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Perfect dal is all about tadka, baghar, vagharne, chonk, phodni or…..just call it tempering !!

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!

So, what is it that makes a good dal become an exceptional dal?

Well, the Gujaratis call it vagharne, the Punjabis call it tadka, the inhabitants of Uttar Bharat call it chonk, the Hyderabadis call it baghar, the Maharashtrians call it phodni and the . . . well, there are at least 25 other versions of this technique and in English we’d call it ‘tempering’.

ingredients used for adding the extra ‘oomph’

In India the actual process of tempering is the same in every state, although some of the ingredients may change because of their availability, or lack thereof, within each state, but the end result never changes which is to get a “wow” factor into the dish.

A simple dal dish is the best way to demonstrate how great tempering is.

The Southern Indians eat their dal with rice while in the north it is an excellent accompaniment with roti, or bread. You can, of course, eat yours with anything you want and as a vegetarian, if you have it with bread or rice it creates a perfect meal full of protein.

mung dal

A Northern dal dish is called mung dal tadka whereas the South Indians call it paruppu (well, that is what my wife calls it who hails from the south!). Today we are using paytham paruppu and giving it a talichu.

mung dal tadka

paytham paruppu with ‘talichu’


2 cups moong dal (mung lentils)
8 cups cold water (tap water)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, mung dal, turmeric and water

step 1: Wash and drain lentils.

wash & drain lentils

step 2: Add turmeric and oil to the lentils along with 8 cups of water and bring water to the boil.

add turmeric and oil and cook the lentils

step 3: Cook lentils until soft, add the salt, turn off the heat and set aside.

mung dal should be soft to touch when cooked

mung dal, cooked, soft, salted and ready for the tempering!!

Now for the tadka or ‘tempering’:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
1 teaspoon ground chilli
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon
2-3 fresh coriander leaves

clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), cumin seeds, asafoetida, chilli powder, salt, lemons & fresh coriander


step 1. For tadka, or ‘tempering’, heat oil in a pan and let it smoke, remove from the heat and crackle the cumin seeds.

heat oil in a pan

add the cumin seeds

step 2. Add the asafoetida and then chilli powder.

add the asafoetida

step 4. Pour the hot oil (this is called the ‘tempering’) on top of the cooked lentils.

pour the tempering on the hot dal

step 5. Add lemon juice and the coriander leaves and serve immediately!!

add lemon juice & fresh coriander

For talichu or ‘tempering’:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon asafoetida powder
2-3 fresh green chillies, roughly chopped
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
salt, to taste
juice of half a lemon

clockwise, from left to right: vegetable oil (centre), mustard seeds, asafoetida, fresh green chillies, fresh curry leaves, salt & lemons


step 1. In a pan, heat the oil and let it smoke. Remove from the heat.

heat oil

step 2. Crackle the black mustard seeds (by adding to the hot oil!).

crackle the mustard seeds

step 3. Add the asafoetida.

add the asafoetida

step 4. Then add the chopped/slit green chillies.

add chopped/slit chillies

step 5. Place curry leaves on top of cooked lentils and pour the hot oil over.

place fresh curry leaves on top of the hot dal

pour the hot tempering over the dal and curry leaves

step 6. Add lemon juice and serve immediately.

squeeze lemon juice on top and serve immediately

Remember the following when cooking lentils:
1. Never soak the lentils. Wash and cook them immediately.
2. Start cooking the lentils in cold water, this helps them cook from the inside, out. As the water comes to the boil the heat slowly penetrates through the lentils, thereby making them soft.
3. Add the turmeric and oil to the lentils as soon as the pot is placed on the heat. This makes any impurities rise to the surface and the oil prevents the froth from overflowing. Do not discard the froth if there are no impurities.
4. Add the salt after the lentils are cooked and soft. If added at the beginning, the salt, prolongs the cooking and may also prevent the lentils from getting soft.

