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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!!

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!!

The three leaves that can make any meal look good, smell good and taste bl..dy good!!

the three leaves

And what are these three leaves?

Simple.

They are kele ka patta, karipatta and palak patta!!

My son, Aniruddh, woke up this morning to go to school and the first thing he said to me was, “Daa-ad’, I am going to be a vegetarian tonight, okay!” (this wasn’t a question, it was a statement).

“That’s fine,” I replied, “but why tell me?”

“Because” he answered, packing his school bag with last-minute items, “I want you to cook me dinner with vegetables only, no chillies, I don’t want it to be too spicy, and no curry. Okaay!”

My son is one of the few people in my household allowed to get away with using the term ‘curry’.

“Yes son.” I replied, quickly thinking what vegetarian dish I could serve him that fitted his urgent requirements.

Monday is the one day when I get to cook what I want, how I want, and not what someone else wants me to, even if he is next to the almighty!! However, this is my son asking, so I must do it!!

Once he’s headed off to school, I head off into the kitchen to cook for my son.

So, what will it be?

Is it going to be potatoes, or cauliflower, or cabbage, or mushrooms, or . . . ? The list is endless and my mind is working overtime.

One thing I know, for sure, is that he will eat anything I cook as long as it fits into the ‘all vegetable, no chillies and not too spicy’ category.

So, I make my decision.

It will be slow-cooked mung lentils or moong dal,  with chopped, or puréed, spinach, tempered with black mustard seeds and kari leaf.

I will serve this dal palak with plain boiled rice.

As I can’t help myself, and so that it looks good, it will be served on a banana leaf.

the most beautiful, natural serving plate

I choose mung lentils because it is, now folks get ready for this, considered to be the Queen of all beans and lentils.

Moong dal, or mung lentils as they are called in the West, are a great source of potassium, which helps prevent blood pressure. One cup of cooked mung lentils is equivalent to eating two bananas a day (my son will be very happy to learn this as he bemoans having to take a banana to school for recess as he says it gets squashed!).

Mung lentils also contain iron and copper, magnesium and zinc. Iron, as we all know, is extremely good for the blood; copper, on the other hand, helps produce haemoglobin and magnesium helps keep you calm whilst zinc helps us smell and taste the food!

Mung beans are also known to prevent heart attacks, but if you’ve already had one, I’m sorry, but it’s too late to prevent one.

Sprouted mung beans in Chinese cuisine are considered to be cooling for the body and are eaten during the summer months.

My mother would make a moong dal called moogache varan during the summer months when we lived in New Delhi briefly in the 70s.

Mung lentils are also an excellent source of protein and contain more nutrition than eggs, fish and red meat. More importantly, the lentils are easy to digest and cause no flatulence, or far…ng, just what my son needs!

So, in order to prepare this queen of lentils dish for the little king this is what I do. Please follow me.

First off, I cook about 2 cups of mung lentils in plenty of cold water with a pinch of turmeric, so that they retain their colour.

mung lentils cooking

Once the water comes to the boil, I reduce the heat and slow cook the lentils until they start to break down.

At this stage your spinach leaves, which have been washed in cold running water, are finely puréed (you can chop them beforehand, if you want) in a blender and are immediately added to the lentils.

make sure the mung lentils are cooked

An aside, if you don’t mind my interrupting my cooking process, on spinach.

spinach leaves

The spinach leaf is an ancient leaf that has its origins in Southwest Asia. It has been used in this area for a long time, even before it was known in the western world. As we all know nowadays, it is rich in iron and a great source of antioxidants as well as containing the vitamins C, A and B.

So, let’s get back to our lentils and spinach.

Add the puréed spinach to the lentils

Once the spinach is added the salt goes in (I only use iodised salt a.k.a cooking salt), and then you fold the mixture once or twice.

Fold the spinach into the mung lentils

and it is now ready to have some flavours added to it, known as tempering!

Well, at this point I have to be careful as my son has warned me not to make it too spicy and he doesn’t want any chilli either!

So, a good spice that can do the job of both without being overpowering is a spice you’ll all know called mustard seed!

Mustard seeds come in two forms: either black or brown and yellow.

