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Tag Archives: cassia

Murgh kali mirch ……

murgh kali mirch served alongside steamed basmati rice

Happy New Year to you all, folks!

As my first blog for 2013 I want to share this recipe that, to this day, remains one of the most amazing dishes I have learnt to cook.

It is simple yet very technical as it uses black peppercorns, the king of spices, in three different ways.

First, the peppercorns are used whole to create an infusion in the hot oil; secondly, they are crushed or cracked; and thirdly, they’re ground with garlic and curry leaves to add that extra ‘oomph’ to the dish!!

the ingredients arranged before I cook

adding buttermilk to the chicken

mixing the buttermilk and chicken

adding oil or butter

adding peppercorns to the hot oil

adding cassia

adding the cardamon

adding cloves

adding asafoetida

adding onions and curry leaf to the oil

folding the spices and onions

the leaves will become translucent and the onions start to caramelize

add salt to taste and cook till onions are translucent

keep stirring whilst holding the pot firmly

add ground ginger and garlic one after the other, when the onions are golden

add the chilli powder

add turmeric powder

stir ingredients each time after adding a new one

add ground coriander

add chopped tomatoes

stir in the tomato

let the tomato cook till skin is soft

add marinaded chicken

fold in chicken

cook chicken

crush curry leaves and add to pot

add ground pepper

add a generous sprinkling of cracked pepper

cover the pot and simmer till chicken is cooked

add peppercorns to a mortar

add garlic flakes to mortar

crush leaves and add to mortar

add coriander leaves

crush ingredients with pestle working under a clean tea towel to prevent any mess, and smile please!!

add the crushed spices to the pot

sprinkle chopped coriander on top before serving

close up of dish

the dish is now ready!

plate the meal on a banana leaf and served with steamed rice

If you want quantities, here is the murgh kali mirch recipe.

And if you want the classic way to cook basmati rice, please watch this video!

Please let me know how you go with this dish.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

Mysore Chilli Chicken ….

This chilli chicken dish is simple yet skilled; it is hot but doesn’t burn, and it is tasty but not overly spiced. So much intricacy in this dish!

Mysore chilli chicken dish

So, let’s get started and first make the masala:

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

Method:

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, here are a few 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!!

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!!
VANAIKKAM ANNA!!!

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

Method:

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!!

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

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about ajoy

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

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

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!!

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

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Who is this Spice Merchant?

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

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

The world knows him as ‘Herbie’.

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

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

Liz and Herbie Hemphill

Well, here goes. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbie’s shop in Rozelle, NSW

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to top it all, this man was white.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a treasure trove of spices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbie amongst the cardamom plants in India

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

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

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

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

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

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


Herbie in a spice store to die for!

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

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

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

[Serves 4-6]

2 x 420g cans red kidney beans, undrained

1½ teaspoons Madras turmeric

½ teaspoon each of asafoetida, chilli powder, chilli flakes

1 medium onion, puréed or grated

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tablespoon ghee or butter

1½ teaspoons whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1 x 420 g can chopped tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

2 tablespoons plain yoghurt

Salt

Fresh coriander leaves, to serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

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

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about ajoy

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

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

nilgiri’s corporate team building cooking class

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

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

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

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

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

Well almost. You might just guess.

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

Can you guess what it is?

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

What did you guess?

Coriander seeds?

Cumin seeds?

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

You still don’t know?

Okay.

It’s black peppercorns or kali mirch!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STEP 1

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

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

Put cleaned crabs in the fridge whilst preparing the sauce.

STEP 2

To make the sauce:

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

STEP 3

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

STEP 4

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

STEP 5

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

STEP 6

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

STEP 7

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

STEP 8

add 3 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped and cook well.

STEP 9

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

STEP 10

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

add crabs and fold gently.

STEP 11

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

STEP 12

the crabs are now cooking, yum!!

STEP 13

remove crabs from pot and then finish preparing the sauce.

STEP 14

set crabs aside whilst preparing sauce.

STEP 15

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

STEP 16

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

STEP 17

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

STEP 18

to plate, remove crabs and arrange on serving dish.

STEP 19

pour sauce on top of crabs.

STEP 20

add a few fresh coriander leaves, to serve.

STEP 21

ready, set, go, attack!

STEP 22

voilà! the easiest and best crab chettinad!!

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

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

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

Anah daata sukhi bhaava!!

A Tale of Two Classics

the classic Kashmiri, Pandit-style rogan josh

In my 30-odd years of cooking, if there is one lesson I have learnt, it is this: never challenge a customer.

Never. Ever.

Some may agree with this, but there is another school of thought that believes otherwise.

Some chefs in so-called high places believe that a customer is out to get him i.e. that the customer is just someone who wants to prove that he is more knowledgeable than the ‘Creator’, that is, the chef!

Well, it is not true.

Or so I thought till this happened. . .

At nilgiri’s we change our menu every month, that’s right, every month and we have been doing this since we opened our doors way back in 1998.

It’s no mean task doing this!

Every single menu that is made goes through a process where the menu is checked for its right balance in terms of taste, colour, chilli level and its visual appeal.

Of course, as most of you will know by now, we also believe that there is no such thing as ‘authentic’ when it comes to Indian food though there are some classic dishes that shouldn’t be played around with.

Apart from that, the rules are simple.

Every dish must have its own character, name and an identity, if not it’s best called a ‘curry’!! We don’t have curries in my restaurant.

Again, and this is my mantra in an attempt to educate, Indian food is not curries.

Anyway, let’s get back to my story.

Some months ago we had a group of tourists who were visiting Sydney and decided to dine at my restaurant, excellent!

