What is the secret to perfect Indian cooking?

North Indian thali at Taj Indian Sweets and Restaurant, Harris Park.
North Indian thali at Taj Indian Sweets and Restaurant, Harris Park. Photo: Wolter Peeters

​What is the secret to perfecting Indian cooking? My attempts are bland, have overcooked spice, and lack the wow factor of great curries. N. Withers

While I can cook a creamy saag paneer or a punchy aloo matar, I am no expert when it comes to Indian cooking. My good mate Dr Charmaine O'Brien, however, is. She is the author of the Penguin Food Guide to India, a marvellous publication. I posed your question to her, and she replied. "You have to remember that Indian food in restaurants is different from the food cooked at home. Cookbooks often give domestic recipes. There is an excellent cookbook called India: The Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant. Great taste in Indian food comes from using 'fresh' spices. Buy whole spices. Invest in a spice grinder to quickly grind the masala, which means 'mixture'. Most spices need to be cooked. Often spices are cooked in oil or ghee to release their essential oils. This can then be added to a dish at the end of cooking to finish it off. When making a wet masala, which includes onions, garlic and ginger,  Indian cooks will add a little water to cool the pan and stop the spices from burning. When spices are dry-roasted, they are ground and added towards the end of cooking. When you do this, make sure you blend the spice mix with cooking liquid before adding back to the pot for smooth integration." Thank you, Charmaine.

Can bottled water go off? J. Ho

At the end of summer one year, I left a five-litre plastic container of water, purchased from a supermarket, in a shed on a property where my family goes camping. I returned the following year to find the inside of the bottle covered in a thin film of algae. Once boiled it was quite suitable for washing the enamelled plates and mugs. An article in The Lancet about 10 years ago discusses bacterial counts in some bottled water being greater than some tap water. It did not state that the bacteria were pathogenic but alerted the reader to the difficulties in completely purifying water during the bottling process. Unlike glass, which is a very stable material, plastic can leach compounds such as phthalates and other chemical agents into water. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and not good for the young and pregnant women. Sunlight can speed up this leaching process. There is a best before date on bottled water, and health experts suggest keeping bottled water in a cool, dark place. 

Letters

This letter came in from C. Muir. "Your note about opening stuck jar lids made me consider sending you another method, which I don't think you have mentioned. I was trying to open a stuck lid when a friend took the jar from me and held it for a few seconds under her chin, then to my amazement, opened the lid. I have used this method ever since, and most of the time, it works." Thank you, C. Muir. I tried this method and, unfortunately, the jar did not fit under my chin. Five, two – here I come.

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