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The name of the restaurant game is ‘consistency’, but consistency of what?

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Recipe featured in this week’s blog

A step by step (with photos) ‘bhunaoed’ spinach recipe

“The restaurant trade is a tough trade. One has no personal life once one is in it, it is very demanding and it takes the hell out of you, and you can’t make any money, and blah, blah, blah. . !””

The only thing true about the above statement is the last part.

You cannot become a millionaire if you are a chef and run your own restaurant (you would have taken out enough mortgages on your house already, so there go the millions). There is not a chance either, unless of course you own the property, or have a freehold of the place.

Well, not many chefs can do it, and certainly not yours truly.

However, having said all the above, it is an extremely rewarding business. I mean, there must be other reasons why we keep on doing what we know best?!

Well, of course there are, but the rewards are not always in the form of awards like a ‘chef’s hat’ or a ‘restaurant and catering award’ (RCA) for the “best restaurant” but they come from two important people every night.

No, I don’t mean my wife or son, Meera or Aniruddh, though that’s another kind of reward!

No, the reward I’m talking about is, yes, you guessed it, the customer.

And the second?

Well, I bet you can’t guess the other one.

Okay, it is the staff!!

These two sets of people, who are at the opposite ends of the restaurant equilibrium, are what it takes to keep restaurants afloat and keep the rewards flowing in. The latter group (the staff) keeps the business alive whilst the former breathes life into the business which, in turn, keeps people like me in the restaurant trade.

It is the consistency of the staff that is paramount and you can’t put a price on it.

By this I mean it is those ‘intangibles’ that are so important, like receiving a guest with a smile, or doing something extra to make that guest feel special.

Or it is the ‘tangibles’, like the chef cooking a dish and the waiters serving that dish exactly the same way as it was done the last time, for example, Dr Mudbidri and his wife, Lucy, were here for dinner. And the chefs and waiters know exactly how this couple like their food. The waiter knows what the guest likes, and if he doesn’t, or if the guest is new, he is able to gauge what it might be.

So, it is this consistency of intelligent service, and nothing else but consistency, carried out consistently well that is paramount!!

And the guests? Well, that’s obvious. It’s coming back again and again, it’s treating the staff with the recognition they deserve, appreciating the food where it calls for it and letting us know, if heaven forbid, it doesn’t.

It’s so simple.

So, where am I going with all this?

Well, if you’ll follow me folks, let’s go straight to the kitchen – which is the heart of any restaurant.

It is the hot, frantic yet ordered room that keeps the business going by producing the food with, yes, that word again, ‘consistency’.

Take, for example, a dish made with spinach, whether it be palak paneer, or saag murgh, or saag gosht, or . . . well, I won’t go on, you know where I’m heading with my spinach dishes!

Most chefs can cook these dishes and make them taste good (well, a little practice helps but you know what I mean).

A few chefs can even cook these dishes and make them smell good, too (this comes with even more practice and some procedure).

However, it is only a fraction of chefs who are able to retain the color of the spinach (this comes with lots of practice, great process and deep knowledge about the ingredients which are being added)!!

So, even our simple spinach dish belies a lot of experience and knowledge to raise it from being an acceptable green side dish to something fresh tasting, vibrant and totally delicious!

In a good restaurant, great results are achieved by using a simple technique called bhunao which you do to the saag. [Bhunao means to cook, uncovered, over a constant heat to remove any excess moisture. Keeping it at the same temperature means the purée cooks without getting a ‘shock’, as it were, and thereby it cooks evenly and retains an ‘even’ colour.]

This is a simple, yet very effective process that keeps the colour of the puréed spinach so that it remains bright green for at least a week! (Yes, that’s right! It’ll keep its colour for that long, if it hasn’t already sold out because it’s so good and looks so fresh.)

Don’t worry about the bhunao, the taste and smell will always be good!!

