Cooking by color

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When I was first learning to cook Indian food, it was all very mysterious to me. I hadn’t heard of most of the spices, much less tasted them often enough to know what they were supposed to taste like.

My in-laws were very patient with me, and I learned mostly by watching them cook and asking questions. I wrote down each “recipe” on little slips of paper and referred to them until I had produced a dish that I (and my very patient husband) was happy with.

However, my in-laws do not measure ingredients, and as a certified recipe-follower, I had trouble knowing how much of each spice to put in the pot. I finally asked about this one day, and my father-in-law said, “You know it’s right if it is the right color.” Huh?

This was completely counter-intuitive and I didn’t know what to do with this information. What do you mean you don’t know how much masala to put in? But, I found that as I continued to experiment and practice the “recipes” (and I use that term very loosely), I began to see a consistent color emerge. I even managed (sometimes) to make something that looked and tasted similar to their cooking!

One day, I was making lamb curry, and it just didn’t look right. Perhaps I had more lamb than usual, so my usual measurements were not working. So now what? I had no idea what to do to correct it, so I called my father-in-law to ask for help. He asked what I had already added and what it looked like. I described a light brown-colored sauce. He said to add more masala and see if that helped. Tada! Delicious lamb curry!

Now I know that if I am making meat dishes, I look first and then taste; often, I know by looking that it needs more of something. Vegetable dishes can be trickier, and this tip only works with some of them, such as kadoo and aloo baigan. It is amusing to me, though, that the more I cook Indian food, the less I rely on “recipes” and the more I rely on my senses to tell me that something is cooked correctly.

I now cook by color (and taste) and never measure my spices, so I will apologize for all future recipes that may be ambiguous about measurements. I hope that you will learn to cook by color as well, which is really cooking from the heart and relying on your past food experiences to guide your present creations. Happy cooking!
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