Well, you’re right, but ask Dr Mudbidri and he will say, “I am an Indian of Saraswat origin. I’m an 82-year-old doctor married to Lucy, who hails from Venezuela, and she is the best cook on the planet! I’ve been cooking all my life and I thought I knew it all until I did a class at nilgiri’s!!!”
Dr Mudbidri making paneer with me at a nilgiri’s cooking class
I am not trying to ‘show-off’, nor prove anyone ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about cooking. I am a chef who simply wants to pass on information that I have gathered over the past 30 or so years so that you have a better understanding of my food and with a better understanding comes appreciation; or so I believe!
With all due respect to our ‘mothers’ (who of course, as we all know, are the best cooks in the world!), my classes are not about passing on a particular recipe but more about understanding the individual ingredients that go into making a particular dish; my classes explain when to add each ingredient and, more importantly, why.
Let us take one of the most talked-about ingredients in Indian food: salt.
Participants in my cooking classes ask me why it is there is no salt on the dining tables in my restaurant. There are many reasons for this. If you asked my ustaad in Hyderabad he would say that it is the sign of a great chef when the salt is right and no more needs to be added later on. This, however, takes a lot of practise and usually happens when the chef is about to attain nirvana (and that can take a few 100 years or so!!).
Salt is added to Indian food during cooking so that it helps caramelise (bhuno) the onions – which in turn is a prerequisite for increasing the shelf-life of a dish without adding any gluten – and also it makes the dish taste better the next day. (We often hear that curries, oops, I mean Indian food, taste better the next day!)
Salt prevents onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan thereby giving them a ‘clean’ look. Apply salt to onions before caramelising them for biryanis and they come out absolutely crisp!!
caramelised onions crisp beautifully thanks to the added salt
If you add a pinch of salt when boiling rice for your biryani before you layer it on top of the meat (you add the rice to the meat when it is al dente) the rice absorbs the flavours from the spices and the meat far more easily.
Add a pinch of salt to lemon juice, rub this onto a whole chicken before marinating it with a tandoori marinade and the marinade will stay on the chicken far more easily! The combination of salt and lemon juice dissolves the protein layer on the chicken and as with the rice in our biryani, allows the chicken to absorb more of the marinade.
We all know how to make a good omelette. Of course we do! But to make a really good, light omelette you separate the yolk from the white of the egg; beat the egg white till soft peaks form, then fold this into the beaten egg yolk and now add the salt. Cook over a low heat. Your omelette will turn out soft and fluffy.
If you barbeque at home like we do in Australia, after the cooking is over and you need to clear away the grease, simply dust a thin layer of salt straight onto the hot plate and leave it to cool. Then clean the salt off with a tea towel. The salt forms a crust on the bbq plate and actually removes all the grease and food particles which don’t taste very good if left to sit on the bbq. This also turns the surface of the hot plate into a non-stick surface, without the need for any Teflon coating!!
Indian chefs season the inside of their tandoori ovens with a paste made of salt, spinach purée and mustard oil. This forms a coating on the inside surface of the oven and makes it good for rotis and naans to bake without burning.
Salt is also used to cure the surface of a roomali roti tawa, or skillet, or even a kadhai which gives it a sheen and prevents any oxidation from taking place.
a golden dosai
If you ever find that your roti or bread comes out of the oven without the ‘golden’ crust, or if the dosai you made turns black without turning golden, check the salt content, you may have forgotten to add it! The same applies for your pancake and pakora batters.
To make the perfect tadka or baghar or chounk or vagharne or, as the Italians call it, ‘blessing’, heat some oil until it’s about to smoke then remove it from the heat, crackle some spices in the oil, then add salt before adding the curry leaves and asafoetida and you will find that the curry leaves remain bright green for a longer period of time.
Customers who dine at nilgiri’s usually find the dishes have an extra ‘oomph’ to them. This isn’t a spicy ‘oomph’ but a certain je ne sais quoi, a delicious tenderness. One of the main reasons is that we ‘slow cook’ most of our meat dishes without the addition of any water so in order to make a sauce we marinate the meat with yoghurt and spices along with salt and cook it immediately, either with or without tomatoes. The salt in the marinade actually draws out the moisture from the meat without making it tough (as it is slow-cooked) and this creates a sauce along the way.
Well, if this isn’t enough information, most religions believe in using salt at some stage – Jews dip their challah into salt during Shabbat and some other High Holidays and Muslims believe salt to be the fourth blessing after fire, water and iron! Salt is considered to be very auspicious by both Hindus and Jains on special occasions such as a house-warming. In the native Japanese religion, Shinto, salt is used for a ‘ritual purification’ and for the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians salt and water were offered to invoke the Gods!
Medical science may have its views about salt, which keep changing as research evolves. However, as far as the cultural and religious beliefs on salt are concerned, they have remained the same for hundreds of years and I am happy with them.
Finally, did you know that salt is the new sugar? We Indians have known this for at least a thousand years!!! Most Indian desserts contain at least a pinch of salt as it brings out the sweetness even more!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!
We make a crust at nilgiri’s with salt, cracked pepper, ground cassia and curry leaves and then apply it to prawns or even lamb cutlets which we then grill, sprinkle with lemon juice and then serve with a mint and coriander chatni. Serve this with a glass of wine and you have the best bloody appetiser for your party!!!
To make your own pepper and tamarind crusty prawns at home click Indian prawn recipe. Good luck!