Indian was the first cuisine I really discovered for myself. When I was growing up, Mom cooked with lots of different flavors, but Indian wasn’t really part of her standard repertoire. She was great with classic American seasonings and was comfortable just about anywhere along the Mediterranean, but food from the countries beyond that inevitably suffered some serious modification–Pad Thai made with linguine rather than hard-to-fine rice noodles, curries made with vegetables you’d never find in Asia.
I went to college in a tiny town in northwestern Massachusetts that had about five restaurants, three of which were too expensive for my struggling student budget. That left me with two real options for eating out: a Thai restaurant and an Indian place. I’d had Thai before and loved it, but Indian was something of a new experience. Of course, I’d had a few scoops of Chicken Tikka Masala somewhere, but this place had stuff on the menu I couldn’t pronounce and had never heard of. The food was good, not great, but the flavors really grabbed hold of me–tumeric, cumin, curry powder, garam masala, coconut, cayenne. I loved the fire-breathing heat of vindaloos, the creamy flavor of paneer, and the soft, pillowy goodness of naan.
Once I graduated from college, I moved back to Connecticut where there were many more restaurants (and much better Indian places), but I wanted to try my hand at Indian cooking. The first meal I made was chicken korma and homemade naan. The chicken was a little dry and I burned my hand about twelve times while baking naan in a 500 degree oven, but the food was pretty good. After that, I set about mastering it. I’ve since perfected that trio of sauces you get at most places: tamarind, green sauce, and onion chutney. I’ve made naan more times than I can count and my samosas are pretty top-notch, too. My stews have gotten more and more adventurous, but this vindaloo remains my absolute favorite. It’s not hard to make, though it does need a good 90 minutes to simmer so that the meat is fall-apart tender and the sauce is rich and full flavored.
Vindaloo, which is a fiery dish seasoned with mustard seeds and vinegar, shows Portuguese influence on Indian cuisine. Instead of using the traditional method of crushing mustard seeds and vinegar with a mortar and pestle, though, I’ve adopted this ingenious tip from Madhur Jaffrey to use grainy French mustard, instead. For the average weeknight, store-bought naan will do, but if you’ve got some time on your heads I highly recommend making your own naan. It’s a bit of an effort, but the hot, buttery, tender goodness is beyond worth it. Click here to check out my favorite naan recipe.
This recipe works equally well with light or regular coconut milk. Vindaloo should be a pretty spicy dish, and the amount of cayenne called for here will give it a nice kick without burning your mouth. I usually use more than 1 ½ teaspoons, but feel free to use more or less according to your taste.
6 tablespoons grainy mustard
4 teaspoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 large sweet onion, cut into medium dice
12 to 15 garlic cloves, minced
4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 ½–inch cubes
2 cans (13.5 ounces each) coconut milk
Chopped fresh cilantro, optional
Mix mustard, spices, and vinegar; set aside. Heat a large, wide pot over medium-high heat. Coat lamb chunks with 2 tablespoons of the oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding, sear lamb cubes until well browned, about 5 minutes per batch. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the now hot, empty pan. Add onions and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic; sauté until fragrant, about a minute. Add spice paste; sauté until fragrant, about a minute longer. Add coconut milk and enough water (about 1 cup) to just cover the lamb. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and continue to simmer until meat is very tender, about 1 ½ hours.
Serve with rice or naan and garnish with cilantro.