Friday, February 13, 2009

Dastarkhwaan e Hyderabaad: Mirchi ka saalan

Delicious with basmati rice.
Saalan simply means a wet gravy, a "curry," if you will. The word saalan is mainly used in Muslim Indo-Pak cooking, despite it being a Sanskrit origin word. Non-Muslim Hindi speakers are more apt to use the word tari or rassa. However, mirchi ka saalan has gained fame across India and in Pakistan as well, though it is a specialty of the South Indian city of Hyderabad.

I find this dish a very cumbersome to cook because you have to "bhunofy" the gravy for a long time to get the best taste. You also have to lightly fry the peppers separately. And you have to prepare the tamarind water. Tamarind water is made simply by soaking a 3 inch chunk of tamarind pulp in about a cup of warm water for an hour, then straining out the seeds and fibers and reserving the remaining water. You should also have bhuni hui pyaaz (reddish-brown fried onions) done and set aside. Plus you have to roast the sesame seeds and peanuts by stirring them around for a few minutes in a hot pan until they get a little color, then allow them to cool before grinding. Oh, and you should have fresh shredded coconut on hand (I buy it at the desi grocer and keep it in the freezer). So you see, this is not a dish to cook on a whim. But if you prepare for it, it is a delicious, rich, and luxurious dish.

You can make yours with a dryer gravy, as is sometimes found in pan-Indian restaurants, but you can also make it more liquid if you like. A liquid gravy is more traditional. Depending on what kind of food processor, blender, or mixie you have, you may end up with a grainy coconut-peanut-sesame mixture. Go ahead and fry as usual, but you can blend it or use the stick blender once you have added the yoghurt and then water, but before you add the tamarind. It should be slightly grainy but not unevenly grainy or chunky.

I have had this dish in Hyderabadi homes containing whole or chopped mirch, and even the addition of a few other vegetables in the saalan. Pictured is a mirchi ka saalan gravy I made with chile peppers, long green eggplant, and cauliflower. You can use any kind of larger, "sweet" chile pepper, (try the Hatch Chile in late summer in the USA) but in desparation, you may substitute bell pepper. Although this deviates from the traditional mirchi ka saalan, I have also seen this dish served with the chiles stuffed with seasoned paneer as sort of a modern and fancy touch. So there is some leeway for variation with this dish.

You can see the cut chiles, long green eggplant, and cauliflower.

You need:
8-10 large green chile peppers, other veg like eggplant, cauliflower, optional.
1 brown fried onion, crushed
1/4 cup white sesame seeds pan toasted
1/4 cup peanuts pan toasted
3 tbs fresh shredded coconut
1 tsp roasted white poppy seeds (khashkhaash - Toast whole seeds in hot pan till lightly browned, allow to cool, then grind. Do 2 cups at a time and freeze it to use as needed. Don't store in cupboard because it goes rancid.)
1 tsp red chile powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tbs garlic ginger paste
1/2 cup yoghurt
2 cups water (or more for desired thickness)
1/2 cup tamarind water
1 tsp salt or to taste
3 tbs oil

Baghaar (tempering) of 2-3 tbs oil plus 1 tsp mustard seeds, 6 curry leaves, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds, 1/2 tsp nigella seeds

Make a length wise slit in each chile. Lightly shallow fry in a pan just to partially cook, and set aside. Lightly fry your cauliflower florets or eggplant cut into 2-3 inch thick chunks, should you be using them. Keep aside.

Finely grind coconut, toasted sesame seeds, and toasted peanuts in a food processor. Don't over grind or you will end up with a nut butter.

Heat oil, add in the ginger garlic paste, caramelized onions, then dry spices, and allow to sizzle for a moment until the ginger garlic is cooked. Add in the coconut-sesame-peanut mixture, plus the khashkhaash, and fry well, stirring constantly for a few minutes. You may need to add a little bit of water to this to aid the frying process. As always in desi cooking, you are looking for the oil to rise to the top of your paste to indicate that the ingredients have properly cooked. Now, turn off the flame and add in the yoghurt. Stir and stir letting the oil once again rise to the top of the mixture. Turn on the heat and flame and keep stirring. Now add the 1 cup water, and salt. Stir and fry and fry and stir and stir and fry until the mixture is dry and well "bhunofied." The oil will separate from the gravy and float to the top when the gravy is done. Add more water as needed.

When the gravy is done, add in the tamarind water and fry for just a few more moments. At this point, add some water. You can add more or less water for a thicker or runnier gravy. Allow it to boil again and stir until the oil rises on top of the liquid. Taste for salt because the ingredients soak up a lot of salt and you may need to add more. After adding salt as desired, you're getting close to the end. Add in the fried chile peppers (and other veg if you are using it), stir around gently, and cover for about 5 minutes on low heat to finish their cooking. Cook until they are done. But take care not to let them fall apart and turn into mush. Before serving, add the baghaar (see below). To serve, put in a platter or serving dish where the mirchi/veg shows.

For the final baghaar: Heat 1 tbs oil then add all of the seeds. When the mustard seeds pop, add in the curry leaves and fry briefly. Immediately pour this over the saalan.

Phew, that was a heck of a lot of trouble and now my arm is tired from the stirring and bhunofying and trying to achieve the correct texture. But dang that is good stuff. How can you go wrong with peanuts, sesame, and coconut? Serve with rice or hot naan! Or Hyderabadi biryani, of course.

*Option: you can make this dish as baghaare baingan by cutting small round eggplants, or slitting them in four pieces which are intact at the stem, briefly frying, set aside, and add to the gravy as you would the chiles.


The Gori Wife said...

Sometimes I think Pakistani cooking is SO complicated! Like nihari/haleem - why all those toppings? Why not just throw it in the dish & serve? And briyani? Seriously? Layers? Why not just rice & chicken served separately? I mean, I love it, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I have to dirty 3 or 4 different pots or pans just to cook one thing!

Di said...

I've been collecting mirch ka saalan recipes, and have yet to try my hand at it. I really enjoyed reading your etymology of saalan, further description of the origins of the dish and the cooking process. I will definitely be referencing your recipe when I make it soon!