So, let’s take a closer look at this simple yet flavoursome dish:

“bhunao palak”

Ingredients:

1. 2 bunches of English spinach, washed and stalks removed, approx. 400 gms

2. Plenty of water to cook the spinach (a.k.a blanching)

3. A pinch of Alleppey turmeric

4. Ice-cold water to cool the spinach (a.k.a arresting the cooking of the hot spinach)

clockwise from left to right: ice-cold water, turmeric & spinach

Method:

1. To blanch the spinach, in a large, wide pot bring water to a boil.

boiling water in a wide pot

2. Add a pinch of Alleppey turmeric (Alleppey turmeric has a bright yellow colour and helps bring out the colour of the spinach; it also acts as an anti-oxidant).

add a pinch of Alleppey turmeric

3. Add the washed spinach leaves and bring the water back to a boil.

add the spinach

4. In a strainer, drain the leaves immediately and plunge into the ice-cold water for a few seconds to cool the leaves. Do not rinse in running tap water as this will discolour the leaves.

plunge the spinach into ice-cold water for a few seconds

spinach leaves in ice-cold water

5. Remove from the iced water and lightly squeeze to remove any excess moisture.

remove the spinach from the iced water

squeeze well and lightly

the spinach is now ready for the food processor

6. Place in a food processor and blend to a fine paste.

blended spinach

7. Refrigerate immediately.

Bhunao:

1. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2. 1 teaspoon brown cumin seeds

3. 1 tablespoon crushed garlic

4. Salt, to taste

5. 1/2 teaspoon Madras turmeric (you may use Alleppey if Madras turmeric is not handy)

6. 1 fresh green chilli, chopped (retain the seeds)

clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, cumin seeds, crushed garlic, Madras turmeric, salt & fresh green chillies

To bhunao the pureed spinach:

1. In a pan, heat the oil until it is just about to smoke (this makes the oil light and helps it rise to the surface easily).

heat oil in a pan

2. Remove the pan from the heat and crackle the cumin seeds.

add cumin seeds and let crackle

2. Add the crushed garlic, as soon as possible, and fold. Then add the salt (adding the salt helps to caramelise the garlic without burning it).

add garlic

add salt

3. Add the Madras turmeric (this has a very earthy smell and goes well with spinach).

fold quickly before adding the Madras turmeric

add the Madras turmeric

4. Now add the chopped chillies and fold.

add fresh chillies

5. Return the pan to the heat and add the puréed spinach to this ‘infusion’.

add the puréed spinach

6. Cook over moderate heat, folding regularly, and let the oil rise to the surface.

folding & cooking spinach

cooking the spinach, always over moderate heat

7. Once the oil has risen to the surface, remove the spinach from the pan. Let cool and then refrigerate.

the spinach is almost ready, just waiting for the oil to rise to the surface

yummm…the spinach is ready to go!!

portioning the spinach for a “rainy day”

refrigerate or have it now, this is pure “green gold”!!

Here are some great and simple ways to use your ‘bhunaoed’ spinach. Let me know which one works the best for you, folks!

1. Cook some chicken in a pan and add the ‘bhunaoed’ spinach. When you do this you will have created the best palak murgh on the planet. (Just remember to add some dried qasoori methi [that’s dried fenugreek leaves] to serve!)

2. To make saag gosht, heat some rogan josh (see here, also, for a particularly good rogan josh recipe and story!) in a pan and add the ‘bhunaoed’ spinach and, well, the result is the same as the palak murgh, all superlatives!

3. And to make palak paneer . . . well, here is my version. What more can I say? Just go and try it, please!!!

And remember to do all the little things right. Yes, that’s right. Every single little detail, no matter how tedious it might seem. If you get the small things right the big ones look after themselves. So, whether it’s cooking spinach, or boiling rice, or even frying pappads, follow every little rule.

And it is this that I call ‘consistency’!!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

(If you’re in Sydney, you can buy Alleppey and Madras turmeric from Herbie’s.)

You’ve got the spices – now let’s meet the Spice Merchant of Australia. . .

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Who is this Spice Merchant?

Well, he was born and raised on a farm in Dural which is about 50 kilometres from Sydney.

