I’ve always thought this was one of the worst-looking food dishes I’ve ever seen. Brownish-red slop with lumps in it. Totally awful. Then I tasted it.
That was, oh, 5 years ago, give or take. I’ve realized since then that your perception of food’s appearance is highly dependent on your experience with and enjoyment of the flavour. Now I see the same slop and think about how marvelous the deeper red colours are, how rich it looks with cream floating on the top. I understand now how black gram’s luxuriously creamy texture is one of the finest selling points of this dish.
You could subtitle this post “Or, a recipe that uses all that fresh coconut meat you just produced, because you followed my previous post’s instructions like the awesome person that you are.” Yes, it’s a shrimp curry that features fresh coconut. This is loosely inspired by South Indian spices and ingredients, and requires a medium amount of work because, hell, I like doing work in my kitchen. Why do you have to have everything done so fast?
There are actually dozens of recipes for this snack online, with few variations from one to another. I suppose, then, it’s not essential to write my own, but damn it if these aren’t one of the tastiest mid-day snacks ever. I have to write about them. More importantly, I have some information to add about plantains.
Alternate names: asafetida, devil’s dung, stinking gum, hing (India)
The first thing you need to know about asafoetida is that foetida is Latin for “stinking” or “ill-smelling” (the word “fetid” comes from the Latin). Asafoetida stinks. Like sulphur. It’s not pleasant.
About 3 years ago, I purchased a large bag of dried chana dal from Loblaws, having no idea what chana dal was, or what to do with it. What I did know was “lentils are healthy and I should be eating some lentils”. So I took this bag home and tried out a recipe from an Indian cookbook I had.
It turned out mostly terrible. Not only have I learned that the cookbook in question routinely calls for 50% of the salt needed to make anything taste good, the preparation steps were vague about how to cook the lentils themselves. Over the next few years, I tried the dish a few more times with mixed results – the lentils were too hard, not seasoned well, too dry, etc. Of course, it didn’t help that I had never actually eaten dal before. All I had was a picture of something that looked pretty good, and some brief descriptions of the finished product. I have this problem often.
We were out looking at possible wedding venues a few months ago, and were at what has turned out to be our choice location: The Sheraton Parkview. Like many venues, they deal with The Host, a popular Indian caterer in the Toronto area and, as luck would have it, The Host has a restaurant location directly below the Sheraton in an underground mall. A perfect chance to “test” some wedding menu options!
One of our meal picks was a tawa paneer dish – paneer pan-fried with peppers and onion. It was good, and seemed simple enough to make at home. I gave it a few whirls and had quality results each time (it also works well with mushrooms) but I got the idea to build a sauce base for it as well, thinking I was inventing a brand new curry. I wasn’t – what I was actually doing is making a jalfrezi-style curry.
This recipe is going to get a bit ridiculous. Fair warning. I was heading out into the Ontario farmlands with my two friends, Jim and Andrew, to record a rock and roll album at Chalet Studio, and since we were staying overnight, we needed to bring food. One problem: Jim is a stubborn vegan, and Andrew leans vegetarian (or at least, he did) so I built a hybrid vegan biryani out of recipe ideas for 3 or 4 vegetable curry and rice dishes. The end result was pretty great: a spicy-hot tomato curry infused into richly flavoured baked rice, with large pieces of potato, cauliflower, and carrot mixed throughout. The whole thing was topped with fried cashews and raisins, and lidded with phyllo pastry (egg-free, naturally).
Edit: I’ve modified this recipe as of May 9th, 2011. The recipe and directions have changed. Deal with it. This one is better, and simpler.
As I mentioned in my Kheema post, the first time I had bhatoora/bhatura was in an Indian shop in Singapore. Before then I had tasted several kinds of naan. Naan is pretty popular now in North America and is manufactured by companies like President’s Choice and Dempster’s (don’t ever buy these if you’re craving Indian breads – they probably won’t taste the way you want them to) but India offers many kinds of breads that aren’t normally offered at buffet lines (which was, at the time, the only place I had ever had naan) and are not available commercially in most Western supermarkets including bhatoora, a puffy, deep-fried bread served often with chana masala (spiced chickpeas).
