I often remember the huge keema cutlets of my childhood: the smell of the fried cutlet puffing out of the paper bag in which they would come home. I recall watching mesmerized as the street cook patted a lump of keema into shape, dragged it through a plate of maida, and dipped it briefly into a bowl of beaten eggs before throwing it into a kadai full of sizzling hot oil. As I near the other end of a long life I found that I wanted to recreate that taste without the kadai and its oil.
So here’s what I did. I took about 300 grams of kheema, washed and drained it well. I peeled two large handfuls of unsalted kaju and rolled them like a chapati with a rolling pin to break them into medium sized pieces before roasting them. Then I chopped a large onion into small pieces and sauteed it in a small amount of oil until the bits turned translucent. I added two large tomatoes, also chopped into small pieces, reduced the heat and let it simmer with the onions until they began to release juices. I poured it over the keema, mixed salt, a paste of ginger and garlic, large amounts of powdered garam masala, and the kaju into the bowl, and mixed them thoroughly. I love the feel of food in my fingers.
I’d already greased a baking dish. Now I patted the keema mix into it in an even layer. The oven had been preheated to 150 Celsius, and I baked the keema in it for an hour. The mutton will be well cooked by that time, but will not look cooked. Then I turned the heat up to 250 Celsius and let the dish stand there for slightly over five minutes. When the crust was nicely brown, I took it out. The garam masala smells wonderful in the oven. The Family thought it tasted good. I thought I could add a few kismis into the mix next time just for the heck of it. I’ve eaten keema cutlets with kismis too in my childhood.
Two kinds of raisins, dried blueberries, shredded date soaked in a pool of rum for a day. The 300 grams of dried fruits soaked up about a hundred and fifty grams of the liquor. I was impressed. Then I mixed generous amounts of powdered nutmeg and cinnamon into about 150 grams of flour. I thought a while, and decided to drop in some crushed star aniseed, and a masala spoonful of garam masala into the mixture.
I beat four eggs to a froth in a different bowl and mixed in 150 grams of butter. Making a frothy paste of this took a bit of effort. Maybe there’s an easier way of doing it? I added in splashes of rum and lemon zest. Sometimes this mixture begins to curdle, and you can cure it by adding in a little bit of the flour, but I was lucky. It remained uncurdled. It was time to bring everything together. Don’t forget the candied orange peels now.
The sticky, sweet, aromatic batter went into a buttered cake dish. I’d pre-heated the oven to 150 Celsius, lined the tray with newspaper to prevent the bottom of the cake from over heating. Don’t worry, the paper will not burn. As the title of Ray Bradbury’s famous book, Celsius 236, tells you, paper kindles at 236 Celsius.
The cook was long, and the house was full of the smell of rum and butter before The Family came back from work. It was another hour after that, before the testing fork came out of the cake dry. Was it done? The label on the packet of flour said it was self raising. Why hadn’t the thing puffed up? The Family looked at the use by date on the packet and said that it was very old. Sad. Still, better a rum soaked traditional Christmas Pizza than nothing at all. The Family says it tasted good, but presented a case for calling it a traditional Christmas Biscuit. I think calling it a pizza gives it more (what’s the word?) pizzazz.
Whenever a cyclone develops in the Bay of Bengal, it changes the weather a thousand kilometers away in Mumbai. It rained a lot this week, and in one single day the temperature dropped by nine degrees Celsius. I didn’t feel like having a cold salad. Searching for a quick way to change it just before I sat down for lunch, I decided to turn it into Shakshuka. I understand that the word means a mishmash, khichdi, in Arabic. The original contains a lot more tomatoes than I had ready, so I wouldn’t really be able to make the authentic shashuka. But it takes less than ten minutes to make, a malleable recipe like this is something good to have up your sleeve.
I had a bowl of tomatoes, cucumber, and capsicum chopped up for assembly into a salad. I heated a pool of olive oil in the pan and tempered it with a pinch of whole jeera before tossing the veggies into it. I chopped some fresh ginger and haldi and threw it in, stirred it till the capsicum looked soft, then added powdered garam masala and stirred a little more. I turned the heat down, made two holes in the mass, and broke an egg into each. I let it cook until the white had set, and the yolk had stopped jiggling when I shook the pan. I slid the flat piece whole into a plate, and, le voila, I was ready to eat a hot salad. Since I mangled the recipe a bit, maybe I’ll mangle languages and call it a shak nu khichdi. Gujaratis will forgive me if it is neither khichdi nor shak.
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.
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.