i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!
Last week was a bit hectic and challenging as I had to change my ‘gears’ quickly to go from a fast paced class for about 60 students at the Sydney Seafood School [SSS] on Thursday, to an easy paced corporate team building cooking class for about 12 participants at the restaurant the next day.
nilgiri’s corporate team building cooking class
Those two classes were followed by our highly rated regular class on Saturday for 12 students, as per usual.
The difference between the three classes is great fun for me because all of them are about cooking Indian food. Furthermore, all of them let me showcase my cuisine through my words and my actions!! I just love it like that!!!
But the one question that all the students had in common was this: “If you were to use only one spice and no more in your cooking, which one would it be, and why?”
My answer is very simple and has not changed over all the years I’ve been cooking.
“Give me the king of spices and I can cook you a dish, or a meal, without you ever knowing what the added spice was.”
Well almost. You might just guess.
However, it is not about my cooking that makes it hard to guess what the spice is as much as it is about the versatility of this spice.
Can you guess what it is?
And no, it’s not the ones you’re thinking of, I guarantee.
What did you guess?
(And no, please, not the dreaded ‘curry powder’ that someone suggested. I don’t think they’ll make that suggestion again!)
You still don’t know?
It’s black peppercorns or kali mirch!!
There is plenty of information that one can get on what pepper is, and how to get it, and what the botanical name is and blah, blah, blah. . . but I am not going there. You’re welcome to go there in your own time, please be my guest!
But what I am going to do is tell you about the food we cooked in the three classes.
Each class was so different but in each one the common spice used was pepper.
So, adding pepper at different stages during cooking gets completely different results, and all of them are b….y good!! [Now, before I go any further, I must confess to the excessive use of the word ‘bl…y’ in my blogs. I have been asked by my best well-wisher, Aai, my mother, to tone it down. So, as of now the word is to be read ‘b….y’ for BEAUTY!!] Happy Aai?
So, let’s start at the fish markets where I was invited to give a class.
Basically, the cooking class at the SSS is a 2 hour hands-on class which means the students get to cook two dishes from start to finish.
The first is an entrée and the second a main course served with steamed Basmati rice.
I love doing classes at the SSS because it’s such fun but also because it’s like performing on stage.
You get 1 hour to perform and show how the dishes are cooked and then the students move to a state-of-the-art kitchen to recreate the dishes.
So, I showed them how to make crab chettinad using blue swimmer crabs and karwari prawns, using fresh prawns.
The recipe for crab chettinad uses cinnamon, cardamom and cloves as part of a ‘whole garam masala’ followed by the ubiquitous ginger and garlic and peppercorns.
The crushed peppercorns are added right at the end of cooking the dish so that the pepper flavour is fresh and pungent.
At the team building class the next day we made, besides a few other dishes, yerra varuval (pan-fried marinated prawns). Here, the prawns were marinated right at the beginning with crushed peppercorns and other spices. This method creates a superb pepper crust on the prawns when they are tossed in a wok.
We also made a rasam using lentils and tomatoes which was then tempered with black mustard seeds, cumin and whole peppercorns.
The following day, in our scheduled class on Kerala cuisine, we made a moplah style biryani using chicken, rather than goat, and added ground garam masala, which includes pepper, after the chicken was seared and before the partially cooked rice was added to the chicken.
So, to summarise the versatility of this wonderful spice here is my altered recipe for crab chettinad that uses only black peppercorns as a spice throughout the recipe. Yes, that’s right!
There are no whole spices and no ground chillies. Just pepper all the way!!
At the first stage, whole peppercorns are added to the hot oil to create an infusion. Adding the peppercorns to the hot oil ensures that the peppercorn flavour will permeate through the onions and the rest of the ingredients, including the crab.
At the second stage, crushed peppercorns are added to give the dish some ‘bite’.
And finally, as I mentioned before, at the third stage, the freshly ground pepper is added right at the end to add that extra ‘oomph’ to the dish; just like we add ground pepper to our soups!!
Here is my recipe for Crab Chettinad using only pepper!:
apply 1/2 tsp turmeric to cleaned and cut crab. This recipe uses about 2 kgs mud crabs. [Turmeric is an excellent antioxidant and reduces any bacteria that might be in the crabs.]
Put cleaned crabs in the fridge whilst preparing the sauce.
To make the sauce:
heat oil until it just starts smoking, then add 1 tbsp whole black peppercorns; let peppercorns crackle [heating peppercorns this way creates an infusion].
add 3 chopped onions and salt to pepper-infused oil [salt prevents the onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan]. Reduce heat to medium and let onions caramelise.
when onions are almost golden, add 2 sprigs fresh kari leaves and let crackle.
add 1 tbsp crushed garlic to onions, fold until garlic is caramelised.
then add 1 tbsp crushed ginger and fold until mixture is golden.
add 1 tbsp crushed peppercorns, to give the sauce ‘bite’, and fold.
add 3 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped and cook well.
cook till tomatoes are soft and oil leaves the side of the pan.
It’s now time to remove the crab pieces from the fridge.
add crabs and fold gently.
cover pan and cook until crabs become red [approx. 15-20 minutes].
the crabs are now cooking, yum!!
remove crabs from pot and then finish preparing the sauce.
set crabs aside whilst preparing sauce.
add 1 tbsp crushed peppercorns and kari leaves to sauce for that extra ‘oomph’!
add juice of 1/4 lemon and season to taste.
add crabs to finished sauce, replace lid and cook for a few minutes.
to plate, remove crabs and arrange on serving dish.
pour sauce on top of crabs.
add a few fresh coriander leaves, to serve.
ready, set, go, attack!
voilà! the easiest and best crab chettinad!!
So, all we need to go along with this dish is some soft steamed Basmati rice. (Click Basmati rice to see how to prepare this delicious accompaniment.)
And there you have it. A most versatile spice used in three different ways in the same recipe.
If you’d like to try another classic version of this dish, please click crab chettinand recipe.
Anah daata sukhi bhaava!!