Remember the following when tempering:

1. The oil must be smoking and away from the heat when adding the spices.
2. The spices must be added as soon as possible but, and this is essential, one after the other. Adding the spices alternately allows them to crackle and release their flavors into the oil.
3. Never add the curry leaves to the hot oil, they will turn black and may even cause the oil to splatter. Instead, place the leaves on the cooked lentils and then pour the hot oil on top of the leaves as shown in the picture in steps 4 & 5.
4. Add the lemon juice just before serving, this helps bring out the flavors and brightens the colour of the dal!!

Serve it accompanied with a roti for the northern version, or with some boiled rice if it is the southern version, or do what my son and I do, which is so simple and yet so delicious. We just have it as a ‘soup’ on its own. Superb!

father & son enjoying a big bowl of dal!!

Save the roti and the rice for kozhi milagu chettinad or murgh kali mirch!

And there we have it, folks!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

A classic recipe from the land of the coconut……!

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!

vegetable ishtew

Folks, this week we are making a dish that my ‘mallu’ friends call ‘ishtew’. Generally made with beef or chicken, here is my version with vegies and yes it is a ‘VEGAN‘ dish !!

ingredients clockwise starting in the 2 o’clock position: coconut oil, chopped red onions, sliced green chillies, broccoli and cauliflower florettes, diced tomatoes, kari leaves, ginger juliennes. outer ring: diced beans, cassia bark, green cardamom, cloves, mace blade, black peppercorn, star anise, caramelised onions, coriander leaves, coconut cream (or whole coconut if you are really keen; otherwise use coconut cream), diced potatoes, diced carrots

If you want instructions on how to caramelise onions (or even slice them), check out my techniques page.

Blanching the vegetables

Step 1

prepare mixing bowl of iced water

Step 2

add salt to boiling water in a large pot

Step 3

add diced potato to boiling water

Step 4

cook the potatoes until they are al dente

Step 5

to check of the potatoes are al dente, remove one from the pot and cut it with a knife – it should slide through like ‘cutting’ butter

Step 6

when the potatoes are al dente, scoop from the pot and place in iced water to stop the potato cooking any more

Step 7

Repeat this process for beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower – cook each vegetable separately when blanching.

Cooking the spices, onion, fresh chilli, kari leaves and tomato

Step 1

In a large frying pan, heat pan and add coconut oil. When the oil smokes, add spices separately, folding between each addition. Start with the cassia (cinnamon sticks), then green cardamoms, cloves,black peppercorns and mace blades.

Step 2

Look for signs that the spices have cooked. Initially the cassia will be furled. When it has cooked, it will be open.

cassia (cinnamon stick) not ready since it hasn’t unfurled

unfurled, now it is perfectly cooked

cooked cardamon pods will swell, like this

cooked mace will only slightly unfurl, like this

Step 3

now the spices are cooked, add chopped onions and keep folding whilst the onions caramelise. n.b. the coconut oil will froth

Step 4

add salt and fold

Step 5

when your onions have caramelised like this, it’s time to add the thinly sliced (julienned) ginger

Step 6

add the ginger and fold

Step 7

add fresh green chillies and fold

Step 8

add half the kari leaves and fold. repeat this process with the remaining half

Step 9

when your mixture looks like this, it’s time to add caramelised onions

add caramelised onions and fold

Step 10

when your onions look like this, it’s time to remove a cup of them to be used as a garnish

Step 10

setting aside some of the garnish

Step 11

add chopped tomatoes to the frying pan and fold until their skins have almost separated from the flesh (as above!)

Step 12

when the tomato skins have almost split, add coconut cream and fold

Step 13

turn down the heat so the coconut does’t boil as it will split if it boils. Small sporadic bubbles are fine!

