Some masalas are used so often that you don’t want to unscrew lids while you are cooking. So I’m told. I never used a masala box in the halcyon days I was king of my kitchen. But now we have a cook, into whose domain I venture only on her days off. But I;ve begun to appreciate the uses of a masala box. But I do have a distinct feeling of otherness when I peek into hers. The powdered haldi, the dhania and jeera powders, and the flakes of red chili staples in my book too. You could leave some of them out in some recipes, and others out of some others. But in a week’s cooking I, and perhaps most of you, will use these. But where is the powdered garam masala? I use it more often than red chili. I would certainly put the garam masala in the box and the red chilis on a shelf, within easy reach when needed. The Family says she would have both in the box.
I don’t do dals so often; so the mustard seeds and whole jeera could also be somewhere on my masala shelf. On second thought, I often do veggies which call for whole jeera. So maybe the jeera would go in the box and the mustard seeds on the shelf. The Family says she would retain both.
The urad dal? I barely use it, perhaps only when I’m cooking a leaf, and I want to add something for texture. Even then my first thought would be to add vadi instead of dal. So that’s definitely out for me. The Family says she would get rid of it too; she would have to in order to make space for the powdered garam masala. What would I use that space for? Maybe I would put a mix of whole masalas, some cinnamon (the stick in the photo comes from a cook by The Family), some elaichi, some cloves, a bay leaf or two, a few pieces of star aniseed.
What about you? If you regularly do Indian recipes, perhaps even if you don’t, what is in your masala box?
Many years ago, on a trip to Jaipur, I’d walked into a restaurant which seemed very popular. I asked the waiter for their specialty, which turned out to be mutton made in ghee. I’d forgotten this until I looked at some very good mutton for the first time after the strict phase of the lockdown. After that first experiment in recreating that experience a few months ago, I had a very good idea of what to do when I tried it again yesterday.
Ghee and aromatic spices go well together. So I rubbed tiny quantities of powdered turmeric, dhania, and jeera on the mutton, and let it stand for a while with whole garam masala. For me that is a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and star aniseed: the ancient treasures of India, which trickled across the world on caravans and dhows which passed east and west in medieval times, and which drew a newly expansionist Europe to Asia at the beginning of the modern era. I let the ingredients marinate in a mixture of history and personal memory for a half hour, while I peeled and chopped an inch of young ginger.
I chose a thick flat bottomed pot for the cook, and threw the ginger and a bay leaf into the hot ghee. I’d decided to layer the mutton along the bottom, and let it stand for about three minuted before flipping each piece over. I realize that I need a pair of small tongs for such manoeuvres (note: remember to order them today). I flipped the pieces, and let the other side brown for an equal amount of time.
The browned meat has a thin glazing of ghee over it, and turns intensely aromatic. I love it, and I was happy that The Family pronounced herself quite satisfied with the result. A little extra that happens when you cook anything in ghee is its transformation into a lovely dark mass at the bottom of the pan. I used to love that khurchan with a bit of rice when I was a child. The unfortunate problem with this cook is that it is at its best when fresh off the fire; so I’ll have to make small portions every time I want it. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing when you have such a calorie-dense dish.
I managed to taste some jamun (Syzygium cumini) at the tail end of the season. This is a fruit which is deeply embedded in my childhood memories. I literally measured my growth by a jamun tree which stood in the garden in front of the house I grew up in. My earliest memories of the fruit are of picking fallen jamun and eating them until my mouth and tongue were stained deep purple. Every summer, over years, my cousins and I tried to climb the tree. Eventually I was able to shin up that straight scaly trunk until the first branch. I was never as good at it as a friend who would go straight up to the fruiting branches and drop fruits down on the rest of us after eating his fill. I wasn’t surprised to find that this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the mango, another fruit of the summer, there is no mystique to this fruit; it is just an old friend, a favourite which you love to come back to. This year too, The Family and I sat down to savour the sweet acidic taste of the fruit, and shared childhood memories of having it with rock salt.
That’s why I was not surprised to find that there is huge genetic variation in the tree across India; no one has tried to cultivate particular strains. Since the taste of the fruit is preserved by the seed, vegetative propagation of jamun has not been widely used. Propagation by seed must have caused some selective distinctions between different regional varieties (the ones we ate this year did not colour our tongues much) while retaining genetic diversity. Two related facts amazed me. First, that although jamun has been carried across the world recently, there are many regions where the fruit is grown but not eaten (imagine that!). Second, that the genus Syzygium is found in a wide arc across the world, from Africa and Madagascar, through Asia, all the way to Australia and several Pacific islands. The geographic spread and genetic clocks indicate that the genus may have evolved after the late Jurassic, when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was breaking up to create the modern oceans. It contains more than 1500 species, many of which have edible fruits, and (this blew me right out of the water) cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) belong to the same genus.
We are now into the second half of the second month of the lock-down. Our group of buildings is an enclave of safety in the middle of a hot zone. The supply chain has truly broken down, so finding fresh vegetables is a bit chancy. The Family rescued some sun dried bhindi (okra, lady finger, or gumbo, another of the many pieces of technology we have inherited from prehistoric human) from a corner of the room we have turned into a pantry and larder. When I began to chop it I realized that the gummy resin had got stickier as it dried. It had to be cooked dry. I threw some powdered dhania and turmeric with entire cloves and black pepper into a pan, and fried the bhindi till the gum had dried up. Then I scooped a lot of yogurt into it, covered it, and let it simmer.
Although the bhindi had released an aroma while it cooked, I realized that it wouldn’t have much of flavour when it finished cooking. So we decided to make an aromatic pulao to go with it. The basmati took four rinses to clear, and I soaked it and set it aside. I took a handful of raisins and peanuts and soaked them in water. It is easy to remove the skin off the peanuts when it is soaked. Next I scooped a little star aniseed, cinnamon, mace, and cloves into the mortar and ground it coarse. When I was ready, with the peanut skinned, the raisins soft, the rice drained, it was time to heat a little oil in the pan. The masala is fried until it begins to release an aroma, then a finely chopped onion is dropped into the oil with the raisins and peanuts and fried to a golden colour. I fried the rice for a short while to make sure that the grains would not stick together, and then added to water to let it cook.
The Family had a large pot of chana masala ready, and we had our little epidemic Saturday lunch. In the first six weeks of the lockdown we had prepared ourselves for such food with a fat, fiber, and protein rich diet. Now there will be weeks of carbohydrate-rich food to eat before we are allowed to move about more freely.