Chefs always have a dazzling array of culinary secrets up their sleeves. Sometimes it’s a particular ingredient, and at other times it could be a culinary technique, a unique combination of spices or a special way to treat a particular ingredient.
For Chef Aslam Ali, Senior Chef de Partie at the Holiday Inn Downtown, the secret ingredient underlying his amazing and totally authentic Biryani is cold-pressed Mustard Oil in all its rich, golden-yellow glory.
Chef Ali started his career in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), known for its rich culinary heritage – and in particular, the unique Bengal Biryani that stands apart from other varieties like Awadhi and Hyderabadi Biryani. The Calcutta influence provided Chef Ali with a deep understanding of the various ways in which Mustard Oil can be used to add value to the dazzling spectrum of flavours that characterize the cuisines of Bengal and Odisha. He learnt how to use Mustard Oil not just as a cooking medium but also as a flavouring agent, a marinade, a spice and a gravy-maker.
In addition to using Mustard Oil as an ingredient in his highly appreciated Biryani, Chef Ali also marinates the meat for the Biryani in Mustard Oil – a technique he adopted from the legendary Wazwan cooks of Kashmir. That’s another culinary trick in his arsenal – one that gives the meat in the Biryani a distinctive taste and texture.
From Calcutta Chef Ali moved to Kuwait and has been working there for more than fourteen years, bowling gourmets and foodies over with his unique, personalised version of the famous Nawabi Mutton Biryani.
Chef Ali says that while it is difficult to be away from his family for long stretches of time, everything becomes worthwhile if one is doing something that one is passionate about – and for this master chef, passion is all about cooking his signature dishes and basking in the adulation of people from all over the world who savour the dishes and admire the subtlety of the many flavours that he brings to life, time and time again.
We have often written about the traditional Wazwan cuisine of Kashmir on this blog. P Mark Mustard Oil has also produced a multi-episode television series titled Mezbaan-e-Wazwan. However, there is another type of cuisine in Kashmir that is lesser known. It is called Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. Like Wazwan, Kashmiri Pandit recipes also use cold-pressed Mustard Oil along with traditional spices like Kashmiri red chilli powder, fennel (saunf), asafoetida (heeng) and saffron. A key point of difference is that Kashmiri Pandit dishes do not contain any onion or garlic. In fact, older generations of Kashmiri Pandits also avoided using tomatoes, eggs and chicken in their food – they preferred lamb and fish.
Like the Waza (chefs) of Wazwan, Kashmiri Pandit food too has its own traditional chefs. One such modern-day specialist and ardent proponent of this cuisine is Chef Suman Kaul. Interestingly, Chef Kaul did not start out as a chef. She learnt how to prepare authentic Kashmiri Pandit dishes from her mother and grandmother. Her family had settled down in the city of Hyderabad and Kaul was working in the information technology sector. Cooking was just a hobby and she used to regularly contribute recipes to a daily newspaper. But all that changed in 2006. The legendary Chef Manjit Gill spotted her culinary talent and invited her to join the ITC Maurya Hotel in New Delhi as a specialist in Kashmiri Pandit cuisine.
This new role gave Chef Kaul an opportunity to revive Kashmiri Pandit food and protect its heritage. For her, this was particularly important because she noticed that new generations of young Kashmiri Pandits were forgetting this traditional cuisine and its unique recipes.
Like Wazwan, Kashmiri Pandit cuisine too uses the warm pungency of cold-pressed Mustard Oil to bring the recipes – and the gravies – to life. Like Awadhi cuisine, it also leverages the slow-simmer technique of cooking to bring out the full-bodied flavours of the spices.
So the next time you think of Kashmiri cuisine remember that the culinary journey doesn’t end with Wazwan. You must try Kashmiri Pandit recipes as well.
Chef Ken Oringer had never thought of trying Mustard Oil as an ingredient for any of his recipes till the well-known actor and food writer Madhur Jaffrey visited his restaurant in Boston. He worked with Jaffrey on a few recipes and found – to his delight – that no single ingredient could add as much flavour to a dish as mustard oil. And he soon discovered that many of his American customers too loved the unique taste of this typically Indian cooking oil.
Another American chef, Michael Hodgkins, uses Mustard Oil as his preferred seasoning for everything from salad dressings to fried items. It’s his favourite ingredient even when he’s not making Asian dishes. “It doesn’t coat your mouth”, he says; “You taste it – and then it’s gone!”
Chef Alex Raij has something to say about the heating sensation that mustard oil typically creates. She points out that mustard oil has a delectable heat that does not linger; it’s a flavour that hits the tongue differently and creates a completely different culinary experience.
Laurence Edelman is another American chef who fell in love with Mustard Oil’s “silky heat”. When he discovered this enticing ingredient from exotic India, he initially used it sparingly. But now he uses it quite liberally. He says: “Mustard oil has a clang – once you get a taste of it, all of a sudden everything is lacking mustard oil.”
The very idea of American chefs using mustard oil is strange because in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of mustard oil as a foodstuff. The packs must be labelled ‘For External Use Only’. There is no basis for this. In fact, scientists at the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health say that there is absolutely no evidence of mustard oil being harmful for human beings.
Here’s a funny twist in the tale: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, another American chef, says that he specifically looks for the ‘External Use Only’ label when he goes shopping for Mustard Oil. He says it signals that it’s the “real stuff”.
Here’s a really creative – and delicious – way to make aubergines come alive with the scintillating flavour of mustard. It is called Aubergines in Yoghurt with a Mustard Gravy. Sounds mouth-watering, doesn’t it? Here’s a really creative – and delicious – way to make aubergines come alive with the scintillating flavour of mustard. It is called Aubergines in Yoghurt with a Mustard Gravy. Sounds mouth-watering, doesn’t it?
• Baingan (aubergines): 8 – small ones around 4 inches in length
• Mustard Oil: 250 ml
• Yoghurt (Dahi): 200 gram
• Mustard Paste (Kasundi): 60 gram
• Salt: 1 teaspoon
• Sugar: 1 teaspoon
• Mustard seeds (black): 1 teaspoon
• Green chillies: 6, sliced
Cut the aubergines in half with their stalks intact. Smear the pieces with a bit of turmeric and keep aside. Heat the mustard oil in a pan and deep-fry the aubergines. Remove the aubergines and drain the excess oil by placing the fried pieces on paper napkins.
Mix the mustard paste, yoghurt, salt and sugar. For the mustard paste, you can either use a readymade Bengali mustard sauce called Kasundi – or you could make fresh mustard paste by taking one teaspoon of black mustard seeds and white mustard seeds and grinding them with salt and two green chillies.
Take a fresh pan and heat a little oil. Add the black mustard seeds and wait till they begin to splutter. Pour in the yoghurt and mustard paste mixture and add the green chillies. Reduce the heat, add the aubergine pieces, stir well and serve hot.
You can have it with rice or roti or tandoori naan… doesn’t matter which. The dish is awesome!