Monday, January 25, 2010

Destination India

I am bad at considering cooking ethnic cooking for dinner. When planning a weekly menu, it just never enters my consciousness as a possibility. And when I do crave it, I live in NY, so I can get some of the best take out around, made by people who actually know what they are doing. This is never more true then in my own neighborhood of Jackson Heights, a Mecca of Indian food. Tandori, curry, naan, all of it a dial away. One of my favorite dishes is either Chicken Tikka Masala, or Chicken Tikka Makhanwala, two similar dishes of chicken in a creamy spicy sauce that you can find either one or the other at many Indian Restaurants. The neighborhood's Zagat standby, the most celebrated of the many places around, is Jackson Diner, who has a pretty kick ass Makhanwala. The problem, though, is that the dish runs $12.95, and once you order naan and whatever else tempts you, it can be a pricey take out night, and they only take cash. It was time, I decided, to learn to make my own. I located a recipe for Chicken Tikka, and started searching for all the spices my cabinet did not hold.

The preeminent place in the neighborhood to shop for all of your Indian staples is the Patel Brothers market, a chain of Indian food stores I haven't set foot in for over two years. When we first moved here it was the first grocery store we saw, and we went to buy milk and basic staples for the apartment.

It was a bit of a culture shock for two naive suburbanites, as strange vegetables, boxes in characters we could not read, and languages being bandied about that we could not speak swirled around us. It's not that we're anti-other cultures, just the opposite, we find it really cool most of the time. It's just all a lot to take in when you're just trying to locate a box of Coco Puffs. We soon discovered the other more conventional groceries in the neighborhood and Patel became part of the background of the walk to the subway.

As I decided to tackle my own Indian cooking, I knew it was time to venture back into the market. It was not nearly as insane as I remembered, but perhaps I've just gotten used to the fact that every New York store comes with a level of insanity. As I perused a wall of seeds and spices, another couple of "Non-Indians" walked past. "Oh don't get that, we can get that in our own neighborhood. Check this out," I overheard in their conversation. I was a bit ashamed. Here other people are journeying out to Jackson Heights just to come to this store, and I've lived here for two years and have avoided the place. I am a disgrace to the word "foodie."

Patel Brothers is damn cool through. Huge bags of rice, spices, and snack food fill the aisles. As I was looking through the frozen food, I was stopped dead in my tracks. Mixed within the Indian labels was a package of frozen naan, posed next to the Pillsbury Doughboy. You don't get that at a Super Fresh. It had to go home with me. I just couldn't see a way around it.

The spices I got were amazing, if for no other reason then they came with their own little spoons. Where an American product would have had plastered all over it's packaging "There's a Spoon Inside!" these spices had absolutely nothing advertising their special bonus feature. It wasn't until I opened them and noticed something sticking out that I had any idea that I got a special spice spoon in each container. I may have squealed with glee. That might have happened.

The recipe I had was just for Chicken Tikka, and most of the reviewers seemed to feel a purchased Masala sauce was better then trying to make one, as their attempts to make one had not ended well. I decided one Indian challenge was enough for one night, and bought a spice mix that mixed with yogurt and water. Then I just spooned it over the finished product, and it worked perfectly. I may make my own masala sauce one day, but damned if that mix wasn't convenient. I was expecting a powder, but it was a moist baggie of spice, liquid, and deliciousness.

Chicken Tikka
Adapted (barely) From Gourmet Magazine


1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
1 cups whole-milk yogurt
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 (3/4-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil plus additional for greasing pan
1 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3/4 teaspoons salt
3/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon garam masala (Indian spice mixture)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 1/2 pounds skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

Equipment: 12" wooden or bamboo skewers.


Purée all ingredients except chicken in a blender until spices are well ground.

Put chicken in a large bowl, or in a large sealable plastic bag, and add yogurt mixture, stirring or turning to coat. Marinate chicken, covered and chilled (turning occasionally if using bags), at least 4 hours.

If using wooden skewers soak skewers in water 30 minutes. While skewers are soaking, bring chicken to room temperature.

Preheat broiler and brush a broiler pan lightly with oil.

Divide chicken among skewers (about 5 cubes per skewer), leaving an 1/8-inch space between cubes, and arrange about 5 skewers across pan. Broil chicken about 4 inches from heat, turning over once, until browned in spots and just cooked through, 9 to 12 minutes total.

Transfer cooked skewers to a large platter and, if desired, cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Broil remaining chicken in same manner. Remove chicken from skewers.
If making Chicken Tikka Masala, add masala sauce and toss. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I served mine over rice and to the side of the Pillsbury naan, which was really spicy but crispy. It tasted similar to the take out, which considering I've had what is supposed to be some of the best Indian food this side of the Atlantic, I think I did pretty well. Economically, I'm pretty happy as well. I bought the chicken for about $7, and spent about $6 for all of my spices. This brings me about even with one order at Jackson Diner, and now I have lots of spice leftover for next time. Jackson Diner does have a $10 buffet lunch, which allows one to try all manor of Indian food. Possibly this is where I will find my next Punjab cooking challenge...


DeusEx said...

couple of suggestions as I've been working through an Indian recipe book. Muddle the cumin and coriander seeds together first to crush them. Release more flavor before mixing in blender.

Try chili powder instead of cayenne. Lemon instead of lime.

Korma is a good staple to have in your repertoire too.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. Indian stores have improved in the variety of items, and also as you found, Indian items made by American companies! I like the spoons in the spice container! I haven't seen that up in Rochester, NY! Nice to hear a story of another fellow American (Non-Indian) and the journey into desi delicacies!

Srivalli said...

Hi..I was referred by Jennifer to read on your experience and take on Indian food. Very interesting to read. I was smiling imagining your joy finding the spoons. Really that is such a luxury right, else you end up trying to find a spoon that fits in...

will be checking out your space for updates on your experience..

Epicurette said...

DeusEx, thanks for the suggestion about muddling. We'll have to buy a second muddler though, I don't think my husband would be thrilled with the lingering taste of coriander in his next mojito!

And yes, my new spoons are amazing...

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