When Shelly Kaur arrived in Buffalo from the Indian state of Punjab in 1989, she wasn't keen on the local cuisine.
"In the beginning, when we came here, we really weren't too much into American food," said Kaur of East Amherst, the News' October Cook of the Month. "We didn't like burgers and all that stuff."
"Now I love it, but at that time ...," she said with a shrug.
Today, cooking for her husband and two teenagers, Kaur makes Indian specialties -- one-pot meals like chicken biryani and vegetable dishes like okra masala -- about half of the week. The rest of the meals are more American, with an emphasis on Italian dishes like pastas, chicken marsala and lasagna.
In recent years, more American cooks have learned that Italian food means more than variations on tomato sauce and pasta. Indian food still has a way to go before it escapes its own stereotypes.
"People are afraid to try Indian food because they consider it hot, they think it'll be very spicy," said Kaur, who operates a Subway restaurant with her husband Sukhbir Singh. "But it doesn't have to be spicy. You can make it however you like."
The heat in Indian food is usually from hot chile powder or whole chiles, which can be left out without compromising any flavor, she said.
Indian food rookies might also consider throwing out that jar of curry powder. Indian cooks generally flavor their food with a combination of spices that they have prepared specifically to flavor each dish.
"Basically, curry is a mixed blend of all the spices, like cloves, green cardamom, black cardamom, cumin seeds and others," said Kaur. "You toast them in a dry pan and then grind them. You can make it into a powder or just crush it, so you can see a little more what's in the blend."
Kaur uses a mortar and pestle to crush spices coarsely. A repurposed coffee grinder makes an excellent spice pulverizer for finer blends.
Cooks new to the spice cardamom might be surprised to learn that she doesn't separate the cardamom pod's husk from the sticky seeds inside. "I think there is more flavor in the peel as well, not just the seed."
The combination of fresh, toasted spices deliver maximum character and can be adjusted to each family's tastes.
As it happens, her son, Williamsville East junior Karan Singh, isn't crazy about some Indian dishes, while her daughter, senior Venus Kaur, likes more of them. "Chicken biryani is their favorite," said Kaur. "They don't like eggplant or okra." Since Karan doesn't like cloves, Kaur said, she leaves them out of dishes he's going to eat.
Like many home cooks, Kaur learned at her mother's side. In additional to the traditional recipes for curries, breads, vegetables and desserts, Kaur learned to try new combinations of ingredients and spices.
"Growing up, I loved to eat, so I was always trying to mix ingredients around, and trying to make something different, seeing which one was better," she said.
Her favorite vegetables include okra, which she cooks into okra masala with blend of sliced onions and spices. Kaur starts many Indian dishes with a "masala," or mixture, of sliced onions, minced fresh ginger and minced fresh garlic, sauteed in vegetable or olive oil until it starts to brown. "That's the basic things you need to make any Indian dish, pretty much," she said.
She does have a jar of store-bought garlic-ginger paste, available at Indian groceries, in her refrigerator. It's for when she's in a hurry, or when she is cooking a dish with a smooth sauce, like her chicken curry. "It blends well in there," said Kaur. "Otherwise I think the fresh has more flavor."
>Shelly Kaur's Chicken Biryani
1 1/2 to 2 pounds chicken breast or thigh, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
3 to 4 cloves
3 to 4 pods green cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon hot chile powder (optional)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup tomato puree and 1 fresh tomato, chopped; or 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes with juice
1 onion, sliced
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
4 eggs, hardboiled, peeled and quartered
Toast cloves, cardamom and cumin seeds in a hot, dry skillet until you hear crackling and smell their fragrance, about 1 minute. Crush (mortar and pestle) or grind (coffee grinder) spices.
Heat olive oil over high heat, in a large pot with lid, until hot. Add toasted spice mix, cinnamon and bay leaves and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add onion, garlic and ginger.
Saute until onion starts to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add tomato (chopped fresh and puree, or canned), salt, pepper, turmeric, chile (if using) and yogurt. Stir until combined, then add chicken, garam masala, half the mint and half the cilantro. Stir to combine.
Cook until chicken is mostly cooked, 8-10 minutes for chicken breast, 10-12 minutes for thigh.
Add rice and stir to distribute. Pour in water and stir again. Bring to boil, then lower heat to medium and cover pot.
Cook, stirring every 2-3 minutes, until rice is done, 12-15 minutes.
Spoon chicken and rice onto platter. Arrange egg quarters over top, and sprinkle with remaining mint and cilantro. Serve.
Dish: Chicken biryani
Residence: East Amherst
Mouths to feed: 4, with husband and two teenagers
Go-to-instant meal: Pasta, vegetables and tomato sauce
Guilty pleasure: Tiramisu