Food & Drink

KC Dish: Sultry Spices of the Indian Kitchen

Jyoti Mukharji shares recipes for Indian dishes full of flavor and health benefits.

Story and Recipes by Jyoti Mukharji  |  Photo by Jason Dailey

As a girl in India, I never quite knew what to expect around my family’s dinner table each evening. Some nights it was an intimate family affair with just my parents and older brother, featuring lentils, a simple vegetable dish and chapati (flatbread). Other nights, I found trays and platters of delicious meat and rice dishes, gorgeously laid out for a crowd of uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends and any other chance visitors whom my mother had charmed into staying over for a meal. My mother was well known for her hospitality and culinary abilities, so it didn’t take much to convince anyone to stay.

This chicken recipe was always one of my favorites. My mother used to make it with goat meat, but I find the chicken version to make for an equally delicious, healthier alternative. The meat cooks in its own juices in an uncovered pot, which takes a bit longer but creates a beautiful depth of flavor. My husband’s favorite part of this dish is the potatoes, which, after stewing in the pot with the meat, become meltingly soft and aromatic. Similar dishes at Indian restaurants typically use cream to fill out the flavor, but my preference is to use low-fat yogurt. The yogurt gives the dish a lighter touch and the live cultures add a smooth, sour tang.

As with most curries, this dish is loaded with spices, each of which has its own slew of health benefits. Ginger, for example, aids in digestion, while turmeric is said to be both anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Garam masala, which roughly translates to “warm spices,” is a blend of spices (in this case, black peppercorn, black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and cumin) often used as garnish in Indian cuisine. The “warm” part of the translation is a reference to the spices’ ability to produce heat internally within Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine.

Palak daal (lentils with spinach) is simple to make and only uses a few ingredients. It is essentially a combination of lentils, spinach and ginger, with a garnish of oil, cumin seeds and cayenne pepper powder. Lentils and beans are gas-producing, which makes the ginger an essential addition for its digestive properties. The dish is a big favorite in the winter due to the abundance of spinach during the season. It can be enjoyed with either rice or flatbread.

Chicken Bhuna

This dish is a drier version of a curry. The meat is cooked slowly in its own juices and spices, intensifying the flavors.

Serves 6-8

  • 2 1/2 pounds chicken (with a few bony pieces, to add to the flavor of the curry)
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered (optional)
  • 3/4 cup canola oil
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 black cardamoms, crushed
  • 1 large cinnamon stick
  • 15-16 black peppercorns
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons finely grated ginger
  • 3 tablespoons finely grated or chopped garlic
  • 2 green chilies (or 1 jalapeno), chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 2 teaspoons coriander powder
  • 1.5 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 3/4 cup low-fat yogurt
  • Salt to taste

For garnish:

  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 3/4 teaspoons garam masala

To make the chicken:

Heat oil on medium heat in a pan and add bay leaves, black cardamoms, cinnamon, black peppercorns and cloves. A minute later, add the onions and potatoes and sauté until the onions are medium brown. Add ginger, garlic, green chilies, turmeric and the boned meat only. Stir-fry with frequent stirring. When the spices or the meat begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, add tomato sauce a little bit at a time. Add coriander powder, salt, the rest of the tomato sauce and yogurt. Sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the rest of the chicken, sauté another 10 minutes and then partially cover and cook until the meat is done.

Serve hot with flatbread or rice and garnish with cilantro and garam masala.

NOTE: Add the boned meat first and stir-fry 8-10 minutes. Then add the boneless chicken later. The boned meat always takes longer to cook.

Palak Daal (Moong Daal with Spinach)

A healthy preparation of daal, spinach and ginger.

Serves 4

  • 1 cup moong daal (yellow)
  • 3 – 3 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cup frozen spinach
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated ginger

For garnish:

  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder

To make daal:

In a pan, add daal, 3 cups of water, spinach and ginger and turn heat to high. Once the water boils, cover half the pan with the lid and reduce heat to low (to prevent boiling over). Daal is done when the daal and water are not separate anymore, about 40-45 minutes; switch the heat off. Add more water if the daal is too thick; it should be the consistency of pancake batter.

To make garnish:

Heat the oil in a small pan on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add cumin seeds. Once they start to sizzle, switch off the heat and add the cayenne pepper. Pour this sizzling mixture over the daal.

To serve daal:

Serve hot, with rice or Indian flatbread.

NOTE: This dish can be cooked up to 2-3 days ahead of serving. Daal can be prepared in a slow cooker; it will take 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Many ingredients for these dishes can be found at Indian grocery stores through the Kansas City area; Jyoti Mukharji frequents her neighborhood store, Ambica Foods, at 9054 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park. To be placed on Mukharji’s mailing list for her cooking classes, email [email protected].