactly this. Naan stuffed with paneer and watercress, cooked in a tandoor, dressed with truffled honey. Asiago and chicken samosas with yogurt and chai syrup. Etc. Adria also looked to India for some of his dishes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:32 PM on March 3, 2015 [5 favorites]


I worked at a fusion place that did exactly this. Naan stuffed with paneer and watercress, cooked in a tandoor, dressed with truffled honey. Asiago and chicken samosas with yogurt and chai syrup. Etc. Adria also looked to India for some of his dishes.

I figured there had to be somewhere that had done it. How successful was the place you worked? The second restaurant I linked in my comment seems to be doing quite well, but I know the chef has talked before about the difficulty she's had getting people to accept paying a reasonable price for her food; she's constantly fighting against the perception that Indian food should be cheap. (This article - PDF - discusses the history of Indian food in Great Britain and talks about the same thing.)
posted by asterix at 7:46 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


It died, but not because of the food quality. Let's just say that a lot of the money behind the place had persistent nasal problems.

Vikram Vij has been spectacularly successful in Vancouver doing high-end (and spennnnndy) Indian cuisine. There is a built-in community of Indian expats (and children) there, which helps.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:51 PM on March 3, 2015


yesss thanks Science, I knew my addiction to Panchrattan snack mix* had some sort of hi-falutin' reason beyond a complete lack of control around potato-based products.


*it's labeled as "potatoes and dry fruit mix" which is really not doing the best job of selling it but if you like fun potato chip flavors and savory fruit bits and also if your daily requirement for sodium is at least 300% higher than the average human, I totally encourage you to try it!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:30 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


While I was in Mumbai I had dinner at Ziya, an Indian / European fusion restaurant. I didn't love it. The "fusion" felt awkward, like soulful Indian flavors shackled to the protein-heavy European diet. Also the form of the dishes is so different. A thali in India gives you delicious tastes of many little things. The European equivalent is a fussy meal of several courses, each precisely arranged and plated. Sort of in conflict.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


What on earth is "Western cuisine"? or "Asian cuisine" for that matter
Those sound like cheapo bunch-o-cuisines restaurants I'd avoid.
posted by Bwithh at 10:15 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Homestyle fusion is making keema - ground meat with all the spice, whole & crushed - then using it in shepherd's pie or with macaroni. Its tossing the boiled potatoes in turmeric, cumin with the pinch of chili & salt to go along with grilled salmon. Its the thought through addition of a spice to a dish which can just change everything subtly enough to not be bland and boring. Its about waking up the tongue even with canned tomato soup - mum would add a simple jeera 'tarka' for flavour.

Way more natural, and might just come from more integrated kitchens.
posted by infini at 12:50 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Finally I read the links Nelson found to the original research. Neither of them are impressive, mainly because both of them operate with an understanding of "western cooking" which is really, "middle-americanized bland food" - worst in the statistics paper, where the definitions of both western and Indian cooking are very loose. The Flavor Networks.. link has some nice graphics and an interesting methodology. But when you look at the example of western cooking they use for the first graph, the American bias is evident: no Italian cook would use cheese, let alone two cheeses, for a dish with shell-fish, tomato, olive oil and white wine. Take out the cheeses, and the European dish begins to be a lot more similar to the Asian dish in terms of complexity and unlike taste pairings. (Quote: "For generality, we used 56,498 recipes provided by two American repositories (epicurious.com and allrecipes.com)" - obviously, they don't know this could be a problem)
I think the idea of figuring out wether there is some platonic ideal of cooking that transcends all cultures is nice, as is the idea of finding out what the secret of Indian cooking is on a chemical level. These guys are just not really doing that.

Another thing this reminded me of is that during the middle ages, European cuisine was as spicy as Asian cooking - I always wonder what happened? I've always enjoyed the Christmas foods that are a reminder of that age.

And now I must get out my well-worn Madhur Jeffrey cookbook….
posted by mumimor at 3:21 AM on March 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


no Italian cook would use cheese, let alone two cheeses, for a dish with shell-fish, tomato, olive oil and white wine.

"No" Italian cook is overstating the case. Here's a fun little piece from the NYT about the Italian "rule" of never mixing cheese and fish.
posted by yoink at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


What on earth is "Western cuisine"? or "Asian cuisine" for that matter

Western cuisine is food next to rice. Asian cuisine is food on top of rice.
posted by maryr at 10:46 AM on March 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hehe yoink, doesn't your linked article confirm what I wrote? Anyways, I would never stop someone from using parmesan with a seafood pasta (though I won't eat it that way), and if I make a seafood risotto, I put some cheese in it. And there is cheese on my favorite pizza with anchovies.
What really americanizes the recipe the researchers use in their study is the amount of cheese which in my view will completely cancel out the delicate taste of the shrimps. And it will certainly obscure any contrasting tastes.
posted by mumimor at 12:26 PM on March 4, 2015


When we went out for lunch at a local Indian place last week, a friend remarked India seems to be one of the most advance culinary cultures, whereas American cuisine is often largely just above the stone-age level, which he illustrated with the following explain-it-to-a-Martian style dialogue.

