A Michelin-Starred Indian Chef Shares Her Secrets For Cooking With Spices
Garima Arora never intended to be a chef. She studied journalism at university in Mumbai and only began cooking when she was 21. Eventually realising food was her true passion, she took off to Paris to study at prestigious school Le Cordon Bleu.
Stints working with world-renowned chefs in Dubai, Copenhagen and Bangkok soon followed. In Bangkok she worked at Gaggan, widely considered Asia’s best restaurant.
Today, she’s still in Bangkok and now runs her own restaurant, Gaa. In November 2018, after a little more than a year of operation, it was awarded a Michelin star – an act that made her the first Indian woman to ever receive that accolade.
In the Eurocentric list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, there has historically been a stigma that Asian food can’t be fine dining, but that’s slowly changing thanks to a new generation of chefs like Arora.
European cuisines tend to build a flavour profile around a central protein, whereas Asian cuisines are more likely to begin with the flavours themselves. And the building blocks of those flavours are spices.
Around the world, chefs like Arora’s former boss René Redzepi are making cooking an increasingly intellectual pursuit rather than strictly a physical one. Using spice as a starting point fits in perfectly with this approach. And Arora is adamant that Indian culinary traditions is the “most influential Asian cuisine”.
So, what are Arora’s top two tips for cooking with spices?
Don’t use too much of any one flavour
One of the trademarks of Asian food, and Indian food in particular, is the liberal use of spices. While Aurora says that cooking with spices can be challenging for those who didn’t grow up using them, she’s quick to add that “the first thing is it’s not as difficult as you think”.
She says it’s important not to simply layer flavours on top of each other.
Instead, “what you are actually doing when you’re working with spices is something I like to call a negative food pairing”. That means choosing flavours that are complementary, but distinct.
“You work with spices that are not similar. So, if you make a dish and you want to add five different spices, all those five spices have to be different from each other. One’s gonna be sweet, the other’s going to be salty, the other’s going to have some spice in it, whatever.”
Arora’s one secret ingredient
Gaa’s dishes get a lot of their umami flavour from vegetables, and most world cuisines could learn a thing or two about using less meat from India. But Arora also has another trick up her sleeve.
While she’s planning on using as much local produce as possible when she heads to Adelaide to helm Tasting Australia event Spice on April 10, there’s one key ingredient that she’ll definitely be bringing with her.
“One of my favourite ingredients to work with is black salt,” she says.
The first thing to know about black salt, which is also known as kala namak, is that it’s not actually black. When ground up, it usually ends up looking pink or purple and the colour comes from chemical impurities as well as the herbs and spices that are added during its preparation.
One of those chemical impurities is sulphur, which gives it a distinctive odour and when added to food the result hints at the savoury flavour of boiled eggs. For Arora “it lends anything that you season with it so much more flavour and depth and umami straight away. So black salt is something that I never travel without – the other things we can always work around”.
Glasshouse Kitchen: Spice takes place on April 10.
Published 22 March, 2019