Step 14

drain blanched vegetables and keep discarded water

Step 15

add vegetables to pot and fold

Step 16

keep folding until all the vegetables are covered by the creamy sauce

Step 17

cover pot for ten minutes, remove lid: your vegetables will (should!) look like this

Step 18

check that your sauce isn’t too runny – dip a spoon into the sauce and remove; the sauce shouldn’t run off the spoon but drip off. If the sauce runs off, keep reducing the sauce

if the sauce doesn’t drip off your spoon, add a little water (use the water from the blanched vegetables)

only add a little water (kept aside from the strained vegetables) at a time (if you need to)

Step 19

sample your dish – add salt to taste, if needed

Step 20 – Plate the dish

serve the meal – maybe on a banana leaf and red rice noodles a.k.a. Idiappam!

red rice noodles can be purchased from an Indian grocery store all ready to heat and serve!!

Step 21 Add garnishes and enjoy!

add chopped coriander

add caramelised onion/spice mixture you had set aside earlier

So folks, as promised, we are on a journey!! Not only am I ‘touring’ the vast land of India and showing you the great variety of its food, I’m also focusing on vegan dishes! Don’t, my dear meat-eating friends, be ‘put off’ by this. Make some of these as a side dish, if you want, with some kebabs (remember?) or lamb cutlets that take minutes to cook. And as for my vegan friends, well yes, I know, this is more than enough as a good meal in itself.

Until then, happy VEG(AN)TARIAN cooking and remember Indian food is NO DAMN CURRY IN…..!!! When I show this dish to people they say, “Is it Thai, Italian, Macrobiotic . . . etc. etc. etc.” and never bl–dy Indian. And on that merry note.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!!

An eggplant (aubergine) dish that’s fit for a vegan king!

the final product: stuffed baby eggplants, bursting with a delicious filling and covered in a rich sauce

Well folks, you didn’t think I’d leave you this week with complete silence did you?

I have been heartened, and touched and humbled by all your comments. Thank you one and all. The show will go on!

So, what I wanted to share with you was this eggplant dish that I wrote in January of this year. For recent followers of my blog, I hope you find it interesting and for those old stalwarts, well, enjoy the ride, again!

I chose this blog firstly because the simplicity of the dish belies its taste and second, because I am often hearing from vegans who want something that not only looks good but tastes damn’d good too. And third, because it uses that gem, garam masala.

You can find the garam masala that goes with vegetables here.

And then, I enjoy this recipe because it doesn’t have onions or garlic in it which surprises so many people!

Why no onions or garlic? Because, in keeping with the Jain tradition, onions and garlic are omitted. Plants that grow beneath the soil aren’t eaten. “Amazing!”, I hear you cry, “you can make a meal fit for a king without onions or garlic; but what about the flavour? what about….?” and on and on you’ll go, finishing off with the fact that you only ever cook using onions and garlic.

But before we start another challenge . . . it should have no dairy or milk products… instead of wondering what on earth to cook your son’s girlfriend who’s coming for dinner and who, your son absentmindedly tells you at the last minute, “Oh, and by the way mum, she’s vegan.” Try this dish!

People often think that vegetarian (not to mention vegan) meals are solely a plate of sad-looking vegetables served without  meat. How wrong they are!

Or people think vegan cuisine is some sort of faddish macrobiotic meal that you need to go to a wholefood store to buy all the ingredients you’ve never heard of, or used before, and probably never will again.

But there must be something to the vegan diet that the Jains have been eating for thousands of years! Come see.

So, here is my version of a dish called ‘stuffed eggplant’ that the French call aubergines farces and the Italians melanzane ripieni alla Calabrese. My dish is called bharleli vangi which hails from the coastal region of Maharashtra in Western India. I assure you that once you make this, and your friends eat it, the other two will become history!! Believe you me. For a single page version of this recipe, click stuffed eggplant recipe.

