It was a stifling curfew— stricter than any this decade—in sunny, troubled Srinagar last month that got me thinking about coriander seeds.
The streets were deserted. I was the only guest in the hotel. The only employee was the receptionist, who took his pick of the empty rooms each night. The hotel cook, who valiantly tried to come to work to ensure I didn’t go hungry, was thrashed at a security checkpoint, as Kashmiris often are.
Master mix: This garam masala requires nine ingredients and can be used to spice up a variety of dishes. Samar Halarnkar
Only a few hours ago, a police van rolled by with this cheery message: “Do not move out of your houses. You could be shot.”
So there I was—eternally hungry me—without food for more than 14 hours.
Now, whatever their issues with India in general, Kashmiris are very hospitable. So, the receptionist, a young man in his early 20s, was profusely apologetic. “I told him (the cook) to somehow come through the curfew,” he said, worry lines on his forehead. “But he had to go back. I am so sorry sir.”
I was hungry. So was he. I had to fix this.
“Listen,” I said, “Your hotel must have a kitchen?”
“Yes sir, it’s on the roof.”
“Open it up,” I said.
I’ve never cooked in a hotel kitchen before, so I scratched my head a bit at the sight of the giant burners, huge kadhais and 2ft-long ladles.
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I soon discovered more serious problems. After days of curfew and no guests, the kitchen food stocks consisted of: two rotting cabbage, six rotting tomatoes, nine onions that had sprouted, one that was—hurrah—fine, half a loaf of two-day-old bread, and five eggs.
Ah well, it was what it was. So, I got to work.
The receptionist, thankfully, knew how to fire up the gas system. He opened two valves, one for a flame, another for the gas. Then as the gas spewed out with an alarming hiss, he ignited it with his cigarette lighter, jumping back when it lit with an alarming whoomp!
The onion was chopped, the eggs were beaten, but surely I could do better?
Apart from the basic red chilli and turmeric powder, the only whole spices seemed to be a few green cardamoms and lots of coriander seed. I was reacquainted with coriander seed after many years. I remember grinding them with coconut in the days before coconut milk short-circuited my take on my grandmother’s Goan fish-curry recipe.
I hastily pounded a spoonful of coriander seeds, threw in a couple of cardamoms and suddenly the egg bhurji gained much verve and vigour. When it was done, the receptionist and I toasted some bread, rationed out portions for lunch and dinner, and sat down to eat our humble meal in the hotel reception, washed down with milk.
Outside our window, the Jhelum flowed silently, in tune with the eerie, discomfiting stillness that marks a daytime curfew. Never did a plain, old bhurji taste so good, suffused with the earthy, grassy fragrance of the coriander seed.
When I returned to Delhi, I had coriander seed on my mind. My parents were visiting, and there was rather a lot of cooking at hand. So, I did what I do at such times: roast my own spices, prepare a batch of my own masala and use it for many main dishes.
My time in Srinagar fresh in my mind, the spice I first scattered on the roasting pan was coriander seed. No surprise there.
I was surprised how the coriander seed variously blended with chicken, eggplant (baingan) and couscous. The aroma of roasted, pounded, or roasted-and-pounded coriander seeds is distinctive. To me, it speaks of blue skies, autumn winds, windswept grasslands and open windows.
Now, and forever, coriander seed will also speak to me of that lonely, curfewed day in Srinagar.
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fennel (saunf) seeds
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp poppy seeds
2-inch piece of cinnamon (dalchini)
12 dried red chillies (Kashmiri chillies, or any other)
2 black cardamoms
5 green cardamoms
Roast these spices on a medium flame until the seeds start to snap and crackle. Stir constantly for a minute, as the aromas release, but take care not to let them burn and blacken. Either pound the spices in a mortar pestle or in a mixie (which is what I normally use). Empty into an airtight glass bottle.
Once I had my masala, I found it enough for these three dishes.
1 full chicken, skin intact
4 tbsp Srinagar garam masala
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup rum
Salt to taste
Marinate the full chicken, skin intact but slashed with a knife, with the garam masala and olive oil. Add salt and rum (I always use Old Monk). Let it marinate for 4 hours, at least.
Place chicken in a casserole with lid and roast on oven mark 4 (or 180 degrees Celsius) for 2 hours or slightly more. You may not need to do anything for the first hour. Use the liquid released to periodically baste the chicken as it starts to brown.
Serve whole, with roasted potatoes and onions if you wish. Carve on the table. It should yield to the first plunge of the knife.
Eggplant with coriander and sesame seeds
12-14 small eggplants, quartered or smaller
1 large onion, sliced
1 large tomato, chopped fine
2 tsp coriander seeds, roughly pounded
2 tsp sesame seeds
3 tsp Srinagar garam masala
11/2 tsp ginger-garlic paste (better, use freshly chopped ginger and garlic)
1 tbsp olive oil (more if needed)
Salt to taste
Splutter the sesame seeds in gently heated olive oil in a non-stick pan. Add the coriander seeds and stir for 30 seconds. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add ginger and garlic. Add the Srinagar garam masala and sauté (with a dash of red-wine vinegar or water) till the masala blends. Add the tomato and toss well. Add eggplant and sauté until well done. Adjust masala if you wish. Top with fresh coriander or parsley (I used parsley) and serve hot.
Couscous with peppers, zucchini and Srinagar masala
1 large cup of couscous
1 zucchini, cut lengthwise and sliced into slim half-circles
1 red pepper, cut into 1/4-inch pieces or juliennes
1 yellow pepper, ditto
5 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp sesame seeds
1 tsp Srinagar garam masala
2 tsp parsley, finely chopped
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, pounded
Salt to taste
Lay the couscous on a flat dish. Pour boiling water or vegetable stock, as per instructions on couscous packet. Add a few drops of olive oil, salt and fluff up with a fork. In 1 tbsp of olive oil, splutter sesame seeds. Add the garlic and sauté until it starts to brown. Add zucchini and sauté. Add salt. Sprinkle the masala and toss. Add 1 tbsp of red-wine vinegar or orange juice while sautéing. Add peppers and toss for a minute before taking off flame. Pour the vegetables over the couscous. Sprinkle with parsley and pounded coriander seeds. If this is too vegetarian for you, add—as I did—leftover kebabs or sausages (after chopping into small pieces) to the couscous.
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 email@example.com