Saturday, July 08, 2006

Too Darned Hot: Mushroom Chettinad

When Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries announced that the theme this time around for her monthly "Spice is Right" event is It's too darned hot, with a focus on (what else but) chillies, I smiled to myself. Indian cuisine embraces its chillies, with nary a chilli-free savoury dish in sight.

Even so, some sub-cultures in India are famous for kicking up the heat to a whole 'nother level. For instance, Andhra cuisine uses chillies exuberantly (I once *wept* through a Andhra thali dinner at Bheema in Bangalore, and can't wait to go back for more), Kolhapuri cuisine is redolent with chillies and garlic (restaurants all over India serve what they call Kolhapuri-style dishes, the only common thread among these is lashings of chillies and garlic) and a relatively unknown cuisine known as Chettinad (from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu) that achieves its flavor from an intense combination of chillies and peppercorns.

My first taste of Chettinad food was in a rather unlikely location: a cafe adjoining a theatre in Bombay. At the time, I was living with my aunt Y (a regular reader of this blog) in Juhu, a swanky neighborhood in Bombay, and she gets all the credit for making me a culture vulture (to the modest extent that I am one, anyway). Y and I trooped over town to the theatre (both Marathi and English), museums, art galleries and fancy restaurants. We lived an envious life: we would shop till we dropped, snacking all the while, then come home and dine on pepsi and potato chips (this was a decade ago...now she has a kid to raise and I have a thesis to complete and that casually extravagant lifestyle seems nothing short of surreal). One of our favorite outings was a trip to the Prithvi Theatre to see the latest production, followed by a visit to the cafe for some snacks and the mandatory Irish coffee.

When I first tasted mushroom Chettinad at the Prithvi Cafe, it was a flavor explosion in my mouth. A burst of chillies and black pepper, mingling with the aroma of curry leaves and mustard seeds...I could not believe it! The taste was imprinted in my brain and has stayed with me for years. Traditional Chettinad cuisine, however, is very meat-oriented, and I never did get a chance to try my hand at making this dish. Until last week. I was reading The Turmeric Trail, a memoir-style cookbook by Raghavan Iyer (about the book: I liked the recipes but could not stand the prose) and came across a recipe for shrimp Chettinad. Just as I remembered, it called for a combination of peppercorns and chillies (a great deal of each), with a flavorful tempering of curry leaves and mustard seeds, counterbalanced with the tang of tamarind. I adapted the recipe to wild mushrooms bought fresh from the farmer's market, and the result was addictive, finger-licking good; but *very* hot, so you must sign a waiver if you want to try this recipe!

Mushroom Chettinad
(adapted from The Turmeric Trail by Raghavan Iyer; serves 2-3)
chettinad
Ingredients
3 cups mixed wild mushrooms (I used cremini, shitake, oyster), cleaned and chopped coarsely
1 tsp tamarind paste
salt to taste
cilantro, minced, for garnish
For tempering
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
5-6 fresh curry leaves
For spice mixture
1 tbsp split yellow peas (chana dal)
5-6 black peppercorns
2 dried red chillies

Method:
1. Roast all the ingredients for the spice mixture. Cool and grind in a spice/coffee grinder to a fine powder. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a skillet. Add the mustard seeds and curry leaves and stir around for a few seconds till the seeds pop.
3. Saute the mushrooms in the tempered oil. Season with salt.
4. When the mushrooms start sweating, add the spice mixture and saute for a couple of minutes on low-medium heat.
5. Add the tamarind paste (and a few tablespoons of water if the mixture starts sticking to the pan). Stir for a minute.
6. Garnish with cilantro. Serve hot with rotis or rice.

42 comments:

  1. Hi Nupur - I loved reading this, even if I'm not a fan of mushrooms! I am, though, tempted to try some variation of this dish after your hearty recommendation. I'm curious about the use of chana dal in the spice mixture. I made one of Indira's recipes that used a spice mixture that had a good amount of chana dal in it (actually chana dalia). Is the chana dal (or dalia) just to add bulk to the spice mixture or used this way is it actually considered a seasoning?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for stopping by, Cathy :) I think the use of chana dal (or the roasted version...dalia) has both purposes that you mention: it is used to bulk up the spice mixture and make it easier to grind it, and the dal also slightly thickens the resulting curry and makes the masala *stick* to the veggies, so it is a "mouthfeel" thing rather than seasoning I would say.
    I think sauteed cauliflower would go well with this spice mixture. not authentic, but who cares :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. hi nupur, what a wonderful mail.....really transformed me from this world to another utopian one....one filled with endless jabber , broad smiles and umpteen giggles, funfilled time with untold joys.....and of course ,lots of foodie moments ,too! i miss them all.[i'm sure our favourite joints miss us too and have issued 'wanted ' notices in our names....] but its great to relive some of the fun thru yr blog. thanx. long live an over enthu cook in a nyc kitchen with one hot stove ! all the best! luv, yoma.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nupur, this is going right to the top of my "must try" list. It sounds divine! I also have to say that I love your writing. You always capture experiences so vividly that I feel like I've been there myself or, at the very least, wish that I had been there. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Nupur,

    The chettinad looks great! I was interested to read that you didn't care for the prose in Turmeric Trail. I was very excited when I ordered that book from Amazon -- I usually love cookbooks with lots of history/stories etc. However, I agree with you on this one. Thanks for the recipe adaptation!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nupur,
    Just as I was wondering what to do with 2 trays of mushroom I have in the fridge - I see this post. I can completely relate to your "weeping through a meal" experience, as I've myself been thru' that many times.

