Featured Country of the month: India

I had loads of suggestions for countries through Instagram this month, so thank you to everyone who submitted one. Ordinarily, I opt for countries outside of Asia in order to mix things up a bit with my cooking but I decided to let the majority rule on this one and feature the country that was most frequently suggested: India.


The very first dishes I ever learned how to cook were curries and my love for Indian cooking has only increased. This has presented an unusual challenge for this month as I wanted to explore dishes I had not attempted before - if it seems like the obvious dishes to do are missing, this will be why! If you want to learn how to make Butter Chicken, Garlic Naan Bread and Pilau rice for example - book yourself in for a Delhi Dinner Group Class!


Like most countries as large as India - referring to the cuisine as a whole does not do justice to the huge amount of regional variety on offer. The North of India is well suited to agriculture and so the curries tend to feature a lot of meat and dairy - the dishes you would expect to eat in the North would be heavier curries like Rojan Josh or Butter Chicken, served with Naan breads and yoghurts. By contrast, the South of India is coastal and therefore makes greater use of the ocean, featuring seafood and lots of coconut. The curries in the South of India aren’t as saucy - for example Biryani is very popular. The South is also well known for Dosas (I considered trying to make Dosas for a second time in my life but the first batch were so disappointing I decided against it), and the food tends to be much spicier as well.


Another reason I was happy to go with India was because I knew it would be a good opportunity to get some more use out of my Dishoom cookbook which I purchased earlier in the year. Now... I KNOW this is going to be controversial and I apologize to any fanatics out there but I feel like it needs to be said.. I don’t love it.


I know, I know - I’m SORRY. I wanted to love this book, I really did, but I just don’t. The main issue I found throughout is that the time invested in each of the dishes does not see the pay off I would want. Some of these recipes demand hours and hours and the results are just not delicious enough to warrant it. When I compare the results with some of my most trusted Indian cookbooks (see - anything by Meera Sodha), I get better results for less effort.


I wanted to preface this because I know the following sections are going to read like a massive dig at Dishoom which is not what I intended. I was disappointed with the results and instead of trying to cover this up, I would rather just be honest and say that I don’t recommend it as a cookbook. I don’t doubt that the food served up in Dishoom restaurants is incredible, but this does not translate well through the cookbook.



Matar Paneer (with homemade Paneer) served with Kachumber

About

Matar Paneer is a quintessential North Indian dish, making use of plenty of dairy. It is a tomato based curry with green peas and paneer.


India is one of very few Asian countries to make use of cheese in cooking but there are a couple of things that make paneer a bit different. Firstly, it is traditionally made using buffalo milk, although nowadays it is normal for a combination of cow and buffalo to be used, with the buffalo milk producing a creamier cheese. Secondly, most cheese is made using rennet which is an enzyme obtained from the stomachs of unweaned calves (who knew?!). The rennet is vital for coagulating the cheese which firms it up and makes it solid. The process of making paneer is different in that the milk is curdled using lemon juice or vinegar - the result is a soft cheese which can be formed into blocks but won’t crumble or melt when cooked.


What happened?

I decided to make my own paneer. I knew it was a relatively simple thing to do and it was! I followed Meera Sodha’s instructions from ‘Made in India’ - simply bring a litre of whole milk to the boil and then split it with lemon juice. The remaining liquid, or ‘whey’ is discarded and the curd that is left is wrapped in muslin (or a tea towel in my case) and left to drain with a heavy object on top (similar to making labneh). It only takes a few hours for the cheese to firm up and I was very happy with the result when I unwrapped mine. Fresh paneer is more liable to being a bit crumbly than the solid stuff you get in the supermarket but the pay off in texture was worth it as it was notably creamier.


Now to the main event - the Matar Paneer. This was one of the Dishoom recipes that I used that I found to be incredibly lengthy for the end results - it also featured a pet peeve of mine in cookbooks where there are recipes within recipes that have to be followed on different pages. You can’t just list an entire recipe as ONE ingredient?!


This recipe went a step further and had a recipe within a recipe within a recipe.. I was not impressed. This would be absolutely fine if you were running a restaurant and had batches of all these various components already made up - but as a homecook, it irked me. Having said that, if the end product had wowed me, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this.

