A friend of mine wanted me to cook for her, but had no spices at home. We made a pact; I'd cook something truly Indian with only what's available at her local supermarket - which sounded like a huge challenge till I discovered her 'local' was a WholeFoods with neary every kind of spice there is.
Life, however, wasn't as simple as all that. First, each bottle of spice is at least $3; buying a decent complement would soon have made holes in pockets enough for spaceships to pass through. We decided therefore only to buy condiments that would be useful after the mess I made had been cleared up - that is, she could keep using them. Second, there were some critical missing ingredients such as besan, green chillies, ghee, mustard oil - all of which made cooking most standard Indian dishes (like the basic aloo-jeera or my superquick aloo golki) impossible. Chillies were a particular challenge - I've learned with experience that Mexican chillies don't work - the taste rather different. Third, we were looking at a kitchen devoid of kadahis or woks. The final blow? No basmati rice.
Here's what I was left with; ginger (not fresh), garlic, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, cilantro, chicken, black pepper, coconut milk, cumin powder, mustard powder (unfortunately not a very nice kind), yoghurt and garbanzo beans from a can. And some Hungarian paprika was already lurking in her cupboard.
(That was some boring paragraph above but how interesting can you make a grocery list sound).
Moving on. The ingredients resulted in a Chicken Kosha (with black pepper instead of chillies), chickpeas chaat and mustard aloo. I thought the first two were quite good, while the mustard potatoes was a complete failure (primarily because of a lack of green chillies and strange-smelling sweetish mustard). My American friends, however, loved the chaat and (rather to my surprise) the potatoes. The opinion on chicken; I thought it was quite nice (smelled great though not hot enough) but they were less than impressed. It seems they expected more flavors. So I'm wondering, is the chicken a failure because it looks like 'curry' but is just a simple homestyle dish or did I just cook badly?
I'm also thinking; what else that's India can be made with the output of a standard grocery? it need not be Whole Foods - even Albertsons or any other chain has all the ingredients I listed. And which one of those will impress women?