Cremini Mushroom and Eggplant Curry
This recipe is not really based on anything specifically traditional. Mushrooms are a fairly new addition to Indian cuisine, after all, so there’s not much history to speak of (and many restaurants don’t serve them). But, my girlfriend loves both mushrooms and eggplant, so there’s motivation to create right there. Plus, we’ve been looking for ways to eat a bit lighter (with more vegetables) lately, and this definitely fits the bill.
Some days – a few every month – I’m not really in the mood for doing a lot of work to put food on the table. I still want something good, but uncomplicated and containing only a few, simple ingredients. Some days, that means grilled cheese sandwiches, and other days this recipe for simple chicken curry. “Curry is simple and not a lot of work?”, I hear you ask, incredulous. Well, it’s true – or more true than false.
Remember that time? The first time you went to an Indian restaurant (for buffet, naturally) and your eyes and nose were overwhelmed by unfamiliar colours and smells? Maybe you were more daring than me, but I hesitated when I swirled the ladle around in the tray of saag paneer. White cubes of something (I didn’t know what) hidden in a thick green soup of unknown origin. My gut reaction was repulsion, and I believe I made a comparison involving swamp slime.
As is often the case, I was wrong. So wrong. Perhaps the subtleties were lost in the dense haze of 2 dozen dishes mixing their smells in the same room, but saag paneer, despite its appearance, is a dish for kings. Or me. The paneer is rich with crisp, chewy edges and pillow-y center. The spinach is softened and thickened with cream, flavoured with a spice blend that is a good balance between earthy and delicate. It seems fairly simple (cheese+spinach+cream), but the flavours are layered and complex.
Oh, mango chutney, the ketchup of North Indian restaurants. Papadum served with chutneys, samosas with chutney – everyone’s familiar with the basic concept. Except they’re probably only familiar with the Western versions – “chutney” can refer to a wide class of preparations much different than what we commonly understand. That’s not what I want to talk about, though.
I want to talk about preserving, or pickling. This mango chutney is technically a pickle. In the simplest terms, a pickle is a mixture whose pH leans heavily towards acidity (<4.6 pH officially) and that acidity is strong enough to kill bacteria and other fun things – all of which means you can store it (the pickle) for quite a long time without it going bad. Since vinegar and lemon juice’s pHs are 2.4 and 2.2 respectively, either can be used here. To help keep the interior of the jar safe, we need a clean jar, and a tight lid. By clean, I mean it should probably be boiled (or washed in a hot cycle of a dishwasher) beforehand, and dried with a fresh towel.
Chana Masala – another one of those Indian buffet staples – means simply “spiced chickpeas” (or close enough). My most memorable experience eating chana masala was not at a buffet, but at a downtown food court in Boston. It’s not that it was great food (it was good) but I did find it surprising that there was an Indian vendor at a food court. It made me realize that in Toronto, there is no food court (outside of Gerrard st.) I know of has any Indian food, and I’ve been to many food courts (sadly). One day, I hope that changes. I’m getting tired of Manchu Wok, and don’t even get me started on Subway. Ok, moving on…
Paratha – my Achilles heel. Not only is it bread, it’s fried bread. Fried, flaky, layered flat-bread – each inner layer is moist and buttery, the outer layer crispy and hot. Sigh. Like the ghee worked into the dough, I melt…
But let’s not get carried away. These things are so thick with ghee that even *I* feel a little guilty about indulging. You see, paratha is made by rolling out dough, slathering ghee on the surface, folding the dough over, and slathering on more ghee. You repeat this a few times until you have a rolled-out dough with multiple layers and pockets filled with ghee, ready to melt and sizzle instantly when the dough hits the pan.
