Indian Food

Perhaps the most interesting thing I ate before attending college was a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s. I grew up in the central parts of Kentucky and the southern parts of Indiana. I’m not saying food wasn’t good in my life, just that from a global perspective it certainly wasn’t topping the list of foodie “must-go-to” places. We had a rotation at home, taco night, lasagna night (sides of the dish hardened, and topped with some mini sausage that tasted like a hotdog), pizza night and so on. Sometimes my dad would make chili, and that was good. My grandparents on his side did a lot of farming, and we always had fresh meat, veggies, and succulent desserts, but there wasn’t much in the way of variety a spice or flavor. Mexican, Chinese, and Italian food, at least in their Americana variety, were regular features. However, there was really nothing that made me any more excited then a good slice of pizza, or a burger or something else in a fairly plain variety. When Wendy’s came to my small hometown in Kentucky, there was a line of cars down the street for about a week. Never mind the fact that we had other fast food joints in town, it was still a big hit. It was new, it was different-ish, and now it was close. And for my group of friends, we had never so consistently desired a spicy product over a non-spicy one like that before. It held our attention, and captured our imagination. It was different and it was also more, more flavor, not just more content, but better content. We were in high school. Life was simple, like a fast food menu.

This group of friends I would usually go to Wendy’s with, they were friends from my youth group at church. And while we were discovering the wonders of regularly adding spice to our culinary experience we were also in the process of engaging the complexities of life with our faith. We had grown up attending Sunday school and learning a children’s version of all the great narratives contained in the Bible. How Adam and Eve came to wear clothes. How Noah had a floating zoo. How the old geezer Abraham still managed to crank out a family line. Moses the white wizard and his magical staff. The Game of Judges. The horny David, who had a heart for God but a libido for something else, contain thyself bro. And a generic mass of prophets who had tripped out visions, and hard lives, and seemed angry and harsh. Then of course Jesus and the 12 dwarves, followed by the odyssey of a man named Paul, followed then by Kirk Cameron and the end of time. I’m poking a bit of fun to highlight that we were in the process of taking what we had been taught as kids, in a kid like fashion, and applying it to adulthood in a teenager like fashion as we engaged what we were learning from and about the world around us from school, TV, the internet, and our friends. To be honest, we weren’t always sure how it fit. We knew it probably could, somehow, but more often than not at youth group we were more or less encouraged in a method of not engaging when we were confused. If a new idea might be poisonous, we were told to avoid, and that avoidance was holy, and mature, and growth in our faith, and it was the method by which one would add any complexity available to our simple faith as we aged. In answer to what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, our answer was largely… nothing. Faith was simple.

My mouth had never experienced anything that had coated it in flavor that was simultaneously peak pleasure and peak painful before, but as the plastic spoon exited my lips, having delivered a mere few grams of tomato pickle-infused-basmati white rice, my entire being went into a reaction. I wanted it to last, I wanted it to end, I had questions, and yet had also received some answers. All I knew is that I needed water, and I needed to do it again, whatever I had just done. But please notice my choice of the word “coated.” Less the idea of covering (covering your mouth is a different idea), but coating, filling, anointing, removing all other sensations with itself, the way fresh flowers fill a room, the way love fills the heart, the way a fire dispels the cold, and the way the Holy Spirit fills the soul. I had never encountered food to this effect. All other food became irrelevant. What was this concoction, why was it called pickle, why did so little of it cause such a magical experience? It was my freshman year of college, and the one Indian student who attended our tiny follicle in the Devil’s armpit of eastern Kentucky had received a package from his mom. He made some fragrant, long grain, white basmati rice, and added a mere dollop of this red lava called tomato pickle to a styrofoam bowl of the rice. I later learned that “pickle” was used to capture the idea that this was highly preserved, “pickled” in that sense, but really in no other sense familiar to the western hearer of said term. It was indeed a highly concentrated version of a spice saturated tomato curry. Oily, spicy, packed with flavor. Years later I would behold my friend’s mother making this in our kitchen where we lived while going to seminary. Tons of tomatoes, whole spices, powdered spices, and chilies, chilies, chilies, praise the good Lord, chilies, cooked down to a paste and then canned (pickled) for use as a side dish or a snack mixed lightly with rice. She had shipped it from India, and God in his good grace, had blinded all customs agents such that it had arrived in our small eastern Kentucky abode. The shadows of the Appalachian mountains may have protected us from the rays of the sun, but nothing could protect us from the fire of tomato pickle, and for that we were thankful. I ran down the hall of our dorm to the water fountain. I shielded my face from those I encountered on the path, for I like Moses coming off of Mount Sinai, was radiating the Shekinah glory of God, and was too bright to gaze upon. As I drank the water, the thought entered my mind, I had been impressed with spicy chicken from Wendy’s all the while this flavor was available. I would go on to discover many of the wonders of global cuisine and rediscover much of what makes my own native food magical in it’s own way. But something forever changed in that season of life. Life was no longer simple, but something complex that I must simplify through hard work and discipline. One of the ways I learned this was by learning all the building blocks of Indian cooking, a very complex thing. Years later I would be cooking for my family as they visited me in Washington state before my wife and I moved to Korea. I was making them curry at the request of my sisters. I was cooking in their rental cabin overlooking the Bellingham Bay and as time passed my dad looked at me and commented on how I had been cooking and talking to them for two hours and the meal was still not ready. I honestly hadn’t even thought about it. I was going off instinct, and it felt effortless and simple, like breathing. However, I had used more than a dozen spices, near a dozen other ingredients, all added at different times to achieve specific aromatic and/or flavor goals for the dish. In the end it sat there, as simple as a pot of water, but with all the complexity of a culinary heritage of thousands of years of innovation and iteration.

