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The king of kebabs . . . perfect for a father’s day lunch or dinner!!

When my son, Aniruddh, asked me, “Hey dad, if you were to describe a perfect father’s day – what would it be?”

No sooner had he finished asking me than I immediately replied, “Son, it has to be a day I still remember to this day like it was yesterday.”

Well, the year was 1969, and the place was Hyderabad.

I had spent a full day with my dad [I called him ‘Papa’], watching a game of test match cricket in Hyderabad. It was India versus New Zealand. Day 1. And what an amazing and unforgettable day it was!!

We watched Papa’s favourite players in action.

We saw Nawab Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi Jnr, the youngest player ever to captain a national team in the world, take on the Kiwis who were led by the well-respected Graham Dowling.

The Indian team also had Ajit Wadekar, Bishen Bedi, Venkataraghavan and Prassanna.

On the Kiwi side there was Turner, Bevan Congdon, Dayle Hadlee and . . . well, the list goes on!

It was also my first experience of watching a test match ‘live’, as it were. It wasn’t on the television but in the stadium, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium we called it “Fateh Maidan”.

At the Fateh Maidan my dad and I were sitting in the stand next to the members’ section. “Son,” I grin at my son at the memory, “it was the most exciting day of my life!!”

Mum had packed lunch for us, and it included aloo paratha with home-made mango pickle served in two boxes: one for me and one for my dad.

We reached the stadium at around 8 a.m. just as it was being announced on the radio that all roads leading to the stadium would be closed after 9 a.m. which meant that if we’d been late my dad would have had to park  his Lambretta scooter a long way from the stadium.

But we arrived well in time, we weren’t going to be late for this game, no way!!

Anyway, the day finished with NZ making a smallish total, I don’t remember the exact score but the Indian spinners did what was expected of them. It was a great day’s play.

But there was more to come.

my Papa with my Bachcha in April 2003

On our way home, Papa took me to a small restaurant called a dhaba which I was told later was the name for a roadside eatery.

At this eatery we ordered two “full tandoori chickens” as a ‘parcel’ which is a term used to this day in India for a ‘take home’, ‘take-away’, or whatever you want to call it!

All this wonderful smelling food for just the four of us, sorry, the three of us as my mom’s a vegetarian.

Papa bought mirchi pakoda (batter fried stuffed banana chillies) for my mum.

the king of kebabs – tandoori chicken!!

“Son,” I said remembering the feeling as a young boy, “Can you imagine carrying all this food in your hand, riding pillion on a scooter?”

I smiled at the recollection as I remembered my sensory system was about to explode with the wonderful smell the parcel was giving!!

Well, we reached home after what seemed like forever to get to.

We ran inside. My Papa had his ubiquitous gin and tonic and we all (that’s my sister, my mother and I) sat around a small dining table savouring the. . .[cue music] “And and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. . .”]

“So bachche (son),” I say, returning to the present, “that to me is a perfect father’s day!”

And my son replies with candour, “No issues with that dad. I am sure we can do all of those things, can’t we? We can watch India take on NZ at the cricket in India, on TV. You can have your Shiraz and call it a ‘gin and tonic’, and we can certainly make the mirchi pakoda for mum .” And he pauses and then adds, “And I am pretty sure we can also make the tandoori chicken. Happy?”

I am.

So friends, for a perfect father’s day, I suggest you watch the cricket, have a gin and tonic (with extra ice and an extra splash of lime juice) and have, well, I’m sorry about this part as you’re going to have to make your own king of kebabs: tandoori chicken!!

So, to help you do this, here is my version of the king of kebabs, and yes, you certainly can make it at home even if you do not have a tandoor, just don’t call it ‘tandoori chicken’.

You can, however, certainly call it the king of kebabs!!

So, without further ado, it’s now time to cook the KING OF KEBABS for the King of the house!

1 kg whole chicken, with the skin on

whole chicken

Preparing the chicken for the first marinade:

  1. Skin the chicken & remove any excess fat & sinew. Also, remove the parson’s nose.

skin chicken & remove excess fat & trim

2. Remove the ends of the winglets on each side.

remove the ends of winglets on either side

3. Trim the ends of the drumsticks.

trim the ends of the drumsticks

4. Make a tiny slit between the thigh & the drumstick on each side, without cutting it fully.

gently make a slit between the thigh & the drumstick on each side, without cutting it fully

5. Make three evenly spaced slits on each drumstick, lengthways.

make three evenly spaced slits on each drumstick, lengthways

6. Make three slits on each thigh, as well.

do the same lengthways slit on each thigh, as well

each chicken leg should look like this

7. Make two slits along each breast, lengthways.

make two slits lengthwise along each breast

8. The chicken is now ready for the first marinade.

the prepared chicken should look like this!!


First Marinade

1. 2 tablespoons white vinegar
2. 1 teaspoon cooking salt
3. 1 1/2 teaspoons kashmiri chilli, ground

ingredients for first marinade: white vinegar, kashmiri chilli [ground] & salt

Tandoori masala/second marinade

1.1 1/2 cup thick yoghurt
2. 1 tablespoon ground ginger
3. 1 tablespoon ground garlic
4. 2 tablespoons ground kashmiri chillies, soaked in oil
5. Kebab garam masala , 2 teaspoon
6. salt, to taste

kashmiri chillies soaked in oil & kashmiri chillies ground to a fine paste

ingredients for second marinade/tandoori masala:
top row, left to right: yoghurt, crushed ginger & crushed garlic
bottom row, nilgiri’s garam masala, ground kashmiri chillies & salt

1. Skin the chicken, remove any excess fat but leave some as it helps keep the bird moist. Prepare the chicken for the first marinade.

chicken ready for the First Marinade

2. Prepare the chicken for the second marinade/tandoori masala by applying the white vinegar, salt and the chilli.

marinate the chicken with vinegar, making sure you rub gently into all the slits

add the salt & rub in

add the chilli powder & massage gently into the breast

do the same with the legs

3. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

the chicken should look like this after the first marinade

cover & refrigerate for 30 minutes

4. Prepare the second marinade by blending the yoghurt with the crushed ginger, crushed garlic, ground chillies with oil, garam masala, salt together to form a ‘tandoori masala’.

start with yoghurt for the second marinade

add crushed ginger

add crushed garlic

mix well

add salt

add ground kashmiri chillies in oil

mix well & check for seasoning

add nilgiri’s garam masala & fold

the Second Marinade/Tandoori Masala is ready

5. Remove the chicken from the fridge and apply the Tandoori Masala onto the marinated chicken.

apply the tandoori masala on the marinated chicken

apply the marinade all over the chicken, massaging gently in every slit & cavity

another angle of the marinated chicken

6. Cover and place the marinated chicken in the fridge for about an hour.

marinated chicken, ready to go!!

cover & refrigerate for about an hour

7. Remove the chicken from the fridge, place a skewer through the chicken. place the chicken in an earthenware, or clay, pot and place this in a pre-heated oven, temp. 160C.

run a skewer through the chicken & place on an earthenware pot or roasting tray with your choice of spices to give a ‘smoked’ flavour!