For this particular dish I am using the black seeds.

black mustard seeds aren't just black!

They have a slight pungency and bitterness and they are also called a pickling spice as they are often used to do this job. Excellent news! as the ‘pickling’ element will help preserve the dal, and in fact make it taste better the next day, if there are any leftovers!!

Mustard is also a source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 which reduces the risk of arthritis as we get older, which I’m afraid is something none of us can escape. It is also great for the immune system!

By the way, another aside whilst I’m getting on with my dish, did you know that Australia produces one of the best mustard oils in the world? This oil hails from the region of Yandilla in Queensland and the oil is sold by that name.

However, for my dish we are not using the oil just the spice.

Mustard leaves are very popular in India and are eaten by women going through the menopause.

The leaf, called sarson, is rich in folic acid and magnesium. The first is good for preventing osteoporosis and the second for reducing stress and restoring sleep patterns. It is also a rich source of vitamin E which helps reduce the occurrence of hot flushes!!

So, I need a medium for tempering.

Ghee is good and is very cooling. But, as most of you will know if you read my blogs regularly, I have never understood this medium of cooking, hence I prefer to use polyunsaturated vegetable oil, which is neutral.

Adding polyunsaturated oil to a hot pan

So, into the pan goes the oil. Just as it starts to smoke I remove it from the heat and add the black, or brown, mustard seeds.

adding the mustard seeds to the hot oil

Then I let them pop.

A close-up of the popping mustard seeds

The hot infusion is now ready to be placed on top of the cooked dal-with-spinach-purée.

But hold on a moment!!

Have I forgotten something?

Yes, I’ve forgotten the second leaf called kari leaf or karipatta.

kari leaves

This leaf will give the dal its unique aroma which will permeate through the dal if added to the hot oil.

I personally prefer to place the leaves on top of the dal.

Place the kari leaves on top of the dal

I then pour the hot oil onto the leaves.

Tempering - pouring sizzling mustard seeds and oil onto the kari leaves to 'snap fry' them

This makes the leaves ‘snap fried’ bringing out the volatile oils to the surface!

Curry leaf, as it is erroneously called, is good in helping  prevent  diabetes (we have known about this aspect of the kari leaf for a few years, actually a few thousand years but who’s counting?!).

The leaf is used as a mild laxative and as a coolant to the internal organs. It can also be used a mild antidote for small insect and spider bites.

We have two curryleaf  plants on our balcony and in the summer months they prevent mozzies from coming into the house.

The leaf has yet even more uses in its prevention  of bad breath as its essential oils are antibacterial!

Finally, the rice is cooked (boiled or steamed), and at the moment I am using a polished grain called Sona Masoori, this is a polished grain that comes from the region of Andhra Pradesh.

The grain of this particular rice is slightly thicker than Basmati but is easy to cook and half the price! Also, if you cook your rice using the absorption method you simply use 3 cups of hot water to 1 cup of rice for a superb accompaniment. Nothing could be finer!

So, we’re nearly there. My son has come home from school, he’s doing his homework in his bedroom (so I’m led to believe) and is waiting for his dinner.

I’ve nearly finished too but I’ve one last part to do.

The presentation.

My son likes to eat with his eyes first, just as all of us like to eat with our eyes first!!

If it doesn’t look good, and doesn’t smell good, it can’t taste good, that’s his philosophy!! I agree.

I place the boiled rice on a banana leaf and put the dal palak in a separate bowl, sprinkled with the juice of a quarter of a lemon.

(As you’ll all mostly know, the banana plant is very auspicious to Hindus and is a representation of the Goddess Durga!! The leaf is the purest form of a dinner plate and food served on the leaf has a positive effect on the human body besides bringing out the true colors of the food. The fruit and the flower of the banana plant are also very nutritious and . . . well, I don’t have the time now to go into that description as my son is waiting for his dinner.)

the banana leaf

So, I serve the meal, call him to come and get it and wait for his reaction as eagerly as any mother/grandmother/parent!!

He comes back for seconds in no time.

Mission accomplished for this evening!

“Daa-ad,” he asks eagerly, “what are we having tomorrow….?!”

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

If you want to make this dal palak recipe at home and don’t want to have to read through the blog yet again, please click dal palak recipe for it in user-friendly form!

