I'm willing to bet that there is a significant percentage of the New York born & brought up folks who've never visited Ellis Island & the statue of liberty. Ditto with Mumbaikars who've never taken to boat to Elephanta Island or the Prince of Wales museum (I count myself in this category) or Delhiites who've never seen the Qutb Minar up close!
Its a lot like that with food & cuisines as well. Leave alone cuisines from different regions of India, there is a significant variety to be found in the use of ingredients & techniques from community to community & chances are, while someone would have sampled a wide array of dishes from a cuisine far from their native set, they would have no clue about flavors from other communities within their own!
I've always considered my self extremely fortunate in that there were no restrictions whatsoever to tasting different cuisines and street foods (vegetarian of course) growing up. My fondest memories of childhood include outings with Appa for the sole purpose of noshing on chaat & other street foods. Amma would tag reluctantly behind, enjoying the family outing, but still tempered with a tinge of Tambram (tamil brahmin) guilt at openly pigging out on food prepared by 'outsiders'.. in other words, non kosher stuff!
As extensive as my exposure was to North Indian cuisine, food from other South Indian communities like chettinad food was something I seldom had a chance to eat, leave alone make. Perhaps its because the cuisine includes meat & fish, something that is taboo in traditional brahmin cooking & hence the whole idea of making food from other South Indian communities at home is sidelined to the backburner. It has been only in recent years that I've come to appreciate other south Indian food such as Chettinad cuisine & boy, do I love it!
I believe the right recipe is required for an initiation to any new cuisine & boy!, I may have just found one of the best recipe books ever for such a task. I'm referring to 660 curries by Chef Raghavan Iyer. If ever there is a book that will make you fall head over heels in love with food that you've been eating all your life & taken absolutely for granted, this would be one of them. I ordered this a month ago with a view to posting a review, but got so enchanted by just reading individual recipes & the delightful head-notes preceding them that I'm finding it hard to be objective. But yes, I plan to post the review in the next couple of posts. Till then I'll sign off with a recipe NOT from the book, a recipe for Chettinad Kozhi (chicken) which so caught my eye that I just had to find out for myself what the combination of flavors would yield. The poultry is replaced by paneer.
This is not the first recipe for paneer chettinad & it certainly will not be the last. but given that Paneer is not an ingredient used in Southern cuisine, it makes for a beautiful fusion of flavors & textures. In essence, a dish just simply & elegantly Indian!
Paneer Chettinad (adapted from 660 curries by Raghavan Iyer):
1lb slab Paneer cut into 8 rectangular wedges (stab the pieces with a sharp screw driver a few times to allow for the marinade to soak through, yeah yeah, go ahead, vent on the paneer ;-))
For the marinade
2 tbsp Chana dal
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tsp black peppercorns
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
3 cloves garlic
Seeds from 6 cardamom pods
2-4 Dried red Arbol chiles
2 inch piece cinnamon
For the gravy:
4 tablespoons oil,
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 red onion, sliced thin
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
2 green chiles, slit
1 tsp tamarind paste
1/2 cup shredded coconut
Toast the chana dal in a skillet till they turn reddish brown & begin emitting a nutty aroma. Combine with yogurt, peppercorns, salt, turmeric cardamom, red chiles, garlic & cinnamon in a blender jar and grind to a smooth paste.
Pour into a wide dish and immerse the pieces of paneer into the marinade. Cover & refrigerate for about 2 hours, preferably overnight.
Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a non stick skillet and setting the heat on high, gently place the pieces of marinaded paneer to brown well on both sides (Shake off extra marinade prior to searing the paneer. the residual bits marinade will turn brown as well, but does not affect taste as long as the residue is removed). Reserve the marinade.
While the paneer is browning, Heat the remaining oil in another pan till smoking. Add the mustard seeds, allowing them to pop. Lower heat and add the sliced onions curry leaves & green chiles. Saute till the onion begins to turn golden brown around the edges.
Add the pieces of browned paneer ,
and the marinade to the onions. Cover & simmer for about 8-10 minutes.
Dilute the tamarind paste with 1 cup of water and add to the gravy, and continue to simmer for a further 10 minutes till the flavors combine.
Remove the paneer pieces and arrange on a serving dish.
Increase the heat and reduce the sauce till it gets thickened (~ 3-5 minutes). Stir in the coconut, and pour over the paneer.
Serve hot with a side of plain rice or biryani.