9. Cook in the oven for about 45 mins, or till the meat is cooked.

place the chicken in a pre-heated oven at 160 C

chicken cooking in the oven after 10-15 minutes

chicken after 25 minutes

10. To caramelise the chicken, turn on the grill in the oven. Cook for about 5 mins, or till the meat is golden.

chicken almost cooked, after 45 minutes, it is now ready for the grill

chicken after being grilled

tandoori chicken, hot from the oven

11. Serve the ‘king of kebabs’ with a mint and coriander chatni, sliced onions and a lemon wedge.

tandoori chicken, with onion rings, lemon wedge & mint & coriander chatni


Mint and Coriander Chatni
1. 1 bunch fresh mint, roots removed and some of the thick stems taken off, washed
2. 1 big bunch fresh coriander, roots taken off, stem removed, washed
3. 4-5 small green chillies
4. 1 tablespoon pomegranate extract
5. salt, to taste
6. 1 red onion
7. lemon wedge

chatni ingredients: fresh mint, fresh coriander, pomegranate extract, lemon wedge, fresh green chillies & one red onion


1. Grind all the ingredients, except for the red onion and lemon wedge, to a fine paste. Add salt, as required.

grind all the chatni ingredients (apart from the red onion and lemon wedge)  to a fine paste. add salt

2. Refrigerate and serve with the hot chicken alongside the sliced red onion and lemon wedge.

mint chatni, ready for the chicken, refrigerate until required

the perfect accompaniment to the “king of kebabs”!!

A few things to remember:

1. Buy the chicken with the skin on as this keeps the meat moist, even if you are not marinating it the same day.

2. Remember to prepare the chicken for the second marinade by applying the first marinade. Do not add the first marinade to the second and apply it on to the bird altogether. This won’t save you time, also, the marinade will not stick to the chicken.

3. To get the red colour, soak the chillies in lukewarm water till they swell (balloon), then squeeze the chillies and crush in a food processor with some vegetable oil.

4. Cook the chicken at a temperature of 160- 170 C as this keeps the meat moist and allows the chicken to cook from the ‘inside – out’.

5. To caramelise the chicken, flash under a hot grill or do as I do here!

6. add your choice of whole spices to the earthenware pot before placing the chicken in it. as the oven heats up, so do the spices and the smoked flavour permeates into the meat.

“Well, it looks like it’s all ready,” says my son. “All you now need is a good Shiraz from the Iron Gate in the Hunter’, right Dad?”

“Yup, son.’ I reply yet add, “But there is only one thing missing. Where is my Papa?”

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!

Anna’s Mysore Chilli Chicken

Well, the name says it all.

But it might not be the name you expect.

Anyway, this is a chicken dish with, yes, you guessed it, chilli and it comes from the “royal” (well, I added the regal bit to it!!) kitchens of Mysore.

Anna’s Mysore chilli chicken

But what is not evident from the name, ‘Mysore chilli chicken’, is the process of creating this dish.

It is simple yet very skilled; it is hot but doesn’t burn, and it is tasty but not overly spiced.

This dish is ‘Carnatic’ music at its best, that is, to the taste buds!!

The dish is a creation of Vardarajan, who out of respect (or fear!!) was called “Anna” which means “big brother”. See, some of you won’t have expected that name to belong to a bloke!

Anna was a chef at the Chola Hotel in Madras, way back in the 70s and 80s, and what a chef he was.

But don’t let me do all the talking, folks.

I have pulled out a page from the ‘diary’ of Raman Natrajan who was a trainee in that hotel around the same time as Anna and he describes brilliantly what it was like working in the kitchens of the Chola Hotel and then he describes the dish itself!!

So, without further ado, let’s see what he wrote:

My first job in a professional kitchen was at The Chola Sheraton in Madras. I took a part-time job to work on the weekends. On my first day Chef Ramesh Babu walked me over to the Main Kitchen. I was to work in the prep kitchen next to the Indian kitchen. This was where you served your indenture in order to become an apprentice worthy of working in the main kitchen.

There was a never-ending procession of goods requisitioned out on numerous trolleys from the main storeroom that came into the prep kitchen first, for initial processing. For 12 hours a day, I stood there with my hands red and sore, peeling onions by the bagful and slicing them. My feet and back ached constantly and I was unable to answer back to any one who wanted to test my patience during those first few days. After two weeks I was moved to the Indian Kitchen.

In this small world of the Indian section, there was a smaller god, Chef Varadarajan, who by now must be in the great white kitchen in the sky. Everyone called him Anna (brother). Anna was a ‘Tamizhkaaran’ from Mysore (which means a Tamil from Mysore). He had about ten cooks and five apprentices and yes, I was again at the mercy of the whole team. It was here that I watched in wonder as Anna prepared a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, all day long, for the restaurant and banquets.

No one told you, showed you, or gave you handouts; you learnt by sight, taste, and smell to become proficient by doing a task over and over again and getting better and faster every time. We had thousands of marinated tandoori chicken pieces to put on seekhs (skewers). After this we stood in front of four hot tandoori ovens, soaked in sweat and we handed over these seekhs to the tandoori cooks who were experts on the tandoor. This was my first experience of real heat. I was aware that in 99 percent of the iterations of tandoori chickens out there, the light or dark red color was supplied by food dye. I was curious and asked Anna if he used food color in all the food that has some color added to it. Anna told me that he was going to show me something later.