He grew up in a family where the topic of conversation at the dining table was, no, not cricket, or rugby, or soccer, but yes, you’ve guessed it, herbs and spices!! His parents were one of the first families in Australia to start a herb nursery.

The world knows him as ‘Herbie’.

I know him as Ian Hemphill, the ‘spice man’!!

I met Ian and Liz (his wife and business partner) by chance when. . .

Liz and Herbie Hemphill

Well, here goes. . .

In August 1997, Meera and I cut short our trip around the globe when our doctor, Dr Lele,  advised us to return to Sydney, ASAP, as Meera was showing signs of discomfort. She was pregnant with our son, Aniruddh, and the doctor felt it was important to return back to base in case there was any. . .! Well, you know what could happen!

So we left the USA and came straight back to Sydney  just as the doctor had ordered!!

On our return we found that Meera was doing just fine, and so was the unborn baby, so there was no cause for any concern. Phew!!

So, with Meera and the, as yet, unborn baby sorted (for the moment!) it was time to look for opportunities in Sydney.

As you might guess, this ‘something’ had to be food related and definitely had to be Indian.

Prior to going overseas we had sold our share of the business that we had run for nearly six years and it was now time to look for new range of mountains to climb!!

We thought of starting a small-scale catering business, or a cooking school, or even a small Indian cafe. As our discussions grew, we also thought of starting a small spice shop selling our own range of spice mixes along with our own pickles and marinades.

Meera had read in the papers about a new spice shop, called ‘Herbie’s’, that had recently opened in a suburb called Rozelle.

Herbie’s shop in Rozelle, NSW

Ah, we thought, it’ll be another kirana shop [you know these, the local owner-operated, small-scale store, the ‘corner shop’] and so we decided to pay a visit to see what was so special about it and why it had been written up in the newspaper.

Well, when we entered the shop we were absolutely blown away by what was on offer.

This was not just another kirana store! This was a spice temple.

It was unlike any other spice shop we had seen before anywhere in the world.

The man behind the counter greeted us with a smile; he knew what spice went well with meat or fish; he knew what the constituents of garam masala were and he spoke with knowledge and authority.

Well, this blew me away. Never, in my 16 or so years (well, it’d be more years now!) of cooking Indian food had I come across someone who knew so much about so many spices, without once referring to a book!!

And to top it all, this man was white.

“Surely, I said to Meera quietly, “this man must be Anglo-Indian, or he’s probably a white migrant from India, just like the family in Bondi who run a spice shop.”

Meera gestured for me to keep my thoughts to myself as we were led to a small, but compact, nursery adjacent to the shop.

And there it was. A healthy, green curry leaf tree. For Meera this was the true measure of someone who knew his herbs.

Indians believe that anyone who can grow a curry leaf tree, and then sell it, knows a thing or two about herbs!!

My knowledge of spices was pretty good, or so I thought, until I did a spice appreciation class with Ian a few weeks later.

And this is where Ian’s knowledge really came to the fore. This man is one of the world’s foremost authorities on herbs and spices. He’s written countless books on spices, cookery books and runs Spice Appreciation classes which are extremely informative.

During his class I realised there was a lot more I had to learn about spices.

The knowledge this man possesses is unbelievable! He is a walking encyclopaedia on herbs and spices. He even gives Spice Tours to India about discovering 12 spices . These tours are  so good,  India Tourism awarded Herbie’s Spice Discovery Tour an Award of Excellence (But hurry, as he and LIz won’t be going to India after January 2013!)

Well, we veered away from our idea of a small spice shop, I mean, how does one compete with Herbie’s, and we decided to start nilgiri’s, a dream that we had been ruminating over for a long while. Ian sent us a bouquet of cinnamon quills on our opening night and I still have it!!

Well, since starting nilgiri’s our appreciation and respect for Ian has grown stronger with each passing year. And I’m saying this 15 years down the track!

a treasure trove of spices

One year we decided to give all our staff a copy of Ian’s book, Spice Travels, and another year we gave our ‘Employee of the Year’ a copy of Ian’s masterpiece, Spice Notes. This is a book all aspiring Indian chefs must possess if they want to have a better understanding of their cuisine! And yes, it’s written, not by an Anglo-Indian but by a real ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie!

