When a little tenderising and flavouring can elevate a dish, why don’t all professional kitchens do that?

There are restaurants we visit just for the food, and some for — dread word — ambience. Two-in-one is a bonus. And, courtesy, bumper bonus. We ate at the Lodi in New Delhi recently, with low expectations. It is very pretty, and the food was predictable. We ordered a chicken salad and a chicken main dish. Both arrived very elegantly arranged. The chicken was undercooked, we ignored it in the salad and sent the main dish back. The staff was pleasant and brought it back re-cooked.

A few days later we ate at Café E and the sandwich fillings were similar. They tried to help. Last week we went to Pizzeria Rossa, in the Hauz Khas village. The food started well — the bruschetta and pizza were okay, but the chicken that followed was inedible. The highly recommended “wood fired” chicken and the chicken steaks were both raw. Sent back. They were re-cooked. This time the meat was oilier and cooked through, but smelt of raw meat and blood, like a butcher’s shop. The waiter, who had suggested the “wood fired”, argued that it was very popular, everyone liked it, they had even refried it to suit me. (I always knew there was something wrong with me.) Then the chef stomped up and asked accusingly if something was wrong, that they had cooked it again, he had checked, it was cooked through. I said that the second time it was cooked through, but it smelt of raw chicken, hadn’t they marinated the meat? Had they just poured on some oil and “pesto” (second dread word) and flash fried the pieces? Chef said their meat was pre-marinated, it was perfectly cooked, no one else had ever complained, he had worked for many years in many fine restaurants, it was just fine! I apologised for being picky, was laughed at by the family for wasting my sarcasm, and chef flounced off, banging the door behind him. The bill arrived, we paid and left. No one offered a replacement for the bad dishes or deducted their price from the bill. Rossa means red. For raw meat or rage? In either case, never again.

But it made me think. Apart from meat cooked in tandoors or barbecues — both rare in Indian homes — we don’t marinate meat; it cooks for longish periods, being simmered long enough to become tender and to absorb flavours. It’s only when we cook in foreign ways that we need to consider marination.

The word “marinade” comes from the Italian and Latin marinara, “of the sea”. Long ago, meats were soaked in briny liquids (like sea water) to help tenderise, flavour and preserve them. In pre-Columbian Mexico, meat was wrapped in papaya leaves, which contain the enzyme papain, before cooking. Today we marinate using oil, something acidic, and spices to develop tenderness and flavour. As cooking scientists say, chemical reactions carry on in meat even after the animal has died. If I understand right, oxygen is stored in myoglobin proteins, lactic acid is formed, and it all helps to tenderise meat.

The time needed for marination depends on the kind, cut and size of meat. The denser red meats should be marinated for hours; chicken for half to one hour, and fish and seafood from 15 minutes to an hour. Meat cut small or thin needs less time, and large, thick pieces need more. But time doesn’t help the marinade to penetrate to the deepest interior, only the surface will be flavoured and tenderised well: contact is necessary for the marinade to act on the meat.

Phew. So much science, but if the essentials are understood, it does raise food from just-cooked to delicious. I make a fraud mutton roast, in a pressure cooker, in which it takes 20 minutes. In an oven it would take two to three hours or more. I don’t necessarily cook it the day it’s bought so it’s marinated and frozen, then thawed and cooked. So effectively the marination is happening before and after freezing, about a couple of hours. And scientists also say that puncturing meat to make the marinade penetrate gives not only an uneven result, with some parts turning mushy and some remaining tough, but also makes the meat dryer by losing juices while cooking. That’s probably true when baking or roasting in an oven, but not this way, in the closed cooker. Added water and the steam it generates also help pressurised penetration of flavours.

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POT ROAST

(Serves 4)

1 shoulder of mutton (less fibrous than leg)

2 tbsp vegetable oil

2 tbsp fresh lime juice

10 cloves garlic

10 cloves

Salt

2 tbsp vegetable oil

5-6 peppercorns

1 tsp vegetable oil

1 tsp butter

1 tbsp all-purpose flour

Pierce meat all over with tip of knife. Rub in mixed oil and lime juice. Insert cloves and garlic cloves into pierced slits. Refrigerate, covered, in non-metal container for 2-3 hours, turning occasionally. Rub in salt. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a wide pan, add peppercorns and then meat. Brown on high heat, pressing down with a spatula until nicely coloured. Turn and repeat. Transfer to a pressure cooker, add 1 cup water, close with weight and cook on high heat. After full pressure is reached, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. When steam subsides, remove shoulder to serving dish. In a pan used for browning, make sauce by gently heating 1 tsp oil and butter and sprinkling with flour. Stir continuously till brown. Add cooking liquid from cooker and simmer, stirring, for five minutes. Serve with meat, caramelised onions and vegetables.