Pies made for pickle lovers
Most good Indian cookbooks have a section on pickles and chutneys but there is no widely available, definitive work on the wider subject of Indian fermentation
I have been thinking a lot about fermentation lately. I’m not alone; the food world has gone crazy for a category of food which includes dishes like German sauerkraut, Korean kimchi and kefir, a type of fermented milk. A recent edition of BBC’s Food Programme declared it one of the most powerful food obsessions ever witnessed. It’s certainly one which has the power to not only transform the taste of what we eat but also the health benefits of our daily diets; put simply, fermented food tastes amazing and supplies the healthy bacteria our guts need.
In India, although rarely referred to as such, fermented foods abound; everything from the appams, idlis, dosas and uttapam made from fermented rice and dried pulses, to kanji, a traditional fermented winter drink made from carrots and beetroot that has lately been given a millennial makeover as a “probiotic drink”, or Indian Kombucha tea. And of course the infinite variety of oily, spicy pickles that wake up our morning parathe and glisten on every thali in the land.
This train of thought inevitably sent me off to Twitter in search of the definitive book on Indian fermentation. After a very enjoyable conversation over the course of a day with a range of Indian cooks and food writers, we more or less drew a blank. Yes, most good Indian cookbooks have a section on pickles and chutneys but there is no widely available, definitive work on the wider subject of Indian fermentation. Many people have mentioned a “bible for pickle lovers” by Usha Prabakaran, I’ve even heard that there’s a new edition coming out, but no one can tell me where I can lay my hands on a copy of it, not even Ms Prabakaran herself, though I’ve emailed her several times.
An early and influential evangelist for fermented foods is Tennessee-based writer Sandor Katz aka the fermentation king, who has written the definitive book on the subject, The Art Of Fermentation, but even his glorious, encyclopaedic tome only contains passing references to the art of Indian fermentation.
For this week’s recipe, I’ve meddled with culinary boundaries in a way I don’t normally approve of, an intersection of Indian pickle and Cornish pasty (a small pie normally filled with meat and vegetables). My starting point was, of course, Indian pickle. I wanted to show it off as a starring ingredient in its own right rather than as the more usual condiment. I needed a filling that wouldn’t fight the pickle and, in a flash of inspiration, hit on this mildly spiced potato and onion curry, the type normally associated with masala dosa, a dish I love almost above all things. Before adding the potato mixture to the pastry base, I spread a layer of spicy tomato pickle. The result, if I say so myself, is stupendous. My husband devoured two in quick succession before declaring them fabulous and deciding we could retire on the vast fortune they’re going to make us.
While I wait for him to draw up the business plan, I’m still on the lookout for the definitive exploration of the wonder that is Indian fermentation to appear in a real or online book store near me. So, if you happen to bump into Usha Prabakaran, please tell her to get in touch.
Potato and Pickle Pies
Makes 6 pies
Because pickles vary so much, I made and baked one pie to start with to test the intensity of flavour. Using the tomato pickle I had, one tablespoon of pickle per pie was about right.
300g all-purpose flour (maida)
150g cold butter, chopped into cubes
A pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten
500g potatoes, boiled until just cooked, then peeled
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp brown mustard seeds
10 curry leaves
1 onion, sliced
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp dried mango powder (amchur)
Salt, to taste
6 tbsp of tomato pickle (or to taste)
First make the pastry. Put the flour, turmeric, salt and butter in a large bowl and quickly rub with your fingertips until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add three tablespoons of cold water and stir the mixture with a knife. When it starts coming together, use your hands to gently shape it into a ball, adding a little more water if necessary. Cover the pastry with cling film, then put in the fridge to rest while you make the filling.
To make the dosa-style filling, first chop the boiled potatoes into rough 1cm cubes. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, then add the mustard seeds and curry leaves and cook for about a minute. Add the onion and cook until soft. Stir in the potatoes, turmeric, coriander and dried mango powders and mix well. Crush the potato mixture a little with a fork. Add salt to taste, then set aside
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Roll out the pastry to about 2mm thick. Use a saucer or small plate to cut out six circles. Spread a little pickle on one half of each pastry disc, leaving a 1cm border all the way round at the edge. Brush a little egg around the edges of the pastry, then fold it over and crimp the edges together. Place the pies on a baking sheet, brush the tops with the rest of the egg, then bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown. Serve hot.
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Pamela Timms tweets @eatanddust