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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!!

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.

I’ve bought the dried beans and lentils….now what?

Most classes at my restaurant get booked out, but not the class on beans and lentils (lentils are generally known as dal in India)!!

Beans or lentils? Read this blog to clear up the confusion!

It was not until 2003 we realised that a dedicated class on beans and lentils was not attractive for the participants because of the myth, ‘eat beans will fart’!!

Most participants in the class are men, who according to their partners are already a ‘gas bomb’, so why send them for a lesson on becoming a ‘master’ in this fine art of which they are already an expert? Jokes apart, B&L are badly misunderstood, like most men. They are not all gas and they do have some substance!!

So what are beans and lentils?

The short answer is that they both belong to the pea family (i.e. legumes, or plants whose seeds are in a pod). The shape of the pea seed determines if they are called beans (kidney shaped) or lentils (lens shaped). Chefs never refer to peas as ‘peas’ unless they are fresh.

Furthermore, beans have the two pods wrapped around a membrane whilst lentils don’t have this membrane, hence the two pods are separate. And that’s why they’re called split peas!!

And what are some of the examples of these beans and lentils?

Well, some popular examples of beans include: red kidney or rajmah, black-eye beans or lobia, chick peas or kabuli chana, green beans or moong (mung) beans, black beans or urad sabot.

And some examples of lentils include: yellow or mung lentils, white lentils or urad, chick pea lentils or chana dal, red lentils or masoor.

Okay, so we’ve listed some of them so to get the ball rolling, let’s talk about beans. Should we soak them or not?

Yes! We all know that we should ‘soak the beans’.

But for how long?

We soak our beans in water (at room temperature) in a pot large enough to hold about three times the amount of water to the amount of beans at the bottom of the pot.

This allows the beans to soak in enough moisture so that they can swell or balloon without breaking the skin. If you’ve ever soaked your beans in a pot or bowl that’s not big enough you’ll have noticed that the beans swell and the skin splits as the beans have nowhere else to go but expand!

Bad beans! Split and shrivelled skins mean you stinted on water when soaking them.

The pot is then kept near a warm place, preferably overnight, without disturbing it.

(I generally do the soaking after the sun has gone down and keep it soaking till the sun comes up!!) Or, as many recipes state, “soak overnight”.

The next morning, depending how much the beans have absorbed the water, more water is added to keep the beans submerged in the water (the water is now called ‘pot liquor’) and then it’s placed on a medium heat until it comes to the boil. No stirring is allowed as this makes the beans stick to the bottom of the pot and they’ll eventually burn!

To this day I have no bl..dy idea why this happens but to me these are the little nuances that make Indian food so mysterious, challenging and alluring!

Red kidney beans (not Mexican jumping beans)

The froth that rises to the top of the cooking beans must be stirred back into the pot and not discarded as some books say. I was taught to stir the froth back into the cooking beans. The heat is then reduced so that the beans simmer for a few hours.

How long we simmer for depends on the beans. Rajmah (red kidney beans) take a few hours while black-eyed beans take just under an hour.

Once cooked, the beans must be soft so that they mash easily between the thumb and the forefinger when pressed together.

They must also have their skin intact! This is very important because if the skin tears as the beans are cooking, the beans then become hard to digest and cause bloating which leads to indigestion and that so-called crime attributed to all beans: ‘farting’. For insurance,  you can add  dried fenugreek leaves (qasoori methi) before the tempering is done when cooking our beans.

Mung beans

So, well-cooked beans are a great source of protein and a great substitute for meat. In states like Gujarat and Maharashtra, and other parts of India where meat is not very popular, beans are the energy tanks!

So there we have the rudiments of soaking and simmering and getting our beans ready for the base of our dish.

Now, let’s move onto dal which have a bad press, like beans, with the added insult that since the 1970s they were seen as the only thing that vegetarians ate!

chick pea lentils

Firstly, lentils don’t need to soak over night. But how do we cook them?

Lentils should be cooked in room temperature tap water. This allows the dal to cook from the inside out. If you add the lentils to hot water then the outside starts to cook first whilst the inside remains raw, just like when you boil your eggs you start off with cold water!!

Once the water has come to the boil the lentils are then cooked over a low heat.

Once cooked the lentils should mash easily.