"What are you eating?"
"Steak"
"What's that?"
"You take a chunk of cow, and cook it over a fire."


Hey, simple isn't necessarily bad - a chunk of cow cooked over a fire can be awesome if it's a particularly good chunk of cow. There's also an Indian dessert that is nothing more than milk, sugar, and pistachios.

If you get good ingredients and get out of their way, I find you do well, culinarily speaking.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:38 PM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Western cuisine is food next to rice. Asian cuisine is food on top of rice.

This! Oh God this! The number of dinners where I've wrongly estimated rice with chicken curry or whatever because I forget the number of people who are going to eat it 'western' style vs the often times there's a gravy shortage because of the people eating it 'Asian' style

AARGH


maryr - imma gonna be using this as way to RSVP guests in the future ;p
posted by infini at 12:42 PM on March 4, 2015


Rice is NOT a condiment!
posted by infini at 12:42 PM on March 4, 2015


Yes, yes, I know. Rice is a side dish. No rice, no life.
posted by maryr at 8:35 AM on March 5, 2015


A follow up: Why delicious Indian food is surprisingly unpopular in the U.S..
The answer, according to Ray, likely has to do with a certain lack of appreciation for the skill required to make Indian food. The cuisine is among the most labor intensive in the world. And yet Americans are unwilling to pay beyond a certain, and decidedly low, price point. Indian food, in other words, is cheap food in the eyes of many Americans. And that has all kinds of repercussions that have stunted the cuisine's growth, at least on a commercial level.

"There's a real problem on the demand side," said Ray. "People aren't willing to pay for good Indian food. If you aren't willing to pay for it, you won't get quality. And if you don't get quality, it's hard to grow. The whole system has forced a lot of restaurants to rely on less skilled workers and cooks."
posted by Nelson at 8:06 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Given the nature of this thread, and every other thread even remotely connected to an Indian kitchen and its possible leftovers, I argue that the above article and particularly its headline is a) clickbait and b) false.

tl;dr I call BS - and is NYC and Bay Area and the tri-state region covered? Aren't there high end Indian places there?

RTFA and not convinced. Why the dichotomy between Mefites and restaurants?

Do Indian aficionados prefer to cook their own BECAUSE all you get is cheap crap?
posted by infini at 9:55 AM on March 6, 2015


Isn't it just because Americans kind of see it as an alternative version of the American Chinese food model? Cheap, tasty, same menu almost everywhere, tad bit exotic. It's not a great thing for the high end authentic version of the cuisine but it does provide a lot of business opportunities for immigrants almost everywhere in the country.

"Indian food is basically where Chinese food was a generation ago."

Sounds about right, give it some time. My suburban Philly town had no Indian resteraunt until a couple years ago. My only experience with Indian food for a long time was one or two visits to Tandoor India in Philly when I was a kid. Now there are three here, and all of them are pretty good by my standards. If I could make Palak Paneer the way the restaurants do (I've tried and failed) I think it might end up the only thing I eat.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:44 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I dunno, I think the reason many Americans don't like Indian food is

a) if you've never had it before, it is very difficult to find a starting point. You can get pork and string beans at a Chinese place and at least you have some sense that there will pork and string beans in it. As much as I love saag paneer and spinach and cheese, I would never have ordered it without seeing someone else eat it.

b) OK, I love saag paneer, but it is not a visually attractive food.

c) If you don't like spicy food, ordering at a given restaurant can be a minefield. That particular way that Indian food is spicy upsets the stomachs of many people and when you don't know what to avoid and everything looks vaguely the same and a little bit gross....

Yeah, I like Indian food, but only because I found one place where it was good and cheap and my friends also liked to go and I went with them. But I can't get my parents to give it a second thought. It is far more foreign to them than Chinese or Thai or Greek. They aren't adventurous eaters and they aren't going to try some vegetarian potato dish with a name they can't remember when they could go to McDonald's instead. They're losing out by not taking the risk, but it's easy to understand why it's daunting.
posted by maryr at 2:14 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


maryr, from childhood I've been convinced palak paneer is actually regurgitated cud. And the irony is my own kitchen is geared more towards south east asian/chinese cuisine, which I prefer over Indian.
posted by infini at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Tandoori chicken is generally a good starting point. Not really more hot than the average American chicken wings.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:40 PM on March 6, 2015


I may have to go buy Indian food for dinner.
posted by maryr at 3:06 PM on March 6, 2015


*quietly covers the microwaveable chicken tikka masala dinner in the freezer with mixed veg and sweet corn kernels*
posted by infini at 3:26 PM on March 6, 2015


oh, good! this thread is still open.

How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking: While some have praised the new research for revealing the secret to why Indian cuisine is so delicious, this notion of layering many contrasting flavors and spices isn't unique to Indian cooking.

In fact, most of the world's cuisines tend to follow that principle, says Tulasi Srinivas, an anthropologist at Emerson University who studies food and globalization. And up until the mid-1600s, European cuisine was the same way.

posted by cendawanita at 12:01 AM on March 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


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