Monday, November 14, 2011
Comfort food, once removed
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
My first winter that could properly be called such seemed to be spent in frozen Northern wastelands, where the world was covered in snow and the sun seemed to leave for the day after lunch (recalling the work habits of a number of my relatives). The scenery alternated between the bleakly restrained (snow stretching under a wintry horizon, broken by an occasional shrub) and the melodramatically self-indulgent (winds howling around buildings in the night; afternoon blizzards). My initial reaction was delight. Winter is a much mythologized season and, like many a tropical child, I grew up with winter tales from books and movies. Two weeks in, after the inevitable disillusionment, I opted for the honorable exit and retreated to bed with a couple of bottles of brandy and a heavy blanket. Various circumstances forced me out after a few days (struggle with classes, the non-alcohol necessities of a fallen world) and like so many desperate people before me, I attempted to redeem the world in food.
There are several different culinary strategies for encountering the extremities of weather. The first and most classical involves hecatombs and frenzied appeals for divine intervention. Despite its old world charm, it is both expensive (especially for a student) and often fails spectacularly. In our latter day, god-devoid world we are left with the usual artistic options of fantasy and escapism on the one hand and of realism (that wanders between the brutal and the lyric) on the other. The escapist strategy (whimsical defiance, if you prefer; I prefer) evokes the productions of warmth and sun, letting displaced summer food alight on the palate amidst the barren winter wind. This is made easier by the wonders of the modern world, which allow us avocados and the occasional decent tomato in winter (one of the grandest triumphs of humanity over a world that does not love us)1. The realist strategy is hearty comfort food. At the simpler end, this should be stodgy and meat-and-potatoes laden (the sort of medieval richness where Northern European peasants lurk behind each dish). At its grandest, it should sing of deeply concentrated flavors and long-reduced stocks.
What follows is something of an accidental hybrid. Its subcontinental origins and spice-heavy punctuation (ginger sweetness, the bite of chilli) suggest warmer lands and sunnier times. But at base its flavors are primarily warming – slow-braised meat, rounded onion sweetness, heavy dairy-warmed fat. This strategy drifts towards Orientalism, but remember that curry has a colonizing life of its own.
This is the first thing I made away from home, in the winter, when I was sick for the flavors of a warmer land and yet wanted the comfort of rich velvety ingredients. Like much else that I cook, it is stolen from my mother's vast repertoire. It is also one of the simplest things I know. The recipe is forgiving (and we all need the reminder of forgiveness at the beginning of winter2). You can cook it too long without much harm. It can tolerate poor ingredients without being too compromised (though don't, if you don't have to). You can make it in a cramped shared dormitory kitchen, with a single pot that serves to marinade the meat, to cook it in and to eat out of, as I did the first few times. There is no browning of meat; no splattering of oil. You can get very drunk while you make it (or before). The only caveat is that it takes several hours to cook. You do not need to hover while it cooks; it will be quite happy with the occasional reassuring glance. And you can make it ahead of time and the flavors will improve while it sits.
So mix together the following ingredients: 1 kg (~2 lb) pieces of meat, 250 gms (a little over a cup) thick unsweetened yogurt, 4 finely sliced red onions, 6 dry red chillis broken into a few pieces each, 1 ½ tbsp julienned ginger, 4 oz neutral oil (or a mixture of oil and ghee3), about 1 ½ tsp of salt (you can add more later), 1 tsp red chilli powder, ½ tsp garam masala power (here, equal parts cinnamon, clove and cardamom powders, but you can improvise). The meat is best goat or lamb and tougher, more flavorful cuts are best. You can use beef too (it won't take as long). If you are thinking ahead, you can mix them and leave them aside for a day or so. Even a few hours will improve the flavors but it doesn't really matter if you forget or decide to cook this on the spur of the moment – it'll still be delicious. Like with any braise, a smaller dish where everything is packed together tight will make things more flavorful (the meat will be constantly bathed in liquid that evaporates, condenses and drips back down). If you do not have access to dried red chillis, you can use green chillis. Use fewer green chillis, but remember that the yogurt mitigates the spice somewhat.
Bring to a boil on the stove top and then cover tightly and cook for several hours on a slow fire or in a slow oven (at or just below a simmer) until the meat is tender. Check occasionally to make sure it isn't completely dry or sticking at the bottom. If it is, give it a stir and add a little bit of warm water. When the meat is done turn up the heat and fry on the stove top for about 10 minutes to finish4. If you're feeling expansive, garnish with hard-boiled eggs, fried onions, coriander or anything else that takes your fancy.
