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My Brief, Busy Stint as a South Indian Sous Chef


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One of my dearest friends, Jith, is the only son of a South Indian family, and his wife, Laurel, is seven months pregnant. This is a big deal. So, a few weeks ago, we got invited to the the Valaikappu blessing ceremony, a multiday affair celebrating the kiddo to take place in the western suburbs of Chicago. (Sadly, this Heartland gathering overlapped directly with this year's eGullet Heartland gathering.)

When normal people are invited to these sorts of events, their thoughts turn to family bonds, traditional rituals, love, all that. My thoughts turn to the food.

Not just my thoughts, mind you. Laurel's always been appreciative of my cooking, but Jith is one of my favorite guests. He eats with his entire head: not just tongue, nose, eyes but also ears and, I swear, the skin of his face itself. The first meal I remember making for him was gumbo, in Laurel's family house sprawled across the beach in Jacksonville FL. When I placed the 12" bowls in front of most people, they joked about how the serving was too large. Jith, meanwhile, was basking in the steam; it looked like he was getting a facial. While they struggled to eat most of their bowls, Jith ate two and grabbed Laurel's to finish it off. I think he snuck downstairs in the night to have more, but I can't be sure.

Soon after my wife and I determined we'd be able to go, I wrote to ask Jith what the food situation would be. Turns out that the big Valaikappu shindig Saturday would be catered -- more on that later -- but Jith's mom Ami would be making food all day Friday for an "intimate family affair" for 30 or 40 people, maybe more.

Now, I may be wrong, but I get the sense that Jith got his foodie genes from his momma's side of the family, so the idea of getting there a bit early to lend a hand seemed like just the thing. Learn a little, eat a little: what could be better?

So, when we rsvp'ed for the event, I let Ami know I'd be happy to be her sous chef Friday. I got second thoughts about whether I'd be in over my head when she responded by saying, "Chris, don't worry. I will put you to work in my kitchen! I love to cook and I accept only expert help. I am kidding!"

Kidding. Ha ha. Gulp.

gallery_19804_437_40778.jpg

Yes, that's what terror looks like when wrapped in a Grilla Gear apron.

Chris Amirault

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To have any chance at functioning at a non-toddler level in Ami's kitchen, it was clear that I needed to do some homework.

Let's start with "South Indian," which of course indicates a bunch of different regions and cuisines. To be more specific, Jith's family is from Coimbatore in the state of Tamil Nadu. (Google map here.) Tamil Nadu is as far south as you can get without jumping over the Gulf of Mannar to Sri Lanka, and Coimbatore is just east of the Kerala border. It's about as far away from Delhi, both geographically and culturally, as Providence is from New Orleans.

Of course, as ex-eGullet staff member and cookbook author Monica Bhide tells us in her new, excellent Modern Spice, the search for pure authenticity is a fool's errand, for "Local Is as Local Does." Cuisine Meganathan doesn't just mean the carefully maintained dishes of Tamil Nadu but also includes the sorts of adjustments that everyone makes when they transplant their cooking from one place to another.

Still, there are some things one can expect. Here's Jith's very quick prediction of likely offerings:

There will be several dhal-based dishes that are eaten with rice. Some vegetables stir-fried with mustard seeds and small dried lentils and various spices. Asofetida may make an appearance as a seasoning. Not sure beyond that. Dad will probably grill some chicken.

Reading around, I saw a few other things that would make an appearance: liberal use of coconut, peanuts, and almonds; lemon and tamarind as acids; an emphasis on vegetable dishes without heavy sauces; thick soups and thin stews served with rice; idli and dosai; liberal use of chilis; a variety of chutneys and crunchy fried things.

In addition, several US party staples made appearances over the four days, including crudites, chips & salsa, and percolator coffee. But the bulk of the food -- and there was a lot of it -- was South Indian through and through, and the gathered guests were enthusiastic eaters, helpers, critics, and students. As a result, I left with a solid introduction to a type of Indian food I had known little about, a stack of recipes, and lots of interesting tips that I'll share here.

Chris Amirault

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Cool aprons.

Five bucks at Meijer; someone thought we'd need matching unis, I guess. Though I brought it with me (I wrap my knives in it when I travel), I chose not to wear my Yoko Ono's ass apron. When I told Jith I had brought it and asked him whether I should wear it, he was speechless for a while, which I took as a "No."

Chris Amirault

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Very nice, Chris.

Regarding the Yoko apron, Jith was right to turn the other cheek.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Very nice, Chris.

Regarding the Yoko apron, Jith was right to turn the other cheek.

Pfui. I can make you a Matisse sweet bum apron. Any time.

But I'm jealous you got to learn so much so fast, and eat it. That's just a gift.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Decided that I wanted to get a better sense of the Friday food, and so I emailed Ami, who wrote:

Here is a tentative menu for Friday.

