Blog - Curry Twist

The Story Of Pepper

“Bales of pepper are brought to market from each house, and gold received in exchange from the Roman ships is brought to shore in sackfuls” wrote a second century Tamil poet. Pepper was the most eagerly sought after spice in ancient Rome, and could be obtained in only one place: southern India. The word ‘pepper’ also comes from the same source: it is derived from the Sanskrit pippali. Both black and white pepper were prized in ancient Rome, but only the more expensive white variety was taxed. Black pepper was considered such an essential commodity, used by even the poorest citizens, that it was exempt from all customs duties.

Black Peppercorn

 Though Europeans ate a great deal of pepper, they knew little about how it was grown. A fourteenth century book claimed that:  "Serpents keep the woods that pepper groweth in and when the woods of pepper are ripe, men of that country set them on fire and chase away the serpents by violence of fire. And by burning the grain of pepper that was white by kind, is made black."
Reality is a little less exciting. Peppercorns are the berries of a climbing vine that grows over 50 feet tall in lush tropical jungles, twining itself around trees for support.

Green unripe berries are picked and boiled in water, after which they are sun-dried until they shrivel and turn black. Pepper vines were first cultivated millennia ago in the hills along the coast of southern India, and some of the best varieties such as Malabar and Tellicherry still come from Kerala where pepper is an important spice in local cuisine.

Fresh green peppercorns, picked right off the vine are often used in Kerala curries for their crisp, spicy bite.

Green Peppercorn

Green peppercorns are produced by picking and drying pepper berries well before they are fully mature. Their flavour is much milder than that of black pepper.

White Peppercorn

To produce white pepper, berries are picked when ripe, soaked for several days in water until soft, and the outer skin and pulp rubbed off leaving only the white seed. White pepper is much less aromatic than black, but some cooks prefer using it to avoid having unseemly black specks in light colored sauces.

Red Peppercorn

Pink or rose peppers create much confusion, because they are not related to pepper vines at all. They are bright red berries that grow on trees that are part of the cashew tree family,   and have a mildly peppery taste when dried.
Different preparation techniques - frying, toasting or grinding, bring out widely different flavours from pepper. Pepper grinders filled with a blend of whole peppercorn in all four colours can be found in supermarkets for adding a final flourish of colour and flavour to a finished dish.

Crispy, peppery paneer skewers make delicious appetizers for a summer barbecue. Eat 'em right off the grill while their insides are still soft and gooey!
If you're looking for variety, try Tandoori Paneer, Pepper Roast Chicken or Saffron Chicken Tikka With Black Pepper

Pepper Paneer Tikka

400g Paneer (Indian cottage cheese)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch piece ginger, minced

2 tbsp each: oil, lemon juice, plain Greek/Balkan style yogurt

Salt to taste

1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper or mixed pepper blend, divided

1/2 tsp each: garam masala, paprika

2 tbsp each: all purpose flour, fine breadcrumbs

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Cut paneer into 2 inch long X 1/2 inch thick slices (about 10-12 slices) or cube into bite sized squares. Place in deep mixing bowl.

Combine garlic, ginger, oil, lemon juice, yogurt, salt, garam masala, paprika and 1 tsp of the pepper in small bowl, mix well to blend.

Pour over paneer in bowl, tossing gently to coat completely. Cover and refrigerate for one hour or longer up to overnight.
Note: Let paneer soften at room temperature an hour before grilling, to make it easier to thread onto skewers.

When ready to grill, heat barbecue to medium high. Soak small sized bamboo skewers for 15 min in cold water.

Thread paneer onto skewers without overcrowding.

Combine flour, breadcrumbs and remaining 1 tsp pepper in small flat plate.

Roll each skewer of paneer in prepared breadcrumb pepper mixture till lightly coated all over.

Place on grill and cook covered until lightly browned and slightly crisp, about 7 min per side, turning skewers once. Brush lightly with additional oil at the end of cooking, if necessary.
Note: Paneer can also be cooked in the oven without skewers. Heat oven to 450F. Place paneer pieces on parchment lined tray and bake for 12 min. Place under the broiler for 2 min to brown tops lightly.