Step 1

What you’ll need for the filling, starting clockwise from the 12 o’clock position : salt, vegetable oil, bay leaf, ginger paste, ground turmeric, chilli powder, vegetarian garam masala, desiccated coconut, chopped tomatoes. Outside the ‘clock’: baby eggplants, chopped coriander and lemon juice”

step 2

vegetarian garam masala

step 3

set aside the bay leaves

step 4

grind all the spices (apart from the bay leaves) for approx. 15 seconds

step 5

the ground spices should have the texture of coarse sand

step 6

add 1 tablespoon salt to 1/2 litre of tepid water in a large bowl to immerse the deseeded eggplant

step 7

slice top off the eggplant

step 8

score the diameter of the circle using the tip of a sharp knife

step 9

scoop out the eggplant seeds [the scored circle will prevent the eggplant skin from tearing

step 10

scoop out the seeds until you can insert the teaspoon one inch into the eggplant’s length

step 11

in total, remove about 1 teaspoonful from each eggplant

step 12

this is how the eggplant should look after removing its seeds

step 13

place the scooped eggplants into the bowl of saltwater you prepared earlier – this will reduce the bitterness of the eggplant and prevent any discolouring of the inside

step 14, prepare the filling

add 1/2 cup of polyunsaturated vegetable oil to a hot frying pan

step 15

when the oil starts to smoke, add the two bay leaves

step 16

add 1 tablespoon of the ginger paste

step 17

fold in the ginger quickly

step 18

reduce the heat and add the turmeric and fold (note the vegetable oil base is becoming golden)

step 19

add 1 tablespoon chilli powder and fold

step 20

add the vegetarian garam masla and fold

step 21

add 11/2 cups desiccated coconut and fold

step 22

add 1 teaspoon  salt

step 23

remove 1/2 mixture and set aside in a small bowl for the filling. The rest will be used to make the sauce!

step 24

add chopped coriander to the small bowl for the filling and fold

step 25

dry each eggplant using a clean tea-towel

step 26

with a small spoon, scoop up some of the filling and insert into each eggplant

step 27

place the filling into each eggplant

step 28

press down the filling firmly with the teaspoon

step 29

once stuffed, set aside the eggplant and repeat for each remaining eggplant!

step 30, cooking the stuffed eggplants

add 3 tablespoons of polyunsaturated vegetable oil to a hot frying pan

step 31

when the oil is hot, place the eggplants in the frying pan

step 32

turn the eggplants frequently to ensure each side is evenly cooked

step 33

the eggplants’ skin will change colour when it is cooked and it will become crisper

step 34

pour hot oil over the eggplants

step 35

the eggplants will soon look like this

step 36, slow cook the eggplants so that they cook on the inside

cover the frying pan to cook the eggplants on the inside

step 37

cover the frying pan and cook over low heat for ten minutes

step 38

when you remove the lid, watch out for the steam!

step 39

your eggplants will now be cooked

step 40

a close-up of the cooked filling

step 41

check that each eggplant is cooked – a knife inserted should slide through like butter

step 42, prepare the sauce,

return the frying pan with the remaining mixture added onto a medium heat and add chopped tomatoes


fold in the chopped tomatoes

step 44

add any remaining filling and fold

step 45

fold until the oil comes away easily from the sides of the pan

step 46

add 4 tablespoons of water, or vegetable stock, and fold [you want a sauce-like consistency

step 47

fold till  mixture comes to the boil

step 48

place a banana leaf on a plate

step 49

place sauce on the banana leaf

step 50

stand each eggplant in the sauce

step 51

add all the eggplants

step 52

add remaining sauce on top of the eggplants

step 53

add 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice to bring out the aroma of the dish

step 54

serve with a chappati or bread of your choice

You may also try this dish with baby cucumbers or baby courgettes instead of the baby eggplants!!

Trust me, cook it for a meat-eating friend who thinks vegan food is for rabbits. They will be amazed.

Happy cooking! And if any of you have any trouble, hints or anything you want to say about this dish, please let me know at the end of this blog! I’d particularly like to hear from our Jain cousins, or our vegan friends who’ve made either this, or any other, recipes and what they’ve found good about it. I’d also be amused to hear from you meat eaters out there who would usually baulk at a vegan meal and see what you think of it. So, get cooking and typing and let the feedback (no pun intended) begin!

There, it’s good to keep going, isn’t it? Happy cooking folks!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

A baby eggplant dish, you will love it !!

It is easy to cook, that means even a novice can make it!!