On the 15th anniversary of nilgiri’s we thought we should salaam this spice man who, I think, has single-handedly tried to tell the whole world the importance and fun of using different spices and herbs in their cooking.

I tell all the students who do my classes that Indian food is all about understanding the ‘nuts and bolts’, or to keep it in context!, the ‘herbs and spices’ and that there is no better place to source these, and no better person to tell you about them, than Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill.

Here is an excerpt of a conversation I had recently with Ian and Liz which, to me, sums them up so well.

“Ian,” I asked, “How, when and why did you get the name Herbie, because I think of you more as a ‘spice man’, than a ‘herb man’?”

With his customary warm smile he told me, “When I was a boy at school, my classmates thought it very funny that my parents had a herb nursery and wrote books on herbs and spices. ‘Herbie’ was a nice alliteration with the surname Hemphill, and the school nickname followed me as I went into adulthood, and has been used by both close friends and business associates ever since.”

Well, you can’t argue with that! But I had so many more questions and here are some more that always intrigued me.

“What,” I asked, “according to you, is the difference between a herb and a spice?”

Without so much as a pause, Ian said that he defined a herb as the leaf of a plant e.g. bay leaves, coriander leaves, and etc., and that a spice uses any other part of the plant such as the roots, buds, bark, berries, and even stigma in the case of saffron. He continued to say that we get both a herb and a spice from plants, such as fennel or coriander, because we use both the leaves and the seeds.

Herbie amongst the cardamom plants in India

“If you were to pick an all-time favourite herb or spice, which one would it be and why?”

Liz chose black pepper, mainly, she added, because people tend to forget it’s a spice, and it’s necessary for so many foods, even a simple tomato sandwich. (And I couldn’t agree more, see last week’s blog about the versatility of this seemingly straightforward spice.)

Ian said that he would choose green cardamom, because it adds light and life to both sweet and savoury dishes. For example, he said that a curry without cardamom would be flat and dull, and who could imagine something sweet without the fragrance of cardamom? A man after my own heart!

“What’s your favourite spice story from your travels to India?”

Ian starts, “We were visiting the spice markets in Chandani Chowk, Old Delhi, when a shop owner sprang out and said: ‘You’re Herbie – I was on your website last night!” And Herbie described how he was embraced by this spice owner in a bear hug of spicy-brotherhood affection! He continued, “We thought it was amazing, in a city of so many millions, to be recognised as we walked down the street.”

And my final question had to be about recipes. Well, of course!


Herbie in a spice store to die for!

“Would you and Liz be kind enough to share your favourite recipe?” And I suggested we could cook it together!!

Well, they chose delhi dahl as they said it was a dish they always encountered in Delhi during the winter, and that it was so easy to make at home.

So, here is Ian and Liz’s delhi dahl recipe.

[Serves 4-6]

2 x 420g cans red kidney beans, undrained

1½ teaspoons Madras turmeric

½ teaspoon each of asafoetida, chilli powder, chilli flakes

1 medium onion, puréed or grated

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tablespoon ghee or butter

1½ teaspoons whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1 x 420 g can chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

2 tablespoons plain yoghurt

Salt

Fresh coriander leaves, to serve

Combine undrained beans, turmeric, chilli and asafoedita in a saucepan and heat to simmering point. Remove from heat, cover and let stand for 30 minutes to let flavours combine.

Mix onion, garlic and ginger in a bowl. Drain the beans, reserving 250 ml of the liquid.

Heat the butter, or ghee, add cumin and mustard seeds and let crackle.  Then add, in the following order: onion, garlic, tomatoes, ground coriander, cumin and garam masala, yoghurt, beans and reserved liquid, stirring well after each addition. Add salt, to taste, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Garnish with a generous amount of fresh coriander leaves and serve with rice or Indian bread.