The paneer held up okay within the curry although, as you can see from the photos it did crumble a bit - giving the curry a less attractive bumpy appearance but it did taste good! I think it would be interesting to try making Matar Paneer again with a different recipe and fry the paneer first, before adding it to the curry.



Did you like it?

I did like it. I wasn’t wowed by it.


There was a really great depth of flavour that came from the time-consuming curry base but unfortunately it was overshadowed by how oily it was - I had to literally drain oil off the top of the curry when it was finished. Not sure if this was an error on my part or within the recipe (I have a sneaking suspicion I am not at fault given the reliability of a couple of other recipes I tried).


I served the dish, as was suggested with Kachumber - a salad which is kind of like an Indian salsa. The Kachumber did a really good job of cutting through the richness of the Matar Paneer and actually ended up being my favourite thing about the meal.

Marks out of 10: 6/10


Paratha

About

Paratha are a type of unleavened flatbread which are enjoyed in India equally at breakfast, lunch and dinner. They can come in the form of either layers of dough or can they be stuffed with various fillings like cheese or potato. The layered version is particularly flaky and buttery due to the many coatings of butter or ghee that is applied throughout the making of them - a health food snack it is not.

What happened?

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results. I will put my hands up here and say that I succumbed to a plight of paratha insanity on this occasion. I had attempted to make parathas once before and instead of following a different recipe or trying a different technique - I did exactly the same thing again and then was disappointed yet again with the results.


I followed the Dishoom recipe for making paratha and I am convinced they’ve missed out a step in the instructions. Making the dough was easy enough. I was also happy following their helpful step by step guide to folding the paratha in a concertina like fashion.

It then instructs that once you have rolled the concertina of dough into a pinwheel - ‘flatten slightly’ with your fingers - no further instructions are given before the lumps of dough are to be fried in the pan.


Intuitively I knew that this could not be the case as there is no way that the doughy lump I had sitting in front of me would cook through in a frying pan in only a few minutes. I flattened the dough out a bit more with a rolling pin but still ended up with thicker, doughier paratha than I had envisioned.


I wasn’t going to make the same mistake three times so I did more research and instantly found that yes, the dough needs to be rested for 15 minutes once it has been rolled up into a pinwheel, and then it is flattened out using a rolling pin - duh. I tried this technique on my third attempt and - voila!! Flaky, delicious, buttery paratha.

Did you like it?

Third time was indeed the charm and I was very happy with my final attempt at paratha.

Marks out of 10: 8/10


Jalebi

About

Jalebi is a very popular sweet snack that is sold by street vendors all across India. Despite being one of India’s favourite sweet treats, Jalebi actually originated in the Middle East and was brought to India by Turkish and Perisan traders. It is now a staple at most Indian celebrations, whether it’s a festival or a wedding - there will always be Jalebi.


Jalebi is a batter that is piped into hot oil in a ‘swirl’ - it is deep fried until crispy and then soaked in a syrup which has been flavoured with cardamom and saffron.

What happened?

There are two different ways to make Jalebi batter - you can ferment it over a longer period of time, or you can make instant Jalebi by adding yoghurt into the mix. I opted for the latter and was pleased with how quickly you could produce these tasty little snacks. My first attempt at getting a perfect swirl was not a successful one - I could instantly see that the batter I had made was too thin and I ended up with just dots of batter floating across the surface of the oil. I added a bit more flour into the batter and had another go. This time, you guessed it - too thick! This second attempt produced a puffy swirl which was undercooked in the centre. Just like Goldilocks, I persevered and on attempt three I had created a batter that was just right.

Did you like it?

Overall I think the batter probably needed cooking a tad longer in order to get a truly crispy outside but other than that - I was chuffed! The Jalebi had soaked up a decent amount of the sugary syrup and were very pleasant to eat (although very sickly!).


Marks out of 10: 8/10


You can view all previous 'Country of the Month' articles HERE.


I’ll be asking for more suggestions through instagram again this month - if you don’t have instagram and want to suggest a country, just drop me an email: eatingwithailsa@gmail.com.

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