By the end of Bible College I mostly felt beat up and wounded, spiritually and emotionally. I had learned from some fantastic mentors and professors, enough to know that the God I had learned about as a kid was real, and in fact, profoundly true and great. I also learned the Bible I had grown up studying was a document that could encounter me at my weakest point and it could lift me up, and at my most probing and skeptical and stand up. I had learned in community with other genuine followers of Jesus but also through private prayer, and the means by which God will speak to and train someone individually. I was grateful for this, but there were still many lurking problems for me integrating this faith with the world around me. Connecting the dots you might say, between the secular and the sacred, finding the contours of theological realities in my church life and making sense of them in light of science, culture, and how I was supposed to not only live in the world, but challenge it, even dare to change it, when I had seen it do so much to change those in my church life. It wasn’t clear to me how to, in practice, authoritatively encounter the world knowing what to condone or condemn, how to tell the truth in love, because I had witnessed so much compromise and inconsistency and I knew I too would be prone to simply hide behind false religion and I couldn’t accept that. At my graduation party an old man who had supported my Indian friend and his family came to celebrate with us. He was a professor at a small seminary and he inquired about the details of our education. By the time I finished he stopped and then began to expound on the theological method we had been instructed with, and then shared his own, using the entire scope of scripture and systematic categories of doctrine, and appealing here and there to relevant case studies from church history, even locating our school’s faith tradition in that narrative in a way our school had failed to do. Many Christian traditions have Sunday school for children like mine did. However, some of them are more intentional and somewhat formal, and this school is called catechesis, which trains the young and new believers in all the essentials of the faith, both the content and the meaning. As I sat there I realized I had been taught but not catechized, and many of those serious about their faith in low church traditions seek out formal theological education, not because they are called to formal ministry, but because they were never catechized. They had the meal of their faith, but something was missing. We didn’t know what any of the ingredients were. We didn’t know how to reproduce it. We had a fast food version of a faith that had thousands of years of heritage, depth, innovation and iteration. A year from this moment I would visit India, and when I saw the children eating their local cuisine I remember thinking, I’m so jealous, I only started when I was 18 and you’ll be eating the best food on earth from the time you’re a baby. We had catered our party using our favorite Indian restaurant in West Virginia, (that’s right, an Indian restaurant in West Virginia), and as I sat there eating it listening to him I thought, this is like the first time I’m actually tasting the complexity of my faith, and I had questions, but I had also received some answers. All I knew is that I needed more, and we all went to study under that professor and many other mentors, and now we’re scattered in ministry around the world making curry and teaching the Bible to this day.