Can I have a keg of beer without a curry?

Yes!

Royal Mumbai beer on tap at nilgiri's served by Akhil!

You may have a beer anytime you choose.

Can I have a beer and a curry?

Of course, but let’s see where all these drinks take us. . .

Since I started my research on the kind of beverages that ‘go well’ with Indian food, I have to tell you that the results have been fascinating and also confirmed what I thought might have been the case.

Here is what I discovered.

Indians have been drinking alcohol before, during and after meals for G-d knows how long; even before man came to earth!

Legend has it that in the epic Ramayana, Sita promises the goddess Ganga that she will give her a thousand jars of wine if her exiled party are permitted to return home safely. Well, after they do so her husband Rama, with his own hands, feeds Ganga with maireya, a spiced wine!

In the Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world, Lord Krishna is seen enjoying a drink with Arjuna, and the Yaadavas are finally killed in a drunken brawl!!

Drinking scenes are also depicted in sculptures on the Saanchi stupas!!!

In these traditional stories and in images, all of the characters are drinking either a wine or a spirit made out of a fruit or a grain.

But where’s the keg of beer?

Well, fast forward a couple of centuries and the keg, or the beer, was introduced by the British in the 18th century to . . . well, we all know why they wanted the beer, and to be absolutely honest I just loved the fizzy drink as well!

During my working days at the Taj in Bangalore the beer was the best, sorry, the only incentive that I needed to perform my tasks well!

Kingfisher beer served with a smile by Lovedeep!

My general manager would give me special permission to have a bottle or two, or three!, to drink (with my chefs) at the end of the late and blo..dy tiring nights of functions!

I just loved it and so did my chefs!! Time passed and we all did what we had to do with the moving on of history, we spread our wings, we grew up, we went on to different things!!

I came to Australia with two ambitions in mind: the first was hoping to meet one Mr Don Bradman and the second was to have a beer called Fosters (but not with Mr Bradman, my ambitions were modest!).

Well, I did the second but I never got to meet the Don!

However, I’m not downcast as I know that one day I’ll catch up with this legend when I meet him up there, and we’ll have all the time in the world to chat. He was, and still is, my favourite cricketer!

Fosters beer was light and easy to drink and went very well with my style of Indian food, however after the second bottle was drunk I soon lost interest in the food and reached for more beer. Know the feeling?

This was mainly because the beer was filling me up with gas. Not a great combination.

It was not until 1996 that I got a taste of the beautiful elixir called “wine” and I caught onto it as a bee does to honey!!

This was not only a beautiful drink but it was also a perfect companion to my cooking; it actually brought life to the food and not the other way round!!

I have not looked back since!

Over the years, and after attending numerous classes on wine tasting, I have finally concluded that the best beverage to accompany Indian food, especially the regional kind of food that we cook at nilgiri’s in Sydney, is wine.

A good wine, whether it be a white like a Semillon or Chardonnay from the Hunter or a Shiraz, again from the Hunter or the Barossa Valley in South Australia, is an excellent accompaniment.

Iron Gate Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley

Other good wines with Indian food are the Pinots from the Mornington Peninsula!

As for the beer, a light beer like the Japanese Asahi, or even Kingfisher which comes from Victoria, are great to kick-start your Indian soirée, along with some nibbles, or even starters, followed by a good Shiraz to go with any red meat, especially goat.

My friend, Roger Lilliott, does a great sweet Shiraz from his vineyard in the Hunter called Iron Gate and actually recommends that you chill it before it is poured. Absolutely brilliant!

Iron Gate Shiraz

A good wine to accompany white meats and paneer is a Pinot from a vineyard called Nazaaray, owned by Paramdeep Ghumman who was a doctor in his previous life! This man makes some of the best Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in the land.

A selection of Nazaaray wines from the Mornington Peninsula

Well, that’s the alcohol drunk, but what about our non-alcoholic friends?

How about the lassis?

”]This is a great drink and can be refreshing if made properly.

I mean, everyone knows how to make a lassi, it’s not rocket science, not till you go to the Punjab and realise that lassi making is, in fact, rocket science, it’s an art form! Here the yoghurt is set in an earthenware pot and is churned using a wooden stirrer called a ravi.

