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Identify these flavors in Indian/Nepalese food

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We had an early lunch at a little Indian/Nepalese place last week. I satisfied my craving for poori, potato masala, and a cup of chai, and my husband had some kind of Nepalese vegetable curry, and a Nepalese spinach salad with roasted soybeans. Now I have questions.

1) The spinach salad was like cooked spinach wrung very dry, with (according to the menu) roasted chopped soybeans on top. To me these tasted almost exactly like wasabi peas, except not as pungent and not lurid green (they were regular tan soybean color). Definitely a horseradish type of flavor. What was it, and is this common in Nepalese food?

2) Both my chai and my husband's curry had a delicious, elusive smoky flavor. And please note that I have a horror of most smoke flavors added to food. These things tasted like they were prepared over a high-mountain campfire, but this restaurant was tiny and in a basement and I'm very sure that the only flames in there were from a gas range. And anyway, how would that flavor get into chai or a curry in which nothing was roasted? It had to be some ingredient they were using. I bought some Tao of Tea "Pine Smoked Black" tea and added it to chai in an effort to recreate the flavor, and it's similar, but very crude in comparison to the delicate smoke flavor at the restaurant.

Yes I am kicking myself for not asking while I was there . . . I could call but thought I'd ask you guys first.

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Black cardamom does have a sort of smokey flavour. Never had it in chai before though, but that doesn't mean much as I haven't drunk all the chai in the world!

ETA: Forgot to say that in some North Eastern areas, fermented soybeans are used. Perhaps that was what was in your salad - fermented, spiced soy beans.

Edited by Jenni (log)
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Apart from the Lapsang, galangal, and black cardamon, a small amount of dried gingerroot, green cardamon pods, three star anises (broken into teeth), a healthy stick of cinnamon, about 10 whole cloves, black peppercorns, allspices, and a whole nutmeg (which lives in the chai pot for the entire week of chai drinking, and is then rasped into its own special jar, because it takes on the other flavours a bit). That's my friend Ngawang's recipe; he's from a small town close to the Bhutanese border.

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Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Oh, how interesting about the nutmeg! I've never thought of infusing a spice with other spices. Wow. Do you rasp the outside of it before putting it in the pot? Seems like no flavor would get out unless you did, but I've never tried it.

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Apart from the Lapsang, galangal, and black cardamon, a small amount of dried gingerroot, green cardamon pods, three star anises (broken into teeth), a healthy stick of cinnamon, about 10 whole cloves, black peppercorns, allspices, and a whole nutmeg (which lives in the chai pot for the entire week of chai drinking, and is then rasped into its own special jar, because it takes on the other flavours a bit). That's my friend Ngawang's recipe; he's from a small town close to the Bhutanese border.

I never saw galangal or smoked tea in 2 years of living in Bhutan, but then only so much makes it up the hill. Both sound delicious, though! Bhutanese would always put a bay leaf in the chai. Well, some sort of leaf that was elongated and that IIRC we used as bay leaves, but was not an english bay laurel.

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The boiling action of making the chai seems to help extract the nutmeg flavour; I've tried rasping it a bit before throwing it in and it overloads the other flavours (apart from the ginger, which it amplifies). Hence, I've been tending to just throw it in whole lately, so that it adds a hint of nutmeg at the end of the flavour complex.

To make this properly, you bring lightly salted water to a boil and then throw in the loose tea and spices and boil for at least 5 minutes, although Ngawang always swore that it was better if you let it boil slowly for half an hour. Then add cream until it's a medium milk chocolate colour, and sugar it to taste. Simmer another 5 minutes to marry the spice to the fat and fully dissolve the sugar, then serve hot. Ngawang uses about a cup of sugar when he makes chai; I prefer only about a tablespoon in the whole pot.

My friend Lobsang adds salted butter at the cream point, and omits sugar entirely; he's Tibetan and will generally then take the tea and use it to roll up small balls of tsampa (roasted barley flour) for snacking. I'm partial to this on cold days, but I normally use sweet butter and salt the tea to taste. (Machica is the Ecuadorian highland equivalent of tsampa, as I was thrilled to discover when served buttery hot chocolate and a bowl of it visiting some highland Quichua friends a couple of years ago - the tradition is almost exactly the same. I'm now never without machica in the house.)

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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  • 5 months later...

Hi folks, I enjoyed reading this thread. I'd like to offer some really grass-roots suggestions. And since I am new here, if there are chefs or cookbook authors here, do forgive me. I am a really good cook, even if just my friends and family say so, and my experience tells me to suggest these two scenarios:

1. The smokey flavor in the tea was from burnt milk. This could happen in two ways. If the milk was heated in a separate vessel to cook and thicken it, and reboiled in the same vessel every time new tea was going to be prepared, the second or third time the milk was poured, it would have picked up a slight burnt flavor. Another way is if the tea was already prepared and reheated in the tea vessel again and again to pour more cups...that would result in a burnt flavor too.

2. The smokey flavor in the curry without a campfire around could be the use of a traditional cooking method called 'BHUNA'. If you want to impart a smokey flavor into a small amount of curry, you can take a whole onion, cut it in half horizontally, pull out some of the central rings, put in a piece of hot charcoal (heated on the gas stove till red hot) and a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) added on top after the charcoal has been placed on the onion. As soon as the smoke starts to emanate from the charcoal and ghee, you place the onion with the charcoal into a metal bowl inside the curry vessel. You can raise the bowl on an inverted cup or something, so that the charcoal does not touch the food. Cover the curry vessel with a tightly fitting lid. Wait for a few minutes. Then open the cover, and remove the onion, charcoal and the metal bowl it is in. Serve the curry. It will have a smokey flavor. In India we use this technique for a few specific dishes, but one can always enjoy improvising.

3. Now for the elusive wasabi flavor: I wonder, since the 'spinach' salad had wilted greens that had been squeezed out, could they be mustard greens instead? Or at least some of them? That would immediately impart the WASABI taste to whatever bean you had in there.

Just some thoughts outside the box. Hope you consider them.

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  • 1 year later...

Not sure about burnt milk adding 'smokiness', but maybe? I don't think Lapsang Souchong is used in Nepali chai, however some other tea dried over fire maybe, but mostly the tea used is not smoky. The restaurant, however, may use a special tea? However black cardamom, which is sometimes referred to as Nepali cardamom, is my guess as the culprit as it is quite smoky from being dried over fires. It also adds a camphor character - and would be quite noticeable. Black cardamom is not at all like the standard cardamom (green, white, or the seeds marketed as cardamom in the US) and is a completely different species (though in the same family) Green = Elettaria cardamomum and Black = Amomum subulatum. I have not noticed black cardamom in Nepali chai recipes, but perhaps it's understood to use black and not green? My last guess is that they use a method similar to Bhuna (as mentioned above) to impart a smoky character. They could do this to the tea (dried tea before it's used to make the chai), or simply burn some of the spices a little (especially the cinnamon or star anise over a stove burner or on a BBQ grill.

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