Indian cuisine a ‘hot’ topic at Salem Library

By Merja H. Lehtinen - ReminderNews
Salem - posted Mon., Dec. 2, 2013
Madhu Gupta gave a presentation about the cultural, historical and geographic impact on cuisine in India. The Indian cooking expert demonstrated her favorite recipes and allowed the audience to sample them. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.
Madhu Gupta gave a presentation about the cultural, historical and geographic impact on cuisine in India. The Indian cooking expert demonstrated her favorite recipes and allowed the audience to sample them. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.

Madhu Gupta, of Niantic, has traveled all around the nation of India, and has become an expert in India's cuisine from the north to the south, central, east, and west regions. Her family originally came from the north of India. Each region has its own distinct native preferences largely influenced by a long history and diverse climate.

On Saturday, Nov. 23, Gupta gave an Indian cuisine cooking demonstration to a packed meeting room at the Salem Public Library. Before she made the dishes and let everyone try some samples, Gupta let the audience smell and see the spices up close. She said they do not last more than three months.

“Indian cuisine is over 5,000 years old and was influenced by the Mongols, Persians and British over the centuries. The cuisine is a result of history and geography," Gupta said. The nation-state is between Europe and Asia; it has been part of the spice trade routes for thousands of years, and has had its territory fought for over the centuries.

Originally, the country ruled by the British called India included the area of Pakistan, which also became an independent nation-state when India won independence from the British in 1947.  

“Persians introduced the kabobs, and chutney was a British favorite," Gupta said. There are notable differences among regional cuisine. "It is very cold in the north, where Mount Everest is located in the Himalayan Mountains. But in the south it is over 100 degrees, very hot," she explained. “The food is so spicy hot, even I cannot eat it," she said. The food reflects the needs of the people. In the north, meat and rice are basics in diets to protect against the severe cold. Chai, or tea, is also a favorite beverage, with or without milk, but chai in the north is taken with sugar, but no milk. In other regions, milk and sugar in chai are more common. Gupta's mother prefers tea with milk at 4 o'clock, in the English tradition.  Cardamom and black pepper are two spices that help against the cold as well, and this makes them popular in the north.

East India is dominated by water, so seafood is most common as the staple of the diet. While western India is warm, millet and barley are commonly used as flour for making its flat breads.

Throughout the warm areas of India, yogurt and lemon and lime are popular. Tandoor ovens of clay are used to make the food in the ground.

Common spices of Indian cooking include turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, red pepper, cumin seeds, bay leaf, fennel seeds, coriander and saffron.

"Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world," said Gupta, and its color determines the price. Very dark saffron is the most valuable.
There is also food flavored with cardamom, rose petals or rose water, commonly used for desserts and ice creams. Dried dates, raisins, sandalwood powder, fenugreek seed, and curry leaves are also used.

There are many ingredients to the myriad dishes served in an Indian meal, said Gupta. The key is to prepare all the ingredients ahead of time and have everything ready when you are about to start cooking or baking. All ingredients must be at room temperature; it is not acceptable to take meat or chicken out of the refrigerator and start to cook it immediately. Also, the speaker suggested not to overheat the oil or liquid state of butter one uses. Seeds pop when heated and it can pose a danger, so temperature is key. She also said that using a gas stove is preferable to an electric stove, as she learned when she moved to a new house in Niantic with electric appliances. Her children, she said, claim the food tasted better when they used their former gas stove, which lends itself to the cuisine of India.

Among the recipes Gupta shared were mango lassi, murg do pyaza, and cucumber raita.


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