Ribs

Shrimp curry

Small potatoes

Eggplant

Dhal

Mushroom & spinach rice

Raitha

Roties

Shahi Paneer

This may change...I make up recipes as I go..

I love home cooks, find them often more interesting than professional chefs, and the thought of following along as Ami made up recipes seemed exciting to me. So, when I saw her online, I pinged her:

8:00 AM me: Thanks for the email, Ami! I'm very excited to be part of your kitchen and this weekend.

8:01 AM Ami: Hi Chris, you might be sorry you volunteered. Ask my husband!

I decided not to do ask (gulp again). Packed up the knives and a bit more Zantac than usual, and off I went to Chicagoland.

Chris Amirault

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We arrived very late in the evening to an already bustling house. Our friends had arrived along with a few members of the family, with many, many more to come over the next two days.

We were really hungry from the travel and sat down to devour several dishes that Ami had prepared in anticipation of our arrival: some rice, an eggplant dish, and a chicken curry. Everything was delicious. The eggplant was tender but pleasantly toothy, and not at all mushy or oily; my wife Andrea, who "hates eggplant," had at least three servings of it. The chicken curry was similarly expert.

As I tried to guess the ingredients, Ami walked me through several techniques I'd later learn and do: the use of dal as a textural and flavoring element in sautéed foods; modifications in the order of ingredient additions depending on the dish; the avoidance of garam masala, thick sauces, and other spice mixtures. I started to think that Southern Indian cooking may have the same relationship to Northern Indian cooking as Italian cooking has to French: the cooks in the south try to avoid too much frou-frou in order to let the flavors of product shine through.

Too tired to work that comparison out, though, and I figured that I would have a busy day ahead. Little did I know....

Chris Amirault

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One thing that you must understand is that the house was absolutely, positively packed with food. Sitting around for most of the weekend was this rather bland looking stuff:

gallery_19804_437_11712.jpg

That stuff is in fact delectable peanut and coconut chutney, which singlehandedly accounts for at least a pound of my weight gain. I found that it is good on chapatis, dosas, rice, chicken, eggplant, yogurt, tortilla chips, fingers, and even your breath.

Then we have these spectacular mangoes:

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Baby mango pickles on the left, green mango chutney on the right. The mango chutney is the best I've ever had. I was told repeatedly by Jith and others that I was using "inauthentic" amounts on my dishes, to which I would blurt, "Screw authenticity," and inadvertently spit chili oil into their eyes.

Need a snack? Perhaps a sweet? Let's see... somewhere around here... oh, wait, found 'em:

gallery_19804_437_29210.jpg

If it's made of rice, dal, or anything else that can be ground and fried, it's on that table.

Chris Amirault

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One of the perils of being both a guest and a helper in the kitchen is that you often are called upon to eat copious amounts of food for a variety of reasons: to taste for seasoning or doneness; for sustenance; to show good manners. To wit, on Friday morning, I had at least four distinct breakfasts: leftover chicken curry with rice; fruit and yogurt; dosai filled with a bunch of stuff; and upma.

Ami described upma as "South Indian cream of wheat." That's a little like saying that Handel's "Messiah" is "German 'Happy Birthday.'" Here's an annotated, illustrated recipe:

Upma

Toast 2 1/2 c of sooji/rabai (coarse farina) in the microwave for a couple of minutes until it starts to color a bit.

For your mise, get your sous chef to grate, chop, and mince, as appropriate, carrots, zucchini, red onion, ginger, green chili and make sure he puts them on the appropriate plates. (If he puts the onion on something other than the onion plate, just explain his error and get him to fix it pronto. He'll learn.)

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Get your other ingredients ready to go as well: a handful of cilantro, a few julienned curry leaves, butter, oil, asofoetida. Warm up twice as much water by volume as your farina (5c here). Juice a lemon.

Open up your handy, stoveside stainless container of mustard seeds, chana dal, and urad dal.

gallery_19804_437_87171.jpg

Melt a knob of butter in the pan with some canola oil over high heat and toss in your mustard seeds. When they pop, toss in a few dal (either or both), and sauté them until the dal picks up some color and gives the oil a nutty fragrance. Add the almonds and then the onions, sautéing each briefly to bring them to temperature and give a bit more color.

Add each of the following ingredients and taste to adjust at each step: chili, curry leaves, asofoetida, salt, ginger, cilantro, lemon juice. ETA: be sure to overseason, remembering that you're going to add a boatload of farina soon. It should be salty, piquant, and acidic, strong but balanced.

gallery_19804_437_77549.jpg

Add the carrot & zucchini all at once, and cook them to warm them through, being careful neither to brown them or to let the zucchini overcook and give off its juice. Think texture; the crunch is important.

