My Crash Course in Indian Cooking and a Recipe for Naan
Nothing can lure me out of a funk faster than planning a party. And not just any party. This particular mood improver was a celebration of Indian foods, which I love, and, more importantly, it was the first official cooking party for my fledgling company Conscious Crumbs. But there was an obstacle and it was a big one–my experience with Indian cooking was, err, um, well, limited, and teaching people to do things that I don’t know how to do wasn’t part of my business plan.
For years, I’ve been plodding my way through Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking and Madhur Jaffrey’s Simple Indian Cookery. A flaky but sad little paratha here, a chickpea curry there, the meals were good, but they paled in comparison to the delicious Indian cuisine I can easily find in Chicago. Yet with every saag paneer (greens with cheese) I ordered at my favorite Indian spot on Devon, I vowed that one day I’d be able to make authentic Indian food at home. So I let my “yes, I’ll do it” fly before my gremlins could start talking. Besides, I had a month to prepare.
Sahni’s recipes for braised meats and curries are solid though they often call for more oil than I like to use in my cooking. I was confident that I could adapt her recipes using less oil, but the samosas and the naan bread that I’d so eagerly suggested should be on the party menu (along with lamb korma, egg curry, and saag paneer) stopped me in my tracks. Both foods are technique intensive and require special equipment. When I’m faced with an intimidating to-do list that reads something like “learn how to make awesome naan bread and perfectly crisp, flavorful samosas,” Greg is quick to remind me to “eat the biggest toad first.” I considered the characteristic triangular shape of the samosa. It was a far cry from the pierogi and ravioli that I could make with ease. On shape alone, I chose the samosa as the biggest toad.
Though my Indian cooking experience was about 9,985 hours short of meeting Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, my experience in eating Indian food was considerable. My thorough research taught me that the key to a good samosa is a crispy, not-too-greasy crust. I lost hours in front of my computer watching videos of chefs and home cooks making samosas (my favorite samosa video). Two dough recipes, three potato filling recipes, and a new deep-fryer later, I was finally ready for my next toad: the naan.
Making naan dough is a lot like making pizza dough–a little leavening, some flour and water, and a bit of kneading. Baking naan, however, is nothing at all like making a pizza. Traditional naan is baked in a 900°F tandoor oven, but at a cost of $600-$1000 for a domestic version, I had to draw the line on my equipment investment at the deep-fryer. Then I discovered that Julie Sahni didn’t include a recipe for naan in Classic Indian Cooking, because she considers it the kind of bread that’s easier to buy than make. Maybe the samosa wasn’t my biggest toad after all.
First I had to find a reliable recipe for the dough, which wasn’t the straightforward task I’d hoped it would be after Julie let me down. Many recipes are leavened with baking powder, while others rely on yeast. I tried both, again, and again. The yeast recipes require a longer lead time, but all resulted in softer, chewier breads than those made with the baking powder. The information for cooking techniques varied even more than the recipe ingredients–oven, stove top, baking sheet, pizza stone, open flame, skillet, lid on, lid off. Oh my! I went through ten pounds of flour and countless more YouTube videos (my favorite naan video) before I arrived at the recipe and technique below, which will produce the next best thing to naan fresh from the tandoor.
The party was a success. Was it the naan? Or the crispy samosas? Was it the egg curry? Or was it having the kitchen filled with vibrant women and laughter that made it a night we wouldn’t soon forget?
Adapted from the recipe at Manjula’s Kitchen.
2 cups of all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for rolling
1 teaspoon instant yeast (Use more if a shorter rise is desired.)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
pinch of baking soda
2 tablespoons of oil
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
2/3 cup warm water
Optional mix-ins: cumin seeds, fennel seeds, onion seeds, chopped fresh garlic, fresh coriander
melted butter or ghee to finish the naan
- In a large bowl whisk together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and baking soda. Add the oil and yogurt and mix with your hands until a crumbly dough forms. Add enough water to make a soft dough that’s not sticky. If the dough is too dry add additional water a tablespoon at a time. Knead the dough until smooth and satiny, about 3-5 minutes. Cover and keep in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 3-4 hours.
- Knead the dough for 2 minutes and divide into 6 equal parts. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes.
- Take each piece of dough, one at a time, and roll into an 8-inch circle or oval shape. Lightly dust your rolling surface with flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking. If using, sprinkle the mix-ins on top and roll gently one last time, so that they stick to the surface.
- Warm a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until it’s nearly smoking. Gently lay the naan in the hot skillet. The dough will start to bubble after a minute. It should be blistered and somewhat blackened in spots. Flip the naan. Cook for about 30 seconds more. If the naan doesn’t bubble and brown after 90 seconds, the skillet may not be hot enough or the dough may be too thick.
- Remove the naan from the skillet, brush with melted butter or ghee and sprinkle with a little coarse sea salt. Place it on a plate and cover with foil. Repeat with the rest of the naans and serve.
Makes 6 naans.