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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).

To ghee or not to ghee!!!

Ghee.

This is one word which is synonymous with Indian food.

The moment we hear of Indian food there are three things that come to mind: firstly that it is loaded with chillies, secondly that it is oily and thirdly, that it is cooked in ghee.

Having previously written about the importance of chillies in Indian food (What is it. . . Green chilli, red chilli, dry chilli, black pepper, white pepper?) it’s now time to talk about the myth surrounding ghee which will also cover the ‘oily’ aspect too!

So, what is ghee?

Most Indians would know that it is the purest form of a cooking medium and that it is also the purest form of milk. However, most people don’t know ghee is extremely cooling to the human body if taken in the right manner!

And this is where the main problem with ghee lies.

How does one know if one is taking it in the ‘right way’? Well, unfortunately this aspect of Indian food has never been documented and is left to any and every possible interpretation!

Here is my take on the use of ghee.

Having cooked for nearly 30 odd years or so, I have never understood how to use ghee correctly and hence it is never used in my restaurant, full-stop.

We even make our desserts using fresh oil (we use polyunsaturated vegetable oil, except canola, because in NSW the canola crop is genetically modified). For example, at my restaurant we fry our gulab jamoons in fresh oil and believe you me they come out abso-bloo..-lutely light!!

There are some exceptions to this rule, however:

For example, we once catered for an Indian businessman who insisted that the bati in dal bati churma was to be fried in ghee and served only with ghee. Of course we did as he requested and he was very happy with the results, but given a choice I would have stayed as far away as possible from ghee! There is method to this ‘madness’.

In 1988 on my way to Mangalore to learn how to cook on a chullah (a chullah is a kind of burner that is used in Coondapur), I went to a place called Palghat, now known as Palakkat, or the temple city in Kerala.

This is a place renowned for its temples and one of the temples is famous for its pal pradaman, a kind of rice pudding that is made with milk and ghee and edible camphor!!

Once in Palghat I had little time to perform my religious rituals and so I had the head priest help me make the food for a Naivaedyam, or prasad, or an offering, to the gods.

In this I was assisted by at least nine other so-called apprentices who were aspiring to become priests in the temple.

I must tell you that this, mind you, was my first taste of every single dish being cooked in ghee. We had at least five other dishes that were being cooked as well, including a sambhar (a lentil dish), a rasam (a soup), kootu (a pumpkin and lentil dish) boiled rice and a yoghurt dish (aviyal), all of which were to accompany the pal pradaman.

All of this food was to be fed to the regular visitors that numbered anywhere between six and seven thousand souls, just for lunch!!

We started by tempering the cooked lentils in ghee for the sambhar followed by cooking the aviyal and finishing it off with a tempering which comprised mustard seeds  and curry leaves in ghee.

Then the vegetables and lentils, called kootu, were tempered, once again using ghee and spices.

Then came the pièce de résistance, the paal pradaman, made with rice flakes, called ada, which are soaked for about 20 minutes and then drained and cooked with milk and ground green cardamom pods. Once cooked, the rice and milk combination is allowed to thicken and edible camphor is added followed by nuts that are fried in, yes, of course, ghee!

I had never seen sooo much ghee being used in a kitchen before. What a revelation!

Back at my hotel in Bangalore the only time we ever used ghee was when we made sweets for special occasions, for everything else it was dalda a.k.a saturated vegetable oil that looked like ghee. And this is where the similarities ended. Daldadid not taste like ghee nor did it behave like ghee, which is supposed to bring out the true flavours. Interestingly, dalda actually ‘camouflaged’ all the flavours and smells, unless you put your nose right into the dish!!

Well, back to Palghat, at the end of the lunch session, which also became the beginning of the dinner session given the thousands of visitors that had to be fed, I asked the head priest if cooking with ghee was the same as cooking with dalda, or saturated vegetable fats, and this is what he replied:

“Son, anyone can cook with dalda, to cook with ghee you should have attained moksha.” [Or nirvana.]

That was a tempered way of saying that it was beyond my understanding to use ghee and hence I should not bother cooking with it as it was very tricky and needed to be understood, which, he might also have been implying, was beyond my scope!

Very encouraging words, indeed, for an aspiring chef!

But then there was another message too. Nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it first appears and it was all about using ghee properly.

According to the priest, very few people can differentiate good ghee from bad.

Good ghee is grainier to look at and will always remain in a solid state, even at room temperature.

It should never be stored in the refrigerator as this reduces its shelf life and also, by extension, that of the dish.

When melted in a pan, or pot, it must be crystal clear and have a high smoking point. This is very important for Indian food, which is wrongly accused of being oily as I mentioned above.

The oil remains in the dish if the ghee is not brought to a smoking point properly. (To do this part properly takes lots of practice as you must bring the ghee to a smoking point but not allow it to smoke!)

Smoking the oil brings it to the surface and it is called rogan which actually preserves the dish; whereas if it is left in it makes the dish heavy and oily!!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

Please try two desserts for yourselves, one of which I’ve mentioned above, gulab jamoon, which are deep-fried cottage cheese dumplings steeped in a warm rose water and saffron syrup. Delicious! Also, paal payasam which is a saffron and cardamom infused rice dessert.

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