There are generally two different versions of lassi, one is sweet and the other is salted with a hint of spice!

Mango, spice and rosewater lassis

Mum would make a good sweet lassi on a hot day in New Delhi, when we lived there in the early 70s, however personally I do not like a sweet lassi with my food as it is like having a dessert with your meal. I prefer to have my desserts after the meal.

When they make lassis in the south of India the yoghurt is churned till the fat rises to the top and is then skimmed off leaving behind the mor, which is then tempered with spices and curry leaves. A similar drink in the north is called chaach or chaas, but up here it is not tempered.

And what of our spiced teas, known as masala chai?

Lovedeep serving masala chai

Most Indians prefer not to have tea with their food, mainly because it contains tannins which make hot food (both the temperature and the flavour) taste hotter and that is also the reason why a young red wine, which is high in tannins, is also not recommended for the very same reasons.

However, as with our sweet lassis, spiced teas are another great way to round off an Indian meal!!

And, finally what about the simplest drink of them all, served in a jug, or nowadays in bottles either fizzy or still?

Water!

Many people feel they need to drink copious amounts of water to ‘cool themselves off’ if they feel their meal is too spicy, and indeed, water is the perfect drink to go with an Indian meal.

However, be warned, it is not recommended to drink it during a meal as it tends to bring out the heat in the chillis and makes a hot dish taste hotter!

Water, the simplest liquid of them all, is by far the most popular beverage to have at the end of an Indian meal.

Well, as for me, I need to make up for all the lost years that I missed having fuqqa (as the Moghuls called it in Hindustaan way back in the 15th-17th centuries), so I will stick to the “poetry in a bottle”!!

white poetry in a bottle - Nazaaray Pinot Gris

Red poetry in a bottle - Nazaaray Pinot Noir

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

As Summer is approaching, why not try one (or both!) of these refreshing lassi recipes? Meethi (sweet) lassi or masala lassi (a savoury/salty lassi).

Chutneys, chatni, pickles, achars and my ajoba

Most people think that chutneys or chatnis or pickles or achars are just fillers, or condiments, that have no serious role to play in an Indian meal.

nilgiri's home made pickles and chutneys

Well, you will be surprised to know that an Indian meal is not complete unless accompanied by either a chatni or an achar. So, what are they?

from front to back mango uurga, chilli pickles, aam ka achar, nimbu ka achar

Before we try to understand them however, as always, here is a little background story to set the scene.

Whilst I was growing up in Hyderabad in the early 60s, whenever the May school holidays came around we went to Nagpur in Maharashtra every year.

This annual trip became a ritual because it was where my grandfather, my mother’s maternal uncle, lived and it was where I spent my summer holidays every single year from 1961 to 1979.

Grandfather was a “registered accountant”, sort of like a “chartered accountant”, just a little different, as I guess he couldn’t afford to pay his fees for the ‘superior’ course to become a fully-fledged chartered accountant. Something called ‘poverty’ had hit him before he was able to make the next ‘grade’.

But this did not stop him from being the best, and the most respected, accountant in his field.

Accountants all over the world are the ones who can either make you look ‘good’ as a business or very ‘ordinary’!

Grandfather treated all his clients the same; it didn’t matter whether you had a small kirana store or a chain of medical clinics, you were not his friend!! His job was to tell you how much you owed the taxman and that was it. Nothing would change as far as the figures were concerned.

But if, for some god for…en reason, you got into trouble he was there to fight your cause and, I am told, ajoba, or grandfather, never lost a single case!!

This was the professional side of ajoba.

sirka pyaaz aka, pickled onions,pujabi style!

When he lost his youngest sister to tuberculosis in the early 1920s, ajoba decided to become my mother’s ‘dad’ as her own father was a ‘guard’ on the Indian Railways, then under British rule, and he was not granted leave on compassionate grounds.

So, my mother’s father had to stay working on the railways, leaving his 6-month-old baby in the care of my ajoba.

Ajoba was more than a father to my mother. He was both mother and father, though mind you he also had his own daughter, who was six months older than my mum, to take care of and what a bl..y good job he did with her too. He sent her to a private school, and then on to the best college in Nagpur at that time so she could get the best possible education. This is the caring, paternal side of my ajoba.

