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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?


It’s black peppercorns or kali mirch!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Put cleaned crabs in the fridge whilst preparing the sauce.


To make the sauce:

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


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


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


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


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


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


add 3 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped and cook well.


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


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

add crabs and fold gently.


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


the crabs are now cooking, yum!!


remove crabs from pot and then finish preparing the sauce.


set crabs aside whilst preparing sauce.


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


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


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


to plate, remove crabs and arrange on serving dish.


pour sauce on top of crabs.


add a few fresh coriander leaves, to serve.


ready, set, go, attack!


voilà! the easiest and best crab chettinad!!

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

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

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

Anah daata sukhi bhaava!!

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



fennel seeds


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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