Eat, along with a bottle of cheap brandy or subcontinental rum. You should probably also eat it with some starch (rice, a loaf of bread, naan if you can find it, cornstarch if you have visions of fanatical starchy purity).
Structurally, this is a braise – you slow cook the ingredients in a pot without too much liquid, letting the connective tissue turn velvety and gelatinous. But a more typical braise would start with building a foundation by browning the meat, removing it, sautéing the onions and ginger and other spices, then adding back the meat along with some liquid. Here (like some reductionist dream) the list of ingredients is practically the production. There are no explicit layers or individual transformations and the construction exists in pure superficiality.
This simplicity cleanly shows both similarity and difference with the rest of the culinary universe. On the one hand, this is an expression of a idea common to many cultures: braising or slow roasting a main ingredient in dairy and a few spices. Compare the various creamed French vegetables or the pork loin braised in milk made famous by Marcella Hazan. Here the onion acts also to thicken, and the yogurt-onion combination should vaguely recall a white sauce (the onion echoing the flour). If you are unfamiliar with Indian food5 or if your primary experience is in the techniques and ruminations of another cuisine, these similarities guide your hand.
Despite its simplicity and the generality of its basic idea, the combination has a specificity to it, and the dish has a set of flavors which, to me at least, are very recognizably subcontinental (with perhaps a glance towards the Middle East). Yogurt is much more commonly used in the subcontinental cuisines than in the cooking of Europe (another great dairy-using / cow-following culture). Use full-fat yogurt – the fat is important. The yogurt-onions-chilli combination is a classic and distinctive structural tripod, and makes for a round meaty sweetness brightened by some heat and acid (from the yogurt). The sourness of the yogurt is particularly important for balance (this role is played in other curries by ingredients like tomatoes or vinegar). Again, compare the way a European cook would think about balancing a sauce.
The combination is worth remembering and can easily be adapted to other ingredients while still maintaining the interesting specificity. You can use this for vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage and other members of that family), for fish (don't cook it very much, perhaps add some mustard) and with chicken.
The absence of stock is common in many Indian recipes and you should use meat on the bone. Note that the fatty richness of the yogurt leads this to be quite robust anyway. There is an interesting cluster of colonial-era recipes that mix Indian and European influences, producing spiced roast chickens and stews with chilli. You can substitute some of the yogurt for stock, and you'll find yourself on a continuum that leads to recipes that resemble those (a sort of interpolation in culinary space).
You can embellish, of course. Garlic is a worthy and noble addition (toss in some peeled cloves, lightly smashed). The absence of garlic is unusual; garlic and ginger often echo each other in Indian food. You could also add shallots or potatoes midway through.
Spicing in Indian food is often seen as somewhat obscure, relying on multiple carefully placed layers (or, if you're doing it badly, as the occasion for random discordant sprinkling). But note how simple the spicing is here (only a small amount of garam masala besides the chilli powder). This is an excellent template with which to explore the effect of particular spices within the general contours of the style. Swap out the garam masala for an equivalent quantity of cumin, for example.
Here's the recipe without the commentary, if you found the commentary distracting.
1 kg (~2 lb) goat or lamb pieces
250 gms (a little over a cup) thick unsweetened yogurt
4 finely sliced red onions
6 dry red chillis broken into a few pieces each
1 ½ tbsp julienned ginger
4 oz oil
1 ½ tsp of salt
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp garam masala power
Mix ingredients together and marinade for several hours or overnight. Put on stove and bring to a boil. After one boil, lower heat and cook at a simmer for 2 ½ hours or until tender. Then uncover and fry for about ten minutes. Serve topped with hard-boiled eggs and fried onion.
1It is both seemly and fashionable to adopt a certain ambivalence towards modernity, but this is a useful corrective.
2The main ingredient is goat or lamb, and the forgiveness of goats and lambs is probably an Abrahamic symbol.
3 Ghee is clarified butter. It's easy to make (ask the Internet) and stores well. Here, given that you aren't really using it for high heat cooking, you can get away just with using regular butter. Adding ghee or butter will make this quite rich, so make sure you're prepared.
4 This unusual latter-stage semi-browning reminds me of the South-East Asian rendang
5 I'm using both "Indian" and "subcontinental" here, when I really mean something like “the north of India and countries in the north of the subcontinent”.
Posted by Rishidev Chaudhuri at 12:15 AM | Permalink