In the Indian kitchen they made different gravies in large pots big enough to have a bath in!  Still, as far as I was concerned, I was now being treated like a human being, at last, largely thanks to Anna who took me under his wing. When you work in the hotel you go to the staff kitchen for a meal, for you would not dare eat in the kitchen, at least not while the chef or sous-chefs were around. But most afternoons, after the meal service was done at around 2 p.m., the executive chef and his sous-chef would take a break. This is when the senior cooks make a special lunch for themselves. These were gems that one cannot find on any menu. The dishes were made with pure love and every day each chef outdid the other with his special dish.

One day Anna made a dish for the afternoon meal from his native Mysore. This was the day that Anna had said he’d show me something. And he did as promised; he showed me how to make a spectacular dish which he called “Mysore chilli chicken”. And what was even more amazing is that he was going to make it without adding any food color. Till today, I have searched online for this recipe and I have never found one that looked anything like his. It was bright orange/red and tasted divine. It came served with steamed rice. It was spicy, it was hot and it was pure Carnatic music on a plate!!

I will never forget Anna who showed me his mastery of cooking.

Food is like music. It should be relaxing, refreshing, and nourishing. Just like the music you love, it should inspire and move, exhilarate and excite. Flavors, colors, and smells should intermingle on your palate and raise the senses. For Anna the master, everything was easy, he was a smooth conductor and I learnt from him that cooking is like playing an instrument. It requires practice and respect; patience and a willingness to learn. You make mistakes, you try again, and you master your performance.

Thank you Anna for being one of my early Aachiriyars!!

Well folks, there you have it. Men after my own heart. Food cooked with skill, endless practise and passion.

So, what do we know about our friend Raman Natrajan?

 Raman Natrajan

Well, he started his career in Madras in the early 80s at the Chola Sheraton. I guess I was somewhere there around that time and that is how we met.

Time went by, as it tends to do . . . Raman joined the ITDC, I joined the Taj group of hotels.

Raman went to America to further his career in the hotel industry and I moved ‘Down Under’ to become a DESI cook. . .!

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Raman went on to work for the Sheraton Hotel as their Executive Chef in New Orleans, followed by a stint at the Renaissance Stanford in San Francisco, until 2004.

Today he heads the hotel operations of the Marriott Hotels in the US. This is no mean feat for someone who was groomed in the ‘hot’ kitchens of Madras under the tutelage of the great Anna!!

And without further ado, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, mouth-watering recipe itself.

Mysore Chilli Chicken

Masala (marinade):

9 long dried red chilies (you can use either the Bedgi chilli from Mangalore or its similar Kashmiri chilli. If you use Kashmir add 1.5 tsp hot chilli powder)

8- 10 Tellicherry peppercorns

1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

6 cloves

I medium-sized cassia bark

2 1/2-inch pieces of ginger

ingredients for the marinade (clockwise from left to right):
top row, from left to right: whole black peppercorns, turmeric & cloves
middle row, from left to right: red chilli powder, water, salt & whole dried red chillies
bottom row, from left to right: cassia, coriander seeds & fresh ginger

1 kg chicken on the bone

chicken on the bone & half of the ground marinade

For the sauce aka ‘kari’

2 1/2 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil

2 1/2 large onions, finely chopped

10 fresh curry leaves

Salt, to taste

2 medium-size tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp of lemon juice, to serve

‘kari’ ingredients, clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, fresh curry leaves, chopped onions, remaining ground marinade & chopped tomatoes


1. Wash and cut the chicken into small pieces, drain till dry.

2. Grind all the masala ingredients to a fine paste, adding a little warm water.

all the marinade ingredients before being ground

ground marinade

3. Keep half the marinade (masala) aside for the sauce.

4. Marinate the chicken pieces in the remaining masala and set aside for 4 hours in the refrigerator.

marinating the chicken

marinated chicken

5. In a large frying pan, heat the ghee/oil and fry the onions with the curry leaves and salt. Cook until the onions are light golden brown. Add the masala to the onions and cook until the oil leaves the sides of the pan.

heat oil in a pan

add onions and fresh curry leaves, followed by salt

cook till it starts to turn light golden brown

add the remaining marinade

fold & cook till the oil leaves the sides of the pan

6. Add the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or till the tomatoes are cooked.

add the tomatoes & cook

7. Remove the marinated chicken from the fridge, place in a saucepan, cover and cook in its own juices until cooked (this is similar to ‘braising’) Set aside to rest.

place the marinated chicken in a saucepan

cover & cook over low heat

different stages of chicken cooking – just starting to change colour

stir occasionally for even cooking & cook till the chicken is fully cooked

8. Drain the chicken juices (‘liquor’) into the sauce and add a cup of water, if required. Cook till oil leaves the pan. Sprinkle with lemon juice.

drain the pot liquor into the sauce/’kari’

add some lemon juice

sauce/’kari’, ready to go!!

9. In another frying pan, heat enough oil to fry the cooked chicken pieces till caramelised and ‘bright red’! Drain and set aside.

heat oil in a separate pan

fry the chicken in hot oil, a few pieces at a time

fry the chicken till carmelised & ‘bright red’

drain on a paper towel

top with crisp-fried curry leaves

Serve the Mysore chilli chicken along with the kari on top of steamed Basmati rice, with some crisp fried curry leaves (you’ll see “how to temper kari leaves” on the link!).  (To make great steamed rice, click the link.)

serve on top of hot basmati rice, with ‘kari’ on top & a few drops of lemon juice

voilà, Mysore chilli chicken, ready to go!!

And before I sign off folks, here are a few of Anna’s tips to remember when cooking this dish:

1. To get a bright color from the chillies (if Bediga or Kashmiri chillies are not available), soak them in warm water, do not split them. This allows the chilli to soak in the moisture and concentrates the colors. Discard the water and grind.

2. Tellicherry pepper is the best in the world and has a very strong aroma!

3. Braising the chicken and letting it rest in the juices lets the meat to tenderise , then when you fry it, the outside is crisp and the inside is still moist. The Chinese call it ‘twice cooked’.

4. Once the chicken is fried it may be added to the sauce, or alternately served separately (as I did) on top of the rice along with the kari.

