In the Kitchen
By Laura Aiken
A blank canvas, pizza becomes the art of its maker and the rules are few.
A blank canvas, pizza becomes the art of its maker and the rules are few. Well, unless of course we are speaking of authentic Italian styles where there can be many specifications. Even then, there is still room for much creativity. This malleable nature of pizza lends itself greatly to the many ethnic flavours that are now quite mainstream in Canada. For example, Indian dishes such as butter chicken have made their way onto even the most meat and potatoes of pub menus. There are many different cultural foods that have traversed their way into pizzerias, a Thai pizza being one of the most common offerings. I recently tried a sushi pizza at a Japanese restaurant, which goes to show that if you have the ingredients there are many things you can call pizza. But Indian food seems to be an up and comer in the pizza world. We reviewed more than one submission in our Chef of the Year contest that incorporated recognized Indian flavours into the recipe. Plus, the bold flavours associated with Indian cooking can put the zip back in an item that you are reducing salt, sugar or fat from.
To explore this avenue of Indian pizza further, I turned first to a book called Indian Spice Kitchen by Monisha Bharadwaj. The author is a consultant in menu creation for India’s parliament and entertainment industry, and the book itself is an award winner. Considering there are 20 odd spices that can comprise a curry, the book’s title is true to form.
Bharadwaj takes readers through short summaries and recipes of each common spice in India. She notes at the very beginning of the book that using ingredients correctly to get authentic results in Indian cooking requires trial and error, thus patience will be rewarded if you want to experiment with in-house sauces and recipes that will definitely be un-replicated elsewhere. However, there are a number of companies out there providing ready-made sauces and that is certainly a viable route to take.
Some of the spices used in Indian cooking are quite familiar, and others not-so-much. It would take an inordinate amount of paper to explore them all here, so I’ve narrowed our discussion down to perhaps those with the most potential for pizza applications.
Celery seed, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, fennel, cloves, cardamom and chillies are Indian fixtures already well known in North American kitchens. Fresh coriander leaves are commonly sprinkled over Indian dishes so you may want to consider garnishing your Indian pizza with these as well. While chillies are a very key spice to Indian cooking, Bharadwaj notes that they have only been known in India for about the last 400 years. They were first introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century but they had been domesticated in Mexico since about 7,000 BC. Despite this late start in the game, India has become the largest producer and major exporter in the world, writes Bharadwaj. There are many types of chillies grown all over the world, such as the recognizably Mexican serranos or jalapenos. The author describes Indian chillies varieties as long and fat, round like cherries or small and slender. Chillies, fresh, dried or powdered, are used in nearly all savoury Indian dishes.
Turmeric is what the Bharadwaj calls “the heart and soul of any curry.” Associated with cleansing in Indian cultures, this member of the ginger family can act as a thickening agent and is known for its ability to impart a golden yellow colour to its dishes. Flavour wise, it’s warm and earthy. The author notes that India is also the world’s biggest producer and exporter of this spice, which appears to be growing in recognisability and popularity.
Saffron is, of course, widely associated with Indian dishes and you may find a use for these expensive little threads that are extracted from flowers by hand. The threads are so light, writes Bharadwaj, that 750,000 hand-picked flowers yields only about one pound, making them an expensive addition to the kitchen. But just a few strands soaked in water or milk then added to the liquid of a dish will add fragrance and colour. A saffron cream sauce drizzled over your pizza would certainly up its cache in the classy pie department.
At the root of Indian cooking seems to be the way various spices blend together. For example, garam masala is a blend that I used to think was a spice unto itself. It’s actually a combination of black peppercorns, cumin seeds, stick cinnamon, cardomaom seeds, cloves and bay leaves. Or all those ingredients less the peppercorns and bay leaves and plus nutmeg and mace, depending whose recipe you’re reading. Amounts vary by the hand of the blender. Garam masala is a unique and exotic flavour that can jazz up many non-Indian dishes, write Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala in their book Vij’s, based on their well-known Indian restaurant in Vancouver. The authors actually even note of a close friend who does indeed sprinkle this spice on their pizza! The husband and wife team write that they first used store bought ground spices when they opened the restaurant in 1994 but within six months were roasting and grinding the spices themselves.
“The colour of the chicken curry changed from a lighter to a deeper brown, and the texture became less gritty. So, although the previous chicken curry tasted fine (in retrospect, not nearly as good), our second chicken curry required less of each spice but resulted in a dish with a stronger, richer flavour and a more velvety texture,” write the husband and wife team. Pre-roasting each individual spice, while time consuming, brings the ingredients to the height of their flavour. If you do choose explore roasting your own spices, the authors caution to do so in a well ventilated area as the aromas are strong.
The word “masala” has two meanings in Hindi, firstly as a spice as in garam masala, or an individual spice, and the second meaning refers to the spices cooked in an onion-garlic-tomato sauce that is the base preparation for most Indian curries. Masala is the “stock” of the curry, as Vij and Dhalwala refer to it, and can be simple or complex. Like pizza, Indian cooking is diverse, regionalized in its customs and requires a practice of process. If you are looking to further research Indian flavours, you are likely to find more information geared to Canadian tastes about northern Indian food, specifically Punjabi and tandoori methods, as these are most commonly known outside of India.
While goat, lamb and chicken are most common inside India as Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork, the chefs at Vij’s write that many Indians serve pork and beef dishes outside India to meet the demands of Western or European tastes. The philosophy of Vij’s is to “keep our spices and cooking techniques Indian, while using the meats, seafood and produce that are available and popular.” It is certainly possible to bring an authentic Indian taste to your pies using the ingredients in your own backyard.
A conversation about pizza and Indian cooking wouldn’t be quite complete without mentioning paneer. This mild Indian soft cheese is fairly basic to make, accessible to buy and can be eaten raw, cooked in a sauce, marinated or grilled. I imagine it could also be sprinkled on top of pizza. Paneer can be made in large batches and frozen without affecting quality, according to Jeeti Ghandi, an Indian food celebrity, in her book Indian Flavour. Ghandi is a dietitian and focuses on healthy cooking. If you are looking for great healthy substitution ideas in recipes, this book is a good resource. Yogurt is also a mainstay of Indian cooking that you may want to consider using as a garnish or dipping sauce.
This article is far from exhaustive in discussing the ingredients used in Indian cooking, but it does highlight some essentials and hopefully provide you with some ideas should you want to bring the luxuriously rich aroma and taste of an Indian kitchen into yours.