Having reached this stage lentils are now ready to have the flavours of the region it’s going to be cooked in added, such as vagharne from (Gujarat), talchikottu (Tamil Nadu), oogharne (Karnataka), and so on and so forth!

And now to the million-dollar question about lentils.

white dal (urad)

How do I prevent any flatulence from happening after eating dal?

Okay. Let’s get this straight. During the tempering process it is important to add asafoetida. Asafoetida is a strong smelling sap of the large ‘fennel like’ tree that comes from Afghanistan. It is sold as a block or as a dried powder. We generally add it to the hot oil, along with the other spices, before it is added to the cooked lentils.

And can we cook lentils and beans together?

Absolutely!

The dal makhni is a classic example of this and is soaked overnight because it has both beans and lentils in it (it uses rajmah, whole black urad and split chick peas).

Okay. So how do you cook sprouted beans?

Most Indians make a kind of usad or usal which is a simple preparation where the sprouts are tossed in a tempering that is popular to a particular region and then it is simmered without being overcooked. This delicious and simple dish is served as an afternoon snack!

Sprouted beans are extremely healthy and are very popular in India.

And can we make a dry dal?

Of course. If you do it is then called a dal-be-aab and it’s one of my favourite dishes.

The dal (lentils) are cooked and allowed to simmer till all the water has evaporated leaving behind a solid mass of cooked lentils.

Mom used to cook this and keep the tempering separate for us to add as much as we liked with chopped onions and coriander leaves and lemon juice. Slurrrrrrr…..p!! Served with a wholemeal roti, this is a winner in my house.

split yellow lentils

Can we cook lentils and meat together?

Most certainly. A very popular dish from Hyderabad is called dalcha gosht where chickpea lentils and meat – usually it’d be goat or lamb – are slow cooked together and then tempered. Served with a kulcha (a delicious flat bread) this is a “beauty”.

Okay, so how about rice and dal, can we cook them together?

You bet. The most popular version is called khichadi or pongal or khichada or bisi bhele bhath!! The English call it kedgeree. Of course they added their own unique ingredients to the dish that we all know so well: “curry powder” and Brussel sprouts and smoked haddock (there are lots of different versions of this dish and some people add hard-boiled eggs whilst others would never add Brussel sprouts and etc.)!!

So my friends, beans and lentils are more than just ‘hot air’. If they were just ‘fart inducers’ Indians would have been the cause of global warming and the land itself  would  have been a ‘gas chamber’ and there wouldn’t have been 1.2 billion people………!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

Please try either a black-eyed beans recipe or a red lentil recipe.

“Add turmeric for colour. . .” What utter ru..ish!!

“I also add turmeric to make saffron rice.” What an absolute joke!

Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff that has made people think that Indian food is nothing more than a ‘bl..dy curry in a hurry’. They think that having a beautiful, pale yellow colour added to their rice means they’ve somehow got an exotic Indian rice.

Half-baked knowledge, as we all know, is dangerous but the above statement is not even half-true, it is utterly false!

You can’t make saffron rice with turmeric; if you do, it is then called turmeric rice which is not Indian. Full-stop!!

But what is turmeric? And why is it used in Indian cooking?

turmeric

Turmeric is a tuber, or rhizome, or a root that belongs to the ginger/galangal family. However, this isn’t a botany lesson so we won’t go any further down this path.

It has been used in ancient Indian medicine, called Ayurveda, for yonks and has numerous medicinal properties. As this isn’t a class on herbal medicine either, we’ll also avoid this path.

Turmeric is used in many other ways as well. Women apply a paste of turmeric and sandalwood 7 to 9 days before their marriage ceremony; after marriage, they also apply it onto the parting of their hair but nope, we’re definitely not going to travel down the path of the many cultural uses of turmeric, but I must just add that it’s also offered to the gods during Pooja . . . but let’s leave it at that.

Today you’ll be a part of my cooking class and learn about the use of this ancient and highly underrated spice, also called haldi, halad, haridra, manjal, and etc. There are mainly two kinds of turmeric in India namely, alleppey from Kerala which is bright yellow and the other one from Madras which is a slightly darker yellow. Both are good for cooking, and you may use either.

Having cooked for about 30 odd years around India and other parts of the world, here is what I have learnt about turmeric from the ustaads of Indian food.