Well, as for me, I would like to have the lot with no rice and no kari, just a glass (or two) of my favourite Mornington Peninsula Nazaaray Shiraz!!! You can have the rice and. . .

Anah Daata Suki 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.)

It’s only been 15 years in the making. . .

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My restaurant, nilgiri’s, turns 15 on the 9th of July and it seems like only yesterday that we started this dream project.

Fifteen years is a long time in my industry, just like it is in cricket, another of my dream games!

Longevity in the kitchen, or on the pitch, is not a hallmark but a necessity. The longer you play, the better your credentials; just go and ask Don Bradman.

Well, running a restaurant is like playing cricket and just as in cricket there are lessons to learn.

These fifteen years have been a h-ll of a learning curve for me personally.

I had a dream, when I was younger, that I would run my own restaurant and here I am, to this day, living this dream!

But as in cricket there are some good ‘ups’ and some not so good ‘ups’. And yes, I mean “not so good ‘ups’” because there are no ‘downs’.

Success is not about what you have but how you deal with it.

They say cricket is the great leveller, a hundred today could be a first ‘ball duck’ tomorrow.

Well, running a restaurant is also a great leveller, a full house today could be a ‘duck’ tomorrow.

However, be that as it may, you must believe in yourself and back yourself and keep going, just like a good cricketer does; he keeps on going and going!! We have tried doing this for nearly two decades. You get caught out, you get stumped, you’re LBW but you keep batting for your team. Well, that’s what my team and I have been doing!

Nilgiri’s has been a memorable journey for us all, and to tell you the truth there have been a few regrets [these might appear in a blog one of these days], there aren’t many regrets, but overall, I would not change a thing!!

Every day brings something new. There is a cooking class to do, or a chef’s table to cook for. Then there is a cooking demonstration at a primary school, or at the restaurant. A new menu starts every month, or there is a birthday party to cater for, or there’s even a wedding reception to cook for. So, you get the picture, there’s never a dull moment. There’s always something happening!!

And last week was one such week that I will never forget.

happy faces at the function

We had the most amazing function at the restaurant.

No, it was not a birthday party, or a wedding reception, or a cocktail party to celebrate someone’s 21st. These are all amazing in their own way but this was different.

This was a charity dinner.

And it was a charity dinner for the game of cricket!!

Imagine that?! I get to give a charity dinner for cricket!

Basically, my son is going to Sri Lanka to play cricket against the local Sri Lankan clubs and schools and I am told it is going to be a ‘cracker’ of a tour.

Two teams of 12 players each, and some parents and coaches, will be on this island for about 12 days to give some up-and-coming cricketers from Sydney a chance to play on a different kind of turf [literally and metaphorically!].

The tour is self funded which means there are no sponsors and so all the players and parents must foot their own bill.

Some are comfortable with this idea, some parents are happy to fund it with a little stretch to their budget, and some just can’t stretch that far, no matter how keen. Well, there are three very talented kids who just can’t make it unless someone can dig deep into their pockets and sponsor them to go.

So, we had a highly difficult, but not an impossible, task to raise money to pay for these kids to go on this cricket tour.

We discussed it and thought that a charity dinner could possibly help in getting the kids over the line.

The target was to raise $14,000 to take care of the travel, accommodation and food for these kids.

So, I said that I’d host and cook for the dinner. We advertised at our restaurant, the cricket club did the same and we got 98 guests who paid $75 per person which immediately gave us $7350.

Wine supplied by Samuel Smith & Son

But we needed at least $6500 to make up the deficit.

And this is what I love about Australians, they are always supporting the needy and the underprivileged and Sydney did not let us down!!

Mitchel Starc speaking from England

We had Mitchel Starc speak to the gathering from England via satellite and at our end Josh Hazlewood (he’s an Australian fast bowler for those of you who might not know), Alysha Healy (she’s the wicket-keeper with the Australian Women’s cricket team) and Chandika (he’s a former Sri Lankan opening batsman),Lachlan O’Connor (former NSW U-17 captain) came in to do their bit, at no cost.

Jeff Bolt brought in the audio visual system and was also the DJ for the night, at no cost, and the wines were supplied by Samuel Smith & Son, the beer by Mumbai Pilsner, the soft drinks by Coca Cola and nilgiri’s provided the food and service, at no cost.

beer by Mumbai Pilsner

The menu included methi murgh, laal maas, kalonji baingan, and for starters we had our speciality cocktail dosai, followed by kozhi milagu varuval with roomali roti.

Chefs Reddy and Durga in action, cooking naans and kebabs !!

But there is more, in spite of the generous gifts from all the above. If you can believe it we are still short of funds, so we decide there must, of course, be a few items to auction on the night to raise the extra few thousands. I mean, who has ever gone to a charity dinner and not had an auction?

Jeff Bojt and Ash ‘live’ auction

So, more generous donations appeared in the form of: Mr Greg Chappell donating his training cap, Kashmiri shawls were given from Meenakshi, the NSW Blues donated a fully autographed cricket bat, Mark Waugh donated his training shirt, and one Mr Sachin Tendulkar donated an autographed bat!!

Well, when I saw the last item I just knew who was going to bid for this one!

(No, not me, my son of course! The poor chap put in all his savings to get it, and he did!!)

My son, Aniruddh, helping out on the night, ‘no charge’

But there is more, all the photography was given free and the photos on the night taken by my friend JS (John Slaytor) and to celebrate 15 years of ‘survival’ in a tough business nilgiri’s did not take a cent.

And what a night it was.

Alysha Healy having a good time!!

We raised $9000 from the auctions and then came the icing on the cake . . . my friend Dr Alok Sharma promised $2000 from the Rotary Club of Wagga Wagga!!

Unbelievable! We asked for $14000 and we ended up raising $19000. You Beauty!!

What more could we have asked for to celebrate our anniversary month, good food, good wine and some good cricket talk?!!

Akhil on the floor

And, as I look back on that night and the extraordinary generosity and goodwill of all involved, the words of a Scottish minister come to mind, “You will find, as you look back on your life, that the moments that stand out are the moments when you have done things for others.”

Anna Datha Sukhi Bhava!!

This dish is the crowning accomplishment in any Indian chef’s career!!

