How does one serve up a meal that’s familiar, yet different?
“And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.” No one can say it like the Bard, but while I love his poetry, I differ with the sentiment. Sweets grown common give us dearer delight. Of course we want the occasional Asian or Mediterranean meal but sometimes we want food that’s different yet familiar; food that’s a change from the everyday, yet not radically so. Maybe I need to explain this apparently garbled thought. Whenever Bunty visits, I ask her what I should make for dinner. Whether or not she’s joining us, she gives the matter full attention because she knows a housewife with a crew of trenchermen has to figure this out three times a day. She understands that if the family’s had two successive Indian meals they need variety, and also that I am in no mood to go sweat in the kitchen so the menu has to be something that can be directed from an armchair. So she frowns slightly and says something like: do you have qeema? Do you have mutton? That’s it, then. Shepherd’s Pie it is. Or Irish Stew then. Just make a nice fresh salad on the side. And she gets it; she knows exactly what fits the bill. Possibly because we’ve both been brought up with the same food — even though by mothers from different parts of the country. As now she and I feed our kids the same stuff. We’ve both added to our repertoires, our exposure is different from our mums’, but we both have the same concerns. More important, we have the same tastes. She knows that sushi isn’t going to hit the spot — if indeed I could make it — and alu methi with moong ki dal will make the kids run away screaming. We’re looking for a meal that’s different yet familiar.
The composer Alex North said, “I like what I hear as a resulting combination of these two strands… something of a combination of familiarity and, for lack of a better word, strangeness.” So the Shepherd’s Pie is qeema and alu — mince and potatoes — yet it looks different and tastes different. It has some of the same ingredients as desi qeema alu, some different. Even without an oven I can “bake” it in the microwave oven. In any case, with our Indian palates, we’re not going to enjoy blandness. So onions, garlic and ginger are part of the recipe. I might eschew turmeric and cardamom because this is ‘angrezi khana’ but a couple of cloves and peppercorns are necessary; as good Hindustanis we like our qeema sautéed brown so anything less well done is not an option — much less steak tartare. When cooking qeema for an Indian meal I sometimes add cauliflower, green beans, peas or potatoes. But potatoes in a Shepherd’s Pie are different. Mashed with butter and milk and mixed with grated cheese, the top layer, browned with buttered breadcrumbs or not, is as delicious as the mince base. After the mince has been browned with the usual spices, the boiled and mashed potatoes are spread over it in a heatproof Pyrex dish and the whole thing microwaved for about five minutes. Then dry breadcrumbs mixed in butter are sprinkled on it and grilled for another couple of minutes. Every time it appears on the table, the sight and smell of that buttery golden yellow potato layer atop the red-brown base of spicy mince makes the household sigh with contentment.
So I can’t agree with George Sand, no stranger to experiment and experience herself, when she says, “Admiration and familiarity are strangers”. I admire that pie because I’m familiar with how it tastes, and because it always hits the spot.
Irish stew is a childhood favourite, particularly in winter, with new potatoes and orange “English” carrots. But I’m sure it was made in summer too because I remember small baby tindas, round or apple gourds. I remember my first time cooking it, when I didn’t realise how hot the oil was and scorched the flour. Instead of binning it I served it for dinner. Then I discovered a foolproof recipe. The traditional recipe has that beautiful smell that only flour browned in butter can give, but this one is lighter and as interesting, the vegetables like colourful plump gems — juicy green tindas, smooth yellow potatoes and sweet little onions each add a distinct taste and texture to the smooth brown stew.
Irish Stew (Serves 4)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp peppercorns
1/2 kg mutton foreleg pieces with bone
2 tbsp tomato purée
6 small onions, peeled
6 small new potatoes, peeled
2 medium carrots, halved, cut into 1 1/2 inch thick pieces or 6 small tindas, scraped
11/2 tbsp flour
Method: Heat oil in a pressure cooker. Add peppercorns and cloves, followed by mutton. Sauté on medium heat till mutton is light brown, stirring frequently. Add salt, tomato purée and three cups water. Seal pressure cooker, raise heat until full pressure is reached. After “whistle”, lower heat and simmer about 10-15 minutes, till meat is almost completely tender.
Remove from heat. When steam subsides, open pressure cooker and add vegetables, cover pressure cooker with a lid and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes, till cooked.
Shake 1/4 cup water with flour in tightly covered container, then gradually stir into stew in cooker. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for one minute.