Cook by the Book: 5 Spices, 50 Dishes

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I met Ruta Kahate at an Asia Society's Off the Menu dinner a few months back. I had just received a review copy of her book, 5 Spices, 50 Dishes and was eager to try some recipes. Even better, that night I got to try a dish from the book, prepared by the author herself. The theme of the evening was Asian food myth-busting and there wasn't a better candidate for the job that Kahate.

"Indian food is hard to prepare and time consuming"
"Indian food uses tons of spices and everything is hot!"
"Indians don't eat meat, especially not beef"

Busted, busted, busted. In one dish, she showed how false each of those assertions are. The dish was a curry called Indian Brown Beef Stew and it has only three spices in it, along with fresh garlic and ginger. "Curry" just means a dish with sauce, though some curries can be on the drier side too. The dish is oniony and satisfying. It takes a little over an hour to make, but most of that is unattended. Special skills required to make it? None.

Last night I made yet another recipe from the book, Spicy Eggplant with Tomatoes and I was struck by how forgiving Kahate is, she inspires her readers to take on her recipes and at the same time grants them wide berth to alter her recipes to their taste. I admit I skimped on the cayenne, but otherwise wouldn't suggest changing a thing. A perfect Summer dish when your kitchen is overflowing with tomatoes and eggplants, it makes for a great vegetarian or a light-on-meat meal. In fact, many of the dishes in her book are stir fry and "one pot" meals. There are also salads, rice dishes, and even a couple of desserts.

Kahate's recipes are not necessarily the kinds of things you'll find in restaurants and that's a good thing. Cook the way Indians cook at home and you'll discover how easy it is to integrate Indian flavors into your own kitchen. The book is filled with tips and tricks for getting the most out of your efforts.


An important lesson I learned from the book is that turmeric is not just for color. Fresh turmeric really does add an earthy flavor that is key to a myriad of dishes. Replace your turmeric with some fresh stuff and you'll see what I mean. After stocking up on the 5 spices--coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, ground cayenne and ground turmeric, you'll find the rest of the ingredients at any supermarket. Indian food doesn't mean a trip to an exotic market. Poof! Another myth busted.

Indian Brown Beef Stew

This is what you would call an "everyday" meat curry in India. It's simple to put together but you'll need to simmer the beef for about an hour until tender. Indians accomplish this in approximately one-third that time with a pressure cooker--an indispensable tool in every Indian kitchen. If you have a pressure cooker you inherited from Grandma, dust it off and put it to work; this curry would be ready in a mere twenty minutes. If you favor carrots over potatoes, feel free to substitute them.

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds, finely ground
2 teaspoons finely grated garlic (about 4 large cloves)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger (about 2-inch piece)
1 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound beef sirloin, cut into 1-inch square pieces
2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 large russet potatoes (about 1 pound), cut into 2-inch cubes
1 medium green serrano chile, cut lengthwise in quarters
1 tablespoon rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Heat the oil in a large stockpot and saute the onion until golden. Add the coriander, garlic, ginger, cayenne, and turmeric and stir over medium heat until browned, about 4 minutes. Deglaze the pan by adding a few tablespoons of water and using a spatula to loosen the browned bits, if the mixture starts sticking to the bottom.

Add the beef and saute over medium heat until well browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the 2 cups water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 1 hour. Add the potatoes and chile and continue cooking until the beef and potatoes are tender, another 15 to 20 minutes.

Add the vinegar, simmer for an additional 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Serve hot with crusty bread or steamed white rice.

Serves 4

Recipe from 5 Spices, 50 Dishes, Simple Indian Recipes Using Five Common Spices by Ruta Kahate Photographs by Susie Cushner, Chronicle Books, 2007