When you're ready, add most of the water and bring it to a boil. Stir or whisk in the farina by sprinkling it over the top; if it clots, break up the clot before adding more. Heat the upma through, stirring constantly and turning down the heat if it's sticking, and cook for 3-5 minutes.

gallery_19804_437_110933.jpg

Take it off when it has a sufficiently stick-to-the-ribs quality; you're not looking for creamy porridge here. Serve with green mango chutney, peanut & coconut chutney, or whatever else you'd like.

gallery_19804_437_67653.jpg

Eat four servings and hope the guests never arrive to discover your hoard.

Edited by chrisamirault (log)
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Chris Amirault

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What a great opportunity. I have many questions, but I'll start with just a few.

Peanut and coconut chutney - will we be getting details on this?

What was the eggplant dish that those-who-don't-like-eggplant enjoyed?

Do you think the flavours and technique will make their way into your everyday cooking?

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Great reporting Chris. Apropos your remark on North Indian cooking and frou-frou, I am not sure that most here have been properly introduced to any clear idea of WHAT DOES comprise North Indian cookery, or its many sub-genres. But just focusing on even just one stream of Mughlai cooking, which you may be thinking of when you write about garam masalas, you may not have had the opportunity to have worked with a true expert, as you now are doing.

Sadly, I have scanned the USA for true experts on this branch of meat cookery, braises to be precise, and have come up empty-handed. There must be several hidden in the Pakistani community and a few who run Hyderabadi [Deccan] restaurants e.g. in Georgia, but NONE among those who are known to be popular cooking teachers/authors. From the basic understanding of meat, to the classical codes of that cuisine, the knowledge, the experience and the whole background that requires a lifetime of devotion to a single art is just plain missing. You do not learn exceptional French cuisine from Look & Cook; likewise, here.

The very, very basics of meat cookery in liquid is either simply not understood nor taught properly here. So how could you ever really know what good or classical N. Indian braises, e.g. korma, or even a chicken curry, would taste like, or is supposed to taste like?

Even for South Indian, were you to visit a Udupi/Bunt household, for example, your flavor palette would undergo a drastic change, but you knew that! There are some very major talents waiting to be discovered and I would urge you to get Ammini Ramachandran, at Peppertrail.com to come to RI and cook her version. Your conception of "Indian" food will never be the same again, even the North -South dichotomy.

India is a subcontinent as large geographically as Western Europe minus Russia, a fact not immediately apparent on a Mercator projection map. She has many more ethnic groups, languages and cuisines than does Europe!! So there is much to discover and enjoy.

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Gorgeous. I miss South Indian food terribly! I adore that coconut and peanut chutney - have you got a recipe?

Are there any good written surveys on North Indian braises? I'd like to learn more about the techniques.

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As I tried to guess the ingredients, Ami walked me through several techniques I'd later learn and do: the use of dal as a textural and flavoring element in sautéed foods; modifications in the order of ingredient additions depending on the dish; the avoidance of garam masala, thick sauces, and other spice mixtures. I started to think that Southern Indian cooking may have the same relationship to Northern Indian cooking as Italian cooking has to French: the cooks in the south try to avoid too much frou-frou in order to let the flavors of product shine through.

Too tired to work that comparison out, though, and I figured that I would have a busy day ahead. Little did I know....

Love dal on it's own but eagerly awaiting details on using it as a textural and flavoring element. Great stuff; thanks for sharing.

It's almost never bad to feed someone.

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Peanut and coconut chutney - will we be getting details on this? 

Hoping to, yes. Email is away.

What was the eggplant dish that those-who-don't-like-eggplant enjoyed?

It followed the basics of the upma recipe: oil & butter, mustard seeds, dal, onion, etc. I didn't get the recipe but there are other, similar ones on the way.

Do you think the flavours and technique will make their way into your everyday cooking?

We already have a lot of Indian food here, but the techniques will definitely become part of my repertoire. For example, when I was complaining about having to saute off all the water you need when you blend up onions, Ami said, "Fry them first and then blend them. Why blend them first?" Uh, yeah: that's going to save me 80% of the time it takes to make most dishes. Gonna be doing that from now on.

Chris Amirault

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Love dal on it's own but eagerly awaiting details on using it as a textural and flavoring element. 

It's deceptively simple. Instead of treating the dal like a bean that requires hydration, you treat it like a nut.

Sauté it in some fat (butter & oil here) until it starts to darken a bit and the air is filled with a toasted, nutty aroma. I think it needs a bit of moisture to soften up, but when it does, it retains its crunch and flavor. The best comparison I can make is to toasted pine nuts, but even they don't quite compare because of their high fat content.

Chris Amirault

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Great reporting Chris. Apropos your remark on North Indian cooking and frou-frou, [snip]

Yes, well, I throw myself on the mercy of the court. After all, I just spent the weekend in the home of a Coimbatore cook. :wink:

Chris Amirault

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For example, when I was complaining about having to saute off all the water you need when you blend up onions, Ami said, "Fry them first and then blend them. Why blend them first?" Uh, yeah: that's going to save me 80% of the time it takes to make most dishes. Gonna be doing that from now on.

