The best meals create magic with colours and the simplest flavours

Some of us like chillies for the bite and sharpness they give to food. A lot is published about the heat that different varieties contain, measured in SHU (Scoville Heat Units), by a process of dilution that notes how many times a chilli has to be diluted with sugar and water before it becomes completely bland, when its spicy heat is absolutely imperceptible.

The Carolina Reaper is the hottest variety known. Others of the same variety grown in separate pots in the same nursery don’t have exactly the same measure of capsaicinoids, the element that gives fiery heat, because there are a million different factors that affect the burning power. But while the fiery heat is an acquired taste, the colour is universally popular and so chillies like Hungarian paprika are used in the West for their colour; the flavour so mild as to be unnoticeable to the Asian palate. And our Kashmiri red chillies are similar — we use them for their colour and the rich redness they impart to the food they’re added to.

The other day we had an impromptu dinner at Alka and Tony’s. Both of them are discerning eaters, which is why even an unplanned meal was so good that it was memorable. Alka was travelling but obviously the household is so organised and systems so well entrenched that the evening was perfect.

We started with shammi kababs, made as if by a proficient housewife from Lucknow: crisp and brown outside, tender and falling to pieces within.

With a sharp green chutney of fresh dhaniya, coriander, and green chillies, dinner was a green veg — and Alka’s green vegetables are truly green and fresh, deep golden-brown yellow arhar dal, and red chicken curry. The dal was tempered with an abundance of garlic and red chillies. Somehow, though it sounds simple enough, the consistency of the dal and its co-mingling with ghee and spices was better than what my kitchen produces.

And the chicken was something I’ve never eaten before. It was cooked with only ghee, red chillies and salt, but the flavour had a richness that belied its simplicity. There wasn’t a visible gravy, just reddish gold ghee, with an occasional streak of deep red, the tattered remnant of a red chilli.

The meat was so buttery soft that it was only just on the bone. When one talks of the tenderness of meats one means that they’re easy to cut with a fork. But this was different: the texture had changed. There was no fibre and it wasn’t pasty either. It was totally khasta — there is no English word I know for it, but it was the meat equivalent of short-crust pastry. The colour was deep and luminous and there was a mild bite from the chillies that one felt at the back of one’s throat, not a sharp fire that burnt the tongue.

Later I spoke to Alka and she said that they usually make it with mutton, not chicken, though it’s a traditional Rajasthani shikaar recipe that is made with game and salt, ghee and chillies, the only non-perishable ingredients that are always to hand when away on a hunt.

After dinner Tony asked for papad. He said it was the normal ending to a Rajasthani meal and baraats had been known to leave if it came earlier. This came roasted crisp, golden speckled with brown, brushed generously with melted ghee and sprinkled with red chillies. Red and gold are definitely the best colours.

JUNGLI MAAS

(Serves 6)

15-20 whole dry red Kashmiri chillies, 250g ghee, 1 kg mutton on the bone, cut into gol boti for curry, Salt

Prepare chillies: break off stems, shake out seeds and tear the bigger chillies into two. Heat ghee just until it melts but isn’t smoking hot. Add washed mutton pieces, add chillies and cook over medium heat for a few minutes until mutton is coated with ghee and has barely changed colour. Stir in salt. Add enough water to cover the meat and to last through the cooking process: about an hour. Keep covered, on low heat, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender. In the process if the water looks like it’s drying up, boil and add a little more because the finished dish should not be dry and roast-like, but a golden stew in a ‘gravy’ of ghee and softened red chillies.

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