Meeting My Mother-In-Law

When I first started to cook, I tried to replicate the recipes I saw my mother make. I cooked vegetables with the same about of salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil as I saw her use. I boiled pasta the same way. I started every frying pan dish with oil, garlic, and onion. I bought the same brand of canned of tomato sauce, kept the same spices I’d seen her use, and I even cooked my eggs the same way. It wasn’t really until I got out of college and moved out on my own for real that I started to peel away from the family favorites. I started to add spicier peppers to my red sauce. I cooked with wine. I kept avocados in the house. I grew up perfecting the Italian-esque style of American cooking that I learned from my mother.

When I met my husband, he began to show me the finer points of Indian cuisine — which is something I didn’t take very seriously growing up because I only thought it was “smelly curry”, not the dishes I was familiar with! As we grew closer, I wanted to offer him the same culinary satisfaction I was getting everyday. At first he made palak paneer (spinach and cheese), and I tried it. Later, I started to play with turmeric, coriander, and ginger in ways I never thought I would.

Now, I’ll cook Indian dishes as easily as I will any of the Italian specialties I know by heart. As I mince garlic and ginger into paste, and use my mortar and pestle to grind cinnamon sticks and cardamom, I’m trying to channel someone else — my husband’s mother. She was the premier cook of the family, and seemingly crafted my husband’s happiest memories with dhal, salans, and biryani. The key to his mother’s every day cooking, I’ve been told, was the salan which is the Urdu-comparable word for “curry”, which to all those who don’t know simply means main dish.

One particular salan I tried recently was Phalli ka Salan, which is just a green bean curry with tomatoes and chicken. What I learned about Indian cooking is that it’s all about your spice mix, and cooking the salan down until a “gravy” is formed and all the individual flavors become indistinguishable, forming a unique taste. Here are the proportions I used:

1 lb chicken breast, cut into medium sized pieces
4 Tbsp oil (I used vegetable oil)
2–3 green chili, chopped (I use Serrano peppers because of their ease of access in Austin, but go for your favorite spicy pepper!) 
2 onions, diced
2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (I make a ton of this and keep it in the fridge to use whenever, it’s great in more than just Indian food)
2 tbsp yogurt

1–2 tsp turmeric
1 whole tomatoes, chopped

1 lb fresh green beans (Using frozen would make this too soupy, not to mention the fresh bite is everything!)
3 whole dry red chili 
2 tsp coriander
2 green cardamom pods
1 inch stick cinnamon
2 cloves
1 Tbsp cilantro, chopped (I eyeball this more or less, but it’s about a tablespoon, have extra for topping)
salt to taste

Your first task is to toast your dry spices. Take the dry chilies, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom and dry roast them on the stove top until they’re fragrant. (It should smell like their baking). Then set them aside to cool, which is important if you don’t want your spice mix to be cakey. Once cooled, drop them into a mortar and and pestle, and use those arm muscles to pulverize everything! I then sprinkle in the coriander and mix it all together. Set aside.

Cut up your chicken, I was able to use about one breast, into healthy bites and dust with turmeric. Then mix it with the yogurt, and you could even drip some lime juice over tip if you’re into the extra sour flavor! Cover and set aside for at least a half hour. Turmeric is a natural tenderizer and the yogurt will get soaked up and slighting thinned out, adding to the overall gravy when you add to the pan later.

*You could sub the yogurt out with half-n-half in a pinch, just ensure that you’re not creating a chicken-turmeric latte

Next, heat up a big frying pan or iron skillet on medium-high heat. Add in your oil and just before it starts smoking, throw in your onions. (They should make loud popping and sizzling noises). Once they’ve sweat out a little and are slightly translucent, throw in the green chilies. Once your eyes start burning from all the fumes, you’re ready to add in your garlic-ginger paste. Cook that until the “raw smell” of ginger is gone. Everything should smell like one distinct, spicy, bunch. Once that’s done, you add each item in one at a time, sprinkle your spice mix, then top with just enough water to cover everything. Rather than just write it all out, here’s everything in photos:

From onions to water “topping”, cooking this salan (and any salan really), is all about when you add things to the pan and how they smell before moving on!

I neglected to take an “after” picture because we just dug right in! You know when this dish is done when the oil starts to pull from the edges and form a ring around the simmering salan, and the gravy is slightly thickened. As I cook more Indian food, I feel closer to my husband’s, a woman I’ll never get the chance to meet. I only hope that I can replicate some of the happiness she brought people as I keeping making my salans!

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