With its beautiful blue, intricately designed, padded cover, From India: Food, Family & Tradition by Kumar and Suba Mahadevan is a cookbook worth coveting.
I’m a big fan of the Mahadevan’s work. We’ve visited their first restaurant, Abhi’s in the Sydney suburb of Concord, for a number of years. We’ve taken friends there, celebrated birthdays there, consumed festival banquets there, and it’s fair to say we’ve never been disappointed by a meal. We’ve dined at its higher-end sibling, Aki’s, and I’ve ripped Kumar’s recipes out of newspapers, so it’s about time that they pulled their finger out and published a cookbook!
When you have a copy of this sturdy, cushioned, hardback in hand, it’s clear it was no rushed job. And as you read the recipes and thoughtful narrative it’s also clear why it wasn’t. There’s a lot of heart and soul in this book: from Kumar’s dedication to his family — “my ‘Patti’ grandmother, who lay the foundation for my culinary journey, my amma for pampering my palate, and my appa for all his guidance and support” — to the photographs of the young, bashful couple on their wedding day, and forever smiling together after that.
I read the book over several evenings before having the opportunity to cook from it. The recipes, and photography by Mark Roper, stoked such an appetite for Indian food that I cooked three dishes from it at the first opportunity.
At Abhi’s we never fail to order Kumar’s version of palak patta chaat — an Indian street snack comprising spinach leaves fried in light batter, piled high, then drizzled with yoghurt, tamarind and coriander and tomato chutneys.
Kumar shares his recipe. It’s time consuming to make three different chutneys, but it’s worth it. However, I suspect it will take me quite a few attempts before I come anywhere close to mastering this superb dish.
Kumar’s lamb biryani — with 21 ingredients, half of which are spices — is also well worth the time and effort. His precise method and timing turned out perfectly cooked, spice-pungent rice strewn with nuggets of soft lamb.
Mysore chilli chicken curry had a pleasant sweetness from the addition of grated coconut, which balanced the chilli kick.
Interesting insights into Indian cuisine are included alongside some recipes, most — but not all — of which have accompanying and quite breathtaking photographs. A stylist with an eye for detail and fabulous colours had fun with this project.
The written recipes aren’t always consistent: sometimes measurements are converted to cups, sometimes not, but they turn out dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indian banquet.
My biggest gripe is that Kumar doesn’t share his recipe for butter chicken: but given that it’s hands down the best in Sydney, that’s not surprising!
The yield of each dish is usually given as “serves 6 as part of a shared meal” — so readers may want to reduce quantities in some cases.
But my advice would be to go the whole hog: invite a group of friends and cook up a multi-dish feast — just like Kumar would.
Palak Patta Chaat (Serves 6 as a starter)
Fried spinach leaves
150 g (51/2 oz/11/4 cups)
chickpea flour (besan)
50 g (13/4 oz) rice flour
½ teaspoon red chilli powder
2 teaspoons salt
peanut or canola oil, for deep-frying
1 bunch English spinach, leaves picked, washed and patted dry (you will need about 20 leaves)
Mint & coriander chutney
½ bunch mint, leaves picked
1 bunch coriander (cilantro), roughly chopped
4 long green chillies, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated ginger
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Date & tamarind chutney
30 g (1 oz) pitted dates, chopped
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon grated palm sugar (jaggery)
2½ teaspoons ground cumin
Tomato chilli chutney
2 ripe tomatoes
4 long red chillies, chopped
2½ teaspoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
260 g (91/4 oz/1 cup) Greek-style yoghurt
1 tablespoon caster (superfine) sugar
100 g (31/2 oz) sebago potato, boiled until tender, peeled, then diced
125 g (41/2 oz) tinned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons chopped coriander (cilantro)
To make the fried spinach leaves, first make the batter. Combine the flours, chilli powder and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre, then gradually add 290 ml (10 fl oz) of water and whisk until smooth. Cover and set aside until required.
To make the mint and coriander chutney, put all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl, cover and set aside until required.
To make the date and tamarind chutney, combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan, add 80 ml (21/2 fl oz/1/3 cup) of water and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until the dates have softened. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding the solids. Cool, then cover and set aside until required.
To make the tomato chilli chutney, score a shallow cross in the base of the tomatoes. Put in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds, then transfer to cold water and peel the skin away from the cross. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon and discard. Roughly dice the flesh, combine with the chilli and paprika in a small saucepan over low heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes or until soft. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, discarding the liquid. Cool, then cover and set aside until required.
To make the yoghurt dressing, heat a small frying pan over medium–high heat, add the cumin and dry-fry for about 30 seconds, shaking the pan regularly. Put the yoghurt and sugar in a bowl, add the cumin and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until required.
When you’re ready to serve, fry the spinach leaves. To do this, heat about 10 cm (4 inches) of oil in a deep-fryer or large saucepan to 180°C (356°F) or until a cube of bread turns golden brown in 15 seconds. Dip the spinach leaves, one at a time, into the batter, shaking off any excess, and deep-fry, in batches, until crisp and golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.
To serve, divide the fried spinach leaves among plates, scatter with the potato and chickpeas, spoon over a little yoghurt dressing, then top with 1 teaspoon of each of the chutneys. Sprinkle with the coriander and serve immediately.