Alternate Names: Screwpine Leaves, Kewra/Kewdaa, Rampe, Ban Lan, Toey/Taey/Tey Ban
I’m going to refer to these as “pandan leaves” since that was the name first introduced to me. They are the leaves of a herbaceous plant native to Southeast Asia, where it’s cultivated for use in cooking as a flavouring element. And when it comes to certain dishes in Indo-Malay cooking, I’ve been told on good authority that pandan leaves are absolutely essential to achieving an authentic taste.
The problem is they’re almost impossible to find, unless you know what you’re looking for. I was originally searching for these leaves over 5 years ago and basically gave up hope until I was in the back area of a basement-level grocery store in Chinatown about a month ago, and I found a package of frozen pandan leaves by complete coincidence. Now that I’ve been researching their use in more detail, I’ve discovered that Indian food-sellers would probably refer to Pandan as “Kewra”, and I am 99% positive I’ve seen Kewra Water and Kewra Extracts at several Indian markets. This excites me. Once again, understanding the multiple translations of the ingredient’s name would’ve saved me a lot of time (years, in this case). The search, however, is half the fun.
Naan is ubiquitous in Toronto; you can get it fresh in a hundred restaurants (not all of them Indian, even), and it’s available for home purchase (fresh or frozen) in every major grocery store, being marketed by brands like Dempster’s, President’s Choice, and others. The word itself (meaning simply “bread” and dating back nearly 2000 years in the Persian language) has come to represent generic baked flatbreads of several regions, stretching from Iran and Afghanistan through Central Asia, parts of China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Naan is bread, simple as that, and I love bread.
I also love my new grill, so what better way to celebrate these loves than by grilling fresh naan over hot coals? Answer: there is no better way.
Chicken Tikka Kebab
This recipe is basically an expanded, standalone version of the basic chicken skewer portion of my Chicken Tikka Masala. Tikka, in general, refers to a cut of meat marinated in yogurt and spices. That’s the clinical explanation, anyway. What we have here are pieces of tender, roasted chicken pieces with healthy doses of garlic and ginger, spiced with a rich, cinnamon-spiked blend of aromatic spices and coloured with red Kashmiri chili powder, yellow turmeric, and saffron-like mace.
Once again, I’m using my charcoal grill for this. I’d print oven instructions, but for this recipe, it’s worth seeking out a way to properly grill these. Sometimes, half-measures are not acceptable. This is one of those times.
Paneer is South Asian cow- or buffalo-milk cheese. It’s used mainly in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and as a protein source in Hindu lacto-vegetarian cuisine. It’s a simple white cheese – unsalted, unaged, and acid-set. Its texture and consistency is similar to firm tofu (which is a good substitute for vegans) and its flavour is extremely mild due to the lack of salting and aging.
Sounds boring, right? Wrong; there’s more. Paneer doesn’t melt – which means you can do a lot of things with it that you can’t with most cheeses. Deep-frying, pan-frying, roasting, even grilling. Chop up paneer into 1″ cubes and add a splash of oil to a non-stick pan over medium heat, then fry the cubes for a few minutes each side and you’ll get nice browning, crispy edges, and a nice, soft, moist interior. Also similar to tofu, paneer can be marinated and it will absorb the flavours that it is cooked with. All of this makes it an ideal ingredient in South Asian cuisine; it’s an all-purpose, protein-rich flavour sponge that holds up to just about any cooking technique you need it to.
I read somewhere that there are as many Seekh Kebab recipes as there are kebab vendors in India. I suspect that is a very large number. My online research confirmed this, as nearly every recipe starts with a few common ingredients, but almost always ends with a unique twist. Some use cream, others chickpea flour, mango powder, fresh chilies or nuts. Some even suggest “brown food colour”, which I’ve never heard of. What it all makes, though, is something like a Pakistani/Indian skewered sausage, roasted over charcoal.
