At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Earlier today I read several internet-Dutchmen making fun of the NYC Health Department proposal to ban Trans Fats in the food service industry.

I paid it little mind, as Dutchmen will habitually dig their poisonous fangs into any subject, provided they can vent some choice negative spew.

But then I noticed this posting ( from MOChassid, who writes: "Should the government be able to dictate to restaurants which ingredients are acceptable? Next thing you know, we will have Health Department inspectors at kiddushes telling us that the kishke and chulent are off limits."

My interest now quivered.

One of his commenters, Dovbear, wrote: "I am in favor of this legislation.
Why should we the taxpayer have to pay (via medicare, and medicaid) for the heart diseases this chemical causes? Why should all of our health insurance rates go up because some rest. are serving poison?

Normally I see e-Eye to e-Eye with Dovbear, a respected fellow blogger whose rantings I do not fail to read on a daily basis. But he is wrong on this point. Gold-plated wrong. So very very wrong, that I fear he may be deliberately provoking us.

Not exactly something which he is new at.

Khazanchi for someone not named Thakur Prataap Singh (but he could have been).

Nearly seventeen years ago I took a part-time job as cashier/bookkeeper at an Indian restaurant here in the city, and, being a know-it-all manqué, I started reading everything I could find about India, Indian food, Indian culture, Indian society, history, anthropology, minorities, and languages. Primarily so I wouldn't be caught flat-footed when a customer asked a question, or a co-worker made a remark which presumed prior knowledge.

"I do not know" is not one of my favourite phrases.

Learning tons of stuff about India complimented my knowledge of Indonesian things nicely, as there is much that is similar - linguistically, culturally, culinarily. And also much that is different. The contrasts illuminated the "other" nicely. Not quite two sides to the same coin, but two related surfaces on the same Rubik's Cube, as it were.

One of the delightful oddities of Indian food thinking is the veneration of butter, usually in the form of ghee.

Ghee is the great tonic and purifier, prime ingredient in all good dishes, unguent of the divine, and offering of offerings. Ghee is the first thing into the pot, the polish on a getshkeh, the fuel for lamps. When a person of one of the more bloody castes cooks for a multitude, the first thing into the pot must be ghee, so that by coming into contact with this great purifying substance the other ingredients are rendered clean. This last is of particular stress when cooking rice pudding (chaval ki kheer), which is often shared as prasad, or parceled out at celebrations.
And ghee, or butter, is used in excess in certain wonderful dishes.

Ghee is divine.

Ghee is lovely.

[Potatoes in a butter (makhan) sauce]

Three large potatoes.
One and a half cups heavy cream.
Half a cup tomato paste.
Quarter cup butter.
One TBS cumin seeds.
One Tsp. Paprika.
Half a Tsp. Cayenne.
Pinches dry ginger, cloves, mace, salt, pepper.
A little mashed garlic and ginger.

Peel and chunk the potatoes, boil in salted water till the outside softens. Drain.

Roast the cumin seeds in a skillet till deeply fragrant, remove and grind semi-fine.

Cook the potato chunks in the butter with the garlic and ginger for a few minutes, and remove to a plate.
Add the spices to the grease remaining in the pan, stir briefly over heat, then add the tomato paste and heavy cream while stirring. Do not boil. The objective is a rich emulsion, which will form naturally, of a rusty hue, creamy and spicy. Taste it!

And adjust quantities of cream, paste, and butter as you see fit.

When the sauce has become what you have always wanted, slide the potatoes back in and simmer for about ten minutes, adding some sliced green chili and chopped fresh herbs for sparkle. Serve as a side dish. Or as a main dish.

G'wan, eat yerself silly.

Note that the same sauce can be used for stewing whole large green chilies (Anaheim or New Mexico), for a buttery version of Mirch-Masala.

Variations on this sauce are used by North-Indians for meat dishes, especially Indian restaurant style Butter-Chicken (Murgh Makhni), which is not the classic Panjabi preparation, but an invention by a bunch of Afghans stuck in Delhi after partition (1947).

They opened a restaurant called the Moti Mahal (pearl palace), serving Tandoori Chicken as they were accustomed to eat in Peshawar - meaty chicken parts marinated in yoghurt, onion paste, salt, pepper, cumin, with garlic and ginger and red food colouring (cock's comb herb), then grilled in an earthen oven till barely tender.
Served with Naan (a bread originally from Persia, but modified by centuries of use in Southwestern Afghanistan and Northern India, much favoured with Muslim dishes), pickled onions, and one or two other very minor things.

The restaurant flourished enormously. Perhaps because most of the other eateries in Delhi at that time were either British clubs, or dining halls in the old Muslim districts, and catered to an old-fashioned clientele of set habits and predictable tastes. Whatever. The Moti Mahal was new, and hip (well, as hip as large sari-clad matrons and junior civil servants could make it).

At the end of day, with customers still lined up, they would often run out of goodies. So, making use of the pan-juices from the cooked chickens, along with the smaller bits and scraps, they added butter, tomatoes, and cream. Plus some spices. And voila. A modern classic.

The recipe got changed slightly in the fifties - Indian cooks in the UK discovered Campbell's tomato soup. And in the seventies, Indian cooks in the US discovered tomato paste. Both of these are now common shortcuts.

PS I. In case you were curious, I worked several evenings per week at that Indian restaurant from 1990 till 2005. In that decade and a half I must have read well over a thousand books about matters Indian, and my collection of books about food grew enormously. So yes, I enjoyed the experience.

Hardly any of the spices or ingredients were new or foreign to me. Indonesian and Indies-Dutch cooking uses many spices which are also found in Indian kitchens.

PS II. About the title of this post. Once the owner of the restaurant, "X"-sahib, was joyfully lecturing a customer about the superior qualities of Indian food, why it was the greatest stuff on earth, tasty, artistic, and ever so healthy!
While he waxed floridly lyrical, I looked at the customer's order. Murgh Makhni (first stick of butter), Chicken Tikka Masala (second stick of butter), and Dum-Alu Vindaloo (third stick of butter). With hot-buttered naan breads.

PS III. Every Indian restaurant should have a smart-aleck Dutchman counting the money - that's what we're good at.
If your local Indian restaurant does not have a smart-aleck Dutchman counting the money, something may be very wrong.

Ask them if they use enough butter.

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  • At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "e-Eye"? You mean, as in "e-Eye, e-Eye, Oh"? Sorry, I had never come across the usage before, and couldn't help myself.


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