I’ve never turned over a leaf yet that didn’t have a price tag on the other side…our aromatic Pandan though speechless, goes priceless…
Pandan leaf – a sugarcane leaf look-alike, of which fresh is preferred but frozen is plenty in supermarkets – has quite a story to reveal.
It has many uses, of which the most admired ones include steaming it with fish and meats in it and flavouring rice preparations with knots of these leaves. On my recent trip to Lucknow I met a Unani hakim who introduced me to the leaf of the kewra tree and told me that it goes well in biryanis and rice preparations when steeped in the yakhni or the broth. I smelled the leaf and my food memory transported me to Singapore where I had a pandan cake 10 years back. Lo and behold! Pandan didn’t seem alien anymore. It was a just the leaf of our kewra plant, and a relationship was prompted in no time. It is scientifically proven that the flavour-giving compound of basmati and pandan are actually the same. Are you surprised? So was I, when I encountered this truth.
But hey, there’s more to the pandan story. Pandan grows all across South East Asia and many other parts of the world. Yet nobody else, but we – the classic Indians (as I say) – thought of using the flowers for ittar that can be used in food all the way from Delhi to Hyderabad through Lucknow. Another trivia to keep you connected to pandan – the pandan flowers and leaves were thrown in wells to mildly perfume the drinking water. In the mango belt, whole sacks of mangoes used to be dipped in these wells to infuse them with this perfume to impress the Taluqdars and Nawabs. The use of science of infusion at its best, right?
So next time just take the leaf off the shelf and boil it with your rice, it will be a great introduction to a wonderful ingredient. To make the deal more interesting, pandan solves skin problems, arthritis issues and strengthens gums. Being a chef at first-string hotels undoubtedly offers many perks. Quintessential among them stands the acquaintances with the ‘food in vogue’. The latest food trends and the “in” ingredients come to your doorsteps via keen purveyors. It counsels the hotel chef of the latest “power ingredients” that are moving in the market or will soon enough moves in the market.
Of late, various forms of paprika (deghi mirch) seem to be that power ingredient arriving with its various shades and spiciness. Hungarian paprika has made good inroads into a country that produces the most chillies in the world. The Rising Star Award however has to go to the ‘Spanish Smoked paprika or Pimenton’ – a sweet deep flavour that gets enhanced by the smokiness imparted during smoke drying as opposed to sun drying.
Yet, to your surprise, this is not about either Spain or Hungary; this is about a small village 30kms outside of Jodhpur. On the way to the Osian desert, there stands a small village of Mathania. I was introduced to this beauty of the ‘Mathania chilli’ by Mot Singh, a cook to the royal family of Jodhpur. While making laal maas, he used Mathania chilli paste and bet with me that his laal maas would be redder and sweeter than mine (I was trying it with the Kashmiri deghi mirch). Needless to say, I lost the bet, but gained a lot of respect for this small village.
Mathania mirch is indeed the reddest and the sweetest chilli that I have ever cooked in India. One could easily replace the “Half-sharp Hungarian” paprika with this fleshy and low Scoville chilli from the desert.
Oh, here stands another reason why you should only use Mathania red in your laal maas – according to a report by Central Arid Zone research Institute, Mathania chilli is on the verge of extinction! The best way to keep it alive is to use it, and trust me you will be amazed with the results it delivers.
Considering that chilli came to India through the Portuguese only in 1498 and either travelled upwards from Goa or eastwards from the middle-east to reach Rajasthan… How dated does that make the laal maas? … That’s a conversation for another time I guess!