Posted on

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!

biryani garam masala: includes cassia, cardamom, clove, black cardamom, nutmeg, mace, bayleaf, peppercorn, fennel

On a recent visit to my ‘spiritual hometown’, Hyderabad, I was shocked to hear that there were only six gharana chefs (called khansamas) still alive who could cook the classic dish kachche gosht ki biryani!

This dish was considered to be the ultimate measure of a chef’s skill that would guarantee him the title of “Masterchef”, if he could create it.

These artistes were a breed apart, and in the 60s and 70s they were the only people invited to cook for the Nawab and the Nizam families.

So what became of these ustaads?

Speaking to some of the local residents of the old city, I was told that the fine art of making kachche gosht ki biryani was all but lost as it was becoming surpassed by poorer versions.

A classic kachche gosht ki biryani requires genuine patience and untold love, what we call fursat and mohabbat, and there were plenty of those virtues and emotions, alive and kicking, in the land of the Biryanis!! This Biryani is made with partially cooked rice being layered on top of marinated meat which is ‘raw’ and is then ‘dum cooked’ till the meat and rice come out perfectly cooked!!

However, as the years have passed, people seem to have lost their love for really good, slow food, that is cooked with genuine expertise, and with that they have also, sadly, lost the creators of the dishes along the way.

Most of these chefs ended up dying penniless. What a shame for us all, because not only did we lose the art of cooking this dish properly, we also lost a genuine knowledge base and mentoring.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom as I was extremely lucky to meet one of the ‘survivors’ of this fine art a long time ago.

It was the way he cooked, and the narrative he gave whilst cooking this classic dish, when I had the privilege of working with him, that I’d like to share with you this week.

The ustaad starts by describing the dish as khuda ki daen, meaning G-d’s gift’, and says that it is all about technique and constant, constant practise. Furthermore, he adds, chewing his paan with great relish, the more you try the better you become and, of course, the closer you get to All-h!!

Friends, on the 15th anniversary of nilgiri’s, we salaam these ustaads for helping us preserve this ancient art!!

So, here is my version of the classic kachche gosht ki biryani. It is cooked with deep respect, with patience, with love, and home-made garam masala. What more could one want?!

The dish revolves around six basic techniques:

1. The caramelisation of the onions.
2. The making of garam masala (click here for its recipe).
3. The marination of the meat.
4. The cooking of the rice until it is ek kan or al dente.
5. The layering of the rice over the marinated meat.
6. The dum (baking) of the dish.


Ingredients for biryani, clockwise: caramelised onions, crushed ginger, crushed garlic, garam masala, ground chilli, turmeric, crushed chillies, salt, chopped coriander leaves, chopped mint leaves, yoghurt, saffron threads [soaked in milk]

saffron-infused milk

caramelised onions

To make caramelised onions, watch my caramelised onions video

1 kg goat meat [on the bone], soaked in water to remove any blood

Marinating the goat
Step 1

add half caramelised onions and fold

Step 2

add garlic and fold, then add ginger and fold

Step 3

next add garam masala and fold

For the garam masala recipe, click biryani garam masala recipe.

Step 4

add crushed chillies and fold

Step 5

add 1/2 of the chilli powder and fold

Step 6

add turmeric and fold

Step 7

add 1/2 each of the coriander and mint, and fold

Step 8

add yoghurt and fold

Step 9

add 2 tablespoons oil and fold

Step 10

add 1/2 saffron-infused milk and fold

Step 11

set aside marinated goat for about 1 1/2 hours

Preparing the pot

Step 1

place goat in a large pot so it occupies 1/3 of the pot and add the remaining chilli powder. Do not clean the mixing bowl previously used to marinade the meat

Step 2

add remaining chopped coriander and mint to create a layer

Step 3

add remaining caramelised onions to create a layer

Step 4

set pot aside

Preparing the rice

Step 1

place rice in mixing bowl then add enough water so rice is covered by 2cm of water

Step 2

the rice will absorb the water – when it touches the top of the water the rice is ready to go into boiling water

Step 3

place water in the empty bowl in which you marinated the goat, swill it around, and then pour it into a large saucepan an bring to a boil

Step 4

drain rice and add to boiling water

Step 5

stir rice, but gradually, so the grains don’t break

Step 6

cook rice until it rises to the surface and the water has returned to the boil

Step 7

Cooking the biryani

add drained rice to saucepan containing marinated goat

Step 2

add remaining saffron milk on top of the rice

Step 3

place damp tea-towel on top of the rice

Step 4

Make a soft dough with wholemeal flour, pinch of salt and water (you’ll find full quantities for this in the one-page recipe below).

place dough collar around rim of pot

Step 5

place a lid on top of the pot and seal the gap with the dough

Step 6

half fill saucepan with water and heat pot on moderate  heat

Step 7

when steam escapes from the dough collar the biryani is starting to cook

Step 8

reduce heat and place pot in pre-heated fan forced oven [160C]. When the dough is cooked the biryani is cooked as well after about 1hr !!

Step 9

remove pot and saucepan and break off dough

Step 10

remove tea-towel

Step 11

mix rice and goat together

Step 12

serve KGKB with a mirch ka saalan!

If the Biryani is called the king of Indian Food, then KGKB is called the king of Biryanis!!

Click biryani for a one-page recipe and also, click mirchi ka salaan for a one-page recipe of this delicious, tangy side dish.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

What unites Runs, Coronet and Kaanagam? Read this to find out !! Final part of my garam masala series

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!

prawn biryani - serve with coconut chutney and masala pappadums (see below)

Anyone who studied at The Madras Catering in the 70s and 80s would remember that these were (and possibly still are) the best known places to eat when in Madras, especially when you were broke!


If you don’t believe me, ask Sriram, Murphy, Dexter, Praveen (these guys live in Australia today), and a thousand others will confirm this, “Yup,” they will say, “you bet!”

These foodie joints also had something else in common – they were all owned and operated by a community that comes from the west coast of India, known as the Malabar Coast.

These people are descendants of the Arab traders who traded in spices way before the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British came to this part of the world. They are called the Moplahs or the Mapillai, literally meaning the son-in-law or a person held in high esteem!

These people don’t just know their spices, they have created a wonderful cuisine called the Malabar Muslim Food!! Their pathiri and the muttai masala and the meen mulakkithattu and the chemeen . . . are to die for!!!