And I had to ask, last but not least, “And your best ‘spice pick-up’ line is?”

“May your life be peppered with many enjoyable spice experiences!”

Well, I can’t beat that but to conclude, Ian’s book, Spice Travels, is full of such amazing experiences. I particularly enjoyed one where he meets the ‘Cardamom King of the World’, AKA, Mr Jose, in a place called Periyar. . . but that’s another story which I don’t have the time for. So, go and read his book!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

Three different classes over three days, but one common question. . .

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about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

Last week was a bit hectic and challenging as I had to change my ‘gears’ quickly to go from a fast paced class for about 60 students at the Sydney Seafood School [SSS] on Thursday, to an easy paced corporate team building cooking class for about 12 participants at the restaurant the next day.

nilgiri’s corporate team building cooking class

Those two classes were followed by our highly rated regular class on Saturday for 12 students, as per usual.

The difference between the three classes is great fun for me because all of them are about cooking Indian food. Furthermore, all of them let me showcase my cuisine through my words and my actions!! I just love it like that!!!

But the one question that all the students had in common was this: “If you were to use only one spice and no more in your cooking, which one would it be, and why?”

My answer is very simple and has not changed over all the years I’ve been cooking.

“Give me the king of spices and I can cook you a dish, or a meal, without you ever knowing what the added spice was.”

Well almost. You might just guess.

However, it is not about my cooking that makes it hard to guess what the spice is as much as it is about the versatility of this spice.

Can you guess what it is?

And no, it’s not the ones you’re thinking of, I guarantee.

What did you guess?

Coriander seeds?

Cumin seeds?

(And no, please, not the dreaded ‘curry powder’ that someone suggested. I don’t think they’ll make that suggestion again!)

You still don’t know?

Okay.

It’s black peppercorns or kali mirch!!

There is plenty of information that one can get on what pepper is, and how to get it, and what the botanical name is and blah, blah, blah. . . but I am not going there. You’re welcome to go there in your own time, please be my guest!

But what I am going to do is tell you about the food we cooked in the three classes.

Each class was so different but in each one the common spice used was pepper.

So, adding pepper at different stages during cooking gets completely different results, and all of them are b….y good!! [Now, before I go any further, I must confess to the excessive use of the word ‘bl…y’ in my blogs. I have been asked by my best well-wisher, Aai, my mother, to tone it down. So, as of now the word is to be read ‘b….y’ for BEAUTY!!]  Happy Aai?

So, let’s start at the fish markets where I was invited to give a class.

Basically, the cooking class at the SSS is a 2 hour hands-on class which means the students get to cook two dishes from start to finish.

The first is an entrée and the second a main course served with steamed Basmati rice.

I love doing classes at the SSS because it’s such fun but also because it’s like performing on stage.

You get 1 hour to perform and show how the dishes are cooked and then the students move to a state-of-the-art kitchen to recreate the dishes.

So, I showed them how to make crab chettinad using blue swimmer crabs and karwari prawns, using fresh prawns.

The recipe for crab chettinad uses cinnamon, cardamom and cloves as part of a ‘whole garam masala’ followed by the ubiquitous ginger and garlic and peppercorns.

The crushed peppercorns are added right at the end of cooking the dish so that the pepper flavour is fresh and pungent.

At the team building class the next day we made, besides a few other dishes, yerra varuval (pan-fried marinated prawns). Here, the prawns were marinated right at the beginning with crushed peppercorns and other spices. This method creates a superb pepper crust on the prawns when they are tossed in a wok.

We also made a rasam using lentils and tomatoes which was then tempered with black mustard seeds, cumin and whole peppercorns.

The following day, in our scheduled class on Kerala cuisine, we made a moplah style biryani using chicken, rather than goat, and added ground garam masala, which includes pepper, after the chicken was seared and before the partially cooked rice was added to the chicken.

So, to summarise the versatility of this wonderful spice here is my altered recipe for crab chettinad that uses only black peppercorns as a spice throughout the recipe. Yes, that’s right!