Serve right away with wedges of lemon.

Serves four

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First Class Railway Mutton Curry In Kochi, Kerala

For millennia traders from all over the world have come to the coast of Kerala to buy spices, for this is where the world's best pepper and cardamom have always been grown. Ships from Egypt, Rome, Arabia, China, Portugal and Holland docked in the port city of Kochi, from where they returned home laden with the spices that were avidly sought by food lovers from Lisbon and Paris to Damascus and Xi'an.

Jewish traders from the middle-east were an essential part of the spice trade and there was a thriving Jewish community in Kochi, located a short distance from the King's palace where they lived under royal protection. The oldest synagogue in India, dating from the mid-sixteenth century, still stands in the centre of Kochi's Jew Town, which is even today the heart of the spice trade. The Indian Pepper Exchange, where bulk trading of pepper is carried out, is located a few minutes walk from the synagogue. The surrounding streets are lined with spice shops in which you can buy every type of spice imaginable.

The wealth generated by the spice trade has always attracted people eager to control it. The Portuguese, led by the explorer Vasco da Gama, landed on the coast of Kerala in 1498 and seized control of Kochi. They built the first Catholic church in India, now known as St Francis, and it was here that Vasco da Gama was buried when he died in Kochi in 1524. Fifteen years later his body was moved to Lisbon where it still lies in a cathedral built near the docks from which he sailed.

After a century and half of Portuguese rule Kochi was captured by the Dutch, who were in turn displaced by the British in the early nineteenth century. The old town of Kochi still shows a fascinating mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. The harbourfront is lined with cantilevered fishing nets, a memorial to the Chinese trades who were once frequent visitors, that are today an iconic symbol of Kochi's fascinating history.
Colonial Fort Kochi is the best place to experience the multi layered history of this area. Here you will see old churches, synagogues, palaces and forts including a scenic beachfront area with the Chinese fishing nets.

On our way to Fort Kochi, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam right outside this shop selling freshly fried banana chips, a specialty of Kerala. Banana chips being a weakness of mine and as traffic was at a standstill, we stepped out for a quick look.

It was fascinating to see raw green bananas sliced into thin chips, deep fried and transformed into crisp, warm wafers imbued with salty, banana flavours. I loved them so much I almost made a meal out of them!

When we finally reached Fort Kochi, we found the picturesque beachfront area bustling with tourists as well as vendors selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to snacks like pakoras, pickles, roasted nuts, coconuts and even freshly caught fish, which they offered to clean for us right on the spot!

The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is an oasis of calm at one end of Fort Kochi and occupies the gorgeously restored historic shipyards. Breathing in the quiet elegance of this place, with colonial era decor, made us feel as though we had stepped back in time!

The cuisine here is authentic, drawing inspiration from Kochi's long trading history with Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British.

At their History Restaurant, each dish speaks a different language and reflects a unique heritage. You will find Anglo Indian beef cutlets on the menu, as well as Syrian fish curry, Portuguese pork vindaloo, and a sublime cinnamon laced, coconut milk creme caramel called Vattalappam that pays homage to it's Dutch roots.

Executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan met with us to share some of the stories of Brunton Boatyard as well as some of his treasured recipes. He sometimes takes groups of visitors on a tour of the area, stopping by at vegetable and fish markets and other interesting sites to give people an idea of the multi layered history of this place.

Our lunch was at the Armoury cafe of the hotel. Sitting back in this lovely, cool space with a beautiful bar at one end, overlooking the busy harbour and lovely scenery at the other, was a rejuvenating experience. The seafood thali with grilled marinated fish, spicy mussels, masala calamari and the delicate prawn biryani with spicy mango pickles had us hooked! The food was incredible, well prepared with fresh ingredients and local spices and just so flavourful!

One of the most popular dishes on their menu is First Class Railway Mutton Curry. I was drawn to this dish by its intriguing name. The story dates back to the British Raj, when first class compartments of steam trains used to be reserved for the English and their families. Indian curries were deemed too spicy for them and therefore not served there. One day a hungry officer smelled good things cooking, followed his nose to the train kitchens and insisted on a taste of the mutton curry simmering on the stove. He liked it so much that he insisted this curry always be served on the train's first class compartments as well!

