“Mr. Todiwala’s Spice Box: 120 Recipes from Just Ten Spices.” By Cyrus Todiwala. Mitchell Beazley. $29.99

The last time I cooked Indian food, I burned it.

My late departure from the office had delayed a promised chicken tikka masala feast on my boyfriend’s birthday, and when I tried to rush through the sauce, I overcooked the spices and ended up with a charred mess. He forgave me – but I owed him one.

Enter “Mr. Todiwala’s Spice Box: 120 Recipes from Just Ten Spices.”

I have loved Indian food since my best friend first introduced me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in our hometown, where we would treat the delicious burn of vindaloo sauce with the cool refreshment of mango lassi. Only in recent years have I been confident enough to bring those dishes I love so much into my kitchen, and my success has been variable. The recipes in Cyrus Todiwala’s cookbook are not the typical fare you’ll find on your takeout menu, but the writer, a British chef and restaurant owner, aims to guide a beginner like me into a marriage of Indian and western flavors.

“Professional chefs often make the mistake of assuming knowledge in their audience, and I must admit that I’ve been guilty of that myself,” Todiwala writes.

He goes on to explain he has built his cookbook on 10 inexpensive, readily available and versatile spices – black mustard seeds, red chile, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cloves, saffron, cinnamon and mace. I did have six from Todiwala’s list already on my shelves, although I spent extra time at the grocery store searching for tamarind paste needed to make Chicken Curry with Butternut Squash, Potatoes and Rum. (I thought butternut squash made for a nice seasonal twist. My boyfriend was just excited to pour rum into the bubbling curry.)

The book was overwhelming at first – more than 230 pages packed with full-page glossy photographs. I felt strangely comforted and emboldened, however, by the friendliness of Todiwala’s descriptions atop each recipe. In two or three short sentences, he explains the origin of each one and, on occasion, adds a personal note. His wife is partial to crisp fried okra, for example, and the beef curry is named for the part-time cook who taught Todiwala the recipe at a hotel in Goa.

Perhaps the friendliness of the head notes is why I also decided to try my hand at naan. Todiwala warns his readers naans are not easily made at home, a fact to which I can attest personally from a number of failed attempts. But his tone was gentle, the steps seemed clear enough – and just looking at that photo gave me cravings for a pile of the warm bread.

One word of caution: Many of these recipes require several hours of waiting time before any actual cooking can begin. The chicken needed to sit in its marinade for two to three hours, and the naan dough took two hours to rise.

When the curry was finally simmering on the stovetop, we took regular tastes and added extra amounts of nearly every spice to strengthen their flavors. In the meantime, we also sautéed a quick batch of Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Garlic, Chile and Pomegranate, a relatively easy and fresh-tasting side dish.

The naan dough proved easy to maneuver; each piece we griddled was more successful than the last, and the sprinkle of salt on top was perfect. While I have tossed every recipe I’ve tried in the past, I’ll be saving this one to make again.

The smells wafting from my pots and pans had our stomachs rumbling, and after more than an hour over the stove, we quickly cleaned our steaming plates. The curry was flavorful and filling, with just the right amount of lingering heat and plenty of sauce for dipping.

I think I’ve done my penance for a botched birthday dinner, and I have to say, I didn’t mind one bit.

CHICKEN CURRY WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH, POTATOES AND RUM

As we tasted our simmering curry, we decided to increase the spicing, adding more turmeric, chiles, coriander, tamarind paste and salt and pepper. I recommend tasting as you cook and doing the same to suit your preferences. The recipe makes excellent leftovers.

Serves 6-8

6 to 8 chicken legs, chopped in half through the bone

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup sunflower, peanut or canola oil

2 red onions, chopped

1.2-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch cubes

2 to 3 red or white potatoes, peeled

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

2 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon tamarind paste or pulp (to taste, since some tamarind preparations are very strong)

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons dark rum

Juice from 1/2 lime

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Steamed or boiled rice, to serve

FOR THE MARINADE:

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

2 to 3 fresh green chiles, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

1. To make the marinade, combine all the ingredients in a blender with a little water and whiz to a smooth paste.

2. To make the chicken, put the chicken in a bowl, rub in the salt and pepper, then stir in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 to 3 hours.

3. When you’re ready to start cooking, heat half the oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Scrape the excess marinade off the chicken pieces, reserving it for later. Saute the meat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, turning regularly until browned all over. Transfer to a plate and keep warm.

4. Heat the remaining oil in the empty pan, then add the onions and saute for 6 to 8 minutes, until soft.

5. Add the squash and potatoes and saute for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring regularly until just soft and pale golden brown.

6. Add the reserved marinade to the pan and stir well to coat the vegetables. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until the spices are fragrant.

7. Return the browned chicken to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken stock, tamarind (a little at a time, tasting as you go), and the bay leaves. Stir well and bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until reasonably thick, then pour in the rum. Cover the pan and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken in tender and the sauce has thickened. At that point, gently stir in the lime juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Scatter with the chopped cilantro.

8. Serve with steamed or boiled rice.`

 


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