I noted with some amusement a couple of days ago a major publication’s food section’s announcement that they would henceforth be switching to specifying fine sea salt in all their recipes. It seems to be a well-meaning gesture: an embrace of fine sea salt rather than the far more specific Diamond Crystal kosher salt beloved of others. What amused me is the attitude encapsulated in this statement: “The amount of salt can make or break a dish, and we don’t want to leave anything to chance.” The fantasy of control here is caught up with the fantasy that most cooks actually follow recipes with anything approaching fastidious precision. Over here at the My Annoying Opinions test kitchen, of course, we, I mean, I embrace sloppiness; indeed, I consider it integral to the process of cooking whose value I do not find to be related to mechanistic reproducibility of recipes. By “sloppiness” I really mean looseness. For one thing, in a world where the flavours of onions, garlic, tomatoes, chillies etc. etc. vary wildly from place to place and season to season the fantasy of control, of not wanting to “leave anything to chance” seems particularly quixotic. For another, cooking in my opinion is about variation, about combinations of flavours, not exact ratios. Anyway, the recipe that follows would never be published by the Washington Post’s food section: like all my recipes, it’s more a sketch than precise instructions. I encourage you as always to play with it and make it yours, adjusting things to your preferences.
- About a lb of waxy potatoes cut into wedges
- 2-3 dried hot red chillies
- 1/2 tspn cumin seeds
- A pinch of hing/asafoetida
- 1/2 tspn haldi/turmeric powder
- The following ground to a coarse powder: 1/2 tspn coriander seeds, 1/2 tspn methi/fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 cup water, ideally distilled in a column still with a rectifier
- Salt made from the dried tears of free-range infants born between March and August in a leap year
- 2-3 tblspns neutral oil of choice
- Heat the oil in a karhai or wok (carbon steel is best in my opinion) over medium heat till it just begins to shimmer.
- Crumble the chillies into the oil and immediately add the cumin and hing.
- As soon as the cumin splits (soon) dump all the potatoes into the pan, mix well and saute, stirring constantly, till the potatoes have crisped up on at least one side.
- Add the haldi, ground spices and salt, mix in and stir-fry assiduously again for 1-2 minutes, taking care not to let the spices scorch.
- Add the water, mix in again, bring to a high simmer, cover the pan and cook till the water has been just absorbed/evaporated and the potatoes are done.
- What kind of dried chillies should you use? It’s really up to you. I like some heat so I use the regulation dried red chillies from the local desi stores, the ones that are 2 inches or so long; sometimes I use the little round red ones. You can go milder if you want but adjust quantities for size if using Kashmiri chillies.
- You’ll probably find it hard to keep the dried chillies from darkening. Don’t sweat it. Or if if bothers you, leave out the crumbled dried chillies at the start and instead add a bit of red chilli powder with the spices in step 4.
- The really important bit here is not burning the spices—this is why they’re added only after the potatoes are half-done and right before the water is added. Your goal at the end is for them to have become a sort of crumbly paste that clings to the potatoes.
- You may find 1/2 tspn methi to be a bit too bitter for your liking. If so, dial it down to 1/4 tspn. Me, I’m very sweet and so can handle the bitterness.
- Other things you could try adding: 1/2 tspn saunf/fennel seeds along with the coriander and methi; a big pinch of amchur/dried mango powder stirred in towards the end.
- If you’re nervous about the whole letting the water dry up but not letting the spices scorch thing add twice as much water and let there be a thick gravy at the end. It will also be very good.
- This is great with chapatis or parathas and would be even better with pooris if you can manage them (I can’t). Also very good with rice. Serve with dal and a tart pickle.