People who follow the recipe to the last word are the most boring people. Use your instincts. Chefs may have created combinations which (they think) are fantastic but you, you create your own fantastic.
I scribbled furiously. Those words just uttered by Atul Kochhar were words to cook by.
In truth, the menu for the day, which included naan bread, pulao rice, dal, lamb rogan josh, homestyle chicken curry and mango chutney, sounded like bog-standard Indian restaurant fare. And that may have seemed, to some at least, to be at odds with the chef’s Michelin stardom. But to think that was to miss the point. Absorb what the man had to say about spices and oils, about onions, garlic, ginger and lentils, and you could begin to make that Indian menu your own.
It starts with understanding that as spices grow old, they lose their pzazz, so you buy only small amounts of whole spices, store in well-sealed containers and grind if and when you need to. Though I knew this in theory, the occasionally ancient contents of my spice cupboard indicate that my practice has been different. Oops.
When the time comes to cook, you can start encouraging those flavours to come out by pounding whole spices. After that, you will need to introduce your spices to oil and to heat. The oil must be hot enough for the spices to sizzle and release their own natural oils, but it should not be smoking. What that means is:
You should never use olive oil for Indian cooking.
Eek! Guilty as charged.
The lovely flavour of olive oil is best reserved for Mediterranean purposes, whilst its low smoke point means that it doesn’t become hot enough for spices to really open up. What you can use is a neutral vegetable oil, such as grapeseed, instead.
In fact the fat or oil used in cooking is probably the single biggest distinguishing feature between the different regional cuisines within India: in the north, they tend to use butter or ghee, in the south, coconut oil, mustard oil is used in the east and sesame or ground nut oil in the west.
Regardless of the type of oil, however, you can be fairly safe in the assumption that Indians use a lot of it. There were audible gasps from the course attendees at the liberal pouring of oil at the start of every dish. That, Atul counseled, was needed for the onions.
He stressed that it was important to cook onions properly and they needed plenty of oil for that to happen (when pressed, he did say that you could drain excess oil off after the onions were done). Salt, by drawing moisture out, would also help onions to cook evenly, but other additions, such as ginger/garlic paste, should only enter the fray after onions were cooked to the degree required – be that translucent, golden brown or very brown.
While oil was the key to onions, salt was the key to lentils. In India, we were informed, lentils are always cooked in salted water, in contrast to the French-lead practice which dictates that salt should only be added towards the end of cooking, for fear that the lentils won’t soften. That fear, Atul says, is unfounded. An entire subcontinent agrees and has more flavourful lentils as a result.
And as he added more butter to the potatoes in his bombay aloo, he paused to address his Irish audience.
“Potatoes and butter,” he said. “I don’t need to explain to you guys about potatoes and butter.”
This is adapted slightly from the version of bombay aloo that we made during the course with Atul Kochhar. You can really use any kind of potatoes for this, though waxy ones will hold their shape better.
Atul’s recipe as written down didn’t specify ginger but I swear I saw him add some, so I followed suit. I threw in garlic because, well, I like garlic. I also included peanuts, which Atul mentioned would be a very typical addition to this dish in Gujarat, and a very good call it was, too. The result is my own kind of fantastic.
- 25g raw unsalted peanuts
- 0.25 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds
- 0.5 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 25g butter
- 2 tblsp vegetable oil
- about 10 curry leaves
- 1 medium-sized red chilli, finely chopped
- 1 small onion (about 100g), peeled and chopped
- 2-3cm cube root ginger, peeled and finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 0.25 tsp gnd turmeric
- 0.5 tsp garam masala
- 3 medium-sized potatoes (about 600g), peeled or not as you prefer and cut into rough 2-3cm chunks
- 0.5 tsp salt plus more for cooking the onions
- 1.5 tsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp chopped coriander or more to taste
You’ll also need:
- A baking tray for toasting the peanuts, a heavy-bottomed frying pan (mine is a 26cm pan) and a mortar and pestle for crushing spices.
- Preheat your oven to 160C. Then place the shelled, raw peanuts on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove, allow to cool, then crush the peanuts coarsely.
- Meanwhile, lightly pound the cumin seeds, mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds using a mortar and pestle.
- Place your heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat and add the oil and butter. When hot enough so that the spices sizzle straight away, add the cumin, mustard seeds and fenugreek to the pan along with the curry leaves and chopped chilli. Stir briefly, then add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook the onions gently for 3-4 minutes, without colouring and stirring occasionally.
- Remove the lid, add the ginger and garlic and stir and cook for about a minute more.
- Add the turmeric and garam masala, stir briefly, then add the potatoes,lemon juice,salt and enough hot water to just cover the potatoes. Simmer for about 10 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and simmer for another 5-10 minutes more, until the potatoes are just cooked through.
- Stir in the coriander and simmer for a few more minutes or until the liquid has mostly evaporated. If the dish is still quite liquid, raise the heat so that the liquid boils off more quickly and preferably before the potatoes turn to mush.
- Garnish with the crushed roasted peanuts. Serve with raita, naan bread, chutneys and dal or just toss with some natural yogurt and eat it as is.
- I rather fancy throwing in some chopped fresh tomatoes next time when adding the potatoes.
- Should serve 2-3 as part of an Indian spread.