I wish I could count the number of times I’ve visited a restaurant and been discouraged to try murgh musallam or meen moilee. “Don’t have this one,” I’ve been urged. “It has no spice in it. It is white in colour.” In the Indian restaurant trade, there are a number of cardinal sins, but none greater than serving white or yellow gravy to your guests.
Bengali staple: Doi machh can be categorized as a white curry. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
I personally am not fond of chillies. I find that they add no other dimension to the food except “hotness”, but the rest of the country seems not to be able to do without the little red devils. So much so that any cooked dish without the trademark red colour seems to put people off. And that’s the surprising aspect. After all, chillies have only been around for four centuries. Before that, says Chef Jacob, a Tamil Nadu-based researcher of the ancient foods of his state, pepper was the chief “hot” spice of the state. He assured me that the Kungunad region of Tamil Nadu still uses much more black pepper and ginger than chillies, and indeed Rasam on Raja Annamalai Road in Chennai does have fewer red-coloured curries than most other restaurants. Rasam is the only Kungunad restaurant in the state and appears to set great store by authenticity. Raja Bhojanam Kozhumbu is pale yellow in colour but I am in raptures because of the name: King’s Food Curry is the approximate translation.
In neighbouring Kerala, meen moilee is a pale yellow fish curry that contains two slit green chillies for the spice quotient. Coconut milk, turmeric and half a teaspoon of cumin are the other ingredients. It is almost identical to the Goan fish caldine, further north up the western coast. Caldine ranks as the only Goan seafood/meat/poultry preparation sans an angry red hue.
Hyderabadi cuisine contains Hind qorma, whose base is curd as well as coconut milk—which it shares with Kerala’s avial. The combination of coconut milk and curd is an extremely unusual one. Hind qorma contains green chillies for the all-important spice quotient (because in India, rarely does white gravy mean completely non-spicy), flavoured with cardamom.
Bengal’s doi machh is white—not only is there no red chilli powder, there’s no turmeric either—and Assam’s tenga has a yellow gravy. Tenga is mouth-puckeringly sour and may contain either fish or vegetables and is usually spiced with green chillies that are just slit and added to the gravy while it is being cooked. The heat of the fire helps to release the capsaicin into the food without changing the colour. You could conceivably do the same with a whole red chilli.
A whole red chilli is used in the Kashmiri classic, haaq, especially when it is steamed in an open vessel, has only water for its gravy, with a pinch of hing (asafoetida). Yet, it’s the one dish that can give Kashmiris withdrawal symptoms if they don’t eat it thrice a week.
Called moru kozhumbu in Tamil Nadu and kachi moru in Malayalam, this great standby lunch preparation can be made as thick or thin as you like. It is the south Indian equivalent of kadhi.
½ coconut, grated
2 green chillies
½ tsp cumin
200g of any one vegetable such as okra, white gourd or colocasia leaves
A pinch of turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 whole red chilli
A few curry leaves
1 tbsp sesame or coconut oil
In a food processor, pulse together the coconut, green chillies and cumin into a paste. Keep aside. Sauté the okra with minimal turmeric till partially cooked, then add a quarter-litre of water and cook till done. Whisk the curd till smooth and empty over the vegetable, mixing well. Immediately, add the coconut paste and continue stirring. In a small kadhai, heat the oil and temper with the mustard seeds, whole red chilli and curry leaves. Pour the oil on the vegetable, bring it to a boil and serve immediately.
Write to Marryam at email@example.com
This is her last column for Lounge.