There wasn’t much I liked about living in Calgary for five years. Winters were shitty, the people are a little to well….Albertan for me. One of those rare bright spots was the crash course I got in Indian Cuisine.
Calgary has one of the largest and most diverse Indian populations in North America. There cannot be a more opposite place climate wise for people from Indian to immigrate to. While I was a wine rep, the vast majority of the retailers I worked with were from somewhere in India. Hindus from Pradesh in the north, and Kerala in the south, Sikhs from Punjab, Muslims from Jammu and Kashmir along the Pakistani border, and Parsees from Mumbai made up much of the Indian immigrants I worked with.
Many days at work I ended up with three lunches because I was forcefully offered food by the store owners I worked with. Many of these family run liquor stores would have home cooked Indian food brought by family members in the back room. I found nothing garnered more respect from these store owners than eating what was offered to you with no reservations*, and then asking what was in it. I looked down the barrel of a curry gun many times not know what it was loaded with. I had my first goat experience in the back room of a liquor store in northeast Calgary., I had a curry that made my eye lids sweat while sitting on a loading dock waiting for a shipment to arrive. And though I had had it many times before, I totally fell in love with Naan bread.
Naan is a generic term used to describe a leavened** flat bread found from the middle east to as far south east as thailand. Like Kim Chi in Korea, Dashi in Japan, or cheddar cheese in wisconsin, Naan and it’s unleavened cousin Roti is almost ubiquitous in India. It’s part utensil, part sponge and all delicious.
Naan is traditionally cooked in a tandoor. A cylindrical clay and stone oven that burns wood or charcoal. These flat breads are flattened out and stuck to the inside wall of the oven and quickly cooked by the very high heats that are emitted. Most Naan are flavour with cumin seeds, saffron, butter and garlic. There is also another take on Naan known as Kulchas which are stuffed with all sorts of great stuff. If you are ever in downtown Calgary there is a resturant called Moti Mahal, there food is great and affordable, but the star of that place is a Kulchas stuffed with Garlic and Paneer***. It’s the definition of comfort food.
I find the best way to get into ethnic food is to find something that is familiar and go from there. There is nothing more familiar than bread. Naan is a great way to start introducing yourself to the vast flavour profile that India has to offer.
*Fuck, how much am I going to have to pay Anthony Bourdain for that one?
**Bread Science 101: Leavened bread is bread who’s dough contains yeast or baking powder/soda which makes the dough rise. The yeast, eats sugars in the flour and releases carbon dioxide which makes the dough rise. When cooked these small pockets of Carbon Dioxide expand and you get more rising and a softening and stretching of the gluten molecules . Baking soda or powder does the same thing but through a different chemical reaction. Naan is considered a flat bread but unlike most flat breads it is leavened so you get a light fluffy bread that can be crispy on the outside but silky and soft on the inside.
***Paneer is Indian farmers cheese. It’s a tart and has almost a doughy consistency.