Tête-à-tête with Chef Sanjay Thumma

You have pleasured your palate with succulent tandoori chicken, spicy lamb vindaloo, creamy palak paneer, magnificent mutton biryani and luscious mango lassi, all within the confines of your neighborhood Indian restaurant. As you might have experienced during your gastronomic adventure that Indian food holds the power to both fascinate and intimidate.

“We understand spices better than anybody in the world,” said VahChef Sanjay Thumma, talking about what makes Indian cuisine unique and fascinating.  Driven by his passion to cook, Thumma left the restaurant business and started his own, very popular, cooking show on YouTube in 2007.  He aims at inspiring others to cook fresh food at home through his videos.

If you like Indian food but shy away from cooking it at home because words like curry, garam masala and tadka intimidate you, then read on.
“We understand spices better than anybody in the world” VahChef Sanjay

What is curry? “In American cuisine they call it sauce, in Mexican cuisine they call it mole, and in French cuisine it is the mother sauce. The Indian form of sauce is known as curry. In India we add spices to our sauce,” Thumma explained.

And what is curry powder? “It is a mix of spices; if you add this powder into the mother sauce it becomes a curry,” he said.

What about curry leaves? Curry leaves — an integral part of South Indian cooking — has nothing to do with curry.

It is often used for tempering, which is known as tadka in Indian cuisine.

Garam masala is a blend of spices used to enhance the flavor of a dish. While the spices incorporated in the blend varies from state to sate, the three most important ingredients are cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

People often tend to generalize Indian food but that’s erroneous. “Indian food not only varies from state to state but also from region to region and even from one community to another within the same region,” Thumma stressed.

To emphasize on this variety in the country’s cuisine, Thumma explained: “In South India we use mustard seeds; people from West Bengal use mustard oil and those from Punjab use mustard greens in their cooking. See how the same mustard is used in different ways throughout the country?”

Thumma recommends a list of spices — chili peppers, turmeric, coriander & cumin powder and some tempering base like mustard or cumin seeds — for someone starting out on cooking Indian food at home. It is always best to use fresh ginger and garlic. It is often advised not to cook Indian food that requires tempering or frying with olive oil because it has a low smoking point, he added.

“For someone new to Indian food, wanting to learn about the cuisine, I tell them stories about how India is a land of many cultures; our culture defines our favorite food. Food doesn’t sell; a story sells. What might be the favorite food in Kolkata is not the favorite one in Hyderabad. Stories about how background and culture influence food is what intrigues them, excites them,” Thumma said.

Indian cuisine has not only been influenced by internal factors like climate, culture and infrastructure but also by external factors such as invasions, he said. The cuisine in Kashmir is influenced by the Mughals, who had invaded the state in the 16th century. Many people from Kerala work in the Gulf region and the state therefore has many Arabian inspired dishes. There is an influence of Portuguese cuisine in the state of Goa, which had once been a Portuguese colony.

Making Indian food can be as simple as you want it to be or as fancy as you can imagine.