Culinistas's Kitchen,  Recipes & Cooking

Meet Our New Indian Culinary Ambassador: Soni Sinha

by The Culinistas

We heard you loud and clear: you want to see international dishes on our weekly menus — so that’s exactly what we’re rolling out. We have Indian, Chinese and Mexican dishes on the way — and will be polling you for intel on what you’d like to see thereafter. And in the short time since we’ve started to slow roll out a few of these, the numbers already show how much of a hit they are. 

And, we couldn’t do it alone. Our Indian recipes have been developed in collaboration with Soni Sinha, an Indian cuisine consultant, who joined our team in mid-March. She reviewed the classic Indian cuisine dishes we already developed (like Chicken Tikka Masala) and created new recipes for us to showcase. Soni also taught our Indian Cuisine Task Force about each dishes’ history and region of origin.

Soni was born in Bihar in Eastern India. Throughout her childhood she lived in various regions of the country with her family including Karnataka, the city of Dehradun and Delhi. Her parents believed that the way to learn more about each region was to cook the food that area was known for. 

Soni later moved to the UK and lived in Walsall and Edinburgh. There, she had the chance to see Indian food through a Western palate. Her main takeaway? There’s more to Indian food than just curry. 

Soni currently resides in New Jersey with her husband and kids. Here, she tells us what Indian cooking means to her.

The Culinistas: What do you love most about cooking Indian food?

Soni Sinha: India is so diverse that each region has its own distinct cuisine and that’s what I love most about it. You get to try a variety of different dishes using a myriad of spices and herbs that work so perfectly! India has been invaded by different rulers and each has left their mark on the food scene. The result is that Indian food not just reflects the culture of India but also its diversity, history and tradition. I love how Indian food uses contrasting flavors that makes it a sensory experience and it demonstrates how the elements of sweet, salt, tang and heat come together to sing a perfect melody. 

TC: What’s a common misconception about Indian food?

SS: The most common misconception about Indian food is that it just consists of curries but in reality, Indian food is far more than that. Curry itself could vary from a Mughlai style curry to a North Indian tomato based curry to a South Indian coconut based curry to a Bengali mustard curry. So, generalizing all Indian food as curry is wrong. The consistency could also vary from saucy to a dry Bhuna to a simple stir-fry delicately flavored with aromatics and herbs depending on the region. ‘Curry’ is more of a colonial British interpretation of Indian cuisine that has affected the translation of Indian food abroad and does not reflect the vast spectrum that it encompasses. 

TC: What’s your favorite Indian dish you wish more people knew about?

SS: The dish I love and wish people would know about is called “Fara” from the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in India and it’s absolutely delicious! It’s my Mom’s signature recipe and I have nostalgic memories of enjoying this dish with my family. It’s a spiced Chana Dal (split chickpeas) stuffed wheat dumpling that’s first boiled and then sliced and stir-fried with aromatics such as carom seeds and curry leaves. The chana dal filling is flavored with ginger, garlic, cumin and green chilies. The dumplings are stir-fried to a crisp and the soft spiced lentil filling makes it such a tasty treat! It’s served with cilantro chutney although I love it just on its own.

TC: What are the key ingredients and techniques used when cooking Indian food?

SS: Just like you have the Sofrito or Mirepoix in western cooking, the essential aromatics for Indian cooking are a mix of certain whole spices like cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, star anise along with onion, ginger and garlic. The essential spices are turmeric, coriander and garam masala. It’s different in South India where typically mustard seeds, ginger, peppercorn, fenugreek seeds and curry leaves are the basic aromatics. It really depends on the region. 

TC: What are the key ingredients and techniques used when cooking Indian food?

SS: Sautéeing – Adding aromatics at the start of cooking.

Bhuna – Typically the onion, ginger, garlic and spices are sautéed until you see oil oozing at the sides. This technique is called Bhuna which becomes the dish itself or turned into a curry with the addition of water.

Simmering – Almost all the dishes involve simmering or slow cooking for the flavors to combine. 

Tempering – A mix of aromatics in ghee added at the end of cooking.

Dum – A technique where the pot lid is sealed with dough at the edges to lock in the steam and let the food cook in its natural juices. 

TC: Do you have any tips/tricks for people just starting to learn about or cook Indian food?

SS: Indian food is a labor of love so don’t skip the fundamentals. For example, in some recipes, browning of onions is the first step. Don’t skip this step since it makes all the difference to the finished dish! It enhances the flavor profile while adding a lovely color to the dish. Another good tip is to add hot water to the sauces instead of cold water. It makes it tastier so keep a kettle on and hot water ready while making Indian food. Add a pinch of garam masala and some kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) as a finishing touch for a North Indian dish to elevate the flavors. Add raw papaya paste while marinating meat (red meat) for kebabs. It helps tenderize the meat resulting in juicy and tender kebabs.

Is your favorite international dish missing from our menus? Tell us what you want to see next!