The other side is more colorful and full of tang.

Once I reached Nagpur in the first week of May every year I was in the good care of ajoba.

I would eat, drink, walk and drive everywhere with my grandfather!

Life was great fun. I would also go vegetable shopping with him (this was something that as a young boy I did’t really enjoy, but I never told him, oh no!, for he was, after all, my ajoba).

So, with my reluctance well hidden, every Monday we would go vegetable shopping. Well, we all knew he was good  with numbers, but  the ol’ man was also extremely good at buying and selecting veggies, particularly mangoes and herbs.

In May the mangoes and herbs were at their ‘organic’ best but ajoba still insisted on hand-picking them himself.

Raw, or green, mangoes had to not just look firm but they also had to have a certain aroma that told him if they were right for making pickles.

He had this fascination for pickles and chatnis and said that no meal was ever complete unless it was accompanied with a good achar or chatni.

So ajoba and his little assistant, yours truly, would hand pick each and every green mango, bunch of mint or coriander, to make sure that we got what we wanted.

For my ajoba this was the first step in getting a good pickle or chatni on the table.

from front to back Carrot pickles and fig and honey chutney

As we meandered our way past rows of mangoes and herbs he would say to me, “Son, if the foundation is good the product will rarely go wrong!!”. All of this detail, and smelling, and time, I would think, just for a pickle or a chatni!!

After reaching home it was my job to separate all the veggies into herbs, root veggies, and all the rest, something I follow to this day!

The green mangoes would get wiped (and don’t think this was a job done quickly, we are, after all, talking about 150 kgs of the things), dried and cut along the middle to expose the stone.

If the stone was not fully formed it was used for making something called moramba or murabba, made with the addition of jaggery and spices. The rest of the world calls it chutney!

Front to back garlic and red chilly chatni, date and tamarind chutney, onion chutney, ginger and honey chutney

The green mangoes would then get treated with a mixture that included black mustard seeds, fenugreek with asafoetida and salt along with sesame oil (for a southern style uurga or pickle), or with black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji seeds (a.k.a nigella seeds) and smoked mustard oil (for a northern style achar or pickle).

Whatever the style, according to my grandfather, a good pickle is never cooked in brine or vinegar but it is allowed to pickle over a period of time in the hot sun till the mangoes break down!!

Now we’re talking real pickles!

Back in the busy kitchen in my grandfather’s house the women folk would then remove the leaves of the fresh coriander and mint to be stone ground with raw mango and green chillies and salt to form a fine paste called chatni.

pudine ki chatni

As I write this, I can’t help but salivate thinking of this green pesto, which would be served to all guests as a part of the thali, to be eaten with a chappati along with sesame oil, a.k.a gingelly oil!

Pure nostalgia!!

So, to sum it all up my friends, chatni is fresh, it is never cooked!

It is derived from the sanskrit word chat, meaning to lick, and that is exactly what it does, unlike some bottled stuff that you get from the supermarket called ‘chutney’ which is cooked and over loaded with sugar and salt.

And now, of course, a small advertisement is about to appear on our screens, you know, the time when we usually go and make ourselves a cup of tea?

Nilgiri's Date and Tamarind chutney!!

(I must make an exception to the sort of cooked chutney being overloaded with sugar and salt. The date and tamarind chutney that we make at nilgiri’s uses jaggery, tamarind, spices and ‘black salt’ which is far healthier than any old sugars or food additives!!)

As for the pickle, it is never cooked if the fruit has a natural acid in it like mangoes or limes or lemons, or even gooseberries, and is preserved with the addition of pickling spices – such as fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, nigella seeds and black mustard seeds – along with salt, chilli powder and oil (mustard or gingelly).

raw pickles

The pickled veggies sold in the supermarket would make my grandfather turn in his grave!!

Ajoba was born on Deepavali day and would have been 115-years-old today!!

HAPPY DEEPAVALI!!
Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

Please try the following recipes yourself at home: pudine ki chatni (mint chatni), date and tamarind chutney, mango pickle southern style and aam ka murabba.

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