What memories! These were the best days of my life koi lauta de mere beetein huay din!!

But let’s get back to the food joints, Kaanagam was popular for a cup of chaaia (the best cup of tea you’ll ever have!), Runs made (the best) mutton korma with kerala parota and Coronet cooked (the best bl..dy) prawn and fish buryaani, and to top it all you could pay when you (or any of the above mentioned friends) had  the money. The only condition was that you had to be from Madras Catering!!

I am extremely happy that I got a taste of  some of the best Southern Indian food that one can find anywhere on the planet!

These restaurants were basic food joints with a table, a chair, a spoon, a fork and a glass tumbler and that is it.

There was a cashier counter, too, where the boss sat and counted his takings while keeping a close eye on all the operations!

This boss managed all the people who worked at the restaurant and the product took care of itself. Eating there was never a let down!

My relationship with Coronet restaurant began when a bunch of my seniors (Praveen, Dexter, and others), took me to the restaurant during the ‘initiation process’ (a.k.a mental disintegration process) that was customary at the college, and asked me to ‘wait’ at their table while they sat, chatted and happily enjoyed the fish buryaani.

I had to serve them, clear their table, wash their plates and cutlery and also settle the bill for them. How cool was that?!!

Well, not cool at all. In fact, it made me so angry and hungry (in both meanings of the word) that I promised myself that I would come back  some day  and treat myself to a buryaani when these seniors were at college.

I did get my chance but it was a complete disaster.

The owner managed to get in touch with Dexter who was still at college and asked him to come in immediately as there was a junior sitting at the table having his buryaani.

Now Dexter (who now lives in Melbourne) picked up Murphy (who also lives in Melbourne!) and drove straight down to Coronet just as I was about to have my first mouthful of the much awaited buryaani and they sat either side of me at the table.

So, forget about having the bur . . . ni, I ended up peeling onions and garlic for the chefs!

This was to be my first taste of a commercial kitchen and, believe it or not, I have lasted in one for over three decades!

Years later, when I finally got a chance in Mangalore  to learn this wonderful art of buryaani making I wasn’t going to miss it, no way!!

So, in an effort to make amends for that time, here’s the biryaani that I love to cook. It’s with prawns, or chemeen as they call them, which make a delicious biryani.

Please try it yourself and let me know what you think. If you’d prefer to see a one page version of the prawn biryani, click prawn biryani recipe.

So, before we begin, in summary here’s what we’ll be doing. (Don’t be put off by the 11 steps! A lot of the steps are very quick. Basically, from start to  “Okay, let’s eat!” is about 90 minutes.)

First: prepare our clay pot; 2) prepare the rice; 3) make prawn stock; 4) caramelise our red onions; 5) marinate then 6) sear the prawns; 7) make the biryani marinade(masala); 8) mix it together and bake in the oven. Whilst it’s baking away we get on with our accompaniments: 9) make our masala; 10) cook our pappadums (yes folks, these are bought!); 11) make our coconut chutney.Oh, and use the seafood garam masala (click garam masala blog for the seafood garam masala recipe).

That’s it. So, let’s get started.

Biryani recipe


Ingredients: clockwise, in the plate: oil, unsalted butter, salt, ginger paste, garlic paste, crushed coriander, crushed biryani garam masala, ground fresh chillies, turmeric powder, chilli powder, lemon juice. outer ring, clockwise: sliced red onions, sliced white onions, kari leaves, chopped coriander leaves, polished rice (sona masoori), shelled and de-veined fresh prawns

Special utensils

a clay pot will give a delicious, earthy flavour to the biryani

Preparing the clay pot and its lid

immerse both the lid and the pot in water and place 4 cm of water inside both the lid and the pot: this will ensure the clay pot doesn’t crack when it is in the oven

Cooking rice using the draining method

choose your rice

choose your rice: shown are sona masoori rice (top left) and basmati rice (top right). I could have used the longer grained basmati rice from the north, but chose to use the short grain sona masoori rice from the south because this is a southern style biryani!!

Soak your rice

Step 1

add 3 cups rice to mixing bowl n.b. do not wash the rice!

Step 2

add water until rice is covered with 2.5cm of water

Step 3

set aside - make sure you do not disturb the rice as it is absorbing the water - if you do disturb the rice it stops absorbing water evenly

Step 4

when the rice has risen to the surface, it is ready. n.b. the water will be clear as you didn't wash the rice beforehand so the starch won't have released, making the water cloudy

Step 5

drain rice

Cook your rice

Step 1

add plenty of water to saucepan and add 1/2 tsp salt when boiling, just like you would when boiling pasta

Step 2

add rice to boiling water

Step 3

stir rice continuously to prevent it from sticking

Step 4

rice will be al dente when it is at the surface and the froth has disappeared

Step 5

check rice is al dente - there should be a white 'dot' in the centre of the grain

Step 6

drain rice in colander

Step 7

remove water from clay pot and add half the rice

Preparing your prawn stock

Step 1

add coriander roots/stems and prawn shells to large saucepan - do not use prawn heads as this will make the stock too pungent

Step 2

add enough water so contents well covered

Step 3

bring water to boil and then simmer

Step 4

delicious, clear prawn stock will be ready in 10 minutes

Caramelising red onions

Step 1

heat 4 tbs polyunsaturated oil in shallow frying pan; when oil is smoking, add 2 tbs butter

Step 2

wait for the bubbles to disappear

Step 3

when butter has melted and there is no more froth, add 2 red onions and 1/2 tsp salt

Step 4 – caramelise onions – watch my video if you need instructions – don’t discard oils afterwards; leave it in the frying pan

Prepare prawns

Marinate prawns

step 1

place prawns in mixing bowl and then add red chilli powder

add 1/2 tsp chilli powder to prawns

Step 2

add 1/2 tsp turmeric

Step 3

fold prawns in marinade

Sear prawns

step 1

add 1/2 tsp salt to prawns - this is done just before they are seared to add flavour without dehydrating the prawns

step 2

add 1/2 cup kari leaves to prawns and fold

step 3

heat oil already used to caramelise red onions, when it starts to smoke, add prawns

step 4

fold prawns so they are evenly seared

step 5

prawns are perfectly seared when the marinade is golden and crusty

step 6

remove prawns but don't discard oil; leave it in frying pan

prepare biryani masala

Step 1

heat oil previously used to sear prawns; when smoking, add 2 sliced white onions, add 1 tbs salt and fold until golden

