The first time I had this recipe, it was at a grubby little second-story Indian restaurant in the Little India area of Singapore, served with fresh bhatoora and teh tarik. Up until that point, I had only sampled a few Indian buffets, and enjoyed the usual Indian fare found in such buffets: naan, butter chicken, vindaloo, pakora, chana masala, etc. This meal of kheema, bhatoora and teh tarik is still easily in my top 5 food experiences of all-time. It also set off a string of trips to Indian restaurants and markets to explore other un-tasted possibilities.
Kheema is basically minced meat (lamb, in this case). Mattar is the word for “peas”. This is minced meat with peas. Sounds boring, right? Well, it also kind of looks boring (like Hamburger Helper) so I don’t blame you. But then there’s the smell of lamb sizzling in ghee, cloves and cardamom and cinnamon filling the air. Rich sauteed garlic and ginger mixed into that. Extremely aromatic. And the taste. Well, the taste is as rich as it sounds. Assuming you cooked it right, of course. So, because this is maybe my all-time favourite dish (I’ve started from 4 or 5 different recipes and produced about 8 different variations on this dish before I’ve narrowed it down to the recipe you see here) I’m going to briefly walk you through this so we can guarantee some delicious meat and peas.
You always want to start cooking with all your ingredients ready to go. Especially in any kind of cooking that involves more than 4 or 5 things. You don’t want to be caught with your pants down when your onions are burning and you’re still peeling garlic. So the first we’re going to do here is prepare everything in advance. Apologies to anyone who knows how to cook already – I’m writing these instructions for some people I know who don’t.
- In a small bowl, assemble all the dry spices (black pepper, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves and cassia bark). You can put them all in the same bowl because they’ll be added at the same time.
- Slice the onion into half-rings and put them in a bowl.
- Finely chopped the garlic. Peel and julienne the ginger knob. Julienne means make it into matchsticks, basically. The easy way to do this is to slice the knob in thin sheets one way, then stack the sheets and cut through all of them to make matchstick-width pieces. The ginger and garlic gets added at the same time, so store them together as well. If you have garlic and ginger in slight excess of what the recipe calls for, just add it in. It’s delicious.
- Chop the tomato. Put it in another small bowl. You need more little bowls.
- Take the ground lamb and chop it up a bit more on a chopping board. It’s good to do this because ground lamb is usually a bit more “together” (a bit more dense, perhaps) than ground beef, and won’t be as easy to break apart while it’s cooking. Season the meat with the salt. Rinse the green chili peppers, then, with a small knife, make a slit along the length of each pepper. The idea is not to cut them in half – it’s only to create an opening into the heart of the pepper. This will allow chili flavour and heat from the seeds to mix into the curry without the seeds actually mixing into the meat (which would get really hot). Set them aside together as they will also be added at the same time.
- Measure out the frozen peas into a small measuring cup.
- Now everything is ready. The order we’ll be adding stuff to the pan is like this: ghee, spices, onion, garlic and ginger, meat and chilies, tomato, peas. 14 ingredients broken down into 7 steps. That’s much easier. Even easier if you arrange the bowls in a line near the stove, in the order in which they’ll be added. I like logic, and cooking is very logical.
- 250-275 g ground lamb
- 3-4 tbsp ghee (or vegetable oil)
- 5 cloves
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 2 inches of cassia bark, or a 3-inch stick of cinnamon
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 ripe tomato, rough chopped, discard the seeds (this is optional, you can substitute maybe 1/2 cup of water in its place)
- 1 medium onion (2.5-3″ diameter), cut in half, then sliced into half-rings
- 3-4 tsp finely chopped fresh garlic
- 2″ x 1″ x 1″ knob of peeled fresh ginger, cut julienne-style (see above)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- 3-5 green chilies, depending on how hot you want this to be (or maybe 1/2 – 1 tsp of cayenne powder)
- fresh cilantro, torn by hand, to garnish (as much as you’d like, but at least a tbsp or two)
Serve with: bhatoora or any other Indian breads, rice
What you will need: bowls to separate ingredients (see above), large knife and chopping board, deep saute pan, or large frying pan, wooden spoon or something to stir the curry, measuring cups and spoons
- Turn a burner on to medium (5 on my dial) and melt the ghee in the pan.
- When the ghee is melted and the pan is hot, add the dry spices (black pepper, cloves, cardamom, bay leaves and cassia bark/cinnamon). You want to cook these until they make a crackling sound, and they smell extra-fragrant. If your pan is hot, this may only take 10 seconds. If you pan isn’t that hot yet, this may take up to 1 minute. No worries. You just want to avoid burning the spices which ruins the flavour. It’s better to move to the next step too quickly than to overcook the spices. But you should hear crackling pretty quickly, so let’s not obsess over it. Moving on.
- Add the onions to the pan. You’ll want to cook these for about 4-5 minutes, or however long it takes for them to become tender and lightly coloured (lightly browned edges). Stir them a few times to make sure they cook evenly.
- Add the garlic and ginger, and fry until the garlic begins to smell sweet. This should take a few minutes or so. I’m not so keen on the times here – when garlic is raw it has a raw, fresh smell. Smell it deeply before you put it in the pan. Then smell it after it’s cooked for a minute. There will be a distinct difference (assuming you have the heat on). That’s all you’re looking for. Make sure everything is stirred together now.
- Add the salted lamb meat and chilies and brown the meat. This may take about 5 minutes. Keep stirring and turning the meat, breaking apart any large chunks you find. When you don’t see any more raw/pink/red spots in the meat, you’re good to go. What you want here is a nice crumbly, even mixture of the ingredients.
- Add the chopped tomato and stir them in. Once the mixture starts bubbling, lower the heat to medium-low (3 on my dial), and simmer the curry for 20 minutes or until all the liquid from the tomato is absorbed. When tomato cooks it releases it’s water – this will keep the meat moist while it’s slow-cooking in buttery onion and spices. By the end of this process, the meat will be much darker. Give it a taste-test, it should be cooked and pretty tasty by now.
- Stir in the peas and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the peas are cooked and tender.
- Turn off the heat and move the pan off the burner. Spoon out what you want into a bowl. Tear off a small handful of cilantro and break it up into smaller pieces and sprinkle over the curry. You could also sprinkle on some garam masala if you have any. But I didn’t warn you about that, so don’t worry about it.
And that’s it. Delicious, rich-tasting, homemade kheema mattar.
It may not look super-impressive, but I guarantee you it’s an enjoyable meal and like many Indian dishes, contains multiple layers of flavour. The natural spiciness of lamb, buttery sauteed onions, garlic and ginger, toasted whole spices, and a dash of freshness and colour added by the cilantro. I’m getting hungry just writing about it.
Notes: Kheema leftovers are great on regular toasted or un-toasted bread. Heat the kheema up, and make a sandwich. This mixture can also be used to stuff samosas or paratha with great results.