In order to do this, our menu for this class is going to be:

poondu rasam (garlic and lentil soup),

vegetable nilgiri khurma (seasonal vegetables mixed with a spice/fresh herb and coconut chatni [paste]) and,

thakkali saadam (tomato rice) followed by a pachadi (raita) and appalam (papadum).

For the poondu rasam we boil the toor dal (yellow lentils) in plenty of water and add a pinch of turmeric just as the dal comes to the boil. This is done to bring out the natural colours of the dal rather than simply adding ‘yellow’ colouring.

Then, towards the end of our cooking, when we temper the rasam we add another pinch of turmeric to the hot oil. Again, this is done to bring out the natural colours of the soup and it also helps preserve it.

For the nilgiri khurma, what I have learned over the years is that when making a green herb chatni for it, add a pinch of turmeric to prevent any discolouration.

When making thakkali saadam we add a pinch of turmeric to the tomato chutney (thokku) after the chilli powder and before the asafoetida to bring out the natural colours of the tomatoes rather than adding any colour to them.

Whilst we’re cooking these dishes I usually give my class some more information about turmeric, namely:

When boiling spinach in water, add a pinch of turmeric to the water when it comes to the boil, add the spinach, then bring the water back to the boil (this is also known as blanching) and drain the spinach in iced water (this is known as ‘arresting’ as we don’t want the spinach to continue cooking). Squeeze the water from the cold spinach, chop or purée and toss in some hot oil with a pinch of turmeric. If you add the turmeric the spinach will remain bright green and it will also keep for a long, long time – in the fridge, of course!

So what is the purpose of adding turmeric to food?

Well, besides being an excellent antiseptic (my son always applies it onto an open wound after it has been cleaned) after a game of rugby or soccer, it is also an excellent anti-bacterial agent.

We also apply a pinch of turmeric to our chicken after it has been cut and is then kept in the fridge. The same applies to red meat. Adding the turmeric prevents the meat from going off.

Every night my son begrudgingly gargles with hot water to which is added a pinch of turmeric and salt but he hasn’t had the flu for years!

Research conducted at Yale University revealed that turmeric added to food in small quantities helped prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. So, if you already have this terrible disease, G-d bless you, but if you don’t, for goodness’ sake start adding some turmeric to your kids’/grand kids’ food. You will thank the Indians for this simple addition far longer than if you forget to do this now!

Turmeric has been used in Indian food to help increase the metabolism; this is why we go to our local gym so that our metabolism increases so we can lose weight; but really, why put the weight on in the first place? Eat healthily and your visits to the gym won’t be as necessary!

Turmeric is also extremely good in bringing out positive passions and it makes people happy! My restaurant is turmeric coloured and all my staff are smiling and happy, thanks to the visual turmeric effect.

So, my dear friends of Indian food, using turmeric in food is mainly for its anti-oxidising properties and all the other positives follow on from this.

I really wish someone had told the world before the dam..d ‘curry’ took off that Indian cuisine is the healthiest food in the world and it is about prevention whilst the rest of the world is always talking about cure.

I do hope that you will join me some day on this journey of healthy eating!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

To try the three recipes mentioned above, click: vegetable nilgiri khurma, poondu rasam and thakkali saadam.

Is it baasmati or basmaati? Well, whatever it is, how do you get it so tender?

Ever wondered what the basic differences are between the eating habits of Indians and Anglo-Saxons?

Ask an Anglo-Saxon what he/she had for lunch or dinner and 90 out of 100 times the answer is, “I had roast chicken or grilled lamb chops or steak and salad or…”

Ask the same question to an Indian and the most frequent answer is about having eaten roti or chaawal or saadam or bhakri or bati or poli ( these are the names of various breads or rice dishes).

Anglo-Saxon meals revolve around protein whereas the Indian diet is more about starch and hence it is extremely important for the average Indian to get his/her starch right or else all hell breaks loose!! You may be the best protein chef on the planet but if you don’t get the rice or the bread right you are doomed and could end up in the house of the big M!

“So, how do you cook your rice?”

Well, when I’m asked this question in my class, most participants will say that if they’re going to cook rice you put one cup of  rice in the rice cooker with enough water to cover and that’s it!! Easy. Easy? If I used this technique in my kitchen I would fail as a chef.

Why?