Step 2

add 1/2 cup kari leaves and fold

Step 3

add 2 tbs garlic paste and fold

Step 4

add 2 tbs ginger paste and fold

Step 5

add 2 tbs freshly ground coriander and fold

Step 6

add 11/2 tbs biryani garam masala and fold

Step 7

add 2 tbs green chilli paste and fold

Step 8

add 1 tbs turmeric

Step 9

add 2 tbs chilli powder and fold

Combine seared prawns, masala and prawn stock

Step 1

add seared prawns to masala and fold

step 2

add 2 ladles (2 cups) of prawn stock and fold

step 3

turn off heat

step 4

add 1/2 cup lemon juice

step 5

add 4 tbs chopped coriander

Cook biryani

Step 1

place the clay pot with rice in it near the stove

Step 2

place prawns on bed of rice

Step 3

when all the prawns are in the pot, they should cover the bed of rice and be evenly spread

Step 4

evenly distribute the remaining rice on top of prawns

Step 5

evenly distribute caramelised red onions on the bed of rice

step 6

remove lid from water, place on pot and put pot in a cold oven (if the oven is hot to begin with, the pot will crack). Set oven temp. to 180C

step 7

after approx. 45 minutes, using oven gloves, remove lid

step 8

fold rice and prawns and add lemon juice

step 9

serve with coconut chutney and masala pappadums (see below)

Accompaniment – Masala pappadums



1 cup diced red onions, 11/2 tsp salt and 1/2 cup chopped coriander

Step 1

add chopped red onions to mixing bowl

Step 2

add coriander

Step 3

add salt

Step 4

mix thoroughly

roasting pappadums


Step 1

Wwithout using any oil, place pappadums on hot flat surface such as a large frying pan

Step 2

using a tea towel, pat pappadums to keep them flat

Step 3

when the pappadum turns golden, turn over and repeat patting

Step 4

when they are cooked, layer them on top of one another

Adding masala to pappadums

Step 1

place a handful of masala on a pappadum

Step 2

repeat process, building a stack of pappadums as you go


Accompaniment – Coconut chutney

Ingredients: fresh grated coconut, sliced ginger and fresh coriander, without roots

add coriander and coconut to mixing bowl

add sliced ginger

blend with warm water - your chutney is ready

Well folks, this completes the long journey making our six garam masalas!! Please make any of the garam masalas for other dishes too. I’ll be returning to these masalas in the future.

I hope you have enjoyed reading it (and cooking it) as much as John and I have in bringing it to you!

Join us next week as we travel around this beautiful land called India and I will reveal some really unique VEG(AN)ETARIAN dishes for you to try!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!


Can smoke, will cook!!!

When John asked me to do a blog on bbq fish à la Inde, for people who ‘love to smoke their fish and have it too’, I said, “Sure! I can help them do both!!”

You might not be able to have your cake and eat it too, but you can with fish!

But before I begin, if you want to follow the recipe on a single page, then please click smoked red snapper recipe.

“Well John, we can do a tandoori fish with different marinades. It’s no big deal.”

But I could see that this Aussie guy wasn’t quite sure if my ‘no big deal’ really was so small.

“No one has a tandoor in their backyard, Ajoy, we need to do something that will make an ‘Aussie’ cook it at home.”

cooking at home isn't a barrier to making amazing food

“How about cooking it on the barbie?” I suggested.

“Sure,” John replied.

But I knew what he was going to say next so I preempted him, “But,” I said, leaning forward, “Not every house has a BBQ in their backyard, lots of people live in units and can’t smoke out their neighbours and. . .” I continued, looking out of the window as the rain lashed down as it has almost all summer, “this means there is no way they can cook this dish. So, how about cooking it in the oven, or still better if we can ‘smoke’ it on the electric or gas burner?”

I could see John liked this idea but he still needed convincing that it could actually happen!

So, if we just marinated the fish in a tandoori marinade, cooked it in the pan, or a pot, or a skillet, or just steamed it we would have tandoori fish, just like they do ‘back home’ . . . but that would be cheating!

smoked fish and tomato chutney - this week's recipe

So, memory recall!!

It’s 1986.

Place: Taj Savoy, Ooty.

I am on assignment to cook food for the top officials of Citicorp and in one of their ‘themed’ dinners we were asked to create a ‘smoked fish’ for the ‘kebab’ dinner.

Now, as most of you will know and some of you might not, a kebab is literally cooking a large piece of meat without a sauce. Make this meat smaller and you get, guess what?, tikka! The ‘meat’, can of course be fish as well.

Mr Rao, who was the boss of Citicorp back then, was most adamant that no two kebabs on the menu should have the same cooking technique. It was therefore imperative that the kebabs come from all over India. He even included some from neighbouring Pakistan.

So, to give him what he wanted we served paththar ka gosht (boneless lamb barbequed on a stone slab) and khorme ka kebab from Hyderabad, kakori kebab (a very tender lamb kebab) from Bhopal, murgh tikka (chicken tikka) from the Punjab, chapli kebab (a beef kebab) from Peshawar, and so on . . . including a fish kebab that was not cooked in the tandoor.

Mr Rao wanted the chefs to create a fish kebab similar to a smoked fish using hickory.

Now, using hickory would have been easy, except that Ooty had no Hickory at that time and we were running out of time and had to do this dish!

So, never ones to be beaten by a lack of hickory (or whatever the missing ingredient happens to be), the chefs decided to trial smoking whole pomfret (a type of fish) using the bark of gum trees.

It worked beautifully except that the fish had a strong flavor of eucalyptus!

Thank whichever almighty G-d you follow that this was only a trial so I could keep my job or else. . . so we kept experimenting.

Next we tried smoking the fish using corn husks and tea leaves and it worked wonders!!

We called the dish dhuyein ki machchi!!

