I’ve never been able to cultivate a habit for saunf, that sweet, somewhat cloying after-dinner digestive beloved to us Indians. Of late, though, I’ve taken to using saunf as a primary ingredient for cooking. So far, I am happy to report that the results have been quite delicious.
The West knows saunf as fennel seed. If you must know, fennel is not really a seed but the dried fruit of a relative of the parsley herb. I’ll stick to saunf. The Italians too love saunf, often adding it to meatballs or sausages. You can also try a simple pasta sauce of fennel, sliced onion, peppers and sausage.
A friend of mine makes a lovely saunf chicken, roasting the seed until it gives off an aroma. She then grinds it and uses it as the main spice. It’s all quite wonderful.
My experiment with saunf began courtesy a recipe in a book by Tarla Dalal, the grand dame of Indian home-cooking guides. My wife, presently on a doctor-induced search for all foods derived from milk, made me try Dalal’s achari paneer, supposedly a tangy cottage-cheese stir-fry laced with some sauce made of curd and flour.
I modified the recipe and the resultant stir-fry—laced with saunf—has now become a household staple, easy to make and particularly popular with guests who love paneer (psst, even I, a confirmed non- vegetarian, like it immensely).
The other recipe is a tangy, light tenga, a fish curry that has its origins in Assam. I am not very familiar with Assamese cuisine, and I suspect the recipe I am offering you is not entirely authentic, but it is quite delightful.
And it is not mine either. I must give credit to Atul Kochhar, a London-based chef who plays around with popular Indian cuisines. I have never previously used saunf with fish, but this curry really surprised me with its complex range of flavours: from saunf to the typically Far Eastern lime leaf. The tenga is as complicated as the paneer is simple. I had to do some serious shopping to get all the ingredients. It was worth the effort.
Simple Saunf Paneer
Cheesy: Simple Saunf Paneer has been inspired by a Tarla Dalal recipe and is now a household speciality. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
1 large cup of paneer, cubed
1 tsp saunf
1 onion, sliced
7 methi (fenugreek) seeds
1 tsp kalonji (black onion seeds)
K tsp jeera (cumin seeds)
N tsp hing (asafoetida)
N tsp mustard seeds
K tsp turmeric powder
K tsp red chilli powder
Mix all the ingredients, except paneer, onion, red chilli powder and turmeric, and throw in a tablespoon of moderately hot olive oil in a small wok. When the seeds crackle and release aromas, add the onion and sauté till translucent. Add the paneer and turmeric and red chilli powder. Toss. Add black salt to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley or coriander.
Sour Fish Tenga
Fish factor: Though not authentic Assamese, it’s a fabulous tenga. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
This is a recipe from chef Kochhar. I’ve modified it somewhat. It is more complicated than the quick, simple fish curries we make on the Konkan coast. I found it tangier and lighter, with a host of flavours. Use half the salt in the marinade, the rest when cooking.
750g fish fillets (I used singhada)
1 star anise
1 tsp kalonji seeds
1 tsp saunf seeds
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder
K tsp fennel powder
100g bamboo shoots, sliced (I used canned)
3 lime leaves
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 large tomato, sliced
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
Salt to taste
For the marinade
1 tsp finely chopped galangal or normal ginger; 2 tsp red chilli powder; K flat tsp turmeric; 1 tsp fennel powder; grated zest and juice of 1 lemon; and salt to taste.
Marinate the fish and keep aside for at least 60 minutes. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large pan. Add the fish pieces, fry for a minute on both sides until lightly coloured and set aside.
Add the star anise, kalonji and saunf seeds to the oil left in the pan. When the spices crackle, add the onions and sauté until golden brown on medium heat. Add the saunf powder, red chilli powder and turmeric and sauté. Add the bamboo shoots, lime leaves, lemon juice and 300ml water. Bring to a boil and simmer. Add the fish pieces and the sliced tomato and cook until done. Garnish with coriander.