Indian appetizers are delicately flavored morsels with intriguing aromas and complex flavors. These might be spiced nuts, crisp fried wafers, spicy fritters, or a cool salad flavored with smoky roasted cumin. You can also serve stuffed breads or savory pastries or small portions of several main courses, including tandoori meats and vegetables, as appetizers.
Although India does not have a tradition of serving soup as a first course, there are many soupy preparations that are served as a one-dish meal or as a part of the meal. Both chilled and hot soups, totally vegetarian or made with chunks of fish, chicken or lamb, are popular. These soups are light and fragrant and stimulate the appetite.
A great thing about these appetizers and soups is that they can be made in advance and briefly heated before serving. Most of them also freeze well. Just remember to serve them all in small portions as they are meant to awaken rather than satisfy the appetite.
New Delhi Vegetable Soup
A popular dish from the Indian capital, this soup is bursting with the flavor of garden-fresh vegetables. It makes a light meal with bread and salad. The soup traditionally has glowing hot flavor due to the addition of ground hot pepper. For a milder flavor reduce or eliminate the red pepper.
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 lbs)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups chopped peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 cup frozen peas
Coarse salt and black pepper
½ cup chopped (lightly packed) fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
Trim the cauliflower and cut it into florets. Peel the stems and cut them into small pieces. Combine the cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, turmeric and red pepper in a bowl.
Heat the oil in deep pot over medium-high heat. Add the cumin and cook until the seeds turn dark brown. Add the vegetable-spice mixture and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Season it with salt and black pepper.
Sprinkle with the chopped coriander and serve.
BREADS AND SAVORY PASTRIES
Second only to Tandoori Chicken, Indian breads are the most popular item on an Indian restaurant menu. Made with whole-wheat flour and sometimes flavored with spices, herbs and vegetable purees, these breads are very satisfying. Most are unleavened flat breads that are easy and quick to make. Those familiar with the Mexican tortilla will find a striking resemblance, except that everyday Indian breads are lighter since they are made with no oil.
All breads may be made ahead and set aside at room temperature or refrigerated until needed, depending on the bread. To reheat, place on the frying pan for a few minutes, one at a time. Or heat the entire batch in a preheated 400° oven for 4 minutes or in the microwave for 40 seconds.
Flaky Parsley Pinwheel Bread
Flavored with the highly aromatic parsley called bandhana, this bread is among my favorites. In the western province of Punjab in North India where this bread comes from, parsley is used not as a seasoning herb, but as a green much the way spinach, mustard and swiss chard are used. Cut into wedges, parsley bread makes an excellent appetizer with before dinner drinks.
Serves 4 to 8
Makes 8 parathas
1 ½ cups chapati flour or ¾ cup whole-wheat flour with ¾ cup unbleached flour
flour for dusting
½ teaspoon nigella or fennel seeds
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ cup ghee or vegetable oil
½ cup warm water
2 cups (lightly packed) parsley leaves, minced
Put the flour in a large bowl. If using whole-wheat and all-purpose flour, stir briefly to combine. Add the nigella, salt and 1 tablespoon of the ghee. Add the water and mix until the flour comes together into non-sticky, kneadable dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 3 minutes. Cover the dough and let it rest for 14 minutes.
To make the dough in a food processor, put the flour in a work bowl. If using whole wheat and all-purpose flour, run the machine briefly to combine. Add the nigella, salt and 1 tablespoon of ghee. With the machine running, add the water through the feed tube and mix until a ball of dough forms on the blade. Process the dough for 50 seconds to knead. The dough may be prepared ahead and set aside at room temperature for up to 8 hours or refrigerate for 2 days. Bring the dough to room temperature before using.
Shape the dough into a ball and roll out into an 8-inch circle, dusting often with flour to prevent sticking. Combine the parsley with 1 tablespoon flour and spread on top of the dough. Roll into a jellyroll and cut the dough into 8 equal portions. Working with one at a time, place a portion, cut-side up on a lightly floured surface and roll into a 5 to 6-inch circle, dusting often with flour. Cover the rounds with a moist towel as you complete rolling them. Do not stack them.
Heat the griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Place a paratha on a griddle and let it cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until flecked with brown. Pour 2 teaspoon of oil on and around paratha. Fry, turning, until it develops patches of brown on each side, about 2 minutes. Remove the bread and keep warm. Cook all the breads the same way.
Arrange parathas in a small basket and serve immediately.