When most people think about Indian food, “the first thing that comes to mind is the curries,” says Ginny Singh, whose expertise is responsible for many of the meals at Mother India on Lisbon Street in downtown Lewiston. But there is so much more to the traditional flavors of India than that.

“Garam masala powder is the basis” of most Indian cooking, says Singh, “then you add other ingredients depending on the recipe.”

The basic spices that comprise garam masala powder are black, brown and green cardamom, black and white cumin seeds, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, black and white peppercorns and bay leaves.

Various food sources say “garam” means “heat” and “masala” means “spices.” Garam masala is a blend of spices very common in north Indian and south Asian cuisines, but amounts and preparation varies by region.

Although the menu at Mother India includes dishes from every corner of India, its offerings are heavily influenced by northern Indian cuisine and the flavorings used in recipes there.

In addition to the ingredients common to garam masala, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric, fenugreek and, or course, various peppers add to the array of spices common to Indian cuisine.

Where to begin? Rakesh Kumar, who also spends his time creating the ethnic delicacies at Mother India, recommends the masala tea. “Spiced with green cardamom,” it is a served with milk and sugar at Mother India.

One soup served at the restaurant, dal shorba, gets its savory flavor from a combination of cumin, coriander and cilantro. (Coriander and cilantro are the same plant, with coriander usually referring to the seeds and cilantro referring to the stems and leaves.) The soup is made with steamed yellow lentils, which are ground and sauteed with ginger, garlic and tomatoes, and then made even more flavorful and aromatic with the introduction of the three spices. It is typically mild, but “we can do it spicy,” says Kumar.

Coriander, whole cumin seeds and ground fenugreek leaves — an Indian herb that Kumar says “gives it a nice texture and flavor, similar to parsley” — are some of the spices in the favorite appetizer at Mother India: samosa, which Kumar describes as “a deep-fried triangle stuffed with potato and peas.”

If you’re looking for a traditional Indian dish with some heat to it, Kumar recommends the shrimp vindaloo. Calling it “super hot,” he says the heat is ramped up by the inclusion of chili peppers imported from India and chili powder, as well as ginger, which Kumar says gives it a sharp flavor. The shrimp is sauteed with curry, tomato, onion, ginger, garlic and potatoes in an “onion gravy sauce.”

The shrimp dish is also spiced with cinnamon, coriander, black and green cardamom powder and turmeric, a bright yellow-orange powder with medicinal properties that is sometimes used as a substitute for more costly saffron.

Adding to the dish’s pungent nature is ajwain, which, like ginger, “makes this dish especially sharp,” says Kumar. Raj Sharma, who also works at Mother India, says ajwain is an Indian spice consisting of tiny carom seeds. “It is really good for digestion and has many other health benefits,” he says, including “improved metabolism to assist with weight loss” and when roasted can be used to relieve the symptoms of a cough, cold or flu.

Even naan, the popular south Asian baked flatbread, gets in the act, spice-wise. The naan at Mother India starts out with white flour, yogurt or egg, milk, baking power, sugar, salt and a very light yeast, according to Kumar, which is then baked on the wall of a special oven. However, the garlic naan is baked with garlic and cilantro on top, making it even more fragrant and delicious.

It’s probably no surprise that Indian desserts also often feature the spices of the region, including the flowery flavoring rose water.

“Kheer is a traditional rice pudding that is sauteed with sugar and sprinkled with rosewater,” says Singh. Rose water is the distillate of rose petals that is not only used as a flavoring but in cosmetics, medicines and religious ceremonies. For kheer, the rice is cooked in milk with raisins, cardamom and nuts, garnished with rose water.

Another sweet featuring rosewater is mango lassi. Also know as a mango milk shake, mango lassi is “a yogurt-based mango smoothie that is garnished with pistachios and rose water,” says Kumar.

Lamb Do Piaza

4 onions, peeled

7 garlic cloves

1 inch of ginger root,  chopped

2 1/2 cups water

10 teaspoons oil

1 inch of cinnamon stick

10 cardamom

10 cloves

1 kilogram (2.5 pounds) boneless lamb

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

6 teaspoons plain yogurt, beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garam masala

Cut 3 onions then slice. Finely chop 1 onion. Make a ginger/garlic paste in a blender with some water. Heat oil in pan and when hot add sliced onion. Cook 10-12 minutes until brown.

Remove onion when cooked and spread on paper towel.

Put cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in hot oil about 10 seconds, then add meat and cook until brown.

Remove meat and put in a bowl.

Put chopped onion into remaining oil and cook until brown. Add ginger/garlic paste. Stir and fry for 5 minutes.

Turn the heat down and add coriander and cumin. Stir for 30 seconds.

Add yogurt, stir and blend well.

Put all meat and accumulated juices and water into a pan. Add salt, cover and cook on low heat for 40 minutes until meat is tender.

Add garam masala and fried onions. Stir to mix. Cook another 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for a while. When the fat rises to the top, remove it.

This can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated.

Nav rattan korma

2 cups diced mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, green beans, potatoes, cauliflower, paneer, cabbage, eggplant)

10 cashews nuts plus 10 raisins, ground to a paste

1 large onion, minced

1 tomato, pureed

1 inch of ginger and 4 cloves of garlic (or 1 teaspoon of ginger/garlic paste)

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 cup light cream

1 tablespoon oil

Salt to taste

2 teaspoon garam masala

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Heat oil in a pan.

Add minced onions and fry until pink.

Add ginger/garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds.

Add spiced powder and fry for 1 minute

Add pureed tomato and tomato paste. Mix well and cook until oil appears on side (4-5 minutes).

Add some water and cream, more or less.

Add chopped vegetables, mix and cook for 5 minutes until vegetables are cooked yet firm.

Add cashew-raisin paste, salt and paneer cubes.

Cook another 5 minutes until gravy thickens.

Garnish with cilantro and serve with naan.


.25 ounce package active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

1/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons milk

1 egg beaten

2 teaspoons salt

4.5 cups bread flour

1/4 cup butter, melted

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and let stand for 10 minutes.

Stir in sugar, milk, egg, salt and enough flour to make a soft dough.

Knead for 6 to 8 minutes on a lightly floured surface until smooth.

Cover with a damp cloth and set aside to rise about 1 hour.

Pinch off small handfuls of dough, roll into balls and place on a tray. Cover with a towel about 30 minutes.

Preheat the grill to high heat.

Roll the dough into think circles.

Put on grill for 2 to 3 minutes.

Brush uncooked side with butter and turn over.

Cook until browned, another 2 to 4 minutes.

Remove from grill and serve.

Garam masala

This version of garam masala is by Julie Sahni from her book “Indian Regional Classics: Fast, Fresh, and Healthy Home Cooking”

2 tablespoons cumin seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons cardamom seeds

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

3-inch stick cinnamon, broken up

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground saffron (optional)

Put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves in a dry heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toast the spices, stirring occasionally, until they turn several shades darker and give off a sweet, smoky aroma, about 10 minutes. Do not raise the heat to quicken the process, or the spices will brown prematurely, leaving the insides undercooked. Cool completely.

Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Stir in the nutmeg and saffron. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months.

Makes 1/2 cup.

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