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!
(adapted from The Turmeric Trail by Raghavan Iyer; serves 2-3)
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
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
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.