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Chef Ajeeth and his team still follow the traditional recipe of preparing this mutton curry, including cooking it in a brass pot for over 4 hours. Here is his wonderful recipe which is great with Coconut rice, appams or naan.

First Class Railway Mutton Curry

11/4 lb boneless, cubed leg of lamb or goat, trimmed of fat

1/4 cup plain Balkan style yogurt

4 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 inch piece ginger, minced or grated

Salt to taste

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, cloves, star anise

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 large plum tomatoes (fresh or canned), pureed in food processor

20 raw cashews, powdered OR use 2 tbsp ground almonds

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, turmeric, paprika

1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala

1/2 cup thick coconut cream, skimmed off the top of a can of premium coconut milk

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander leaves, fresh lemon juice

Combine lamb or goat, yogurt, minced garlic, ginger and salt in large mixing bowl. Toss well to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.

Warm oil in deep heavy saucepan or skillet set over medium heat.

Add cardamom, cloves, star anise and cinnamon stick. When the spices sizzle, add onions. Saute until lightly browned, about 8-10 min.

Add lamb with all of its marinade, stirring to mix into the sauce and browning for 5 min.

Add tomatoes, powdered cashews or ground almonds and all the spices. Cook until tomatoes blend into the sauce and thicken it slightly, about 8 min.

Add 1/2 cup water, cover pot and reduce heat to very low. Cook until lamb is very tender and sauce thick, about 2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally. If curry starts to burn at the bottom of the pan, add another 1/4 cup of water.

Mix in the coconut cream and cook for another 15 min. Fold in the fresh coriander and lemon juice.

Serves four

Malabar Mutton Biryani In Trivandrum, Kerala

Our first glimpse of Trivandrum was of gracious colonial buildings and lush greenery. Trivandrum still has an old world charm to it as we discovered once we set about exploring it. Our first sightseeing stop was the famous Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. This temple, with its magnificent carved entrance, dates back several millennia and is one of the oldest and richest temples in India.
Close to the temple is the royal palace as well as an art gallery. The beautiful teak carvings, sculptures, paintings and gardens make for an interesting visit.

Kerala is also home to an ancient community of Syrian Christians, said to date back to the arrival of the first apostle Saint Thomas, in AD 52.

There are many lovely, historic, old churches in and around Trivandrum with beautiful interiors and a pervading sense of peace. One of the churches, just outside of Trivandrum is said to have been built in AD 79, in the exact spot where Saint Thomas preached to his congregation. Part of the original stone structure still stands, as can be seen in the pictures below. When we visited at Christmas time, the colourful decorations added a nice festive feel.

Kerala cuisine too, is an interesting mosaic of its diverse history and you will come across many dishes reflecting its Muslim, Christian and Hindu heritage. 

 

A fun way of diving into Kerala cuisine is by ordering a thali. It comes with an array of many different curries nestled on a banana leaf - aromatic lentil and vegetable sambhar, creamy coconut chutney, crunchy cabbage thoran, spicy tomato rasam and so many more. It is a great introduction to the incredible variety this cuisine has to offer.
However, it was the fantastic seafood curries that had us hooked! We loved the spicy, sour fish curry as well as delicate stir fried calamari with caramelized onions, spicy tomato shrimp, fish fry with curry leaves and our favourite dish - Karimeen. A local variety of fish known as pearl spot is marinated in a sauteed onion tomato paste, wrapped in a banana leaf and seared on a hot tava or griddle. The spicy, smoky flavours of Karimeen are unforgettable!
We often ate these curries with another favourite, appams. These are lacy, crisp rice and coconut pancakes with an addictive spongy center. We could (and did) have them with every meal!

One of the best ways to start your day in kerala is with a traditional breakfast. This is when delicious dishes such as idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes), dosas (crisp fermented rice and lentils pancakes), uthapams (thick rice pancakes topped with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and curry leaves), appams, curries and chutneys make their much awaited appearance.