    FYI, I'm signing the waiver :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nupur, I had tasted chicken chettinad long back, but never heard of mashroom chettinad. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh dear Prithvi :-( That and NCPA were me and my friends' favoritest haunts. On my last trip to India I made it a point to catch a play there just to relive the memories...a mushroom chettinad sounds so intriguing because I have never had a veggie dish made with that masala

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow! This looks great...I am going shopping tomorrow so will pick up some mushrooms and add it to this week's list of mthings to cook. Mmmmmmmmm...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Yoma, we certainly had some good times!!

    Susan, what a nice thing to say :) I hope the recipe works for you!

    Linda, yeah, I love cookbooks with memoirs too...there are some good ones out there.

    Faffer, you are brave :) Let me know if you like the result.

    Shilpa, yes, mushrooms go well with these spices.

    Ashwini, love love the NCPA/ tata theatre. I never seem to get the time to catch a play during my India trips...must do that next time.

    Diane, thanks for stopping by!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Now that seems like a really hot hot Combo...
    Had never really honestly heard of Mushroom chettinad...only chicken chetinaad...

    must try this!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Nupur, I got Turmeric Trail from the public library. But didn't try a single recipe. I think I will try your version of Mushroom Chettinad.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Nupur- some of the vegetarian recipes in that book come out very well. I am a chettinad cuisine lover but I am unable to find any restaurant that serves it even here in CA. I make soy chicken chettinad this way and may be you can try it next time.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Perspective, I find that mushrooms make a nice substitute for meats in many dishes. let me know if you try it!

    Hi Krithika, thanks for stopping by!

    Hi Mika, yeah, the recipes were quite good. I'd love to try fake chicken next time in this recipe. Thanks for the idea!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wow! Nupur, I think this will be a perfect mushroom recipe. I love mushrooms,but I only know the standard bhaji style. Thank you !

    ReplyDelete
  16. sounds assam . will try it and let u know. all though I think I am losing the ability to have too much spicy food. lets see.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hey Nupur,
    When you mentioned Mushroom chettinad, It immediately reminded me of a Sunday night early dinner at Prithvi Cafe and I had ordered the same. It was fingerlicking good, just that I thought there was a little too much coconut in it.
    I ate authentic chettinad food at a place called karaikudi in chennai with my husband in one of my trips there, and i almost licked off the plate. Especially the chettinad style potatoes-
    I must give your recipe a try
    Cheers
    N

    ReplyDelete
  18. Ok, I tried it and it was wonderful! I made just a little change. I roasted the spice mixture with one tbsp of oil, and used double the amount of split yellow peas than you suggested. The resulting mixture was still hot, but the additional chana dal certainly tempered the chillies and peppercorns. The spice was still able to react nicely with curry leaves and tamarind. Thanks for the recipe.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Nupur..Mushroom chittinad looks delicious. This surely will be my next mushroom recipe.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I would love to try this recipe with sauteed cauliflower as u mentioned as Iam not a fan of mushrooms!!!Thanks for posting this gr8 recipe!!!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Well, I finally got around to making this for dinner, and it was fabulous! I've never had chettinad food before and the taste is really surprising. I love hot food, so enjoyed snuffling my way through a tasty dinner. Thanks for posting this!

    ReplyDelete
  22. A Wonderful recipe Nupur. I'm sure I'll love it.

    ReplyDelete
  23. LG, Bilbo, thanks!

    Oh Nandita, Chettinad potatoes sound sooo good! I need to find some more Chettinad recipes.

    Anup, thanks for trying it, and for sharing your idea of using more chana dal to tone down the fire!

    Sudha, BDSN, let me know if you try it!

    Diane, yeah, snuffling thro' dinner can be fun once in a while, right :) thanks for trying the recipe!

    Thanks, Sowjanya!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Hi Nupur, I can't wait to try this. We love Indian food here, I can't seem to make it hot enough for my husband. You want that Sri Lanka hot? This was a fun challenge, I am enjoying reading everyones entries.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hi Nupur, I can't wait to try this. We love Indian food here, I can't seem to make it hot enough for my husband. You want that Sri Lanka hot? This was a fun challenge, I am enjoying reading everyones entries.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hi Nupur,
    Looks like a delicious recipe! Why is it necessary to add chana to the spice mixture, though? Also, could I sub in curry powder for curry leaves?

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi Nupur,
    The recipe sounds Fab! but i am not a mushroom fan, can i substitute any other veg with it? pl do suggest a few. THX! good luck in all u do....

