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Subcontinental spice spree

By Ann | May 19, 2010

I love French food as much as the next person, but a girl can’t live on steak frites alone. When a crise de chili strikes, I’ve been known to hightail it over to the 10th, for a visit to Paris’s Indian neighborhood. Here, sari shops line the boulevard, spices scent the air and people scrum to purchase boxes of mangoes. In the Indian grocery store, the aisles are filled with unusual ingredients: chilies and other exotic vegetables, boxes of dosa or idli mix, bags of spices. But, what to buy and how to cook it? For a long time, I had no idea.

Enter: Miss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for busy living.

I first met Miss Masala — better known as Mallika Basu — when, spice-sick (that’s like homesick, but for heat), I searched for “aloo gobi” on the internets and discovered her extraordinary blog, Quick Indian Cooking. Now, that blog has become a book — and it’s full of simple, delicious recipes perfect for the home cook who’s eager to try Indian food, but intimidated by the long list of ingredients.

Armed with my copy of the book, I headed to the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis for a spice shopping spree. After all, I had promised my pals an Indian feast — and they were due chez moi in only a few hours.

In the VS & Co., Cash and Carry, I spotted some vegetables I knew, like these green finger chilies and shallots…

And many I didn’t…

I was astounded by the sheer quantity of spices available for purchase, like these giant, 1kg bags of turmeric.

This is asafoetida, a mysterious spice, which Mallika says “smells disgusting — you have been warned — but tastes amazing!” I bought some but haven’t tried it yet.

Rice is also very important.

And so, laden with cinnamon sticks, turmeric, garam masala, kala namak (black rock salt), asafoetida, moong dal, masoor dal, paneer cheese, and a box of mangoes (which four separate people encouraged me to buy), I staggered home and got to cooking.

On the menu (pictured clockwise): paneer butter masala (soft cheese in a rich and creamy curry), dal palak (lentils cooked with spinach and aromatic garlic), chicken pulao (fragrant rice cooked with chicken), and cucumber raita.

This photo makes it seem like we ate dainty portions of each dish in a polite and restrained manner. In truth, we ravaged the food. Now, I’m dreaming about cooking (and eating) more.

Are you ever spice-sick, mes amis? I have the perfect antidote! Thanks to Mallika’s lovely publisher, Collins, I’m giving away two copies of Miss Masala: Real Indian cooking for busy living! To win, leave a comment below with the answer to this question: What is asafoetida powder?

Two winners will be chosen from the correct responses at random, next Tuesday, May 25 (family members not eligible — sorry Dad and CK).

UPDATE: Camille and Dawn Maria are the winners! Thanks for playing, everyone!

Topics: Cooking the Books | 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Subcontinental spice spree”

  1. Anne Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 5:28 am

    I have some in my spice drawer, along with lots of other goodies from VT Cash and Carry. The quantities there are so huge that it’s best to go with a friend and split things up.

    According to the cookbook on my shelf, Madhur Jaffrey’s Spice Kitchen, asefetida is a powder that comes from the dried sap of a giant fennel like plant.

    I used it last week on some red and yellow lentils. Yum.

  2. David Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 5:47 am

    I love that street, too!

  3. Susan Blumberg-Kason Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Boy am I glad I just ate Indian food last night!

  4. Sion @ paris (im)perfect Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Asafoetida powder (also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, etc — mm appetizing :) is a spice derived from a species of giant fennel. (Thanks, internet).

    Now, hand over the cookbook, please. I’m dying for some Indian food! Your feast looks amazing, Ann! :)

  5. Dawn Maria Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I really want to visit this district when I’m in Paris next month. Those colors and smells look like a feast for the senses.

  6. Dawn Maria Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Oops, I forgot to answer the giveaway question.

    Asafoetida powder is derived from fennel and is also known as Hing. It’s used mostly with legumes and has a strong fragrance.

  7. Ezaire Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Giant fennel! I love indian but am so intimidated of cooking it at home. My two sad attempts at “easy” curry were flops. The best we have mustered since is throwing naan bread on the grill. xoxo.

  8. Gigi G. Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Asafoetida–the word is derived from the Persian “aza” for resin, and the Latin foetidus, or fetid, stinking. The herb comes from the root of a giant fennel. It is also known as “Devil’s Dung” and “Food of the Gods.” It is native to Iran and Afghanistan and is cultivated in the Kashmir region. It has medicinal purposes including treatment for respiratory problems such as asthma and whooping cough, and is used for things like colic and other digestive issues. Your dishes look lovely! I think I will make some chana dal now! Mmmmmm.

  9. devorah Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    add to the list of potential gifts for people with no sense of humor: giant bag of turmeric

  10. Bob Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Asafoetida … even the name sounds fetid. Never used it … was scared away by the “aromatic” descriptions and the name. My first Indian dish was pulau rice which I learned in graduate school from some Indian students. Am looking forward to getting Miss Masala and trying out some new recipes.

  11. Mallika Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 3:24 am

    Thanks Ann! I’m craving curry while eating an oversize banana at work! As I’m disqualified from participating too, I’ll just add that the best way with asafoetida is a pinch in hot oil, just before cooking commences. Any later and the dish might go bitter. Enjoy!

  12. Nat Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 3:59 am

    How reassuring it was to discover this neighborhood in Paris; I often sneak up for lunch to Krishna Bahva (sp?), a restaurant I believe you’ve written about, for their excellent dosas and uppma (at heartening prices). Thank you for your educational and appetizing post!

  13. Camille Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    So was it labeled “merde du diable” in French? Don’t mean to be crass, but I do find it interesting that a plant named for its fetid odor is known to be an anti-flatulent!

    I understand that asafoetida powder is only part (30-60%) asafoetida, with the rest being made up of fillers such as starches and gums. The plant itself is part of a family of aromatic plants that contains the aforementioned fennel, as well as carrots, celery, cilantro, and cumin. (And some more that don’t start with c.) (Can you tell I want to win? Now that I live on that very street, I’ll have no problem finding the spices!)

  14. Susan B-K Says:
    May 24th, 2010 at 7:00 am

    The answer to the question is an herb that comes from the fennel root.

  15. unstranger Says:
    May 24th, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Good blog. I like your style.

  16. Ann Says:
    May 27th, 2010 at 4:45 am

    Thanks for all your responses! Asafoetida STINKS, yo! My husband just made me seal it in a can and bury it in a back cupboard. He said every time he entered the apartment (not just the kitchen — the apartment FRONT DOOR) he could smell it.

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