Cooking calls for a melange of not just ingredients but also an assortment of techniques and methods through which each ingredient and every flavour reaches its full potential of arousing the appetite through the allure of the gastronomic. In delivering the dual notions of taste and health, the many modes of cooking the life sustaining necessity of food hold as much relevance as the appeal of the platter. Whether they be native or global, it indeed is the technique of cooking that brings about a different experience of the palatable in measures that are different and intriguing. Indian cooking is also steeped in such numerous modes of cooking that are each distinct in their own essence, helping Indian food gain its own place of unique prominence. Here are some such techniques very integral to the exploration of the culinary space of India that we should all know about-
A traditional cooking technique widely used across a range of cuisines in not just India but also in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, tadka is a rather intriguing technique that helps to add a definite flavor to cooked dishes. In the Indian and related context, tadka is one of the steps involved in the cooking process that can either be the first or the last in association with preparation of many a dishes. Also known as baghar, chownk or phodni and even more differently in numerous other regional interpretations, the method involves heating oil or ghee and frying any assortment of spices in it to which the other ingredients of the dish are then added. If however the tadka is the end step of the process, this infusion of spices and condiments in the hot oil is used rather to top off the dish, generally just before its serving.
The tadka is generally a part of the cooking methodology that helps impart a certain flavour to the food. Frying spices and condiments in hot oil or ghee helps in bringing out more distinctive a taste and aroma of them while extracting also their medicinal benefits, thus enriching the dish in its nutrient as well as taste quotient. Beyond its deliverance of the many a exquisite elements of the culinary through a perfect mingling of the heat of the oil and the essence of the spices, the technique of adding tadka to a dish encompasses also the dramatic explorations that Indian cooking makes ample allowance for. The heavenly aroma of the ghee and the crackle and pop of the sizzling spices provide already much ground for appetites to grow and expand even as the pouring of this richly fragrant kind of potpourri into the final preparation is a different kind of magic to witness and experience, whether it be delighting in the heated hiss of the dish or in the manner the heated infusion makes its way all over the already sumptuous cooking, elevating it instantly with the addition of both taste and zest.
One of the most indispensable techniques associated with Indian cooking is what would be understood otherwise as sauteing but is still somewhat different from the more global method of the culinary. Bhunao though involves also the additional technique of stir frying and sometimes stewing as well and can involve along its labour intensive process ingredients like spices and veggies and meats. One of the ancient methods of Indian cooking, bhunao involves frying base as well as core ingredients in hot oil, even as the temperature maintained throughout the process needs to be moderated between medium and high for a considerable period of time till the components involved in the cooking process lose their moisture. In fact, bhunao makes for a rather ‘intense’ mode of cooking whereby the involved ingredients are allowed to caramelize for a more pronounced seeping of their flavours in the resultant preparation.
What makes bhunao a very visibly unique technique of cooking is the end demand to which it caters- of continuing with the process till the oil and the cooked stuff separates and the former rises to the surface. The result that ensues is one that is fragrant enough in the heady mix of all the flavours released during the process as well as visually appetising in the rich brown color encompassed by the ingredients as a result of the caramelisation achieved through continuous and involved cooking for a long period of time. This technique of the bhunao, of continuous stirring and cooking of the ingredients with splashes of water or stock in between till the point it achieves the desired texture and color, is one of the hallmarks of Indian cooking. Particularly a technique that is ubiquitous to the preparation of the many famous and exclusively Indian curries, but deriving from and resident also in other explorations of global cuisine, the perfection of the bhunao style is a trick that can only be mastered with devoted attention and pursuance of it.
Originating from the culinary folds of north India, more precisely from the region of Awadh, dum pukht is another very unique and interesting technique of cooking that is in fact a manifestation of the wonders that a slow mode of cooking entails. Traditionally carried out in a specific heavy bottomed, usually clay pot known as the handi, this technique involves the cooking of a dish in the steam generated of and by itself, without letting any of it escape so as to preserve the flavours and aroma for a really delicious dish.
So ingrained is the essence of the food needed to be cooked in its own steam in this style of preparation that the cooking vessel is closed not just with the lid atop it but is ensured that it fits around the vessel perfectly by sealing it with a thick strip of dough for a total retaining of flavours. This arrangement that helps the food to cook on its own over a slow heat for a long period of time also therefore results in a very aromatic dish, characteristic mainly of one pot dishes like biryanis. Often laden with aromatic spices that are first bhunaoed before it is allowed to simmer and steam and cook with the other ingredient, dum cooked dishes are always highly fragrant and flavorful, offering therefore a gastronomic experience that is as extraordinary as the manner of cooking through which it is achieved.
An influence of the cooking method of the Mughals that till date finds exuberant expression within the realms of Indian cuisine is a very intricate process that which is known as dungar or dhuanaar. A technique of smoking food that yield therefore a very distinctive and appetising flavor and aroma of the dish, dhungar cooking helps render the smoky essence to food but in a manner that is very different from what is followed in other cuisines that sees burnt wood being the source of the smoke. In dhungar cooking though, the smoky flavor is imparted by adding instead a burning piece of coal in a container that is placed amidst the food that is sought to be infused with the flavor of it. Poured over this smoldering piece of coal is some hot oil or ghee that makes it sizzle and smoke, and the vessel is closed immediately with a lid so that the resultant aroma of the smoke is trapped therein and permeates through every strand of the prepared dish. This makes dhungaar not a method of cooking food but rather one of flavoring it, and much like tadka makes therefore for a step in certain aspects of Indian cooking that however is still noted for the distinct way in which it uplifts the dish.