There are no whole spices and no ground chillies. Just pepper all the way!!

At the first stage, whole peppercorns are added to the hot oil to create an infusion. Adding the peppercorns to the hot oil ensures that the peppercorn flavour will permeate through the onions and the rest of the ingredients, including the crab.

At the second stage, crushed peppercorns are added to give the dish some ‘bite’.

And finally, as I mentioned before, at the third stage, the freshly ground pepper is added right at the end to add that extra ‘oomph’ to the dish; just like we add ground pepper to our soups!!

STEP 1

Here is my recipe for Crab Chettinad using only pepper!:

apply 1/2 tsp turmeric to cleaned and cut crab. This recipe uses about 2 kgs mud crabs. [Turmeric is an excellent antioxidant and reduces any bacteria that might be in the crabs.]

Put cleaned crabs in the fridge whilst preparing the sauce.

STEP 2

To make the sauce:

heat oil until it just starts smoking, then add 1 tbsp whole black peppercorns; let peppercorns crackle [heating peppercorns this way creates an infusion].

STEP 3

add 3 chopped onions and salt to pepper-infused oil [salt prevents the onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan]. Reduce heat to medium and let onions caramelise.

STEP 4

when onions are almost golden, add 2 sprigs fresh kari leaves and let crackle.

STEP 5

add 1 tbsp crushed garlic to onions, fold until garlic is caramelised.

STEP 6

then add 1 tbsp crushed ginger and fold until mixture is golden.

STEP 7

add 1 tbsp crushed peppercorns, to give the sauce ‘bite’, and fold.

STEP 8

add 3 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped and cook well.

STEP 9

cook till tomatoes are soft and oil leaves the side of the pan.

STEP 10

It’s now time to remove the crab pieces from the fridge.

add crabs and fold gently.

STEP 11

cover pan and cook until crabs become red [approx. 15-20 minutes].

STEP 12

the crabs are now cooking, yum!!

STEP 13

remove crabs from pot and then finish preparing the sauce.

STEP 14

set crabs aside whilst preparing sauce.

STEP 15

add 1 tbsp crushed peppercorns and kari leaves to sauce for that extra ‘oomph’!

STEP 16

add juice of 1/4 lemon and season to taste.

STEP 17

add crabs to finished sauce, replace lid and cook for a few minutes.

STEP 18

to plate, remove crabs and arrange on serving dish.

STEP 19

pour sauce on top of crabs.

STEP 20

add a few fresh coriander leaves, to serve.

STEP 21

ready, set, go, attack!

STEP 22

voilà! the easiest and best crab chettinad!!

So, all we need to go along with this dish is some soft steamed Basmati rice. (Click Basmati rice to see how to prepare this delicious accompaniment.)

And there you have it. A most versatile spice used in three different ways in the same recipe.

If you’d like to try another classic version of this dish, please click crab chettinand recipe.

Anah daata sukhi bhaava!!

Two books that inspired me then . . . and still do to this day!!!

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about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

books for cooks

For a chef anywhere in the world, two books that would fall under the umbrella term of inspiration would be Larousse Gastronomique and Herring’s Dictionary of Classical and Modern Cookery. These two books are the ‘supreme’ commandments when it comes to French Cooking.

But for me, as an Indian cook looking for inspiration, the two books I would choose would have to be Spices and Condiments [1] and the second Indian Food – A Historical Companion [2]. These two books are my supreme authorities.

One book covers the use of spices and herbs and the other gives a historical background on the evolution of Indian food over the centuries.

These are not cookbooks, there are no recipes and no, they are not written by chefs. The authors are scientists who have dedicated their entire life in trying to make the cook in me (and in all of us) gain an understanding of the role of spices and herbs in Indian food, the how and why and when of spices. The other book (Indian Food – A Historical Companion) makes me realise that Indian food is more about the process, the step-by-step method, of cooking rather than the quantities. How I wish I had read them when I was in catering school I would have. . .well, you know, the sky’s the limit!

So who are these authors?

