When make-up artist Cory Wallia, who shares his home with four rescued cats, said he would cook for Lounge, we didn’t anticipate a 4-hour session, with the fruits of the labour being deferred till the next day. But this was one of those times when the wait enhanced the pay-off.
Wallia, who started out in make-up in 1989, is one of the industry’s top artists. He’s been associated with Hindustan Unilever Ltd for over a decade and has worked with most top models and actors.
But apart from his well-documented skills with make-up, he has another talent. Wallia cooks “all the time”, for himself and friends, even after an exhausting 10-hour workday. “For me, it’s relaxation. Cooking rearranges my psyche.” His love for food has prompted him to do strange things: going unauthorized into the kitchens of his favourite restaurants and sometimes taking up foreign assignments at a quarter of his usual fee because they offer him an opportunity to explore the culinary culture of exotic locations he wouldn’t ordinarily go to.
Balanced diet: Wallia juggles three dishes. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Today Wallia is staying close to home. He’s making aamti, a Maharashtrian-style sour dal. A container-full will be kept aside for actor Raveena Tandon, who Wallia is shooting with the day after. “She loves this dal; it’s a given that I take some for her when we meet,” he says.
Also on the menu for us is a simple tinda (Indian round gourd) recipe, mixed green leafy veggies, and mutton chops in roasted masala, prepared the way his grandmother—a Saraswat Brahmin married into Maratha royalty—used to make it. Wallia’s father was a Sardar while his mother’s family has Maharashtrian and some Gujarati blood, but Wallia says he believes he’s Parsi. To prove that point, he’s got a surprise for later.
The tinda has been peeled, quartered and steamed in a covered sieve over a vessel of boiling water. Wallia puts a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove and starts roasting spices for the mutton. A heady cinnamon and star anise smell fills the kitchen while Wallia, a self-confessed fan of anthropology and etymology, explains the origins of ingredient and dish names.
His frequent dinner parties must be entertaining—he’s theatrical (lots of arm waving, gesticulating and dramatically raised eyebrows), and is acquainted with every second person in Mumbai.
Wallia learnt how to cook on his grandmother’s knee. His aaji, as he called her, was extremely innovative and it showed in her cooking. “She introduced dimsums to Bombay before anyone knew what they were,” he says. Aaji’s “dimsums” were savoury versions of modaks, the popular Maharashtrian sweet. She made tiny modaks filled with teesriya (clam), oysters and fish roe; some were steamed, some fried and pricked with a toothpick. They were a hit at dinner parties.
He’s added garlic, ginger, chillies and onions to the mix that’s being roasted, and soon everyone in the kitchen has stinging, watery eyes—except Wallia, who bends over the pan to inhale the aroma. “It’s good for the sinuses,” he says.
From the sound of it, Wallia was a culinarily precocious child. His childhood years were spent in a building in Colaba, surrounded by neighbours of all communities. He learnt to make Sindhi curry and sai bhaji (a mishmash of spinach and other vegetables) when he was eight, from the Sindhi family on the second floor. He learnt about Gujju food at the home of Ashok Desai, a constitutional expert and former attorney general of India, from Desai’s wife Suvarnaben and the maharaj. And he learnt to eat beef in the homes of his Muslim and Parsi friends—the fact that they had Jain neighbours made no difference in those days. “It was a cosmopolitan building that epitomized Bombay culture. That’s when I decided my religion would be food.”
For someone who works in the ever-evolving fashion industry, Wallia can be quite a traditionalist. He doesn’t own a mixer or grinder and prefers grinding his masalas by hand on the grinding stone. Out comes a mortar and pestle, of the kind used by Ayurvedic doctors, when it is time to crush the spices for the tinda. “Compounder,” he laughs at himself, bashing the saunf, black pepper and mustard seeds in the clinical white mortar and pestle. He fries some garlic and adds the spices, and the tinda goes into the pan after the spices are cooked. It’s a very simple dish, finished with lime juice, but the taste of the tinda remains pristine, just enhanced by the aromatics. “I learnt from the Italians to let the natural taste of the vegetable come out. I reserve my masalas for the meats.” The mutton is currently in its last stages of cooking in a covered pan (“never put it in a pressure cooker”).
The mortar and pestle Wallia uses for crushing small quantities of spices
And then a big surprise: “You must come back tomorrow to eat it. These dishes taste better the next day,” Wallia says.
So on Day 2, we start out with a fortifying breakfast of spicy kidney on toast (“Worcestershire sauce is the secret ingredient”). By lunchtime, Wallia and I are digging into hot phulkas made by his cook, that are like “puffy little hankies”. The tinda, tangy dal and mixed veggies are delicious, but the chops, thickly coated in a brown masala, are outstanding. The surprise Parsi element is a jar of Wallia-made prawn Tarapori patia, a hot, sweet and sour pickle. Which tasted like it couldn’t have been made by anyone but a Parsi.
1½ kg mutton (cubed, with some marrow bones) *
4 large onions, finely chopped
2 large onions, sliced long and fine (keep aside)*
14 garlic cloves, peeled
1½ inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
2 inch piece of cinnamon
2 star anise
2 pieces mace (javitri)
5 green cardamoms (elaichi), peeled
2 large black cardamoms, peeled and used with seeds
2 tbsp poppy seeds
1 fresh coconut, grated
1½ tbsp turmeric (haldi) powder
1½ tbsp cumin (jeera) seeds
2 tbsp coriander (dhania)
14 spicy red Goan chillies
5 green chillies
1 tbsp aniseed (saunf)
4 cups fresh coconut milk (tetrapacks will do)*
4 tej patta, keep the leaves intact*
* indicates ingredients which are not to be roasted
Roast all the ingredients on a heavy tava or a non-stick pan, in this order: First the dry spices (cloves, aniseed, cardamoms, cinnamon, mace, star anise, poppy seeds, dhania, jeera and red chillies), all together, on a very low flame till the poppy seeds go reddish and the spice aroma is redolent. Remove and cool in a thali.
In the same pan, in two tablespoons of oil, roast the onions, garlic, ginger, haldi powder and coconut till fragrant. Grind the cooled dry spices to a fine powder and mix into the onion and coconut mixture, adding the green chillies. Grind to a fine paste.
In a large, non-stick dekchi (pot), fry finely sliced onions and tej patta till the onions are golden brown. Add the masala mix and fry till the oil separates from the ingredients. Add mutton and fry till it is coated and juices form at the bottom of the dekchi. Cover, lower flame and cook till mutton is tender. Add coconut milk, salt to taste and simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with either rice, neer dosa, pao or appams.