Get ready to jolt your taste buds. Floyd Cardoz, the executive chef behind the acclaimed flavor-forward restaurant Tabla in New York City, is headed to town to cook from his new book, “Flavorwalla” (Artisan, 351 pages, $29.95). The volume reaches beyond India to encompass a variety of foods, all of which receive his one-two flavor punch.
In addition to the book, Cardoz has focused his attention on the Bombay Canteen, his restaurant in India, and is at work on a new restaurant, Paowalla, in New York City, which will open later this year. He’s a familiar face on TV, and was the winner of Top Chef Masters’ third season.
In advance of his class at Cooks of Crocus Hill on April 16, we chatted by phone.
Q: So what does “flavorwalla” mean?
A: [In India] a walla is anybody who is an expert or trader in a particular area, so you could have a chaiwalla if someone sells tea, a paowalla [the name of his new restaurant] sells bread. So a flavorwalla is an expert or a trader in flavor.
Q: Cooks sometimes confuse the term “flavor” with “spice.” What’s the difference?
A: Spice is a great way to bring flavor to something. But flavor can be brought to food by utilizing a balance of taste sensations like sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and heat. Once you put all those flavors in there together, you can have an interesting flavor profile. Then you balance it with vinegars and sugars and fruit juices and acids. That’s how you get a lot of flavor.
I understand how to utilize these flavors to make things more exciting. I believe that the more balance of flavors you have in a dish, the more interesting it becomes for the person eating it. Better to have something with multiple levels of texture than have one texture. It’s more interesting to have a dish with multiple levels of sweet, spicy, bitter and hot than, say, one, just salty. Then you don’t need to use butter or cream or anything like that. If you want to use butter, it is more of a flavoring agent in a limited quantity, and then it’s healthy, too.
Q: In your book, you talk a lot about the sense of balance in a dish. What do you mean?
A: When there is balance in a dish, no one element overcomes the dish or takes over. I always get this thing about Indian food — “Oh, Indian food is very hot.” Well it’s not. Indian food is very balanced. There are some dishes that are very hot, and there are some dishes that are lightly spiced. So if you have a dish that’s too sweet, after some time your taste buds get tired. If you have a dish that’s too acidic, it takes away from eating it.
When you balance sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and hot, then you get these sensations as you are eating it with nothing overtaking or tiring the taste buds. You get this feeling of wanting to eat more and more and more without getting fatigued. But if a dish doesn’t have balance, your taste buds get fatigued very quickly.
My dishes always have some sort of acid and some heat in there. Then there is an element of bitterness and an element of sweetness. When all this is in harmony, then I believe you get a perfectly flavored dish.
Q: What spices do home cooks need to have in their kitchen?
A: Start off with spices that you can have for general use: coriander seed, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, turmeric, cumin, black peppercorns. Then add some kind of chile flakes. It could be cayenne; it could be a chipotle chile, if that’s what you like.
Start with very limited amounts and then start building. I have one breakfast dish that only uses turmeric. Buy small quantities — an ounce or 2 ounces. That’s all you need.
Q: What has had an effect on your cooking?
A: India influences me in the sense that balance of flavors and textures is very predominant. So my palate has been blessed with that element. But when I eat food or when I cook food, be it Chinese or Japanese or Thai, I always try to make sure that I don’t disrespect the cuisine that I’m borrowing from. I may add a bit of myself to it, with the balance of flavor, but I want the food to be so exciting that when you eat it, it’s not Chinese but it has an element of that. Indian food has helped me get that balance, but for me to adapt to another cuisine, I always try to understand and learn what that cuisine is before I can change it.
Q: Do you use different cooking techniques at home from what you use at a restaurant?
A: I pretty much use the same techniques. I can’t not cook food the way I have been taught how to cook it. But at home I don’t have access to dishwashers and all the equipment that I have in a professional kitchen. I do have great tools at home, but I have a home stove, not a professional stove. Every single dish in the book can be done in a home kitchen.
Q: What’s your advice to home cooks about following recipes?
A: I believe, if you are a good cook, use my recipe once. Try and figure out what I want you to do. Then after that, adapt to what suits you, because you are the person eating it. I want you to enjoy it, but I want you to have the guidelines on how to use it. Some people are blessed by being able to do it, but there are many people who are not who have to follow the recipe. I don’t follow recipes. But I believe you can learn a lot from following a book’s recipes and understand what the chef is thinking. Then change to what suits you.
Note: This is a great meal for a crowd — it can be pulled together quickly using pantry and freezer staples. Make sure that your liquid is hot before you add it to the rice, so that it will cook more evenly, and stir the rice very gently with a silicone spatula to keep the grains whole. (The silicone spatulas are heat-resistant at high temperatures.) To prepare basmati rice, rinse it in a bowl of cold water, repeating at least 10 times or until the water remains clear; soak for 20 minutes. To slice the cilantro leaves thinly, stack them a few at a time. From “Flavorwalla,” by Floyd Cardoz.
• 2 (13.5-oz.) cans coconut milk (stir well before using)
• About 6 1/2 c. unsalted chicken stock
• 1/2 c. canola oil
• 2 tsp. cumin seeds
• 2-in. piece cinnamon stick
• 6 whole cloves
• 4 c. finely chopped white onions
• 1/4 c. minced peeled fresh ginger
• 6 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 tbsp. coriander seeds, finely ground
• 1 tbsp. black peppercorns, optional
• 2 tsp. turmeric
• 2 bay leaves
• 6 c. white basmati rice, rinsed, soaked and drained (see Note)
• 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs, excess fat removed, quartered
• Kosher salt
• 1 c. thinly sliced washed and dried cilantro leaves with tender stems, plus more for garnish (see Note)
Pour coconut milk into large glass measure. Add enough stock to make 2 1/2 quarts (10 cups). Heat stock/coconut milk mixture in medium pot over medium-high heat until boiling. Reduce heat and keep at very low simmer.
In 8-quart stew pot with tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add cumin, cinnamon and cloves and cook, stirring until the spices are fragrant and little bubbles form around them, about 1 minute. Add onions and cook, stirring, until softened but not at all colored, about 3 minutes.
Use a silicone spatula to stir in the ginger, garlic, coriander, peppercorns, turmeric, bay leaves and drained rice, then stir to coat the rice with the oil and spices. Stir in the chicken, tucking it into the rice, and stir over medium heat for 3 minutes.
Stir in the hot stock mixture and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt. Cover and cook over medium heat until all liquid is absorbed and chicken is cooked, 15 to 20 minutes. Fold in the cilantro. Cover and let rice rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Fluff rice with fork; remove and discard cinnamon stick, cloves and bay leaves. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve.
Variation: Add a bunch of fresh dill, roughly chopped, along with the cilantro.
Lee Svitak Dean is the Star Tribune’s Taste editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @StribTaste.