By Annette Hinkle
Cardamom, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, tamarind and clove. These are the enticing flavors of Indian cooking — which, as aficionados of the cuisine know, is pretty much impossible to find here on the East End.
But Pallavi Ghayalod is looking to change that, one cook at a time.
Ghayalod, grew up near Mumbai, India and moved to the United States shortly after she and her husband were married when she was 19. That was 17 years ago, and the couple now have two children and have lived all over the country, including in Cincinnati, Phoenix, Miami and New York.
In each place, Ghayalod wondered if she had found the true America.
“There were so many flavors and textures, so much exposure,” she says.
Then, a number of years ago, the couple moved to East Quogue (they first came out to explore the Hamptons after seeing it highlighted on episodes of “Sex and the City” and fell in love with the area). After settling here, Ghayalod was surprised to find great interest in the food of her homeland.
“My girlfriends said they love Indian food. We would go to go to Queens or Hicksville to get it. Then they said can you teach us?” recalls Ghayalod.
“I wasn’t seriously looking at food, even as a hobby,” recalls Ghayalod. “But then my kids’ friends would say, ‘Mrs. G.’ do you have cars in India?’ They weren’t aware of what was going on there.”
“So I started making platters of Indian food to make them listen to me. I would give them a taste of chicken tandoori and say you can ask me anything,” she says. “These second and third graders would say, ‘Do you still have elephants there?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but my dad has a Mercedes.’”
“It started as a curiosity.”
So Ghayalod took a food service management course to teach people how to cook. Though she’s not yet interested in opening a restaurant on the East End, she does frequently teach courses to friends and other locals interested in the food of India, as well as chefs looking to add an Indian component to their dishes.
Tonight, Ghayalod offer will offer “Cooking an Indian Meal From A to Z” at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. It’s her second presentation at the library. The first time around, Ghayalod wasn’t sure anyone would come. But, she notes, 50 people registered in advance and 70 showed up at the library.
She acknowledges that while Indian cuisine can be an amalgam of complex flavors, the secret to making successful dishes for beginners is keeping things simple.
“One of the main things I want to make sure is that it’s easy,” she says. “Everything can be bought at Stop and Shop or King Kullen. When I choose the dishes, I want to make sure they’re not too complex. If there’s too much flavor, some people will get repelled by it.”
“Just like celery, onions and carrot is the base of all French cooking, ginger, garlic and onions are the base of Indian, then you build up flavors from them,” she explains. “Try by starting with cumin and one more flavor. That’s the best part of Indian food. If you don’t feel like a certain spice, take it out.”
“When you try to make it, deconstruct it, pick out the flavors and focus on what you do like,” advises Ghayalod. “For example, I can’t stand cinnamon in chicken curry. I think that’s what happened to people who are turned off by it. They had really bad Indian food where a restaurant cooked up something from yesterday and gave it to you today. The entire culture seen in a single plate.”
Ghayalod also hopes to dispel the notion that Indian food is always very spicy. In fact, dishes are easily tamed down, particularly for children who don’t yet have the palette for hot food.
“That’s something you can control,” she explains. “Yogurt is very soothing and used in many dishes. And there’s always the protocol of naan [bread] and rice, a cream based dish, dal [lentils], that’s like the traditional stuff and not spicy.”
Indian food, she notes, is also well balanced nutritionally, with meals including just a small bit of rice, bread and a few small main vegetable or meat dishes. Unlike the way Americans tend to eat, meat is often a very minor part of the meal — a few cubes included in a gravy that really is the focus of a dish.
“The idea of this whole steak sitting in front of you is extreme,” she says. “Although I love it, any extreme is not good for you.”
Ghayalod explains that the philosophy (and economics) of food are different in India where no part of an animal goes to waste. Because of that, there is a lot of variety and texture in Indian cooking and different parts of the animal that are baked, boiled and stewed.
“Meat is handled differently because it’s a hot and humid climate,” says Ghayalod. “You can’t store food in India like you can here. You have to finish the meat off right away or it will go bad. That’s why there are so many dishes – the animal must be used.”
Though modern refrigeration methods have changed all that, the tradition tends to remain. For adventurous cooks, Ghayalod notes that as the palette grows, so too can the list of spices and heat incorporated into Indian cuisine. And it’s not just the exotic and interesting combination of spices that make the foods so intriguing. Ghayalod explains that the traditional herbs also have a medicinal component that dates back centuries in India.
“Indian food has a direct connection to Ayurvedic healing,” she explains. “Turmeric is considered good for Alzheimer’s, ginger helps digestion and healing, cinnamon is good for diabetes, and there’s a traditional Indian drink — ginger and cumin — that cleanses your system.”
Ghayalod is also intrigued by learning more about the science of spices which is not something that has been explored in India, but is a focus in the United States. In fact, the Herb Society of America, which has a chapter on Long Island, has approached Ghayalod about documenting the science of Indian spices.
Though at most Indian restaurants, it’s the men who do the cooking, the real flavors of the cuisine, says Ghayalod, come from matriarchal lineage and recipes are passed down from mothers and grandmothers.
“As a woman, you assume your husband’s family recipes and make what your mother- in-law makes,” she says. “But as women we bring in our own flair. For example, my family loves my lentil soup.”
“We still have a family gathering in India where 53 people come together at once for a Pooja, a traditional prayer,” explains Ghayalod. “The day before the women get together and start doing the prep work — aunts and cousins all cook these recipes. It’s been the same recipes for the past 50 or 60 years.”
While traditional Indian cooking has been a natural part of Ghayalod’s life since she was a child, she has expanded her knowledge by taking classes at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, N.Y. where she finds there is great enthusiasm for Indian cuisine.
“I’m looking at this excitement for things that are part of my culture,” says Ghayalod who is generally the only Indian in the Indian cooking classes. She finds that people in the class sometimes turn to her for advice, but she politely declines. “I say, ‘I want to learn what your doing.’ They are always bringing so many new things to it. I have to tell them, continue doing it your way, I’m going watch.”
And when it gets right down to it, what is Ghayalod favorite Indian dish?
“There’s nothing like a good chicken curry and rice,” she says. “It’s my comfort food.”
“Cooking an Indian Meal from A to Z” will be offered on Thursday, January 20 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Rogers Memorial Library, 91 Coopers Farm Road, Southampton. Call 283-0774 ext. 523 for details.