Maya Kaimal tells how to get "Indian Flavor Every Day" with ingredients you already have

Maya Kaimal makes Indian food with a twist: "I resist this idea that there are rules around what you can do"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 13, 2023 3:59PM (EDT)

Butternut Coconut Curry from Indian Flavor Every Day by Maya Kaimal (Photo by Eva Kolenko/Random House)
Butternut Coconut Curry from Indian Flavor Every Day by Maya Kaimal (Photo by Eva Kolenko/Random House)

Maya Kaimal knows what you're thinking, but "Indian doesn't have to be a heavy lift," the cookbook author and entrepreneur promises. "I'm convinced there's a way to experience and enjoy that cuisine through the easy door."

For nearly two decades, Kaimal has been introducing home cooks to Indian cuisine through the "easy door" of her eponymous line of classic sauces and marinades, condiments, soups and bases. Now, in her new cookbook "Indian Flavor Every Day: Simple Recipes and Smart Techniques to Inspire," she takes her passion even further, with a collection of dishes designed to "stretch our skills" in a way that's still "convenient and approachable." 

"I'm trying to try to meet people where they are," Kaimal told me during a recent "Salon Talks." For her, that can mean helping home cooks incorporate the flavors of Indian cooking with "twists" that pull from Westernized dishes as well — like a shortbread that gets a kick from garam masala, or a veggie burger packed with the flavors of ginger and serrano. During our informative, encouraging conversation, Kaimal also shared how to never burn your tongue again while testing pepper's heat, as well as how to use ingredients you already have in your pantry to start making dishes with "all that yummy, nuanced, layered flavor" of your favorite Indian foods.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As you say in your bio, you are dedicated to bringing Indian flavors to America while staying true to your roots. Tell me how you got started on this mission.

The book is a continuation of what I try to do with my company. It's about making it accessible, easy. Indian doesn't have to be a heavy lift. It can be. It can be wonderful when you spend all the time and do all the toasting and the grinding and everything from scratch. It's incredible. But I'm convinced there's a way to experience and enjoy that cuisine through the easy door. The sauces, the products we do, that's one way to do it. But I found that in my own cooking, I wanted Indian flavor. I wanted an Indian inflection in my meals, but I didn't want to go through all the work.

I didn't necessarily want to have my own sauce every night, so I looked at the cuisine as built on different flavor-building components. I tried to break those down. What are the techniques that go into getting all that yummy, nuanced, layered flavor? I designed the book around teaching those techniques and showing you how to use them and how you can just use one, you can use two, you can just do simple vegetables, you can do a dessert, you can do a salad. Indian flavor can find its way into your meal in these more simple ways.

There's a fear in some of us of screwing up a traditional cuisine, of ticking off the family or doing it wrong and embarrassing ourselves. How do we get past those mental blocks? 

"Indian flavor can find its way into your meal in these more simple ways."

The thing is to understand that it's not a technique-driven cuisine. They're not hard steps. There are some steps, and there are some ingredients that you need to have, but what I've tried to do with this book is make the steps [easier]. And also break down the ingredient deck. I think that's really intimidating to people when they open an Indian cookbook and they just see this massive list of things. I'm just like, "Ugh, God, what can I do that has three ingredients in it?" I've broken out the list so that you understand where you're going. You're going to start with the tarka steps, say where you're seasoning your oil and you see that, and then there's a step that corresponds, and then there's your masala. You're going to mix these ground spices together, and then you're going to add that over here. 

Visually, I've tried to lay it out so it's very clear for people. Then in terms of ingredients, I've tried to build it around things that you can get at a grocery store or things that you're finding at a farmer's market. I'm trying to try to meet people where they are. How do they live? They don't have a ton of time, so I'm going to make it very clear. I'm going to try to reduce the number of steps. The other thing that is really important and will really help people is I encourage them to do their mise en place. Measure everything and set it out and then go. Otherwise you're going to get caught up in the fact that there are still things to prep and you need to add them to the pan because there's a sequence to it. Some of it goes really quickly, so that I think will help people too.

And then how do we convince our friends that, I'm doing my best here?

People generally really appreciate the effort. Everyone knows Indian is pretty involved to make, so hopefully your friends will see the energy that's gone into it. One of the things that I also want to encourage people is that it's not all or nothing. You don't have to make all Indian things to put on the table together. You can make one thing. You could make a chicken curry, and then you could have it with some couscous and a salad or green beans, or could make your vegetable be the Indian thing with your roast chicken or your fried tofu.

I try to explain and show in the recipes some suggestions to have this with, and they're non-Indian suggestions. It's just opening things up to show you how you can fit these dishes into your normal life.

The book is called "Indian Flavor Every Day," because it's about these beautiful recipes, but it's also about flavors that then you can think of the same way that you do for other spices and condiments in your household. 

And master. If you can just get your arms around those, then you can find ways to apply them.

You talk in the book about twists. How do you find that line between creating something new, doing something that is a twist while staying true to your roots and authentic?

Human beings have been assimilating ingredients forever. We do that. We're blending ideas all the time in everything we do. In food, in art, in language, all of it. I resist this idea that we need to police food and that there are rules and laws around what you can and cannot do. If you try to force things together and you don't have a high level of comfort with the different techniques or traditions, then your food will not be good. It will fail.

When you understand the cuisines that you're trying to blend together, and you can respect each of them, then you will end up with something that tastes really good. And deliciousness wins in the end. But you need to do it from a place of some expertise or just some fluency in the cuisines.

