Spices. We all know what they are, we all use them but do we really know how to get the best out of them? With all due respect to the spice masters in the world, here is my advice on how to get the best out of your spices.
But before I get onto that, a short aside. . .
In 1986 at The Taj Residency Hotel in Bangalore, I was told that I was being sent to a place called Baltistan as a reward.
What? Baltistan?! Most chefs are rewarded by a sojourn in France or Switzerland or England . . . and I was being sent to a north-western frontier province?
Well, I was told that this was the birthplace of Balti food and I was being sent there to learn the art of Balti, also known in India as kadhai cooking.
That was all well and good, but why me?
Do you know, I never got an answer to that question and 25 years later I still don’t know!
Thank G-d, however, the war had other plans and the region was declared out-of-bounds so I never got to learn the art of Balti cooking.
It was not till I started working with Chef Shiva at the Taj Residency that I realised I had missed an opportunity of a lifetime. Shiva was expert at kadhai cooking and watching him cook was like being at a concert; the only difference being that you could eat his performance.
Here is what I learnt from Chef Shiva about a classic Balti, or kadhai, dish called kadhai murgh.
To make kadhai murgh you need five spices: dried red chillies, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and dried fenugreek leaves, called qasoori methi.
Now, these are used in two different forms, the first as whole spices and the second, ground.
According to Chef Shiva, the first step in making kadhai murgh is to heat the oil and then add the whole spices to create an infusion known as a kadhai aroma or chonk: so, you add the dried red chillies followed by the black peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds. (As the fenugreek leaves have no ‘body’ they are left out at this stage to prevent them from burning, and they are added right at the end of cooking.)
Now that the oil had been aromatised with the whole spices, add some chopped onions along with salt and cook until the onions have caramelised.
Then add some crushed garlic, which is also cooked until it’s caramelised and then add some freshly crushed ginger and cook until its natural sugars appear. This is the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for making a classic kadhai dish!
Pieces of diced chicken are then added to the kadhai, either ‘on’ or ‘off’ the bone, depending how haute your restaurant is.
In Sydney I want my restaurant to be seen as casual, with a sort of ‘home away from home’ feel to it and so I do leave the bones in, as we would when we’re eating/cooking at home. Leaving the bones in also keeps the meat more moist and gives it more ‘oomph’.
Once the meat has been sealed in the aromatised oil, remove it from the pan and set aside.
Crushed tomatoes are added to the pan at this stage (you can either chop your own tomatoes or use cans of chopped tomatoes, the only problem is that canned tomatoes, whether crushed or puréed, contain a h-ll of a lot of sugar and/or salt). So why not spend a relaxing and absorbing Sunday at home making your own superb tomato purée, or crushed tomatoes, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have too much extra salt or sugar added?!
The tomatoes are cooked until the oil starts to rise to the surface and then the chicken is returned to the pan to be slow-cooked in the ‘sauce’ till tender. Then the second set of kadhai spices is added.
So, for this second set of kadhai spices we will have dry-roasted our dried chillies, black peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds and our qasoori methi and then we will have ground them just before using and added them to the pan full of our slow-cooked chicken and tomatoes. Nothing is finer than this.
I hope you are following my spice trail!!
Now that we’re nearing the end of the cooking, it’s time to add some freshly chopped coriander leaves along with some lemon juice which will bring out the taste and appearance of the dish.
The kadhai murgh is now ready to be served, accompanied by your favourite bread which might be naan, kulcha, roti, parantha, the list is long and delicious and my favourite accompaniment is a roomali roti.
So, what have we learned? Well, in a nutshell the following points need to be remembered when cooking with spices:
1. Use whole spices at the beginning of the cooking process to create an aromatised oil or chonk infusion. This is your cooking medium.
2. Use ground spices (which have been dry-roasted) towards the end of the cooking process. This gives the dish extra flavour, as freshly crushed spices have all the ‘volatile’ oils on the surface, whereas the chonk will have added to the taste earlier as the spices will have permeated the chicken. This is a characteristic feature of the kadhai style of cooking.
3. Grind your spices when you need them, just like you do with coffee beans. This is something that’s often forgotten. Spices contain volatile oils which start to oxidise once they are ground and left in the open. Left-over ground spices in my kitchen are called sawdust because they are oxidised and contain no d-mn flavour at all. So, clear out those ground spices on your kitchen shelf and buy whole ones. Ground spices do look pretty in all their earthy colours displayed on your kitchen shelves, but who wants sawdust in their food?
4. Now that I’ve just said all the above, of course, there are exceptions to this rule in the forms of chilli and turmeric. Both are best bought already ground, as grinding dry chillies at home is not easy; you will sneeze too much! Turmeric, on the other hand, needs to be completely dry to get the best out of it, and when it’s dry it is as hard as stone which makes it very hard to crush unless you happen to have a ‘stone crusher’ nearby!
5. If you do have any left-over ground spices, place them in an anti-oxidising container, such as glass or ‘food grade’ plastic so that they remain fresh and the plastic smell does not permeate the spice. You may also cover the ground spices with oil to prevent oxidation from taking place, just as you would for keeping marinades fresh.
6. Furthermore, place any left-over ground spices in the refrigerator, just as you do with your ground coffee beans. My father-in-law has kept his chutney podi in the fridge for ages and the bl..dy thing tastes as if it has just been made!!!
7. Dry-fry the whole spices, let them cool and then keep them in an airtight container. Then you can grind them as and when you need them (or leave them whole). This keeps the spices fresh as the volatile oils are on the inside of the spice, just waiting to burst out, but they can’t explode till they’re ground. This is my favourite moment!
8. Finally, store your whole spices away from contact with water and direct sunlight; if you do they will last longer. I can’t tell you exactly how much longer they will last, just like I can’t tell you how long each of us will live, but I can say that if you look after yourself (and eat healthily) you will certainly increase your shelf life!!!
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!
To cook your own chicken dish using the kadhai method, click kadhai murgh recipe. Also, this recipe uses kadhai masala that is so simple to make. To make your own kadhai masala, click kadhai masala recipe.