I started Big Apple Curry to show people how to make authentic Indian food at home, based on how I taught my husband Sean to do so using my tried and tested “Indian Cooking 101” method. I also started this blog to help elevate the perception of Indian cuisine. For many people, Indian cuisine isn’t often synonymous with an elegant dining experience, especially when compared to, say, French or Japanese cuisine. But the fact is, Indian food can be elegant if it’s done right. Nowadays, you can even find upscale Indian restaurants that have earned a Michelin star or two. And Indian cuisine can be an elegant dining experience in your own home, one that your guests will not soon forget. So pull out your crystal and fine china, invest in some nice white wine or craft beer, follow the three simple steps below, and wow your family and friends.
A Special Evening
Recently, my friends Jarek, Akanksha, and Karthik were visiting New York City from Poland and India, and I wanted to fete them with a homemade Indian feast. But because their visit was a special one, I also wanted to do so in style. I decided to treat them to my best upscale Indian dinner experience. Given that the evening was a huge success, it also seemed like the perfect opportunity to share some tips with you about how to host your own elegant Indian dinner. Here’s what I did:
Step 1: Design a successful menu
Designing the right menu is key. Especially if your life is super busy. If you make too few dishes it doesn’t really hold up to the definition of an elegant Indian dinner, and if you make too many dishes you will find yourself pulling your hair out before the first appetizers are even served. Also, since I’m a full-time working mom, I had one day to cook everything and then host the dinner that same evening. I imagine most of you will be time-pressed as well.
I knew I had to pick dishes that were complex, bursting with flavor, and would compliment one another well. You don’t want dishes that are too similar in look, taste and texture. I decided I would offer a couple of appetizers and three main dishes: My achari-style Chicken with 40 Garlic Cloves gently stews tender chicken thighs with spices like black cumin, whole cinnamon stick, yogurt, and tomatoes and is fragrant but mild. I knew the sharpness of my nigella seed-spiked smoky eggplant slow-cooked with onions, turmeric, and tomatoes would be the perfect foil to the milder chicken dish. Grass-fed ground lamb kebabs dotted with fresh scallions, mint, cilantro, ginger, and garlic and topped with tamarind sauce and mint chutney completed the trio. Because these three main courses pack a powerful punch, I made a simple steamed basmati rice with sweet garden peas and cumin seeds and ordered plain naan — the perfect canvas for the main dishes. Finally, a drizzle of a creamy yogurt raita would bring all the elements of the plate together. With all this in mind, here is the menu I designed:
Menu for Jarek, Akanksha, and Karthik
Harlem ~ March 2015
Appetizers served @ 7:00 p.m.
Vegetable & Chicken Samosas
Main Courses served @ 8:15 p.m.
Tamarind Sauce & Mint Chutney
Step 2: Pull out a couple of good tricks
There’s no getting around it: to make this an elegant meal, the recipes had to be complex and well-executed. I chose what I call “Indian Cooking 401” level recipes that I would make from scratch — absolutely no shortcuts on the main dishes. These are not quick weeknight recipes or 30 minute dinner savers, but rather, these recipes require a trip to the Indian grocer for specialty spices and herbs, and you need to budget enough time to prep and cook. So this brings us to our second step: to make all this possible, you need to rely on a couple of good tricks:
- Outsource certain menu items. To give myself the time and space to make the main dishes well, I outsourced the appetizers and accompaniments. It doesn’t work to outsource the main dishes themselves, because frankly, that would simply mean ordering Indian take-out and putting it on fine china, and that’s not the goal here. The key is to pick items that will create a seamless menu. I picked a couple of appetizers, naan, and raita from a good Indian restaurant nearby. Yes, it will cost you a bit of money, but this way you remove the pressure to prepare everything from scratch. Moreover, you get to rely on good quality restaurant appetizers and flatbreads, both of which are quite difficult to pull off at home (what do you mean, you don’t have a tandoori oven in your apartment?). Even in India, most families skip making samosas at home and just pick them up from their favorite shop instead.
