Last night I discovered a beautiful way to fuse some elements of Indian cooking with some elements of Japanese cooking for an easy, delectable simmer sauce that’s rich with complex flavor. This dish is flexible enough that you can adapt it in countless ways. You might have other vegetables on hand, or you might want to adjust the seasoning to complement the flavors of the other things you’re serving at your meal. Or you you might just want to suit your mood.
In the sauce, I simmered paneer, the Indian cottage cheese I wrote about elsewhere, and a type of squash called Yugoslavian finger fruit that we grew this summer. It has a flavor more pronounced than yellow squash, and sweeter than zucchini, and a texture more meaty and substantial than either. Will grow again! We sliced up and froze gallons of it, so that when we cook we can just pour some into the pan or pot.
Some of the ingredients are common to both Indian and Japanese cooking, like turmeric and cumin. But overall, I guess it’s a fusion dish, because I borrowed treatments from each.
The first Indian cooking trick I used is toasting whole spices for several seconds in a hot, dry skillet. You do this before adding any oil or anything else to the pan. In this simmer sauce, I toasted whole cumin seeds before adding coconut oil, which then fried it. That way I got a deep toasty flavor from the cumin that no amount of cooking could achieve, had I added it afterwards.
The second Indian cooking trick is adding the same seasoning at different times during the preparation of a dish, but giving different treatments. In this case, I started with whole cumin seeds, and later added cumin powder in the simmer. In this way, you unlock different aspects of the cumin seed and build more a complex taste profile.
This simmer sauce dish leverages that technique in a very simple way, but it can get more elaborate. Way more. Some Indian dishes layer myriad flavor variations through extensive combinations of several spices and seasonings added at different stages and treated different ways: whole, mashed, ground, grated; toasted, fried, simmered, raw.
I learned about these methods from the cookbooks of the incomparable Madhur Jaffrey. She puts the spotlight on some of the most distinctive techniques that are found only in Indian cooking, so far as she has been able to determine. In my experience, these are nearly always left out of recipes for Indian food presented by and for Westerners. But many are are so simple, and add so much to your dish.
Jaffrey has written many Indian cookbooks for the non-Indian who wants to explore this ancient cuisine. Reading through her books is so much fun. She doesn’t just provide recipes; she tells stories about the foods she loved to eat growing up. She gives a sense of how Indian cookery developed over thousands of years into a broad-ranging set of interrelated techniques and tastes.
These two methods in particular are so simple, and can add so much to a dish. I encourage you to add them to your go-to mental kit of things to do when you’re cooking, and see what you can invent. To recap, they are:
- Toasting whole spices in the hot, dry pan.
- Layering flavors by adding the same seasonings in different forms, and at different stages of cooking.
Sweet white miso is a type of flavorful soup base traditionally made from aging grains and beans with salt. It’s like a pickle, but instead of cucumbers or other veggies, the main ingredients are a mash of grains and beans. The most common type is probably mugi miso, a dark brown paste made with a classic pairing of barley and soybeans. Most misos also include sea vegetables, which are rich with iodine and other minerals.
Sweet white miso is mainly rice and soybeans. It has a delicate, rich flavor. It’s blond compared to the dark brown mugi miso.
Miso is the bit I borrowed from traditional Japanese cooking. It came to me via Macrobiotics, which I was deep into many years ago. That includes the proper method for cooking it and retaining the probiotic benefit.
One of the best contributions of the Macrobiotics movement to the world, in my opinion, is that it rescued many ancient Asian foodways from oblivion. At least in the U.S., the only way to get several traditionally prepared artisan products is by getting them from American companies that were influenced directly or indirectly from by them.
For instance, if you want the fermented foods rich with probiotics and that are prepared and aged using the traditional ingredients and methods, you can get them from health food stores. Or you can order them online. But in my sad experience, you can’t get them from Asian grocery stores. There, I’ve only been able to find facsimiles of the traditional foods. Instead of rich umami flavor developed over time by aging specially prepared soybeans, it will be added in the form of hydrolyzed soy protein. High-tech industrial methods have replaced traditional methods. MSG — monosodium glutamate — has replaced the far subtler effect of the glutamates that occur naturally in seaweed. Chemically identical, but somehow (maybe because there’s just less of it?) different in taste and effect. The end products don’t taste the same. They don’t have that nourishing quality you can feel in your bones when you partake. By now, multiple generations have been raised on these versions of the traditional item. Just like in the West, younger people don’t have the reference point of what Grandma’s cooking tasted like; we don’t know what we’re missing.
Miso is one of those foods. You can find lots of miso brands, but read the ingredients carefully. Be sure to only get brands like South River, Oshawa, and Eden, which inoculate this traditional fermented probiotic food with koji. These brands also produce their misos through slow cooking and the proper aging periods. The miso they sell are rich with active probiotics.
The sweet white miso I used is from South River Miso, which claims it’s the one that’s unpasteurized, certified organic, and “entirely handcrafted in the centuries-old Japanese farmhouse tradition.”
Because miso is a living food, like good yogurt and other probiotic foods, be gentle with it so that you don’t cook the microorganisms to death. Traditional recipes call for adding miso at the very end of cooking and heating it only “until the first bubble” — no more! Maybe it’s my imagination, but when I’ve let it go beyond that, there’s something missing in the flavor.
To get miso mixed in properly, you need to stir it with a bit of broth or water, and then add it to the rest of the dish. Otherwise it might stay clumpy.
Miso is salty! Remember, it’s essentially a pickle. One trick to using it: the dish should taste like it is desperately in need of salt right up until the end — which is when you add the miso.
It’s easy use miso in your cooking; it just takes a little attention.
Veggies and paneer in sweet white miso simmer sauce
- Pinch of whole cumin seed (maybe 20 or so)
- 1/4 cup coconut oil (eyeballing the amount is OK)
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 cup kefir, whole milk if possible
- 1 ounce (or an unmeasured handful) cubed paneer (Indian cottage cheese) (optional)
- 2 cups sliced veggies, fresh or frozen (broccoli, cauliflower, winter or summer squash, etc.)
- 1/2 cup water, boiling
- 1 heaping tablespoon sweet white miso
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat until a drop of water that you flick into sizzles.
- Add the whole cumin and let it toast for about a half minute, or until it’s lightly fragrant. You can stir it around in the pan if you wish. Don’t let it burn!
- Add the coconut oil.
- Add the onions. Stir and fry until they break down and become golden brown, about five minutes. (You could let them get very, very brown and soft; that’s another Indian cooking option that’s delicious — but it takes several minutes longer)
- Add the garlic and turmeric. Stir and fry another two or three minutes.
- Stir in the kefir, ground cumin, and coriander. Let simmer for a minute or so.
- Stir in the paneer and veggies.
- Turn down the heat to medium-low and cover.
- Let simmer for anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes. As soon as the veggies are softened, you can move to the next step. But if you like, you can let the flavor develop longer. Just check in case you need to add a little water so it doesn’t scorch.
- Meantime, add the miso and boiling water to a mug. Stir it together, mashing the miso against the mug to break up any lumps.
- When you’re ready to serve, stir the miso-water mixture into the veggies.
- Heat just until you see bubbles. Remove from heat.