Holy crap, bata bing. That never, ever occurred to me!

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The night before, Ami had prepared a large batch of Dosa/Idli batter. The recipe is simple but requires some time and equipment.

The day before you plan to use the batter, soak rice and urdu dal (3:1 ratio) in water for at least 3-4 hours. Dump the mixture into your wet grinder (Ami uses this Ultra Pride Plus machine, which has massive granite grinders in a rotating base) and grind away for 30-60 minutes. Check to make sure you have enough water to make a thick batter -- thicker than crepe batter, thinner than most pancake batters. Add a little bit of butter (1 T for each 2c of the dry rice/dal mixture), some salt to taste, and put it in a slightly warm oven overnight to ferment, keeping the interior light on.

After our second? third? breakfast, I started making dosai for the crowd. Ami did the first few, using a nonstick pan with no fat. (There was much discussion about this with her family members -- out of her earshot of course: benefits of cast iron, stainless, and nonstick; butter/ghee or no; how big....)

For the pan Ami uses, we scooped 3/4c batter into the pan and then swirled the batter around to extend it toward the edge of the pan. (I obsessed about the zen of the swirl, trying to spread the batter in just one spiral.) Once spread, sprinkle a 1:1 combination of butter & oil over the top, maybe 1/2 t.

gallery_19804_437_26384.jpg

When it has started to brown a little bit (not too much), flip and finish on other side., which will cook much faster than the first.

Fill with just about anything. We had 'em plain and with chicken curry, chutneys, the eggplant, and at least one peanut butter and banana.

ETA that I'll post the photo of the finished dosa when I get home.

Edited by chrisamirault (log)

Chris Amirault

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I've had unfermented dosai before, and they're ok, somewhat blah. Several people suggested skipping the fermentation step but Ami and a few others agreed that you gain some flavor and tenderness by fermenting it.

The tenderness is obvious: the fermentation creates gas, which makes for a lighter, more tender cooked dough. If I understand correctly, because the batter has no gluten, it stays tender during the very long grinding period. (Any wheat in there and you'd have, uh, something untender.)

And, yes, the flavor is sour, but is also round and rich. It's sort of like a sourdough dosa -- though maybe that's what dosai are all supposed to taste like. After all, in Coimbatore, you don't need an warm oven to ferment a batter overnight; the counter or back porch will suffice, I'm told.

Chris Amirault

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For example, when I was complaining about having to saute off all the water you need when you blend up onions, Ami said, "Fry them first and then blend them. Why blend them first?" Uh, yeah: that's going to save me 80% of the time it takes to make most dishes. Gonna be doing that from now on.

Holy crap, bata bing. That never, ever occurred to me!

Chris,

Sorry to be such a jerk! However, I get really worried when I see sweeping generalizations becoming adopted as canonical for Indian cooking as a whole, and people [Americans] who have NOT been exposed to a wide variety of techniques and flavors then believing they have mastered xyz and teaching others these things with aplomb. Not a criticism but a caution, because:

cooking ground onion paste AND cooking fried ground onions fried to different degreesand by different methods, DO NOT PRODUCE THE SAME RESULTS< AT ALL.

Take a dish lke FISH, not shrimp, Patia, a signature Parsi prepartion. It takes cooking ground onions, onions ground to a paste on a stone grinder, in sufficient oil.

In some other dishes in Bengal, this same thing is taken a step further to browning.

It is NOT the same as Coimbatore-style browned onions, fairly coarsely chopped, fairly quickly "browned", still glistening and plump. This is very common in a range of dishes that belong to a family of [onions being shallow fried or whole-roasted on flame/embers] + masala/coconut being roasted and/or shallow-fried, then ground. A rough & dirty shorthand for the generic family would be the gashi-style of wet masala.

Frying and grinding onions are also used in North Indian braises, but there are degrees of frying, ways ofslicing, and there is what is called a 3-part extraction that I have explained at some length to a few who are interested here and elsewhere. It is best demonstrated. However, it is best studied in conjnction with meat-cutting and a wide variety of other things, whose masters reside in India; in Delhi, for example.

How onions are comminuted, how quickly they are cooked etc. have totally to do with the end flavor of the dish. So this "cook onion and grind" is a good method to create ONLY a certain range of flavors and absolutely ineffective for accomplishing others!! Just so long as this does not become another bit or misinformation cluttering the already impressive array to do with "Indian cooking" lore that has accumulated in the English media, and is taken as truth by dint of frequent repetition, the cause of Indian cookng will be benefited.

Edited by v. gautam (log)
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      7. Fill half-pint jars and seal.
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