Whole spices are little voyages of discovery. Where they lead you depends on the course you chart for them.
You can fry, roast, grind. You can use them whole. You can do a combination of these.
I am partial to roasting and grinding. Roasting Indian spices usually liberates a heady, hidden fragrance, quite dissimilar to what you began with.
“Wow, what’s that aroma?” is a question I am often asked when I’m roasting spices on my cast-iron chapatti pan.
How do you know when to stop the roasting? Take them off the fire as soon as they crackle and pop, revealing their hidden selves to you in the process.
Oink, oink: (from top) The roast pork recipe is an old family favourite; marinate the pork with spices and other ingredients; make sure it gets a rich brown colour when you roast it on the stove. Photographs by Samar Halarnkar.
I find magic in their heat-driven pop-snap-crackle routine, a release of heady flavours, a promise of the meal ahead. It makes me smile, and it makes me eager to cook—even on a day I don’t particularly feel like it.
Last week, I didn’t really feel like cooking. I was hung-over, and I had woken up at 5am. The more I drink, the earlier I wake up. Don’t ask.
I had made the wife’s tea, and I was blearily hanging around the kitchen ruminating on my pounding head and empty fridge.
There was some defrosted pork, but now what. When I don’t feel particularly creative, my kitchen-confidential diary is always available. I wanted something short, and the shortest recipe happened to be something listed as “Mummy’s Pork, Diwali spesh (special)”, entered on 28 October 2008. Clearly, we had stayed home that Diwali.
The only problem was there were no proportions. I called my mother, but she couldn’t remember this particular recipe. Ah, that meant I could fool around.
As usual, that heady aroma wafted through the house, wound itself around the wife’s senses and dragged her bleary eyed into the kitchen.
So Mum’s old recipe got a fresh lease of life. The pork ended up tasting different from anything she had made—clearly I had taken it down a new path.
That’s the wonder of a good roasting.
As it emerged, there appeared to be too much spice powder—helpfully labelled “porkie powder” by the wife who assigns labels to leftover powders I store in confusing, nameless little bottles.
The next day was a Sunday, and as night fell on a cool Delhi spring day, I felt even lazier. So, I removed some quick-cooking fish and used the leftover porkie powder, uncertain of what might emerge.
As it turned out, the fish was light, spicy and—if I may say so—a perfect way to end the weekend.
Mum’s Roast Pork
10 dried red chillies
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
6 large garlic pods, crushed
½ cup red-wine vinegar
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 large onions, sliced
Salt to taste
Roast red chillies, coriander and cumin seeds. Grind them to a powder—the aforementioned porkie powder—with the mustard seeds (if you want it spicier, add a tsp of peppercorns to the grinder). Marinate the pork with the powdered spices (you won’t need all, keep aside 2-3 tsp), red-wine vinegar, ginger-garlic paste and salt.
In a non-stick pan, heat 1-2 tbsp of olive oil. Sauté the garlic till brown. Add onions and sauté till deep pink. Add the marinated pork and sauté for 10 minutes. Cover pan and reduce heat till well cooked. This could take an hour. When the pork is cooked, remove the cover and cook for 10 minutes so that the meat starts to brown. Take care not to burn it. If you want to hurry things, use a pressure cooker instead of an open pan.
Quick Fish with Porkie Powder
1/2 kg fish (I used singhada)
4-spice powder left over from the pork
1 1/2 large onions, sliced finely
1 small tetrapack tomato purée
1/4 cup white-vine vinegar
1 tsp Konkan fish masala or red chilli powder
6 large garlic pods, crushed and chopped
Salt to taste
Marinate the fish with porkie powder, vinegar and salt for at least 2 hours. Heat 1-2 tbsp of olive oil in a non-stick pan. Sauté garlic till brown. Add onions and sauté till deep pink. Add 1 tsp of fish masala (I get mine from Nandgaon near Murud-Janjira on the Konkan coast; ordinary red chilli powder should work as well) and sauté well. Add tomato purée and toss. Add fish, reduce flame to low and cook through.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at firstname.lastname@example.org