Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Temperature: 25 chillies.

An item in the morning newspaper last week advised people to avoid tea on hot days. Nonsense. My mother and father used to double their tea intake during heatwaves. Hot and strong and sweet. It was cooling. My father never drank a glass of water in his life. Today you see people sucking on water bottles in air-conditioned shopping malls as if they were trekking through a wadi.

The same principle with spicy food. A chilli-laden dish is a great thing to eat on a sweltering night. Far better, for example, than a roast or heavy pasta. Eat it with hot tea or cold beer (only after the sun has gone down in the latter case) and you’ll be well fed and well hydrated. Vivek Singh, in discussing regional variations in Indian cooking in his book Curry: Classic and Contemporary (Absolute Press, 2008), writes:

'The southern end of the peninsula, consisting of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, is blessed by a long coastline, and hence a strong bias towards seafood dishes. ... The climate is quite tropical and can be very hot and humid. Chillies and spices are added liberally to dishes in order to promote sweating, creating a cooling effect.'
Indeed. Eat magnificently and be fanned by a gentle sea breeze picking its way through the coastal vegetation, curling across your verandah and ruffling your curtains in the evening light. Who needs a rumbling, dripping air-conditioner? Give me whispering pines, far-off traffic and a distant growling ocean any time.

From Singh’s book, I cooked the following dish:

Laal maas (fiery lamb curry)

1. Break 25 dried red chillies into two or three pieces each and soak them in warm water. Yes, this is going to be hot.

2. Dry-fry two teaspoons of cumin seeds until fragrant and mix them through two cups of yogurt along with four teaspoons of ground coriander, two teaspoons of ground chilli powder and one teaspoon of salt.

3. Heat a teaspoon of cloves, four re-soaked dried red chillies, two bay leaves, six green cardamom pods and four black cardamom* pods in three tablespoons of ghee or oil in a heavy pan. When they start to crackle and change colour, add six tablespoons of finely chopped garlic and sauté until it starts to turn golden. Now add two finely chopped onions and cook, stirring constantly. Four chillies down; 21 to go.

4. Now add 750g diced lamb (or goat, or mutton) and cook, stirring, over high heat for three minutes. Add 15 re-soaked chillies to the pan. That leaves, what, six chillies? Cook for another ten minutes.

5. Add the cumin-, chilli- and coriander-infused yogurt to the pan and cook 15 minutes over medium heat. Add two cups water, lid the pan, simmer 30 minutes. But what happens to the six remaining chillies?

6. Warm some more ghee in another pan, add six cloves and the rest of the re-soaked chillies and cook for a minute or two until they change colour; and then pour the mixture over the lamb. Finish the dish with chopped coriander and lemon juice.

This dish has an inbuilt temperature dial. You have four chances to turn down (or up) the heat: reduce the chilli powder in the initial yogurt mixture, in the first frying process, after the meat is added and finally in the ghee-clove-chilli addition at the end. And you can further fine-tune the heat by de-seeding the chilli at any or all stages.

*Track these down in Sydney Road. It’s hardly a hunt; there are more spice shops there than supermarkets now. No excuses not to use the genuine article.


neil said...

A recent restaurant dish contained at least 25 unexpected dried chillies. Once was the time I would have made some sort of effort, but I just picked carefully around them. It's not the in that bothers me...

kitchen hand said...

Losing your lust for the hot stuff, Neil?

Singh's in East Brunswick used to make take-away curry so hot it melted the plastic container by the time you got it home.