EPILOGUE: There is and will always be much discussion on the best way to teach the Christian faith and disciple each other to follow Jesus in the world we live in. My big idea here is that simplicity of content is not the answer, even while simplicity of delivery might be. In both East and West there is a move away from the complexities of the mind, and away from theological discipline, in favor of and often exclusively to more solely experiential expressions of faith. I see this killing my students and others in my life who are laboring under similar convictions at the moment. No one school, or church, or book, or professor is going to nail this down. However, I do believe there are those doing it better than others. I think theological discipline happens at various levels and to different degrees depending on an individual’s calling and context. But the Bible itself presents a deep well of content to draw from, and encourages a simple life of virtuous discipline from which to engage and fully embrace the depths and complexities of God in our otherwise simple spiritual journeys. I’ve been reading through various confessions of faith from church history as I revise and update my Bible curriculum, and studying the historic backgrounds. These confessions are deep, and designed to take around a year for the young or for new believers to process. There is much more that can and should be learned than what is contained in any one faith statement, or catechism, or confessional document, but it is a suitable starting place and foundation. To deny this is a great disservice, and an illusion really, because while accepting the Christian faith can happen quite simply for many, that initial encounter can in no way encompass it’s depth. Who among us who truly loves something wants less of it? Wants it simplified to the point of infantile milk? One of the great heresies of Indian cooking is “curry powder.” It was created when the British East India Trading Company threw a bunch of spices into one barrel to ship back to England and is itself not a real thing, but a dumbing down of many great things. Western faith has attempted to create a “curry powder” out of the great ingredients of the Christian faith, and the youth and the new believers aren’t being taught how to make it their own, but just to consume it, and to do so with blander flavor. Many are spitting it out. Obviously I have found a preferred metaphor for talking about these issues of faith in the realities of Indian cooking. My Indian friend is from Hyderabad so it serves as a symbolic stand-in for everything I have learned about the cuisine of the great and diverse country of India. Just more than a century after Christ an early church father posed a question that I find sad, though I respect this historic figure on many other counts. Tertullian asked “what Athens has to do with Jerusalem” in a book he was writing against heretics. For such an early intellectual figure, this is a surprisingly anti-intellectual statement. He’s asking what human philosophy has to do with religious doctrines. Paul in Acts 17 in his encounters with philosophers in Athens seems to set a more proper foundation for engaging such an issue. I find that many are still putting up such fearful borders to Christian engagement with complexities presented from the world because there are those, and always will be, who compromise. I understand the dilemma, as it’s all to real as a Bible teacher at a school accredited by a Korean government that doesn’t much care for religious education. But is a full retreat called for, or something else? So for myself, I’ve changed the question and the answer just a bit. What does Hyderabad have to do with Jerusalem? For me…..a great deal. Faith is complex, like a curry.

Julienne cut onions, minced garlic, dried red chilis, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and curry leaves.

Julienne cut onions, minced garlic, dried red chilies,  cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and curry leaves.

Having no formal culinary training of any kind, the early years of my curry making were overwhelmingly haphazard. I learned how to peel and chop onions and garlic quickly, get them to soften, and then starting adding as much Indian chili powder to the dish as possible while tossing bits of salt, curry powder (which I never use now), garam masala and whatever main ingredient I was using at the time, finishing with cilantro. I love spicy food, but at the time my goal was to make it so hot that nobody else would eat it and I could have it all to myself. That ended when an Indian friend of mine who was a nutritionist told me that I would develop an ulcer in a couple of years if I didn’t stop. I figured if I was out-spicing the Indians, I had gone too far.

Over the years I made a lot more Indian friends who taught me their methods and studied a bit independently. I eventually realized that texture was important to nuances in flavor, and that there are endless layers to any given flavor profile of a curry. This meant that even cutting the onions a certain way could have a profound effect on the dish. I eventually found some of my favorite practices based on trial and error. I’m still honing it in. Even today I’m going to be experimenting with a cauliflower, carrot and chicken korma finished with the seasoning fry I’m about to explain, with the addition of some pan fried cashews. I’ve never quite done it like this before, but I think I’m on to something. It’s a combo of some things I’ve stumbled upon while making a variety of other dishes. What I want to focus on for this post is the base ingredients and process I use for a seasoning fry that has become quite central to much of my cooking.

I’ve discussed the start, with mustard seeds and turmeric. Once the mustard seeds pop, I add cumin seeds, dried red chilies, curry leaves (when I can find them), garlic (cut differently based on the dish) and onions (mostly cut julienne style, but differently based on the dish as well.) Here is the key, are you ready? CARAMELIZE IT! Let me say it again, CARAMELIZE IT! Depending on the stove quality, this process usually involves the ingredients sitting on just over medium heat for half an hour, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning. It takes serious patience. It will start to burn, you just have to feel it to know when it’s enough, feel it in your soul, don’t go grabbing handfuls of burning onions or anything. What this does is add a sweet, smokey tangy flavor to your dish. You can start your dish this way, cooking everything in one pan, or cook this fry separately to be added on top of the main dish once it is done cooking. When you cook it separately and add it on top, the caramelized exterior on the fried ingredients don’t completely mix with the rest of the dish as it would if it was cooked in from the beginning, and they become little sweet, smokey flavor bombs that you stumble upon while you eat. The sweetness comes from the caramelization because you’re essentially drawing out the sugars and burning them a bit. The smokiness is from the fact that are charring it a little. It’s a deadly combo when you factor in the already powerful spice profile of the main dish you’re adding this to.

I’ve noticed that people without well developed palates tend to hate curry for this reason. Even without the extraordinary measures I’ve taken to exploit the layers of flavor in Indian food, there is already an intensity to Indian food that the traditional Western palate isn’t accustomed to, and the surprising affect of that can cause people to think that they don’t like it. It’s similar to when someone doesn’t like a new idea at first simply because they don’t understand it. Some people have a legitimate preference opposed to Indian food, and I respect that, but they can usually articulate why with at least a novice level culinary understanding. Without that, I know that it’s just new and different for them.

So that’s my caramelized awesomeness. Try it with just onions and garlic first, and then start adding other things. You can play around with the process a lot without messing anything up and it changes the flavor a bit each way you do it.