    ReplyDelete
  28. Hi Nupur,

    Pl suggest any other vegetable that can be used instead of the mushroom. I'm looking fwd. to using the masala ( i thought it was meant for chicken only!!)

    Good luck in all u do... look fwd to ur response. Pallavi

    ReplyDelete
  29. uuuuu....i must try it....
    it must be a good dishes...

    ReplyDelete
  30. Hey Nupur,

    That's a lovely kitchen you have at home. Frankly speaking, I too like small kitchens, coz everything you need is close at hand- the spices, the cooking utensils, the dish cloth etc. Though it tends to get messed up very easily, it is also very user friendly.
    The chettinad mushroom dish looks delicious. Will definitely try it out. Back in Kerala(which is my father in law's native)mushrooms sprout up on their own during the rainy season. These mushrooms are then plucked and cooked into a spicy gravy that tastes wonderful with the Kerala red rice!
    Ps: What is your doctoral thesis about?All the best!

    Meenakshi at Pritya

    ReplyDelete
  31. Wow! I remember tripping into this site a year back, but unfortunately lost the link, and couldn't remember what it was called.....but lo and behold I find it today! And how it has grown!!!!!!

    As a person of Maharashtrian-extraction, born in the States, I gotta say you have given our peeps, as well as the Indian culture something great to talk about....FOOD!!!

    You really need to make your own cookbook....forget Madhur Jaffery!!!! The one thing I can say for you....thanks for such a lovely site, Ms. "Annapurna"!

    Good Luck in St. Louis!

    ReplyDelete
  32. Wow! I remember tripping into this site a year back, but unfortunately lost the link, and couldn't remember what it was called.....but lo and behold I find it today! And how it has grown!!!!!!

    As a person of Maharashtrian-extraction, born in the States, I gotta say you have given our peeps, as well as the Indian culture something great to talk about....FOOD!!! Thank you!

    You really need to make your own cookbook....forget Madhur Jaffery!!!! The one thing I can say for you....thanks for such a lovely site, Ms. "Annapurna"!

    Welcome to u and V (and Dale) in the Midwest.....Good Luck in St. Louis!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Wow! I remember tripping into this site a year back, but unfortunately lost the link, and couldn't remember what it was called.....but lo and behold I find it today! And how it has grown!!!!!!

    As a person of Maharashtrian-extraction, born in the States, I gotta say you have given our peeps, as well as the Indian culture something great to talk about....FOOD!!! Thank you!

    You really need to make your own cookbook....forget Madhur Jaffery!!!! The one thing I can say for you....thanks for such a lovely site, Ms. "Annapurna"!

    Welcome to u and V (and Dale) in the Midwest.....Good Luck in St. Louis!

    ReplyDelete
  34. Hi Nupur,

    Your post about Irish coffee at Prithvi sent me rushing down memory lane. What times! Incidentally I tried your recipe for carrot halwa- and it turned out really great!

    Good luck with your thesis- I just finished mine last year and my husband's working on his... I feel your pain!

    Maya.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Hi Nupur,

    Your post about Irish coffee at Prithvi sent me rushing down memory lane. What times! Incidentally I tried your recipe for carrot halwa- and it turned out really great!

    Good luck with your thesis- I just finished mine last year and my husband's working on his... I feel your pain!

    Maya.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Hi Nupur,

    I just came across your blog yesterday & I had to compliment you!! Its fantastic.. the pics make me wanna try every recipe :)

    I'm a college student here in the US & am sure will impress my roomies with your recipes :D
    Though I am not Maharashtrian, I've lived most of my life in Pune & love Marathi food, so I especially like the A-Z series :)

    I just had to bookmark your site & have recommended it to my friends. Thank you so much for putting together all these great recipes.
    Good luck with your thesis & everything else...

    Cheers,
    Shilpa.

    ReplyDelete
  37. hi Nupur,
    just one quickie...can i substitute button mushrooms instead of the 3 u have mentioned in the recipe??

    ReplyDelete
  38. i made this with fewer peppercorns to get a medium hot taste...

    thanks nupur , twas a hit with my guests and family!

    ReplyDelete
  39. First of all Chettinad is being used even if it is not originally chettinad in nature and taste :) Onething that everyone should know about chettinad receipes is, it has good amount of healthy ingredients and rich in pepper usage than chillies. This is where it differs from Andhra style spicy cooking.

    Well another important point to note is Chettinad cooking has good number of vegeterian dishes that ain't popular for unknown reasons. I can challenge that there are 100s of veg varieties than handful of meat varities that are made in Chettinad. I feel I can authentically mention this as I'm a chettiar and from Chettinad.
    This is not to dispute with any views but create awareness, that's all :)

    ReplyDelete
  40. Tried this dish today. Although extremely spicy, yummy NO DOUBT!! Thanks alot

    ReplyDelete
  41. Tried this dish today with one red chili and it tasted fantastic. Going to keep this recipe. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for taking the time to say hello!