At the Taj hotel, where we were staying, I discovered a new favourite - Ramassery idlis. Never having come across these before, I was captivated by their soft, melt in the mouth texture. Named after the small village of Ramaserry, where they were first created over a hundred years ago, these thin, flattened idlis are steamed in a fine muslin cloth inside an earthenware pot. Their soft texture and earthy aroma are unique. Although this is a disappearing tradition, the Taj hotel Trivandrum is keeping it alive by training their chefs in the authentic, age old way of preparing these idlis, much to the gratitude of all those who get to eat it!

The Malabar mutton biryani at the Taj hotel, was by far the best biryani I have ever eaten. When I mentioned this, Executive chef Jose Thomas very obligingly gave me his special recipe! While fresh Kerala spices definitely give this dish its unique aroma, sprinkling the cooked rice with powdered masala, before layering it with the lamb curry is key. Sous chef Hari Krishnan uses biryani masala for this purpose. While you can buy that in most Indian stores, I recommend making your own Malabar Masala, for even better flavour.

Making a biryani can be a bit labour intensive. It helps to make the lamb curry a day ahead. Not only does that save time, it also improves the flavour! Serve biryani with a simple yogurt raita or Wilted Spinach Raita, salad and pickles, as is traditional in Kerala.

If you would like to make a vegetarian biryani, try this delicious Dal Biryani.

Malabar Mutton Biryani

For the Curry:

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

2 green chilies

6 large canned whole plum tomatoes with puree (premium San Marzano variety)

2 tbsp oil+2tbsp butter

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

20 raw (unsalted, unroasted) cashews or almonds

1 tbsp golden raisins

1 lb boneless leg of lamb or goat (mutton), cut into bite sized pieces

Salt to taste

1 tsp garam masala, divided

1/2 tsp each: turmeric, cayenne pepper

2 tbsp Labneh or thick full fat Balkan style/Greek plain yogurt

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, fresh squeezed lime juice

Make the curry:

Mince garlic, ginger and green chilies together in food processor. Transfer to a small bowl. Puree tomatoes in same food processor bowl, transfer to another bowl. Reserve.

Warm oil and butter together in deep skillet set over medium high heat. Add half the sliced onions and saute until golden brown, about 8 min. Add cashews or almonds and raisins to onions in skillet and saute for 1 min until raisins plump up and nuts are lightly fried. Drain from oil, transfer to a plate and reserve for later use in the recipe.

Add remaining sliced onions to same skillet over medium high heat; saute for 5 min. Add lamb or goat and brown for 5 min. Add minced ginger mixture; saute 1 min. Add pureed tomatoes, salt, half the garam masala, turmeric and cayenne. Saute 5 min until slightly thickened.

Add labneh or yogurt and stir for 2 min until smooth. Cover skillet and let mixture start bubbling. Reduce heat to low and cook for 11/2 hours or until lamb is very tender, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the meat by this time.

Mix in remaining 1/2 tsp garam masala, chopped fresh coriander and lime juice.

For the Rice:

11/2 cups basmati rice

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, star anise, cloves

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

Salt to taste

1 tsp biryani masala or Malabar Masala

1/2 tsp garam masala

2 tbsp butter

Make the rice:

Wash rice well, then soak in enough water to cover for 15 min. Drain well in sieve. Reserve.

Warm oil in deep heavy bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Add whole spices and cinnamon stick. Let sizzle for 1 min, then add sliced onions. Saute for 8 min until lightly browned.

Add drained rice to pan and saute 1 min to toast it lightly. Add salt to taste and 1 1/2 cups of water. Cover, bring to a boil and reduce heat to very low. Cook rice undisturbed for 10 min. Sprinkle biryani masala or Malabar masala and garam masala over top, fluffing rice gently and mixing it in.

Assemble biryani:

Preheat oven to 300F. Lightly grease a 9X13 inch oven safe baking dish.

Spread a thin layer of rice in bottom of dish. Top with all of the lamb curry, distributing it evenly over the rice. Top with remaining rice, spreading it gently and evenly over top.

Sprinkle reserved fried onions and nuts over rice. Dot with butter.

Cover pan tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and transfer biryani to a serving platter, fluffing rice and mixing in the layers gently as you do so. Serve right away.

Serves six

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum