The Emirates Airline Literature Festival took place from March 8 to March 12 2011 in Dubai. When I found out that Madhur Jaffrey, the prolific cookbook author, would be demonstrating her skills in a live cooking demo, I simply had to go.
When I arrived there, her book, ‘Curry Easy’ was flying off the tables like hot cakes (or curry, as it were). The queue to enter the hall where her workshop was to be held was long. It felt as though we would never enter the session in time. But when the doors opened and people were ushered inside, you could hear a sigh of relief in the air.
And we were off!
A picture of elegance in the temporary kitchen at the end of the hall, Madhur Jaffrey started talking about her viewpoints on cooking Indian food, which embodied simple cooking. She said, “With any cuisine, you will find there are complicated and simple dishes. I travelled around India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and looked for recipes that are simple.” She said she’d often heard laments that Indian food takes too much time to eat, and sought to change that status quo.
Starting with making kababs, she mixed chopped mint, green coriander and onions, garlic, ginger, chilli powder, yoghurt, black pepper and salt to taste with the minced meat (chicken or even turkey). Then she added an egg to bond the mixture well. We were asked to put the mixture into a plastic bag and put it in a fridge overnight. When it’s ready, put some oil in a baking tray, spread the meat mixture right to the edges and bake it for about 30 minutes.
Then she moved her attention to making the chutney to accompany the kababs. She commented on how the word ‘chutney’ has become synonymous with mango chutney, and said that in India, ‘chut’ literally means ‘to lick’. She said, “A chutney is something which you’ve mash it together...which is lickable, that provokes the mouth with a tingling variation of sour and spicy tastes.”
She blended red pepper, chilli powder, almonds, garlic, mint and lemon juice together and insisted that they be put in the blender in that order for best results. At the end, a bit of dill was sprinkled on the top of the resulting paste for extra flavour.
Her next dish included prawns and she cracked a joke, when she held up a very large prawn, and said, “I asked for jumbo prawns and they were really jumbo ... This is Dubai for you! These are almost lobster size!”
She applied salt for the prawns, along with pepper, chopped chillies and cayenne pepper, and mixed it well and advised us to leave the mixture for 30 minutes before moving forward.
Then handing us a very useful tip on making tomato puree, she said once we tried it her way, we’d never go back to our old puree-making ways. She said, “Use the coarse part of the grater to grate the tomato. What you get is a really wonderful sauce and as you get closer to the other end, you end up with the skin and everything else gets grated.” Sure enough, by the end of her grating efforts, the tomato skin was left behind with a fantastically fresh-looking puree glimmering in the bowl.
Then she heated some oil in a pan, threw in some mustard seeds, kadi patha (curry leaves) and garlic. Once popping, she added the prawns, let it cook for a bit and finally added the tomato puree. For the final preparation, she cut the cooked kabab sheet into squares, applied a little chutney over the square, topping it with some onion and mint. Even for the onions, she shared a little tip with the engrossed audience: cut the onions finely, dip in cold water and then wring out the water. The resulting onions will almost resemble lace and will not have the traditional onion-sting in its taste.
During her speedy preparations, she gamely answered questions from the food-lovers in the audience. When someone asked whether it was a bad idea to use readymade garlic and ginger pieces, she shook her head disapprovingly, and said tongue-in-cheek, “I often get my husband to grate my ginger for me ... get someone to do it for you!”
She even answered a veiled criticism from an audience member who asked whether she’s moving away from traditional Indian food with her new book ‘Curry Easy’ as it advocates non-traditional methods of making Indian food. She quipped, “I have been using traditional ways to cook but now I use non-traditional ways to get to a traditional taste.”
Her advice is to enjoy the food we eat. There are no rules in serving Indian food, she said. “We spend so much time worrying about what we eat, that we stop enjoying it.”