So, maybe it is time to recollect these memories into something concrete and try and create this dish for John and my Aussie friends.

ingredients for smoked fish from top, clockwise: ground garlic, ground ginger, chilli powder, turmeric powder, kebab garam masala (ground), oil, lemon wedges, salt; plate-sized NZ snapper (gutted and scaled); tea leaves for smoking

Then there’s the tomato chutney that you serve alongside and prepare whilst your fish is smoking in the oven.

ingredients for tomato chutney, clockwise: kari leaves, chilli powder, oil, black mustard seeds, dry red chillies, chick pea lentils, white lentils, salt, asafoetida powder, lemon juice, turmeric, tamarind paste, tomato purée, fresh coriander leaves

step 1

the fish can be red snapper (pictured), baby barramundi, flathead, in fact use any whole fish that can comfortably fill a plate. It's always a good idea to keep the fish on ice when out of the fridge

step 2

What's smoking? To infuse the fish with a smokey flavour, you need something to smoke. Pictured is black tea with some of the ground spices that make up the kebab garam masala...... You don't have to use tea! If you have time, use the fibre husks from sweet corn, dry in the sun for a couple of days. You can also use shaved hickory (available at all good BBQ stores)

step 3

If you're smoking the fish on a stove you'll need: heavy-based pan, glass lid, mixing bowl, whisk and a metal rack

step 4

if you're smoking the fish in an oven you'll need: baking tray, mixing bowl, whisk, metal rack

step 5

kebab garam masala - refer to my first blog on garam masalas for the ingredients

step 6

grind until garam masala resembles course sand

step 7

your fish should be scaled and gutted - clean the insides thoroughly

step 8

on a chopping board, score the fish, three slashes on each side, about 1/2 cm deep

step 9

this is the right cutting depth

step 10

After you have scored all the fish, discard the ice.

pat fish dry with a paper towel or the marinade won't stick

step 11

pat dry the insides of the fish as well

step 12

place fish in tray and cover with paper towelling whilst preparing the marinade

step 13: Preparing the marinade.

add 1 tbsp salt to mixing bowl

step 14

add 1 tbsp garlic paste to mixing bowl

step 15

add 1 tbsp ginger paste to mixing bowl

step 16

fold salt, garlic and ginger paste together

step 17

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

step 18

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

step 19

add 2 tbsp ground kebab garam masala and fold, add any remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

step 20

add polyunsaturated vegetable oil and fold

step 21

your marinade is now ready and should look (more or less!) like this

step 22

smear marinade over fish and into scored cuts

step 23

smear marinade into fish cavity as well

step 24

this is how much marinade should be on the fish (both sides)

step 25

folding in remaining garam masala to the tea leaves

step 26

if cooking on the stove, add tea leaf mixture to pan - the tea leaves should be laid about 1-cm thick, covering about 60% of the base

step 27

place fish on rack, add more marinade if necessary

step 28

cover pan with lid - a glass lid is ideal as you can see when the fish is ready without having to take off the lid (which you don't want to do as the smoke will escape). As the fish cooks, the gills will open up and the dorsal fin will rise. The fish is cooked when the scored cuts 'weep' (fill with moisture).

step 29

scored cuts 'weeping' (moisture will bead there) means the fish is cooked

step 30

If using oven: turn on temp. to 180-200 C and also turn on the grill (if your oven is able to do both), to medium heat. Place tea leaves on aluminium foil in a tray on top shelf of the oven (closest to the grill). Tea leaves should be laid about 2 cm thick. Keep fish on the rack and place on tray. Then place on shelf underneath the tea-leaf tray, as shown above!

step 31

A close-up of the tea leaves in the oven - they will start to smoke

step 32

The fish is ready when the gills are fully open and scored cuts are weeping

step 33

Making the chutney that goes alongside the fish (prepare whilst the fish is being smoked).

add 2 tbsp polyunsaturated vegetable oil to a hot frying pan

step 34

when the oil is smoking, add 1 tsp black mustard seeds - if the oil is hot, they will immediately sizzle and pop

step 35

add whole chillies and fold

step 36

add 2 tbsp lentils and fold

step 37

add 2 tbsp white lentils and fold till caramelised

step 38

add 11/2 tsp salt and fold

step 39

add 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder and fold

step 40

add kari leaves and let crackle (this is pretty instantaneous)

step 41

add 1 tsp chilli powder and fold

step 42

add 1/2 tsp turmeric and fold

step 43

add 1 tbsp tamarind paste and fold

step 44

add 2 cups tomato purée and fold (or you may add chopped tomatoes or a combination of both), cook until the oil separates and appears on the surface

step 45

tear coriander, add to pan and fold

step 46

add 1 tbsp lemon juice, to taste, and fold

step 47

remove from stove - then serve chutney as it is, or if you prefer, blend it for a smoother texture

step 48

your chutney is now ready!

step 49

place fish and chutney on a serving dish and enjoy!

But before I let you loose into your own kitchen to do this there are a few things I’d like you to remember when smoking fish:

1. Never add lemon juice to the marinade, this moistens the fish and will ‘break’ it up when smoked. Add lemon juice to the fish after it has been smoked and removed from the oven and whilst it is still hot.

2. Avoid small fillets of fish as they are too delicate, use whole fish, especially when the fish is ‘plate sized’.

3. If using fillets of a bigger fish, crust the skin side (making sure you do not skin the fish, dry the skin side and apply the marinade, the skin will get crisp after smoking) and cover the flesh side with aluminium foil to prevent the fillet from drying out.

4. You may use any wood chips as long as they are safe! Please check this before you use them. Also, try rose leaves mixed with tea leaves, it creates the most fabulous aroma and taste!!

5. Remember, never fry the fish before smoking it like they do on MasterChef , nothing is worse than this as the smokey flavour does not permeate through the fish.

6. This is the best way to impress your wife/girlfriend for a slightly belated Valentine’s day, in case you forgot to take her out for dinner and if you are not in the dog house already!!

Serve this dish with a glass of  Iron Gate Sweet Semillion or a glass of Nazaaray Pinot Grigio!!

Any questions about the fish? Any trouble with obtaining good wood chips? Don’t know what hickory is but only know it from that nursery rhyme? Want to know something that’s totally off topic? Well, please write to me and let me know your thoughts/comments.

And please, no jokes like I’ve heard from my son’s friends about ‘smoking fish’ as they stand there imitating a guy smoking a cigarette but pretend it‘s a fish!

So, happy cooking till the next one!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

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