Indian Feast success

For the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent every waking minute of free time researching Indian cuisine and cooking methods. In the past I have tried to make chicken curry as well as saag (spiced spinach), to much disaster and disappointment. The saag came out a mess of stringy spinach floating in a pool of cream, and the curry came out watery and just…wrong.

I basically resigned myself to the fact that I will never be able to achieve the same level of quality and flavor (or even just correctness) as you find at an Indian restaurant. This saddened me a lot, because I like Indian food, but I’m pretty picky about what dishes I like, so buffets are not a good value for me (I can’t eat much more than 1 plate without exploding). I don’t like shelling out $20 + tax + tip every time Josh and I want to have Indian food. Not to mention what a boon it would be to my culinary skills if I was actually able to pull it off.

Apparently my hard work did finally pay off. This is the result of 4.5 hours of cooking this past Sunday, after 2 weeks of research and hours of tweaking and combining various recipes I had found:


From the top, clockwise: basmati rice, murgh makhani, naan, saag, mint-coriander chutney

I had actually made naan a few weeks ago, but I would not call it authentic by any means (despite hundreds of people who think otherwise from AllRecipes), so this time I tried a new recipe. As you can see, mine didn’t quite turn out like theirs…theirs look a lot more correct. The flavor was a bit better than the previous recipe, but I’m still waiting for a real winner with the naan.

Now about this chicken curry – that is the name given in every Indian restaurant, and then what? Totally useless, since “curry” just means “sauce”. Go look up recipes for chicken curry. Do it. You’ll find about a million with all different ingredients. Ask an Indian person for a chicken curry recipe. They’ll ask which one? My problem exactly.

I have now concluded that the chicken curry, as you find it in restaurants, is actually Murgh Makhani, or Butter Chicken (chicken = murgh, butter = makhani. Now we speak Indian!). Tomatoes but not too tomato-ey (as is the case with chicken tikka masala, a dish with an actual identifying name!), cream (or variations on cream), but not too creamy. I did notice lots of Indian bloggers freaking out over the “vast quantity of butter” that goes into butter chicken….and they then listed 1.5 tbsp of butter to the 1.5 lbs of chicken they also called for. This is nothing. Literally, nothing at all. You use 8 tbsp of butter just in the crust to make 1 pie. This curry serves at least 6, if not more, so really….don’t need to worry about the butter. The 1 cup of cream most recipes called for? Worry about that. A lot. 1 tbsp of cream has something like 50 calories, and there are 16 tbsp in 1 cup. Yeah. 800 calories just in cream. THAT is what you need to be worried about, not the butter, folks.

And so I did. I absolutely refused to purchase any kind of cream to make these dishes. For one thing, I never have any use for the rest of the cream. And for another, I really don’t want to ingest that many calories just to have some spicy chicken. I improvised with a combination of 1% milk and 2% plain Greek yogurt, and let me tell you it was just as delicious, and you load up on protein while smashing fat down to almost nothing!

Here is my conclusion as to the magical ingredients that really make this pop at home:

  • Dried fenugreek leaves, or kasoori methi. You can find them at your local Indian grocer (I actually had one of these just 1 block from my regular Ralphs). They cost almost nothing and they are ESSENTIAL to making it taste authentic. Several Indian bloggers mentioned that the smell of fenugreek leaves is the main smell when you go to Indian restaurants.
  • Tandoori masala. Again you can find this at your Indian grocer. It’s a spice blend, similar to garam masala, but the flavor is SO spot on. I smelled this as I was spooning it out and I thought wow will this be a winner! This also contains some fenugreek, so that might be part of it.
  • Tomatoes. Throughout the course of the evening, I learned the instrumental part that tomatoes play in Indian cuisine. Does it taste full of tomato in the end? Not at all. Not even close. But it is absolutely essential. I used crushed tomatoes, as it was the closest thing I had, but in the future I will try to use tomato puree.
  • Don’t be afraid to use your spices. A lot. I nearly doubled the spices as I was making it, compared to the recipe I had pieced together. It’s not that my spices are weak, it definitely tasted right with the initial quantity, but I really wanted to give it some oomph.
  • Don’t use too much clove. Initially I used 3 cloves, and all I could taste was clove! Luckily I fished out 2 of them and it ended up being ok after the simmer.

Here is my beauty, fully cooked and ready to serve:


I’m the first to say that this picture does not look that appetizing. In fact it’s a pretty poor representation of what it looked like in real life. But trust me when I tell you that the flavor was 1) amazing, and truly 2) authentic.

Now for my other favorite, and definitely my favorite vegetable, in Indian cuisine: saag. What is this, you ask? I’ve never heard of it, you say? Well, it is Indian spiced, creamed spinach. You’ve probably heard it under the name Palak Paneer. Apparently both palak and saag mean spinach, and paneer means cheese, so Palak Paneer is exactly what I have made, only with bonus cubes of homemade cheese (they look like tofu). Personally that cheese grosses me out. I understand most people eat Palak Paneer as a vehicle for having the paneer, but when I eat it….it’s so I can eat the palak. I usually leave the paneer at the buffet as much as possible.

Why do I call it saag? Because most of the Indian food I had in my life was from a place called Khyber Express, a nice little fast food type stand in the mall (in 2 malls, actually. No longer in either mall, sadly). And they called it saag. So I call it saag. Sometimes I encounter it in buffets with no name and no paneer, and I get confused. It’s like they don’t want people knowing it’s not Palak Paneer or something.