- Use different cooking approaches for each main course to lighten your workload. My guests were arriving at 7pm, so I began cooking at 11am and finished a bulk of the work by about 2pm. First up, I made the Chicken with 40 Garlic Gloves in a large Dutch oven on the stove. As soon as it cooled down, I covered it tightly with a lid and stuck it in the fridge. Next, I made the Smoky Eggplant with Spices (Baingan Burtha). As soon as I reached the point where I added the freshly cut eggplant, I poured everything into my slow cooker insert and set it on LOW for 8 hours. Other than stirring it occasionally and mashing up the eggplant until it was caramelized and silky, I didn’t have to worry about it until I was just about to serve it. Genius. I love the slow cooker. Next, I marinated ground lamb with fresh herbs and spices for my kebabs. I formed the mixture into small patties, put them into a glass bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge next to the chicken. I would make the Basmati Rice with Sweet Green Peas and Cumin about 30 minutes before asking my guests to sit down so it would be piping hot, and cook off the kebabs 15 minutes before serving.
Step 3: Get the logistics right
When you’re both the cook and the host, getting the logistics right can be your secret weapon. Everything becomes more efficient and stress-free when your approach to cooking and hosting is well-planned and well-executed. After all, you want to enjoy the evening too, right? Here are a few tips:
- Save time by setting your dining table early. Hosting an elegant Indian dinner party at home is a great opportunity to use your fanciest dinnerware. As soon as I finished making the chicken and eggplant courses, I took my time setting the dining table so I wouldn’t have to rush and do it later. Table setting tip: if you have a china creamer or gravy boat, use it to serve raita or a chutney like tamarind sauce.
- Get the timing right between serving appetizers and dinner. When my guests arrived, I served the samosas and onion bhajia in the living room. The good thing about these appetizers is you can order them hours in advance and they can be served at room temperature–you really don’t have to serve them hot. Two tips here on timing: i) Indian appetizers like samosas, pakoras, and bhajia are filling, so if you serve them around 7pm they will keep your guests content for upwards of one hour; and ii) if you have young children you can put them to bed at 8pm and serve dinner immediately afterwards, which is exactly what I did (if you don’t have young children, build in a nice cocktail/drink period after the appetizers to help stoke your guests’ appetite again). Once we were 30 minutes from asking my guests to sit down, I preheated the oven to 350F and stuck the Dutch oven of chicken inside and then made the Basmati Rice with Sweet Green Peas and Cumin on the stovetop. As soon as the rice was simmering, I heated a large non-stick skillet to make the Lamb kebabs, which took about 15 min. Et voila! Dinner was served at 8:15 p.m.
- Ask one of your guests to help. I learned this the hard way. When I first started cooking and hosting dinner parties as a single lady, I mistakenly thought I had to do everything myself. People love to help, so ask one of your guests to open bottles of wine and keep the glasses filled so you can attend to other things. If your guests are anything like mine, they always ask if they can help anyway.
- Plate each guest’s dinner plate individually in the kitchen. Because I live in a small New York City apartment, space is limited. I can’t use my dining table at its fullest size, which means I can’t lay out all the dishes on my table and still keep things elegant. What I suggest is putting the naan, basmati rice, and raita on the table to be passed around family style, but plate the dinner plates individually in the kitchen. Take your time and approach each plate setting like a painting, carefully distributing an even amount of each dish on the plate. Top it with a bit of finely chopped fresh cilantro before serving. This way, your guests can clearly see each dish (in this case, chicken, lamb, and eggplant) and take their own rice, naan, and raita in the course of eating the meal. This keeps your presentation much cleaner and your table will look elegant throughout dinner.
Most important of all–enjoy yourself! Give it a whirl, try hosting your own elegant Indian dinner party at home and let me know how it goes. I’ll be waiting to hear from you, just post a comment below!