The first book I mentioned, Spices and Condiments was written by Dr J.S. Pruthi and first published in 1976. And here is the man himself!

Dr J.S. Pruthi

I am very fortunate to have met this gentleman, more out of force of circumstance than from a burning desire to meet him.

It was in 1989 and I was asked to work on recipes from the Malabar coast when we were setting up the Karavalli Restaurant at the Gateway Hotel in Bangalore. My instructions were to get as much information about the ingredients as possible as the recipes had to be authentic!

So I had to find out what, for example, badige chilli was and where it grows. I had to find out why we use pepper from Kerala and what garbled black pepper is, and so on.

A true dish belongs to the people and the people belong to a place. Yes, we know all this, but what’s important about it is that for a recipe to be authentic the produce used in a particular recipe has to be from that local region and nowhere else!

So, I meet Dr J.S. Pruthi in Mysore on my way to Ooty and I start my question thus, “Dr Pruthi, pleased to meet you. Sir, I am here to learn about the use of chilli in the coastal food of Western India. . .” and I ask my question about what chillies should be used.

No sooner has the question been asked, Dr Pruthi tells me, without stalling, that in Coondapur cooking one must use only badige chillies as they impart a unique colour besides their unique taste. And he continues in this vein about coconuts and about black pepper and how it is graded based on its size and he mentions garbling and he carries on and on with supreme knowledge about all these spices!!

All of this wealth of information and knowledge, and so much more besides, comes pouring forth from a man who is not even a cook!!

This man turbocharged my understanding of Indian cuisine. He showed me that Indian food is about spices and that the sooner I gain real knowledge about such spices the better it will be for me (and those of you who eat my food!).

When I met Dr Pruthi I had been cooking for nearly 10 years and all I had learnt was ‘when’ to add the spices but never ‘how’ and certainly never ‘why’!!

This gentleman got me started on my quest for learning about spices and I am here, to this day, still learning!! Thanks Dr Pruthi.

So let’s return to his book. And here it is, in case you’re lucky enough to stumble across a copy as it’s now, unfortunately, out of print. Let me know if you find one!

The other ‘Bible’ by Dr J.S. Pruthi

Basically, his book describes nearly 90 different spices in detail, from, for example, the Botanical NameCoriandrum sativum Linn., followed by the Family Name: Umbelliferae, followed by the local Indian names in our different languages such as Bengali: Dhane, Gujarati: Kothmiri, Punjabi: Dhania, and so on. He then describes this spice (called coriander if you haven’t already guessed!), and informs us where it is produced (which tells me why it is used more in one particular region rather than another), followed by its uses in food and in medicine (especially Ayurvedic medicine). Did you also know that coriander is native to, well, yes, of course India but Hungary, Poland, Guatemala and etc.?! This book abounds in interesting facts.

The second book Indian Food, is authored by Dr K.T. Achaya. He is also a scientist and I had the privilege of meeting him in Hyderabad in 1990. And here he is, too!

Dr K.T. Achaya

After my marriage in Bangalore we headed off to Hyderabad. Mum and Dad lived there and it is customary for newly weds to visit the bridegroom’s parents soon after the wedding. We spent five days in Hyderabad jam-packed with activities, another reception followed by visits to close family and friends.

Anyway, in one of the visits to Meera’s maternal grand-uncle’s house in Hyderabad I was introduced to a gentleman who was due to release a book on Indian food and its history over the past 1000 years. That’s no mean feat!

The oldest book I knew of back then on the history of Indian food was written by Abul Fazal (the book is called A’in-I Akbari) who was one of the nine ministers (9 jewels) in the emperor Akbar’s court. He was a historian and had documented recipes for the royal highness!! A royal dish had been created in their honour called navrattan khorma. Now, how do I know all this?

It was Dr Achaya who passed it on. Dr Achaya was a deep mine of information about the history of Indian food, its origins from the early days in Harappa to the arrival of the foreigners (the Arabs, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Moguls and the British).

