Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Melting the masala

Let’s look at how to make the basic tomato-onion masala that forms the flavor base of a wide range of North Indian/Southern Pakistani dishes, especially Panjabi dishes. I call this making the ‘Masala Melt.’ This is when you take wet aromatic ingredients such as onions, ginger, garlic, green chiles, and tomatoes, and you fry them for a long time until the moisture evaporates from them and the oil separates from the ingredients. Dry masalas such as whole and/or powdered spices are usually added to the Masala Melt. We don’t have anything equivalent to this in American cooking. Cooking onions this way goes far beyond our more common technique of caramelization.  But this technique is integral in producing authentic North Indian dishes. So, how do you make a Masala Melt? Start with finely chopped onions. Depending on the recipe, you may have to fry whole spices (khara or sabut masala) along with your onions. Add these to oil in a deep pot on high heat. When the onions have lost a bit of moisture, turn down the heat and saute them for a while until they are translucent, very soft, and almost falling apart, but not browning. If they are browning, you need to lower the flame. They shouldn’t start to brown too early or your onions will burn before the process is done. When the onions start to turn golden in color, you can add in your ginger, garlic, and chile pastes. Let this cook until the garlic and ginger are golden, too. By now, everything should be crispy looking and your onions should have taken on a reddish brown color. This indicates that all of the moisture has evaporated from them and they are properly fried. Now, turn up the heat and add in any powdered spices required for your recipe. Immediately after tossing in the spices, and before anything starts to burn, add in the tomatoes. The tomatoes should be chopped into fairly small chunks or roughly pureed in a food processor. You may also add salt at this point. Continue to fry the masala on high heat, stirring frequently until the tomatoes have ‘melted’ into a thick paste. The oil should rise to the top of the masala paste, and this masala paste should be slightly sticking to the pan. You now have a Masala Melt. The fried onions should have completely broken down in your Masala Melt and should no longer be visible. With some recipes, such as Rajma, Daal Makhani, Chola Masala, or some other lentil dishes, you will pour the Masala Melt into a pot of pre-cooked lentils. For some dishes, like Baingan Bharta, you will add cooked eggplant to the Masala Melt. You can also add various types of meat and use your Masala Melt as the base of a curry.

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