When I was in my sophomore year of college, the University opened a summer credit trip-course to India at a very reasonable price to its students. It was $1,100 for a one-week stay in Hyderabad, and this included airfare, a room at a villa, and all meals. I spoke to my parents immediately that night- they thought the experience would be very good- and I signed my name on the list the next day. A good friend of mine, who was a senior at the time, also decided to go. We were both very very excited at the upcoming summer adventure together.
After the deadline for registration had passed, the organizers found that they had far more people interested than they had anticipated, so they sent a letter to all of us explaining this dilemna, and that they had decided to start their new acceptance list with seniors, then juniors, etc. I was placed on the waiting list, lest anyone cancel.
I was never contacted. So, my friend went alone. I was very very disappointed, but still I wished her a wonderful time. And she did have a wonderful time. They toured the city and saw many examples of fine historical architecture, learned a few things about it’s mostly Muslim denizens, and did some shopping!
Upon her return, she presented me with three gifts, which I was not expecting at all: a framed lustrous metallic print of Krishna, a sari, and a tiny cookbook called Mirch Masala- One hundred Indian Recipes.
I have never made anything from this book. Isn’t that strange? My other Indian cookbooks are looking a bit bedraggled from frequent use; this one looks just as it was the day I received it. I hadn’t even thought about it for many years until tonight, after I had made the dish I am about to show you! I am looking at the cover right now, and the price tag says “20.00 Rs Orient Longman”. The introduction is fascinating, as it tells of a woman named Surayya Tyabji, who was a grandchild of a certain Lady Amena Hyderi, a “hostess of the old regime”. Surayya was a great collector of recipes from all over India, and this “distillation” to 100 recipes was her first and only cookbook.
I shall keep this book close at hand from now on!
A few weeks ago I spotted a post for mirchi ka salan on another blog. I had intended to go back and retrieve the recipe, but I could not remember where I had seen it, nor the accurate title. After some futile searching through my links, I gave up, and typed into the search engine the parts of the title I could remember. I copied down 8 different recipes, and chose this one from Daawat.com to try first. The reason? It had more ingredients than the others!
Well, let me tell you… unless you know this already… most of the work of this dish is in the preparation. Of course it would have been easier if I hadn’t just run out of garam masala, which in itself would have been easy enough to remedy had not my little coffee grinder that I use for mass spice-grinding recently died; I had no other option but to use the mortar-and-pestle, which I usually use for smaller quantities, such as that which would go into a single dish. I had run out of garlic, but I had ginger. I went shopping to fetch this and the peanuts. I returned and continued prepping. It was then that I discovered that my ginger was…er…let’s say unusable…
An hour or so later, and everything was in order as you can see. Or was it?
I re-read the recipe a few times and it suddenly struck me as very odd that the peanut-sesame seed/coconut mixture was not roasted in any way. I tasted the smooth-as-possible-for-my-resources paste. Predictably quite raw-tasting. I then made a mad dash to my study to read over the other 7 recipes. The nuts and seeds are most definitely to be roasted…Oh dear! Well………..okay. That leaves me with two options: the first you can guess on your own. I opted for the second. It was worth a try…..nothing to lose at this point. I knew that if I constantly stirred this mess and added a bit of oil, eventually the water I had added during the grinding would evaporate, the oils would begin to be released and the roasting would commence and hopefully I could maintain control over a roasting paste….
45 minutes, my hands aching, and two pans later I had a golden-brown and fragrant, fine grain-like mixture. I dumped this into a bowl, wiped my wok clean(yeah, I know I need a kerai). Then I took a coffee and smoke break.
You don’t need to do this, as you are going to be wise and do your roasting before your grinding.
The only addition I have made to this recipe was the hing. Other recipes for this dish require it and I am quite taken with the spice. Oh….and by the way, apparantly Mirch masala contains an excellent recipe for this dish as well. It’s a small, small world…
Mirchi Ka Salan
Ghee, oil, or a mixture of both
2 t black mustard seeds/sarson
1 T kalonji
1 t fenugreek seeds/methi
A judicious pinch of asafoetida/hing
1 to 1 1/2 lbs green, thick-walled chiles, such as jalapenos, sliced diagonally into 2 or 3 sections, stems intact
2 stalks of curry leaves/kari patta
2 heaping T of ginger-garlic paste/lehsun-adrak
1 t red chiles, ground
1 1/2 t ground turmeric/haldi
2 T ground coriander seed/dhania
2 T ground cumin seeds/zheera
2 t garam masala
1 1/2 C sesame/til seeds, dry roasted
1 C ground-nuts/peanuts, roasted in a little oil
2 C grated fresh coconut, lightly roasted
3-4 C water
1 C chopped coriander/cilantro leaves/dhania patta
0)Make a smooth paste of the roasted sesame seeds, peanuts, and coconut. Set aside, and have all ingredients prepared and at the ready.
1)Heat ghee/oil in a wok/kerai over a low heat and fry mustard seeds, kalonji, and fenugreek seeds until the fenugreek turns a shade darker(be wary of the popping mustard seeds). Add asafoetida and fry for a few seconds.
2)Add the sliced green chiles and curry leaves, turn up the heat a bit, and fry for a few minutes, turning constantly, until the chiles are well-saturated with the oil. Add more oil if needed.
3)Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 2 minutes more, turning constantly, until the raw smell disappears from the paste.
4)Add the ground chiles, turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin, and garam masala and fry for a minute or two more, until deliciously fragrant, again turning constantly.
5)Add the sesame seed/peanut/coconut paste and turn to combine these well with the chiles and spices.
6)Add the water and salt to taste and bring to a gentle boil. Stir frequently to avoid sticking and cook until the chiles are just tender.
7)Add tamarind paste to taste and balance the subtle sweetness of the sauce. Cook for 5 minutes more, adding a little water if needed, but aim for a thick, but still mobile gravy.
8)Check salt level, and garnish with chopped coriander leaves.
Notes and afterthoughts: This is a very rich, luxurious, and sensual dish. I have read that this is a variation of the classic Hyderabadi dish, baghara baigan, but I have suspicions that it has taken a life and standing of its own, despite its conception as a spin-off. The occasional bites containing the fenugreek seeds add a surprise of bitterness to a delicately sweet-sour sauce. Obviously, it is hot as well, but not unpleasantly so, and would be a treasured recipe for any chile aficionado… This could also be made using sweet green bell peppers/capsicums for a mild version of this classic dish. This is most often served as an accompaniment to Hyderabadi biryanis, but is also delicious with plain rice or roti, and I suggest serving it with an array of lighter dishes to offset its richness. Your guests will find delight in every mouthful!