It has no onions, no garlic and no ginger, that means even the Jains can eat it!!

It has no dairy, that means it is great for vegans!! (I made another dish like this, so if you’re eager to try this recipe, you might also really like this one, too!)

It takes very little time to prepare [assuming that you already have your own garam masala ready]!!

It is an adaptation of Mumbai Maushi’s recipe of hirvya masalachi vangi [which literally means eggplant cooked in a green masala]!

And last, but not least, this is the first time my son has eaten an eggplant dish, and a vegan one to boot, and he just loved it. So, thank you Maushi !!

To celebrate the beginning of the festive season and the end of Navratri, which literally means nine nights, here is my little contribution to all those who believe in this biannual festival.

I hope you enjoy the last few days of Navratri. . .

So, here’s how we make hirvya masalachi vangi:


1.  1 kg baby eggplants

2.  1/2 cup polyunsaturated vegetable oil

3.  1 tablespoon asafoetida

4.  salt, to taste

5.  1 tablespoon turmeric

6.  2 tablespoons garam masala (please see the recipe for garam masala for vegetables)

ingredients from left to right: vegetable oil, asafoetida, salt, turmeric, garam masala & baby eggplant (centre)

Green masala ingredients:

1.  1/2 fresh coconut grated, or 1/2 cup coconut powder

2.  1 bunch fresh coriander

3.  4-6 fresh green chillies

4.  1 teaspoon peppercorns

5.  2 cups of water

ingredients for green masala from left to right: grated fresh coconut, fresh coriander leaves, green chillies & peppercorns


1.  Preheat the oven to 150 C. Slit the eggplants into quarters but do not cut totally through.

slitting the eggplant

make the second slit

eggplant should look like this

do the same for all the eggplants

2.  In a thick bottom pot, heat the oil till it is about to smoke, reduce the heat and add the asafoetida.

heat oil

add the asafoetida

3.  Add the slit eggplants, and gently fold them till they are coated with the oil. Now add the salt.

add the eggplant

fold gently

the eggplant will start to colour lightly

it is ready for the salt when it starts to split open

add salt

fold gently

4.  Add the turmeric followed by half the garam masala. Fold gently.

add the turmeric

fold gently

add half the garam masala

fold gently

5.  Cover the pot and place it in the oven for about 20 minutes, or till the eggplants are soft.

cover & place pot in oven

cook till eggplant is soft

6.  In the meantime, prepare the green masala by placing the coconut, coriander, chillies and peppercorns in a blender, add 1 cup of water and blend to a fine chatni [paste].

add the ingredients for the green masala to the mixer

add water

grind green masala/chatni to a fine paste

7.  Remove pot from the oven and add the green chatni, and the remaining cup of water, to the pot. Fold gently and either place the pot on top of the stove or replace in the oven for about 30 minutes, or till the oil rises to the surface.

add green masala/chatni to the soft eggplant

add remaining water to the mixer bowl, mix well & add all the liquid to the eggplant

fold gently till the masala coats the eggplant

cover with lid & cook in the oven for about 30 minutes

the masala is cooked when the oil rises to the surface

8.  Sprinkle the remaining garam masala on top and serve with a hot roti, or chappati, or even moist boiled rice!!

sprinkle remaining garam masala

mumbai maushi’s hirvya masalachi vangi

Happy Navratri and now back to some serious meat eating from. . .!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

From the land of biryanis comes another classic….!!

. . .and it is called qabooli, derived from the word qabool meaning ‘to accept’!

This is how it is made.

As most of you will remember, we made the vegetable stock last week and this week we’re using it in this wonderful biryani. There were 3 litres of vegetable stock (ganga jal) made.

So, now that we’ve got our vegetable stock ready, let’s get cracking with making the dish.