During that month we were doing food from the North-West Frontier and Kashmir.

Food from this region is one of my favourites, after Hyderabadi food of course!!

Anyway, we had some classics like gosht rogan josh (made with goat meat) followed by kadhai murgh, tsoont wangan, muj gard, and so on. . .

The orders are taken, the food served. All is going well, so far.

As a general practice, my waiters check on the diners at various points during their meal to see if everything is going well.

Table number 12 stops one of the waiters and says loud and clear so that every diner in my restaurant can hear, “This is not rogan josh!”

And he doesn’t stop at the rogan josh.

He continues, pointing at another dish saying, as loudly, “And this is no balti chicken, I want to speak to the manager!”

Firstly, there’s a slight problem here as we don’t have managers and secondly, all of my frontline staff are capable of taking decisions themselves as they’re highly trained  competent individuals.

However, because this diner insisted on speaking to someone whom he thought was ‘higher’ than a ‘mere waiter’ my staff knew that the best bet was for me to face the music!

I approach the table smiling and ask, “Sir, how can I help?”

“This is rubbish.” comes the reply.

“What is it that you don’t like, Sir?”

Again, he points at the dish saying, “This is no balti chicken, it is too hot and there’s not enough coconut cream!”

“Okay.” I respond, “And the rogan josh?”

The man shifts in his seat and continues, pointing at the rogan josh accusingly, “It is too thin, it’s not like the ‘curry’ we get in. . .”

And it is here that my patience is tried and my knowledge, pardon me, won’t be held in check.

I am no spring chicken and I do know a thing or two about Indian food.

So, I mentally rolled up my sleeves and launched into my explanation.

I tried to explain that there is no coconut cream in balti chicken, which in India is called kadhai murgh, but no sooner had these words fallen from my mouth I realised that the guest was not one bit interested in what I was saying.

I wasn’t trying to justify myself, I was simply just trying to explain why the food served was the way it was!

Anyway, as became clear the other diners at the table were enjoying themselves thoroughly, eating their meal whilst this exchange was taking place, but not this man.

He was a tourist who had seen a little, heard a little and tasted a little of a cuisine that is over 1000 years old and from this small knowledge he felt he knew it all.

It was later revealed that he had only eaten Indian food in England and had never even been to India!

So, my point here is that Indian food is, indeed, very simple and its origin, history, and name are straightforward.

However, and this is what my guest wasn’t au fait with, sometimes the same dish may have more than one interpretation, or recipe.

So, let’s try and understand this in a little more detail, if you don’t mind.

Kadhai chicken in India originates from a region called Baltistan in the North-West Frontier region of the disputed territory of Kashmir. (However, let’s stick to food only and not get into the political issues here!)

The region is rugged and has a very extreme climate.

It is wedged in-between Kashmir, Tibet, Gilgit and China.

Very little is grown there due to its harsh climate, and so the food is a reflection of the region and its produce.

Most dishes are served either dry or semi-dry.

Rice is not commonly eaten and the staple starch is either roti or naan.

This dish is popular in England, as well, especially in Birmingham and is called ‘Balti chicken’.

For some go…fors..en reason beyond my understanding, coconut cream got added to this dish in some quirk of translation, perhaps more suited to the palate there.

Coconut is not even grown in Baltistan and I don’t think the natives of this region would ever add it to their food!

So, let’s take the other classic dish rogan josh:

black peppercorns

cloves

chillies

fennel seeds

cinnamon

This dish comes from Kashmir.

The two main communities who live here, the Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits, eat meat (lamb and goat) and make this classic dish.

The Muslims add onions and garlic to the dish whereas the Pandits make it without onions and garlic.

Hence the Pandits’ dish is light and the sauce is thin to look at but by no means light to taste.

It is, in fact, extremely tasty and one does’t miss the onions at all!

In fact, the recipe that follows has been with me since 1981 and was given to me by my friend Chetan Kak’s mother when I was in Delhi training at The Oberois.

The dish is made with slightly fatty goat meat left on the bone to bring out the rogan which in Persian means ‘red oil’.

The recipe uses all the regular spices that go into the making of rogan josh, namely cassia (or cinnamon), green and black cardamoms, cloves and it then uses ground fennel seeds to add that unique flavour to the dish.

Instead of using onions and garlic, this recipe demands the use of asafoetida which is used to add the pungent onion and garlic taste to the meat without actually using them! Fresh ginger is replaced by dried ginger also called saunth.

Tomatoes get replaced by yoghurt which is beaten and added to prevent lumps.

Yoghurt added

The Kashmiri Pandits, I was told, also add a dried herb called rattan jot for the red colour along with Kashmiri chillies which are red and look flaming hot but are not hot to taste.

rattan jot infused with hot oil being added to the goat - to see the blog dedicated to this recipe click rogan josh recipe

The meat is seared in a hot pan/pot with whole spices added before it is put on the dum for about an hour and a half, or till the rogan (oil) rises to the top of the dish! (To read about the man who first showed me how to make this dish, see the blog Ajoy Meets Mr Karir.)

Served with boiled rice, this is one of my favourite dishes and I have asked my son to add this to the “100 dishes to eat before I . . .” list!!

As I shook hands with this group of tourists as they left my restaurant, I realised that there are times when the customer ‘is always right’, times when this isn’t the case and times when education could go a long way, but for the peace of my staff and myself, the teacher needs to realise when his pupils are fully focused, staring out the window or 100% certain they know it all!

If all this talk of cooking is whetting your appetite, please come with me on a step-by-step version of a Kashmiri, Pandit-style rogan josh, by clicking rogan josh recipe.

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

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