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The magic of (my own) masala

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-09-2017 Samar Halarnkar

One of the things I look forward to every year is the neighbourhood party in the park. The good people who maintain the children’s park hold an annual fund-raiser to spruce up the place. What better way to do this than to outsource the entertainment and food to the residents.

Local talent supplied the entertainment, and four tables groaned with home-made goodies from local kitchens. The entertainment came from family bands—a young woman on vocals, enthusiastically launching into “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door”, while a grave little girl accompanied her on a tambourine—and a bunch of singing children (including mine), known locally as the Bangalore Children’s Chorus, trained and conducted by our local star, a selfless doctor called Maya Mascarenhas.

As part of the happy bunch of ladies selling food, I set up shop on one of those overloaded tables, dishing out everything in my reach and struggling to keep pace with increasingly frenzied demand. My offering is standard: 3kg of roast chicken, marinated in my special “magic”—it isn’t of course, but no harm in some marketing—masala and Old Monk rum. The roast chicken sold out within the hour, coming second to a pandhi (pork) curry with sannas (fluffy, idli-like rice cakes) that sold out in half the time. Everything was gone within 2 hours: mutton biryani, lasagna, quiche, a vast array of desserts. In the end, I was reduced to hawking leftover sannas with leftover chutney from long-gone vada paos.

I always make fresh masala for the party in the park, and I look forward to the process. There is something magical about getting spices to release their wildly differing tones on a hot griddle. As they heat, they begin to smoke and crackle, harmonizing their flavours, much like the voices of our children’s chorus. My magic masala varies every time, depending on what’s at hand, and what I feel like using. This time I dropped my staple, coriander seeds, which had become a bit of a bore.

The good thing about preparing and bottling this masala is that it becomes my staple for the next few days. I tend to use it for everything from meat to vegetables, which is what I did once the party in the park was done.

The weekend that followed was somnolent, a recovery process from that frenzied afternoon. I had the masala though, and I decided to use it with a pack of foxtail millets. The fridge was bare, but it did have beans, carrot, tomato and fish. Although I like millets, they do need some attention to prevent them from becoming overly dry and bland. The leftover masala helped, as you can see. The rest was a matter of some experimentation, which I am happy to report, ended in reasonable satisfaction. I frankly think pork, beef, lamb or even chicken go better with millets than fish, but fish was all I had.

Samar’s Magic Masala

Ingredients

10 Byadagi chillies

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp fenugreek (methi) seeds

1 star anise

3-4 black cardamom

6-7 green cardamom

1-inch piece cinnamon

5 cloves

2 tsp aniseed (saunf)

3-4 leafs of mace (javitri)

Roast the spices on a griddle on medium heat until they start to crackle. Take off heat, cool and grind roughly.

Foxtail Millet with Vegetables

Serves: 3

Ingredients

2 cups foxtail millet

Half cup arhar dal

1-2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)

4 and half cups water

For the vegetables

2 large or 3 small carrots, peeled and chopped small

10 French beans, chopped

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 green chilli, slit

Half tsp red-chilli powder

2-3 tsp magic masala powder

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin (jeera) seeds

1 cup coriander, finely chopped

2 tsp olive oil or ghee

Salt to taste

Wash and drain water from the millets and dal. Mix together in rice cooker with kasoori methi. Add salt and water and cook until done. It should be fluffy and moist.

Warm the oil/ghee in a non-stick pan and add mustard and cumin seeds. When they start to sputter, add the tomato and saute for 2 minutes. Add red-chilli powder, masala powder and saute for a minute. Add vegetables, mix and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the green chilli and salt. Add 1 cup water, lower heat, cover and cook until the vegetables are done. Add coriander and the pre-cooked millets and mix well.

Foxtail Millet with Fish. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

Foxtail Millet with Fish

Serves: 3

Ingredients

2 cups foxtail millet

Half cup arhar dal

1-2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)

4 and half cups water

For the fish

Half kg fillets, kingfish or other firm fish

3 tsp garlic, finely chopped

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

3-4 tsp magic masala

1 tsp red-chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

5-6 kokum soaked in a little warm water (or use 2 tsp tamarind paste)

1 tsp dried fenugreek

1 tsp olive oil

2 cups water

Salt to taste

Wash and drain water from the millets and dal. Mix together in rice cooker with kasoori methi. Add salt and water and cook until done. It should be fluffy and moist.

Heat oil in a non-stick pan and when hot saute garlic for a minute. Add tomatoes and saute for a minute. Add the magic, red chilli and turmeric powders and saute for a minute. Add water, reduce heat and bring to the boil. Add dried fenugreek and kokum. Stir for half a minute, add salt and slide in fish piece. Cook on low flame, cover until done, swirling fish around occasionally. Adjust salt.

Pour as must as you need over millet and dal and serve hot.

Note: Millet and dal in this recipe should be enough for either vegetables or fish. In case of vegetables, add millet and dal in proportion to vegetables, so dish stays moist. There may be excess millet and dal. The quantity of fish should be enough for millet and dal in recipe. But check and add only as fish curry to the millet to get a soupy consistency.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

He tweets at @samar11

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