1. 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2.  2 medium-sized red (Spanish) onions, finely chopped
3.  2 tablespoons salt
4.  1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
5.  1 1/2 tablespoons ground garlic
6.  1 teaspoon ground turmeric
7.  1 1/2 tablespoons ground dried red chillies
8.  2 cups yoghurt
9. garam masala for biryani
10. saffron threads soaked in warm milk 

ingredients, from left to right: vegetable oil, salt, ground ginger, ground garlic, turmeric, ground chillies, garam masala, saffron threads and chopped onions & yoghurt (centre)

11.  1 bunch coriander leaves, chopped
12.  1  bunch fresh mint, chopped
13.  4-5 fresh green chillies, sliced
14.  1 medium-sized red onion, sliced and caramelised

ingredients, from left to right: caramelised onions, chopped coriander, sliced green chillies & chopped mint

15.  1 cup chana dal, or chick pea lentils, soaked in half the vegetable stock.
16.  3 cups Basmati rice soaked in 12 cups of water

ingredients: Basmati rice & chana dal


1.  Soak the rice in cold water till the rice touches the surface of the water (approx. 15 minutes).
2.  Soak the chick pea lentils in half the vegetable stock for about 15 minutes. Then cook on high heat till the lentils are soft but not mashed. Drain and set aside. Set the strained liquid aside.

chick pea lentils soaked in vegetable stock

bring to a boil & cook on high heat

cook till the lentils are soft but not mashed

strain the lentils & reserve the ‘pot liquor’

strained lentils

3.  Heat oil in a pot till it smokes, add the chopped onions and reduce the heat to moderate.

heat oil

add the chopped onions

4. Add 1 tablespoon salt and fold the onions. Cook till onions are almost caramelised.

add salt

caramelise the onions

5. Add the ground ginger and fold. Cook till the ginger is caramelised.

add the ginger

cook till the ginger caramelises

6.  Add the ground garlic and cook till caramelised.

add the garlic

cook for a couple of minutes

7.  Add the turmeric, followed by the chilli and gradually fold till the oil leaves the sides of the pot.

add the turmeric

and the chilli

cook till the oil leaves the sides of the pot

8.  Add the yoghurt and cook till the yoghurt has completely cooked and the oil appears on the sides of the pot.

add the yoghurt

cook till the oil leaves the sides of the pot

9.  Add the cooked and strained chana dal, fold and cook till oil leaves the sides of the pot.

add the chana dal

cook till the oil leaves the sides of the pot

10.  Sprinkle the garam masala on top.

sprinkle the garam masala on top

fold into the dal

11.  Add the chopped mint, chopped coriander and the sliced chillies to the lentils. cover and keep aside.

add the chopped mint

and the chopped coriander

followed by the chillies

cover & keep aside

12.  In a pot bring the remaining stock and the drained liquid (kept aside after cooking the lentils) to a boil, add 1 tablespoon of salt.

boil the stock & drained liquid from cooked chana dal in a separate pot

add salt

13.  Add the drained rice to the boiling stock and cook till the rice is al dente, strain and add to the cooked lentils.

drain the rice

ensure stock is boiling

add drained rice to boiling stock

cook till the rice is al dente

strain the cooked rice

layer over the fresh herbs on the chana dal

14.  Sprinkle the soaked saffron threads on top of the rice. Cover rice with a moist cloth/ tea towel and place the pot in a pre-heated, fan forced oven, temp. 150 C, for about 20 mins.

sprinkle the saffron threads soaked in milk

layered biryani ready for the oven

cover with a wet tea towel

place the lid on top

place in the oven

15. Remove qabooli (biryani) from oven, top with caramelised onions and fresh herbs and serve with bhoorani and roasted pappads!!

remove qabooli from the oven & remove the wet tea towel

the layers of the qabooli

qabooli hot from the oven

top with caramelised onions

and fresh herbs

serve with roasted pappads & bhoorani

This is a superb vegetarian dish and I hope you enjoy making it. It’s often the simplest, and most straightforward things, that can often be the best.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava

A stock without any bones, but loaded with flavour!!!

In 1983 after I completed my training in Madras, I was offered a job in the Taj Group of Hotels as a commis in their new project in Bangalore. This was a dream come true for me.

I had always wanted to work for the Taj.

I had worked with the Taj Group previously as a trainee and a part-time cook but this was a full-time Job (with a capital ‘J’).

So, now that I was going full-time, there wasn’t going to be any more peeling onions or potatoes by the bagful. I was past that stage now. This was going to be a full-time job with responsibility!

When we reached Bangalore we were informed that the opening of the new hotel was postponed by about a year and that we were to go to Taj Palace in Delhi for specialization in different key areas of the kitchen.

Super!! That was fine by me. I had always wanted to specialize in handi cooking and making rotis in the tandoor.

This situation was perfect as I knew that the Taj Palace had Chef NP Singh looking after the restaurant, which was aptly named “Handi”, and that NP was a great teacher himself.

So, with great anticipation Deepak Rao, Annadurai and I reach Delhi and promptly report to the executive chef, Ruhaina Jayal, possibly the first female chef of a 5-star hotel at that time.

Chef Ruhaina then asks us to report to Mr Arvind Saraswat who was the corporate chef. Now, Chef Saraswat wasn’t just any other chef, he was the Big Chef. No, he was the Very Big Chef [upper case intended!]. For back then the Taj Bangalore was under his command, along with other hotels in Rajasthan and Madras.

Being under the ‘command’ of such a big chef made me nervous as this was not a part of the original script.

In the lines we’d learned in past performances, we usually just reported to the executive chef and that was the end of the matter. Not, however, any more. I mean, we were no longer apprentices and it was expected that we were to take up responsible positions on our return to Bangalore so we had to report to the Big Chef himself!!

We are summoned, one at a time, into Chef Saraswat’s office. In this office each of us is handed an envelope and asked to move on. “Yes Sir!!” we salute mentally as we’re drilled into action.

As we each open our envelopes we lean excitedly to see what the other is going to be doing.

Deepak gets to specialise in the “continental” kitchen.

Annadurai gets the handi kitchen and I. . . well, I do a double take in disbelief as I get to specialize in the “soup” section.

“What?!!” I think to myself and then say out loud. I’ve never heard anything like that before.

What in the world am I going to tell my Dad, my friends? . . . I am shattered. This wasn’t what I had expected at all!!

I want to quit, but then I calm myself and acknowledge that I don’t want to work for the Oberoi or the ITC or any number of other hotels that are just not in the same league!!

So, I decide to wage war against my inner feelings and I settle down with the idea of becoming the best chef de potage in the world (but I still can’t stop, literally and metaphorically, shaking my head from side to side thinking, “Bl…y h..l”!!).

Soup indeed!

And it’s right here, at the soup section folks, that I learn my first lesson in cooking and in life. And it’s quite a simple one: don’t have any expectations in life or you will be disappointed. Instead have hope and work damn’d hard for it.

So, I knuckle down and I start my specialization as a soup cook with Chef John.

Work starts at 6 a.m. every day, six days a week and it finishes at 3 p.m. every day.

Soups are made for the entire hotel, around 20-22 different kinds, and they are then delivered to each ‘satellite’ kitchen. I work my a.. off.

But I am not happy. I don’t belong here. Chef John, who is a master craftsman and also a mind reader, though he had no real qualifications to speak of, was a genuinely kind-hearted man for which you can’t gain any qualifications, it has to come from the heart.

“Son,” he says to me “you can always work in any kitchen after you have finished your shift here in the ‘soup kitchen’. You can work in the Indian kitchen, if you wish, or you can work in the garde manger.” As we all know, the garde manger is an unpopular starting point so what do I do?

Well, I opt for. . .


And it’s here that my specialization begins! I am all pumped up even though I start my day at 4.30 a.m. in the morning and finish by 9 p.m.

And guess what? Yes, I love this! I wanted to specialize in the handi and rotis but I am now getting trained in the soup and larder as well.

Which leads me to the second lesson of my cooking life (and life in general!): expect the unexpected!!