Anyway, I’m not sure what cream does in a meat kebab, and my lovely girlfriend (who took the above photograph) dislikes the sourness of mango powder, so I’m sticking to a relatively basic mix of ingredients. All the usual suspects are here: onion, garlic and ginger in abundance, cumin, garam masala rich with cinnamon, cayenne for heat and fresh herbs. I’m going to use ground cashews for a rich nuttiness. Not to mention the meat itself, roasted to perfection (hopefully) and basted with butter for added finger-licking flavour. You can use beef if you’d like, but lamb is best. Ground lamb is out there in many places (Loblaws seem to carry it most often in Toronto) and is worth the extra expense if you want to get fancy with your BBQ.
Kashmiri Chili Powder
For one thing, it’s the subject of some heated internet debate. However, that does little to distinguish it from stain removal tips, the best restaurants in the East End, and LOLcats. Much of the debate, though, centers around the crucial question: what is a Kashmiri chili pepper? The problem is Kashmir grows many kinds of peppers, so the naming convention can be misleading since the powder labelled “Kashmiri” is typically one specific type of pepper. The other thing is that the pepper typically used for Kashmiri chili powder isn’t even from Kashmir.
While this may send some cooks into fits of shock and horror, what does this mean for you, the young, intrepid amateur in Toronto? Not a whole lot.
If you’ve never had biryani before, you’re really missing something. Years ago, I’d seen biryani on a menu and when told what it was, I said something along the lines of “oh, it’s just rice and pieces of meat?” That was a misunderstanding. I have apologized to the biryani gods.
This isn’t just rice. It’s rice enhanced with fried onions and whole spices – cumin, bay leaves, smokey black cardamom and warm cinnamon. It’s coloured by saffron (or turmeric) and decorated with roasted cashews and golden raisins. However, Biryani is more than just the sum of its parts; the cumulative flavours of the spices, ghee, and the spiced yogurt are something very special. There’s a reason why the dish has spread from it’s Persian roots to the Arabic world, and eastward through India all the way the Philippines. It’s damned good. Rich. Fragrant. Full of complex layers of flavours, textures and temperatures.
Cashew Chicken Curry
This is a good week-night curry. It’s very simple and takes only half an hour to prepare and cook from scratch. Baking a frozen lasagna takes twice as long. I won’t talk smack about lasagna (I’ll get in trouble with a lady) but I’d prefer this over it any day.
The sauce has the most basic foundation (onion) plus large flavouring ingredients (cashews and cilantro) and a small amount of spicing to provide nuance and warmth. Then we just simmer some chicken pieces in this sauce and we’re done. The smell is amazing (fried onion in butter, mixing with roasted nuts and spices, cooled off with fresh herbs – think about that for a few minutes) and the flavour is relatively complex for such a small list of ingredients.
It’s also a great way to get rid of cashews if you have a giant tin of them sitting in your cupboard like I do.
Cashew-Stuffed Indian Eggplants
The eggplant is a pretty versatile and tough plant. You can do pretty much anything with it – deep-frying, grilling, slow-roasting, mashing, etc – the eggplant can stand up to intense cooking for significant amounts of time. In fact, the eggplant often requires longer cooking times than most things in the kitchen. This recipe will back that up, as we’ll roast tiny eggplants for half an hour, a length of time that could turn a chicken breast half-dry (if you’re lucky), or a tomato into sauce. To help prove the strength and resiliency of the eggplant, we’re going to cut it open first, and stuff it with a nut and spice mixture.
That’s where things get tasty. Cooked eggplant on it’s own has a somewhat complex flavour, but we’re going to add roasted cashews, cumin, masala, fresh cilantro, and mango powder – all of which are packed with their own flavours. Nutty, spicy, rich and aromatic, balanced with fresh herbs and a hit of sour from the mango powder – all slow-simmered to infuse the eggplants with flavour.
Hot Chili-Coconut Masala
You like your food spicy? Then this is the masala for you. Dried chilies and toasted coconut provide the main flavour punch, while a myriad other spices provide texture and colour. This is a western Indian-style spice blend, and is not for the faint of tongue. It’s hot, and I say that as someone who likes my food fairly spicy compared to the norm. It’s quite hot. You’ve been warned.