Spice of Culinary Life

Indian spices offer versatility for foodservice operators.

Chicken Tandoori from NJIT.

Indian spices— cumin, cinnamon,  coriander, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, saffron, tamarind and capsicum—have been the motivation for travel, exploration, trade, war and poetic dissertation since the beginning of civilization. The lure of exotic aromas and flavors inspired the likes of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus to travel thousands of miles through uncharted waters to seek out these building blocks of Indian cuisine.

“Indian is all about seasonings and the additional advantages of spices,” says Norbert Bomm, corporate executive chef for Morrison Management Specialists, based in Atlanta.

Indian spices include the familiar: cumin, cinnamon, basil, thyme, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, caraway, dill, mustard and a multitude of peppers; as well as the more exotic: turmeric, cardamom, saffron, tamarind and capsicum.

At the Pocono Medical Center, East Stroudsburg, Pa., the foodservice department recently staged an India Day, where the featured dishes were vindaloo, biryani and a vegetable curry.

“We made the vindaloo with chicken, cider vinegar, garlic, dried peppers, cumin, cloves, ginger, anise, peppercorn and poppy seeds,” explains Heidi Franssen, foodservice director for Metz Culinary Management at the hospital. “The vegetable curry was like a casserole with chickpeas, potatoes, turmeric, coriander, green chilies, cumin and onion. With the vegetables and potatoes together, that was a hearty dish.”

The biryani, she adds, was made with basmati rice, veggies, tomatoes, garam masala, white wine vinegar, ginger paste, cilantro, yogurt, cardamom and dried mint. (Masala is a blend of spices and seasonings ground together to form the basis for sauces.)

In addition to providing Metz with another ethnicity to feature, Indian cuisine also helps operators satisfy the growing desire for vegetarian dishes.

“The mainstream population is now looking for more variety in their vegetarian options,” says Franssen. “Indian food offers a lot, not only a variety of choices, but it’s also affordable, and you can always add chicken or pork.”

Peter Fischbach, regional director of culinary development for Madison, N.J.-based Gourmet Dining Services and director of dining services at New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, says the diversity and versatility of Indian spices makes them valuable commodities.

“We feature more of the Southern Indian cuisine [at NJIT], which tends to lead toward the brighter, crispier depths of flavor, using more citrus, yogurt and cilantro.”

One popular dish, according to Fischbach, is ginger lemon chicken with cardamom cilantro yogurt.

“We marinate the chicken for about 45 minutes in yogurt, cumin, masala, chili powder, fresh ginger, salt and lemon,” he says. “The yogurt has a probiotic enzyme that breaks down the protein without drying it out. It injects fat and flavor while tenderizing the meat by breaking down the fiber. We wipe it down before we grill it and serve it with raita.”

Raita is a condiment, similar to Greek tzatziki, made of yogurt and used as a sauce or dip.

At the University of Texas in Austin, the foodservice department has found that Indian spices blend well with the Southwest cuisine of the region.

“We’re all very familiar around here with cumin, garlic, coriander and chili peppers,” says Robert Mayberry, executive chef for campus housing. “We make paneer cheese, kheer pudding and raita, along with many different varieties of curries.”

Paneer is a lacto-vegetarian curd cheese made by curdling milk with lemon. Kheer is an Indian rice pudding cooked with milk and sugar and flavored with nuts and saffron.

“We also make a lentil soup called dhal,” says Mayberry. “It can be a soup or a side dish. We simmer the lentils with turmeric, then we sauté onions with spices, garlic, peppers and herbs.”

At Holy Cross Hospital, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., curry dishes are growing in popularity, according to Executive Chef Dan Hendon.

“We make curry chicken soup with coconut milk, turmeric, peppers, onions and carrots, with a fish sauce and a curry powder that I buy,” Hendon says. “I also get a red curry paste that gives a nice boost. It’s a nice head start for mango chutney. They love that stuff, especially with the bone-in chicken.”

The small contingent of Indian employees at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago appreciate the treatment the foodservice department gave their home cuisine recently.

“Our authentic dishes went over extremely well, and we were actually commended on the presentation and taste,” says Harriet Varnado, food service supervisor. “The Indian-inspired menu included curried lentils with basmati rice. For the lentils, we added cardamom, cumin, allspice, tomatoes and potatoes.”

At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., a seldom-seen dish called eggplant salmon is popular.

“The eggplant is roasted and the salmon is grilled,” explains Kitchen Manager Rashmi Nath, R.D. “A chili sauce is made with oil, onion, coriander, cumin and diced tomato. When the dish is assembled, the eggplant is placed on the bottom, followed by the salmon and fresh mango slices, then topped with fresh coriander and the chili sauce. This is a dry dish. Most Indian dishes are wet.”