Now that my mind is unclouded and I am working hard and long in such a variety of jobs, I am learning a lot much sooner. One of the lessons I’m learning very fast is Chef  John’s simple philosophy.

He believes that food cooked in, or with, water is bland and has no shelf life. Instead of water he likes to cook with a stock. He calls it Ganga jal, holy water, and he uses a different stock for every soup that is made in the kitchen. For example, he uses a mild fish stock for all the fish / shellfish soups. He uses a light chicken stock for all the Asian-style soups, and he uses a vegetable stock for all the shorbas.

Now all these stocks were out of this world!

He could be heard screaming in the kitchen, “Betae, Pan pakadne se pahle Chaku Chalaana seekho, Khaana banaane se pahle ‘stock’ banana seekho.” (Which means, “Son, learn to use the knife before you think of using the pan, and learn how to make a stock before you think of  cooking a proper dish.”)

Which brings me to a third simple lesson in cooking (and in life): get the basics right before you think of playing the ‘big shots’!

It is here that I learn to make some simple but fragrant stocks, a practice followed to this day in my desi kitchen!!

This week I want to make a simple vegetable stock that will be used to make a simple vegetarian (or vegan) dish…

To make a vegetable stock, or vegetable Ganga jal you simply follow the instructions below. What could be easier?


1.  2 tablespoons moong dal or mung lentils

2.  2 tablespoons masoor dal or red lentils

3.  1 tablespoon black peppercorns

4.  2-3 bay leaves

5.  3-4 cloves with bud intact

6.  1 tablespoon coriander seeds

7.  1 small piece of ginger, roughly chopped

8.  1 small green chilli

9.  fresh coriander stalks with roots intact, washed thoroughly

10.  6 lts of cold water

ingredients from left to right: mung lentils, red lentils, bay leaves, peppercorns, fresh ginger, green chilli, cloves, coriander seeds & fresh coriander stalks (centre)


1. Place 3 litres of cold water into a pot along with the mung lentils [moong dal].

add cold water to a pot

add the mung lentils

2.  Bring the water to a boil, add the masoor dal and the remaining water. Bring to a boil. Allow the liquid to ‘slow boil’.

add the masoor dal after the water comes to a boil

add the remaining water

3.  Skim the scum off the surface of the water at regular intervals.

bring the stock to a ‘slow boil’

skim off the scum frequently

keep the stock at a ‘slow boil’, skimming often as the water boils

4.  Add the bay leaves followed by the peppercorns.

add the bay leaves

followed by the peppercorns

5. Then add the cloves followed by the coriander seeds.

add the cloves

add the coriander seeds

6. Then add the ginger.

add the fresh ginger

7. Followed by the green chilli.

add the green chilli

8. Finally, add the coriander stalks with the roots attached.

add the coriander stalks and roots

9. Cook till the stock has reduced and is ‘clear’.

cook till the stock is reduced

the stock should be clear

10. Strain the stock and let cool. Then freeze, or refrigerate, till required.

strain the stock

refrigerate or freeze and use as required

Some simple, but important, points to remember when making a vegetable stock:

1.  The stock should never be allowed ‘simmer’ or it will turn the stock ‘cloudy’.

2.  Add the spices one at a time, as in our images. This small procedure allows the volatile oils in each spice impart its specific ‘character’ or flavour. Remember, cooking is like a building. You start with one layer and gradually add another on top, in stages!!

3. Add the herbs without crushing them too finely. This allows the flavors to come out gradually.

4. Skim off the scum from the surface at regular intervals. (A full-proof way to do this is to carefully tilt the pot to one side of the flame (heat). Tilting the pot one way means the scum on the surface of the pot will move to the opposite side, making it easier to skim off the surface! Try it, you’ll get the hang of it.)

5.  Reduce the stock till the liquid has reduced by about a third, which should give you approximately 2 litres of pure Ganga jal.

Now for the dish.

Well, before we make the dish, tune in next week when we use this Ganga jal to make a simple, but totally flavoursome, vegetarian dish.

Until then,

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

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”


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


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.


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.)

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