Dr Achaya’s book was still a few years away from being published but he was kind enough to tell me something about the dosai (tosai) which, according to Dr Achaya, was made with only rice and makes its appearance as early as the 6th Century A.D. He also spoke about the word ‘curry’, saying that it was a corruption of the Tamil word kari, meaning a pepper flavoured sauce!!

Again, I am pretty shocked that all this information is given by a man who has nothing to do with cooking food! He is not a chef, he is not even a cook but it is his love for this cuisine that made him get involved with a project on the history of science in India. The book deals with the history and culture of food practices of our Indian sub-continent.

One of the ‘Bibles’ – Indian food by K.T. Achaya

He describes so beautifully the process of making a kheer (rice pudding). He starts off by talking about kaccha and pucca foods. Literally, kaccha foods mean food that has been imperfectly cooked and pucca (pukka) means the opposite (for those Jamie Oliver fans out there you’ll notice that he uses this word to express something that he’s cooked that has come out well or tastes great!), but according to Dr Achaya the ritual usage goes beyond this. Both are, of course, fully cooked in the modern sense of cooking. Please join me in reading an excerpt from his book and relish the slow style, the detail and knowledge:

Kaccha foods are basically foods cooked in water, like rice, khichdī and dhãl. These items of food are considered both exclusive and pure, and the rules governing their preparation are designed to ensure this. Boiling with water tends to render any anna or its flour pure, and when this is done within the restricted cooking area and in a ritual cooking pot, the sthãli, a kaccha product results. Once the cooking of a kaccha food starts, usually by setting the rice or dhal to boil, the cook cannot leave the food area till the meal has been prepared, served and eaten following ritual rules. Should he do so, he will have lost his own purity, and another bath, fresh clothes and fresh cooking will be called for. A kaccha food item can be cheap or expensive, plain or festive, of average or superior nutritive quality. Even a marriage feast could consist entirely of kaccha foods like sweet rice, pallão, chana dhãl, urad dhãl and dahi-vadã. Wheat breads like roti and chapati were not in vogue in Vedic times, and therefore escaped ritual classifications; since they do not involve boiling, such items would not therefore strictly qualify as kaccha foods, even though eaten now at every meal. Kaccha food had to be cooked afresh for every meal; left-over or stale food, termed basi or jutha, was likely to have become polluted.

Pucca foods are essentially those cooked with fat, meaning of course ghee. They are destined, primarily, for use outside the domestic food area. A pucca food is one in which the first contact is with ghee. Thus in preparing halwa, the ghee must first be added to the pan and only then should the anna or the phala follow. Sometimes use of the same ingredients in a different sequence will determine the ritual classification. Thus to make kshīrikã (kheer), a pucca food, the rice must first come into contact with ghee, before milk, fire and sugar enter the picture. If this sequence is not followed, and the rice is added say to boiling milk, with ghee and sugar added later, the dish will be called doodhbãth, and is a restrictive kaccha food. Common daily dishes are most affected by such sequences. Pucca foods suffer less restrictions, are less liable to pollution, and can be shared outside the family by those of either lower or higher levels of purity.

Wow! Doesn’t that just blow your mind away? Savour that knowledge!

Dr K.T. Achaya’s book was first published in 1994.

So, just as Larousse and Herrings will always remain the ‘Bibles’ of French Food, I have no doubt that the book on spices and condiments and the history of Indian food will some day gain their rightful place and become the Bhagavad Gita of Indian food and be an essential part of the curriculum in catering schools all over India!!

I promise you I will be around to see that happen. Until then . . . Shubh Chintan, but of course: Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

REFERENCES:

The two books mentioned here are [1]: J.S. Pruthi, Spices and Condiments from the series India – The Land and the People, National Book Trust, India, 1976.

[2] K.T. Achaya, Indian Food – A Historical Companion, Oxford University Press, 1994 (Oxford India Paperbacks, 1998).

The Story of Our Food

Other fascinating books by K.T. Achaya you might want to look at are: The Story of Our Food, Universities Press (India) Limited, 2000 which is here:

and a fascinating, useful resource is his: A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, Oxford University Press, 1998.

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