Indian cookbook author Suneeta Vaswani is working to change this misconception by sharing her wealth of experience and knowledge with people all over the world through her books and cooking classes. Vaswani believes all a beginner needs are some basic spices and cooking equipment to cook creative, inventive Indian cuisine.
“The spices are addictive,” Vaswani said. “People slowly start to taste more and more dishes and they are hooked.”
Vaswani was born in Mumbai, India, and moved to the United States in the late 1970s with her husband and children. She has been teaching the art of Indian cooking for more than 30 years and has published two Indian cookbooks. Vaswani says students and friends inspired her first cookbook, “Easy Indian Cooking.”
“I had this collection of very simple recipes. My friends said you should write,” Vaswani said. “Once I got the idea, I was really driven. I made sure to pick the easiest ones for people to do.”
The cookbook was originally published in 2004 but was updated in 2013 with 30 additional recipes and a new chapter on street food, which consists of sweet, salty and tangy snack foods usually topped with liquid chutneys and yogurt.
“Street foods are unique,” Vaswani said. “They have a certain structure and texture even for Indian food.”
To begin, Vaswani says a cook simply needs six basic spices, which are all available at local grocery stores. These six spices are powdered coriander, powdered cumin, cayenne pepper, turmeric, whole mustard seeds and whole cumin seeds.
“Turmeric is receiving a lot of publicity lately,” Vaswani said. “It is used in hospitals around the country as a good supplement and is anti-bacterial.”
In addition to these spices, Vaswani recommends two types of cookware. First, she recommends a medium-sized pan with a tight fitting lid and second, a wok that allows the vegetables to cook in their own juices and retain essential nutrients.
“If you have a wok and a three quart pan with a tight-fitting lid, you can cook 50 different dishes,” Vaswani said.
With a hot Alabama summer in full force, many locals are craving cool foods. To beat the heat, Vaswani suggests whipping together a savory yogurt dish called Lassi.
“Yogurt blended with ice cubes can be made sweet with a little sugar,” Vaswani said. “You add powdered cumin and salt and pepper. The dish has a nice cooling benefit.”
Another enticing dish is Raita, which consists of yogurt, cilantro, mint and variety of different vegetables and makes for an easy side dish.
“Raita is the equivalent of the American green salad,” Vaswani said. “It is one of the most important meal accompaniments.”
Vaswani notes that in Indian culture, people typically try to make more vegetable dishes in the summertime for health purposes.
“We tend to eat a lot less meat during the summer,” Vaswani said. “We eat a lot of vegetables. It’s easier on the digestive system.”
As an experienced culinary artist and teacher, Vaswani has created and tasted a variety of delicious dishes from her home. However, her favorite dish is the featured Sindhi Chicken Curry, a flavorful north-Indian style dish.
Vaswani, who recently moved back to Mumbai, believes that interest in Indian food has increased since she first came to the United States. She is happy to share the unique dishes of her home with any adventurous cooks who are ready to experiment with innovative, unique flavors.
“When we arrived in the late ’70s, there was less interest in Indian food,” Vaswani said. “Now, everybody is traveling. People around the world are always looking around for new things.”
SINDHI CHICKEN CURRY
This is the quintessential north Indian-style chicken curry with onion and tomato-based gravy. It is a simple home-style version, but the amazing flavors and bright, appetizing color make it suitable for company as well.
12 skinless bone-in chicken thighs, about 4 pounds
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt, at room temperature
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons oil
2 cups finely chopped onions
1 tablespoon minced, peeled ginger root
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced green chiles
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1½ teaspoons cumin powder
¾ teaspoon turmeric
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 can (28 ounce) tomatoes, chopped, including juice
½ cup cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1½ teaspoon garam masala
¼ cup cilantro, chopped, divided
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Stir together yogurt and cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.
In a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until beginning to color, 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and sauté until dark golden, 10 to 12 minutes longer.
Stir in ginger, garlic and chile. Sauté for 2 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high. Add chicken and brown well, 6 to 8 minutes.
TIP: This dish freezes very well in an airtight container for up to 4 months. Thaw in refrigerator overnight. Reheat on low heat. Sprinkle with garam masala and cumin powder. Cover and let stand for 2 to 3 minutes to allow the aroma of the spices to infuse the curry. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with chopped cilantro before serving.