Bhapa might not be a process unique to Indian cooking but it is the application of this mode of preparing food in rather remarkable ways that make it a definite identity within the context of the culinary in our country. Bhaapa or the process of steaming is one of the healthiest cooking methods that which is used to cook everything from rice and dals to veggies and fishes to even desserts and snack.
The method employed in each of these cases can be somewhat different from the others. There of course is the basic mode of steaming where the steam of water boiling in a vessel helps provide the heat for the food placed in a container above the vessel, with perforations allowing the steam to ensure that the food is cooked. Then there can also be specialised molds on which the raw ingredients are placed before letting it steam to completion as in case of such preparations like idli even as foods wrapped and steamed in banana or turmeric leaves and even colocasia leaves make for numerous native preparations within the realms of India, which today have gained widespread popularity to emerge as delicacies enjoyed by the entire nation.
Among sweet dishings, it is a particularly popular Bengali preparation called bhappa doi as well as an Assamese traditional item of the bhapa or tekeli pitha that are breakout delicacies of this mode of cooking. The indirect subjection of the food to heat through steaming or bhaap helps it to retain the nutrients while keeping them moist and soft.
One of the most popularly explored techniques of Indian cooking is the preparation of foods in a tandoor which is basically a clay oven. Mostly employed in north India but enjoying also a pan Indian presence while making for a component of many other cuisines of the world is the technique of the tandoor where marinated food is cooked over a wood charcoal fire. Not just the food though, the tandoor itself needs to be prepped up before it can kickstart the process of cooking. ‘Seasoned’ with multiple layers of oil and salt before it is heated up enough, the tandoor helps impart a smokey flavour to the food cooked in it. In fact so distinctive is the taste of food cooked, or rather baked, in a tandoor that tandoori meats and veggies and breads make for a whole different range of Indian cuisine altogether.
What lends the food cooked in a tandoor its characteristic light charred appearance is its high heat that helps also impart the tandoori flavour through the marinade of the food that falls on to the coal and results in the flavour fused smoke roasting and smoking the ingredients. The food is lowered into the tandoor with the help of skewers on which they are even served or it is ‘slapped’ onto the walls of the oven in case of tandoori rotis or naans and then allowed to cook. Meats and veggies cooked in a tandoor turn out to be juicy and succulent, all thanks to the effect of the intense heat brings out the exact flavours of them.
Hot Sand Frying
Despite being a very indigenous technique of cooking, the hot sand frying method somehow does not have a very Indian name corresponding to it. But that does not make this very amazing mode of food preparation any less interesting and distinctive. Also employed by street vendors in China is this method for roasting certain nuts like peanuts and chestnut or even traditional snacks like puffed rice in heated sand rather than oil both as a healthy as well as a cost effective method of cooking. Large woks of sand are heated enough for them to trap the heat and relay the same to nuts buried in them, all the while continuously turning and tossing both nuts and sand over and over again. Even popcorn can be produced by cooking corn in this technique of sand roasting or frying while salt can also make for an effective substitute of sand for similar purposes. Apart from ‘frying’ both salt and sand are often used as a base for baking in pressure cookers or on pans. Hot sand frying is also a common technique used in villages to cook fish or meat by wrapping them in banana leaves and then leaving them in the heated sand to allow for the cooking process to complete.
Perhaps one of the more interesting and unique techniques that Indian cooking employs is the method called sekna. A process of dry roasting that which is used extensively in everyday Indian cooking, sekna translates literally as the application of dry heat and helps in the maximum extraction of flavours from food. Everything from spices and condiments to rotis and papads are allowed to cook through this dry roasting method, which otherwise sees application in certain culinary pursuits that do not generally pertain to everyday, common usage. The process of sekna does not always yield the end result though, sometimes used instead to dry roast ingredients before grinding them to prepare mixes from which dishes are prepared. As therefore a step in cooking as well as being the entire cooking process itself, sekna is one of the most distinctive methods of Indian cooking. Healthy in essence due to the use of zero oil in the entire cooking process but delivering food items that still reign in a taste of their own, the process of sekna is a very wholesome cooking methodology encountered less elsewhere.
The mention of khurchan strikes more as a not so common but really delectable dish of both savoury and sweet leanings as the case may be but not so much as a technique of preparation. But it in fact is a varied method of cooking that led to the dish made through this process being its namesake. Generally meaning scraping, khurchan is the technique of scrapping off the layer stuck to the sides of the vessel after boiling of milk to the extent that it is considerably reduced. It is this scraped off layer of milk that makes for the khurchan dish. As a dessert, the dish incorporates powdered milk as its only other ingredient. As a more extensive main course preparation though, a range of spices and vegetables are are cooked along with the khurchan to make a thick gravy that serves as the base for a meat or sometimes paneer preparation.
A very unexpected mode of cooking that lets the ingredients remain over the fire without much stirring and tossing so that they stick indeed to the vessel and allow scrapes of the food to be obtainable, khurchan might not be the most commonplace or even a very known technique of cooking but it sure diversifies the ambit of Indian cuisine in an even intriguing manner.