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Indian cuisine: A spice story

Savor mouthfuls of curry and spice and everything nice—recipes centuries in the making.

By Adrienne Dy, M.D.
Photo by Raneil Ibay

JULY 2013

How far would you go for good food? For our forefathers, literally across the globe. Ships set sail, wars were fought, new lands discovered and people were conquered—all for a sprinkle of fire and flavor on the tongue. This is the spice story.

Almost all the world had taken part in the gory and glory of the spice trade, but one country’s history is especially colored by it: India. To this day, the first word that comes to mind at the mention of Indian food is “spicy”—and for good reason. Turmeric, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, all the names that roll deliciously off the tongue flavor the Indians’ cuisine as singularly as the Taj Mahal graces their skyline.

It’s easy to romanticize Indian cuisine. Some accounts go as far as saying that it has shaped the history of international relations by sparking the Age of Exploration. Plagued by bland food, European explorers set off into the world with the objective of bringing home those sought-after spices—regarded as highly as gold and silver. Its recipes are simmered in five millennia of cultural exchange and regional influence. Location, climate and even religion have lent sway as well, making Indian cuisine an inimitable concoction of history and circumstance.

All the way from New Delhi, Chef Maohammad Naushad Alam is a master of northern cuisine set on winning over our conservative Filipino palates. “Indian people like so many spices, but the spices are very healthy,” he declares, citing cumin, turmeric and coriander powders as the “most basic.” In his kitchen in Berjaya Makati Hotel, he uses a whopping 54 different spices to whip up dishes bursting with flavor.

He lets us in on some nuances of his homeland’s food culture. “North Indian food is known everywhere. The south is the same, but it has too much coconut,” he says of regional differences. Then there’s the peculiar practice of eating only vegetable dishes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays—a form of fasting, he says. Hindus cannot eat “sacred” beef; Muslims cannot eat “dirty” pork. That’s why Indian chefs are exceptionally versatile—masters at vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

No need to be intimidated, though. “Indian food is very easy [to cook],” assures Chef Alam, who says most curries have the same gravy base, and differ only in the spices added. Here he shares his mother’s curry recipes, and refreshing lassi, a yogurt drink, to balance out the dishes’ heat. So grab your aprons and head to the kitchen—it’s time to create your own spice story.

Home-style yellow dal tadka

Dal, also spelled dahl or daal, is a mix of peas, beans, lentils and other pulses, hulled and split.


1 cup toor dal or red lentils
1 tomato, cubed
1 pinch turmeric powder
3 c water
1 pinch asafoetida or hing (dried latex used in vegetarian dishes to add an onion or garlic aroma; alternatively, use 20 g of chopped garlic and 20 g of chopped onions)
1 pinch sugar (optional)
½ tsp amchoor or dry mango powder (optional, to make it tangy)
Salt to taste


2 tsp oil
¼ cup onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed (optional)
1 tsp jeera or cumin seeds
3 to 4 dry red chillies, halved
¼ tsp mustard seeds


Fresh coriander leaves, chopped (optional)
Hot, cooked basmati rice


1. Pressure cook the dal, tomatoes and turmeric powder with 3 cups of water. If you don't have a pressure cooker, cook in a closed, thick-bottomed pan for about 20 to 30 minutes until the dal is soft.

2. Heat oil in a pan and add the ingredients for tempering. Once the mustard seeds start to pop and the onions turn transparent, add the cooked dal.

3. Next, add salt, hing, sugar and amchoor. Mix well. If the dal is too thick, add some water; if too watery, let it remain on fire for longer until the desired consistency is reached.

4. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with steamed white basmati rice.

Serves 3 to 4

[About the chef] Chef Maohammad Naushad Alam is the sous chef at Berjaya Makati Hotel. His years in the culinary industry have been spent mostly in his hometown of New Delhi, North India; the Philippines is the first country he’s been to abroad. When asked about how he likes the Philippines, he happily replied, “It’s good. Four years already and I don’t want to go back [home]!” He finds the Filipinos exceptional foodies—and open to the tastes of his country, as long as he tempers the spices first. Berjaya Makati Hotel is located at 7835 Makati Ave., corner Eduque St. Visit for more details.

For more mouthwatering authentic Indian recipes from Chef Alam, grab a copy of the July issue of HealthToday.

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