When I’ve asked Indian people about this dish before, I’ve gotten a horrible reaction from them. They really dislike it, and tell me it’s very unpopular with Indian people (and every single person I’ve asked, and I’ve asked at least a dozen, has shared this opinion). However, they love Palak Paneer! Go figure. So finding a recipe was pretty much a joke. In the end I pieced together a half dozen recipes for Palak Paneer and just left the paneer out.

Let me tell you, it is perfect. When the final spices were stirred in and I tried it, I was completely shocked. How could it have possibly turned out correct?! How many times had I tried and failed, left with an inedible pile of spinach and cream?! But this, it was perfect. I actually made this first before the curry, and concentrated all my efforts solely on it, so that if it didn’t turn out well, I would know it wasn’t due to me neglecting it and trying to cook too many things at once. Well it turned out so nicely that I don’t think I need to fear that again.

Magical things that make this a success at home:

  • Pureeing your spinach. Remember earlier when I said past attempt had been stringy spinach? Well that’s kind of what you get from chopped spinach. Saag, when you take a spoonful, just lifts cleanly away from the rest on your plate. You can only achieve this by pureeing. What a difference a texture makes.
  • Tomatoes. Again. I laughed when I saw tomatoes in the recipe. What were they talking about, spinach with cream and tomatoes? What a joke, that had to be the recipe that fails. But I saw it in another. And another. And another. Eventually the ones that called for tomato outnumbered the ones that did not. And then I thought there had to be something to it. I hadn’t used tomato before, and it hadn’t turned out right, so what did I have to lose?

Really that was the only magic needed to pull off saag. I did use ghee in all dishes in place of oil for sauteeing the onions, and I think that was probably a big factor in the authentic flavor, but I can’t say for sure. Ghee is just clarified butter that has cooked a bit longer and developed a nice nutty flavor. I made my own a few weeks ago, it was easy and cheap (and delicious!).


Don’t worry, that’s not butter or oil pooling in those areas. The spinach was pureed with 1/2 cup of water and the watery residue from the puree looked like that before it even went in the pan. I swear Smile It’s tinged orange from the turmeric. Again, I creamed with a combo of milk and greek yogurt, rather than actual cream.

The final thing I made was mint-coriander chutney. That’s the tiny mound of green you can see on our plates. It’s the spice sauce thing you get at the buffet. This one I still need to work on. I used Thai green chiles (which is the correct chile to use in most Indian cooking), which I had never used before, and it turned out they were obscenely spicy. Since I had already used all my cilantro and mint, I didn’t really have a way to correct it. Also I used too much lime juice in it. It did taste better the next day, but I think more research is needed. Some bloggers did recommend using jalapenos here instead of Thai chiles so that you can get more bulk without overdoing the heat, so I might try that. It’s pretty hard to puree simple cilantro and mint leaves into a smooth paste with 0 liquid…


Since this made so much food, we had tons of leftovers! After having dinner last night, I decided the time I saved not having to cook dinner could be spent making an Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun. I used this recipe and tried to follow it exactly. It looked great as it was soaking in the syrup (this is after we ate 6, oops! Nearly forgot to grab a photo).


But then inside…


Hollow?! Even weirder than hollow, the insides seemed to be filled with delicious ghee, mmm. Tasty, but odd! Otherwise the taste was perfect, and the texture of the non-hollow part was spot on. Aren’t they cute.


Then, my next bit of excellent news is that I wrote up the recipes I had crafted for the murgh makhani and the saag and submitted them to, and this morning they were published! So I encourage you to go now and make these, and give them a rating on there Smile I know I’ll be making them again, and soon!

Murgh Makhani


This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 14th, 2010 at 6:20 PM and is filed under Food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Indian Feast success”

  1. December 14th, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    Josh says:

    Dinner time? :D

  2. December 19th, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    Arpana says:


    I read your comment on SMTC under the naan section. I baked the naans using Hetal & Anuja’s measurements this evening for dinner. I teaked the baking process a little. They turned out beautifully. I shared the tweaks with them but not sure whether you’ll be visiting that same section again or not. So copy/pasting my comment here. Hope it helps in future.

    ” My boss asked us desis at work for a naan recipe. While others told her not to bother making them at home, I passed on the SMTC link to her. This is how much I have come to trust your measurements and procedure.

    Anyways, that got me thinking that I should try making the naans using this recipe myself too – just to check how they turn out. Coupled with my previous experiences and goof ups, I tweaked the baking process a bit. This is what I did:

    1. I made sure the dough was still warm when I started rolling the naans. This ensures the dough doesn’t shrink.

    2. I put the pizza stone on the lowest shelf of the oven and set the over at 550 F, the highest possible temp for my oven.

    3. While the oven was heating with stone inside it, I rolled out the first batch of four naans – one stuffed with chopped onions, garlic and cilantro, one topped with just garlic, one with kalaunji and saunf and one plain.

    4. When 550 F temperature was attained, I put the naans on pizza stone, closed the oven door, canceled the baking and put the oven on broil – please note that pizza stone remains on the lowest shelf.

    Naans baked beautifully and was all puffed up in approx. three minutes. I took them out, put the oven on bake at 550 F once again and rolled out the second batch. Repeated from step #4 above.

    Hetal & Anuja, thanks for giving out the perfect measurements for the ingredients. That made all the difference. These were clearly the best naans I ever baked at home. I served them with malai kofta my husband made – using your recipe:)”