"Human beings have been assimilating ingredients forever. We do that. We're blending ideas all the time."

For example, my mother loved to cook from Julia Child's cookbook "Mastering The Art of French Cooking." I grew up with her making a lot of food out of that. We had the potato leek soup as one of her favorites. My father, being from South India, would encourage my mom to add some cayenne to it, so it started to have a little edge to it. I took that idea and I added a little turmeric to it too, so it's this golden color. Then I took some of the leeks, pulled them out before cooking them in the soup, and then I fried them in ghee, and then put that on top as a topping. That's an Indian tarka technique, frying in the hot oil, so it's really good. I think it manages to straddle the two cultures in a way that works out.

Give me the rundown of my starter Indian pantry.

It's things you probably already have. You need your ground spices. You have to have the basics, the cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cardamom. You can do pretty much everything in the book with those. Then there are some nice-to-haves. I mean fenugreek and asafoetida. Those are more esoteric, and you obviously need to go to a special shop to get those or order them online, but there's two recipes that call for those.

Fresh curry leaves. They're amazing. They just add this herbal incredible aroma to the food when you drop them in hot oil, but they're a little tricky to find, so I made sure that every recipe tasted fine without them. There's still enough flavor and enough going on that you don't have to have those. But you need ginger, you need garlic, you need to find some kind of fresh chili. Hopefully you can find serranos. Maybe you can find Thai if nothing else, hopefully jalapeno. So I explain the different heat levels of those, and then how to use relative proportions.

In the book, you explain how to test the heat.

It doesn't have to be a mystery, right? You look at this chile, you're like, "Are you hot?" 

This is what my grandmother did and my dad did. All the heat is really in that white pithy stuff. The seeds obviously have some heat, but they're not the main source. It's coming from the part they're attached to. That's mostly concentrated up at the top at the stem end. So you slice off the stem end just below the calyx, the little cap. And you expose that white part and the seeds. Then you just take your finger—I like to use my ring finger because I'm not going to stick it my eye accidentally—you just touch the tip of the chili, you touch the tip of your tongue, and you'll know instantly if it's hot or not, and you won't burn your mouth because you've barely, barely really gotten any on your tongue. But you've gotten enough of a scent. If you don't really taste anything, you do it again. And then you realize, okay, it's mild. If you get it instantaneously, then you know, got a really, really live one.

You've saved me so many future tears, Maya. And then obviously if it's too hot, don't drink water.

Have some bread or even yogurt. Have something with some fat or some starch, but not water because it's an oil. It's not water-soluble.

What are your ride or die tools?

My lemon juicer. I'm just cranking that thing all the time. I'm using my Microplane also. Garlic and ginger just come out so beautifully. I used to use that ceramic thing, and it's so hard.

My measuring spoons are my best friends. I measure everything. With Indian food, there's just too much for me to wing it. I really like to really make sure that my proportions are my proportions, so I'm a big measurer.

Measuring is particularly important when you're baking. I love the dessert chapter in this book. Talk to me about how those recipes came about.

That chapter does represent the twist. A couple of chapters do, I'd say. The soups maybe and the salads and the desserts. I worked with a friend of mine named Susan Herrmann Loomis, who is a prolific cook book author. She lives in Paris, she's American. She's really an amazing baker. 

"I had no background in business at all. I was an art major. It was all really new to me."

She helped me on this book because I was trying to do two things: my day job and write a book. I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to need a little backup here."She was amazing, just amazing, snd would test every recipe out. When it came to the desserts, that was quite a collaboration because she had some great ideas. Or I would have an idea and she would have the technique. Together we could hammer it out long distance. I wanted to find ways to make Western desserts, but with Indian flavors in them. Because that's how I like to eat my desserts.

Like that chocolate cashew tart. I can't wait to try.

That is really one of the best. My daughter Lucy makes that as her trademark thing to bring to a party. It's really quite delicious. And it's got a particular kind of garam masala.

People are now becoming pretty familiar with that blend. It's cinnamon, clove, cardamom, black pepper. But there's one from the southern part of India where my dad's from, that I'm calling in this book Kerala garam masala — Kerala being that region on the southern tip. It has some star anise and some fennel in it. Those notes just lend themselves to desserts really beautifully, so I use that in a number of the recipes, including that chocolate tart.

Do you have a recipe in the book that's a special favorite or one that you really feel proud of?

I love the chicken Chettinad. It's this chicken recipe in there that is full of toasted coconut and black pepper. To me, it just transports me straight to South India, which is one of my favorite places in the world. That's dear to my heart.

In addition to being a cookbook author, you are an entrepreneur. You have been bringing Indian flavor into our homes for almost twenty years now. What was the hardest lesson you've had to learn in being a startup business person?

"Deliciousness wins in the end."

It was to go slow, actually. You start down this path. You've got so many ideas and you just want to keep churning them out. The industry is asking you, "What's new? What's new?" You get a lot of pressure to keep innovating. I think one of the classic mistakes is over-innovating. Going too quickly, not being able to support the things that you've already done.

Taking our time, especially in the beginning, and putting out three sauces, that was it. For the first three years, we had three sauces. It allowed us to build the infrastructure and the team, and understand what we were even doing. I had no background in business at all. I was an art major. It was all really new to me. I needed to just figure myself out. And not all our innovation has worked. You try things, you love them, but they don't resonate necessarily. So that's always a lesson is like, is it working? Is it working? Are we selling? Are people buying it? You just never really know.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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