Well, because I believe that if you can’t see it you can’t control it; and if you can’t control it, then it is either going to be over or under cooked and both of these are unacceptable for the paying customer.

So how do I get it right every time? The answer is simple, I follow a technique that is good for a type of rice called baasmati (pronounced ‘baas’ which means flavour and ‘mati’ which means full of, as in literally full of flavour!!). There are two ways of cooking this wonderful rice: the first is by absorption and the second is by draining.

Using the absorption method I add one-part rice gradually to two-and-a-half-parts of boiling salted water, and I stir it continuously to prevent it sticking to the bottom of the pot and to evenly distribute the water temperature.

I stir the pot  until the water is absorbed by the rice, eventually forming ‘craters’ (little steam holes) in the rice. This is an indication that the rice has absorbed all the moisture and needs more. But beware, because if you do add more water you will end up with baasmati ‘congee’ (porridge) which is a wonderful dish in its own right but not one we’re after!

Once the steam holes have formed on the rice it is time to cover the rice with a moist cloth and a tight-fitting lid. The pot then goes on top of a hot-plate or into a fan-forced oven (140 C) for about eight minutes.

When you then take the pot out of the oven the rice must be allowed to breathe and you do this by simply removing the lid and the moist cloth and lifting the rice with a spatula, just as if you were lifting a slice of cake. Lifting the rice separates the grains and also allows them to expand further, which is an absolute delight to the eyes and nose!

Let the rice cool and reheat in a microwave, as required. Serve as an accompaniment with your favourite protein and expect the customer to pay you at least $2.50 more as this is one of the best ways to cook rice!

The other way of cooking rice is called the draining method.

The draining method requires a little more patience, practice and perseverance but once you master it you will be so proud!!

Okay, so this is how it works: Soak 1 kg baasmati rice in a mixing bowl with about 1-inch of water to cover.

soaking the rice

Please note that I wrote ‘soak’. When you wash the rice in running water, don’t rub the rice between your fingers to clean it as is common practice! Baasmati rice is a polished grain and has no starch on its surface. If you rub it you actually remove its polish and bring out its starch to the surface, which is an absolute crime, as the rice will become sticky when it should be just the opposite! Got it?!!

Next, add some water  (five times the volume of the rice) to a heavy-based pan, add salt (1/2 teaspoon for 1 kg. of rice) and bring to the boil.

Drain the rice when it has risen to the surface of the water you were soaking it in and add it to the boiling water.

Stir gently with a slotted spoon (as  a slotted spoon is good to separate the rice , when stirring)  Bring the water back to the boil, stirring continuously, very slowly, and watch for any ‘froth’ that forms. Don’t take your eye off the boiling rice.

Adding the drained rice to make biryani

Once the froth forms, drain the rice in a strainer  and spread the rice on a tray. Break a grain of rice in the middle with your thumb and forefinger, take a deep breath, say your prayers and hope to find a white dot in the middle of the grain. This tiny white dot is the only uncooked rice there should be! When the rice is at this stage it’s called al dente in Italian and ek kan in dakhni. Ek kan rice can be layered on top of partially cooked meat and then dum cooked in the oven. This is the best way of cooking rice for biryanis and is just how they do it in the Paradise Hotel in Hyderabad!!

If you do find this white dot in the middle of your rice you can thank me. If you don’t, you’ve only got yourself to blame and you can get straight back into the kitchen and start washing the dishes as you’re not fit to be a cook. Just kidding! Take a deep breath and try again and again, till you get it right!!

When your rice is at this stage it’s also the best way of storing it for a few days without it going off. It is also a good method for steaming rice as it never overcooks and comes out soft and fluffy.

So, to make perfect steamed rice on the day of your Indian party, get a double boiler ready with a muslin cloth lined inside the strainer, bring the water to the boil and allow to simmer, then add your pre-cooked al dente rice to the double boiler. Cover with a lid and wait for the steam to start emerging. In a few minutes you will have perfectly cooked, steamed baasmati rice which will amaze your guests and then you can charge $5 per person for all the bl**dy hard work you’ve put in!!

My dear friends, next week we will talk about the other popular starch in India called atta that makes the roti, chapati, poli (Maharashtrian and not the Keralan ), rotli, phulka, and many more that even I am still learning about!

Untill then, happy cooking!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

Try these two delicious rice recipes: coconut rice and tomato rice.

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