The first time I tried Indian food was in 2001 during a trip to Cambridge, UK. I was there doing a summer course and among the international students, there was an American who suggested we should try an Indian restaurant in town. The Europeans and Americans in our group found the fact that I had never had Indian food amusing. Being a vegetarian since the age of 13, the American said I had to try Indian cuisine.
I gotta say I don’t remember the name of the restaurant (I just know it was in Cambridge, in the UK), but I do remember the dish I had. The flavor stayed with me all these years.
Then, moving to New Zealand, I started having a lot more contact with Indian food than ever before. I don’t know of any Indian restaurants in my hometown (Brasilia-DF). Please, correct me if I’m wrong! Last time I checked, the only place that offered Indian dishes was the Indian embassy during their annual dinner parties for paying guests. I never made it to one of those either.
I also had some Indian food when my parents lived in Mozambique, where there is a strong Eastern influence. However, I can’t recall any particular dish that I enjoyed. Usually too spicy hot for me. In fact, my parents and I went to a restaurant in the main part of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, and we could hardly finish our meals that evening. It was so hot that we had to keep drinking water to be able to cope. The result was: we had our bellies too full with water to eat anything solid. The following day, heartburn and other side effects not worth mentioning on a post about food.
But I never gave up on trying Indian food and I’ve come across some rather tasty, aromatic dishes here in New Zealand. You might say “well, they’ve probably adapted the dishes to the Kiwi palate”.
Well, you are probably right. That’s not a surprise about any ethnic restaurants. If you want to attract the local people to your restaurant, you ought to make some compromises. The Brazilian restaurants around here and in Australia, for example, don’t use the least appealing pork parts in our traditional feijoada (black bean stew), which are the ears, the tail, the nose.
Unlike Mexican and other Latin dishes, Brazilian dishes aren’t typically spicy hot either. We do have a wide range of hot peppers, but our dishes are much more visual and aromatic than hot. We also don’t use too many spices. I recall a conversation that I had with an Indonesian friend who said they (Indonesians) normally use up to 12 different spices in one dish!
My parents taught me that we only need a few: cumin, coriander, bay leaves, salt, pepper and garlic. Usually, lots of garlic!
It was not until I moved to New Zealand, like I said earlier, that I came across certain spices that are commonly used in Indian cuisine (and other Asian cuisines too, please feel free to add). Cardamon, for instance. I had never heard of it before.
Watching another good friend preparing a yellow lentil soup for us in Brazil converted me to the wonders of playing with several spices and breaking away from the “stay simple” structure that my parents taught me. Don’t get me wrong! I love my parents cooking and their Brazilian dishes are fantastic. However, I had to fly away from their nest and try new things. New country, new friends, new ways of cooking otherwise simple meals.
This friend of mine, she’s a world traveler, and she spent sometime in India learning how to cook some of their vegetarian meals. She invited us to stay with her in her apartment in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, in 2015 and prepared an amazing yellow lentil soup. I watched her preparing it and saw when she carefully opened the cardamon shells to separate the seeds. I had to ask her what it was. Later, having the soup, it all made sense to me. Just beautiful!
When we returned to New Zealand after our holidays in Brazil, I bought some cardamon (and other spices) from the local Indian shop (Guruji, in Christchurch) and began experimenting with my own meals.
So, last night, I added cardamon seeds, cumin, coriander, bay leaves and mild curry mix to my regular pumpkin soup. I added coconut milk too instead of evaporated milk in order to make it vegan-friendly.
I chopped the pumpkin in smaller bits (I don’t peal the skin off the pumpkin. I normally don’t peal the skins off of fruit and vegetables, as that’s where most of the fiber is found) and put everything in the food processor, along with seven garlic cloves and bay leaf.
In the pot, I marinated one chopped onion with some olive oil and 1 tea spoon of mustard oil. Added the spices and marinated everything until the onion bits were looked whitish/clear. Then I added about 1/2 cup of yellow lentil. Stirred it for one minute to mix all the contents.
Later, I added water just enough to cover the mixture. Cooked it for 25 minutes (or until the lentil and the pumpkin were soft. Not a smoosh! Soft!)
Once cooked, I added one can of coconut milk and cooked it for another minute or so, just to warm everything before serving.
The soup was amazing! Perfect as a light dinner meal.
*I used 1/2 pumpkin for this dish and it was enough for me and my fiance, but could easily serve four (we have leftover soup and I’m having it right now for lunch).