Any food which inspires furious and divided loyalty intrigues me. Chilli pepper is a great example. From the “I don’t eat spicy food, I’m, like, probably a supertaster or something” types to the “don’t rub your eyes after shaking my hand” Scotch Bonnet aficionados, it is very rare to meet a human being without a strong opinion on the merits of capsaicin. Many folks entertain a little friendly rivalry when it comes to consuming chilli peppers and there are often tears involved. I myself no longer participate after being thoroughly humiliated by one of my nerdiest friends, a cultural studies PhD, who has a prodigious ability to consume chilli, wasabi, and suchlike irritants. In my circle his name is the collective term for a mass of raw ginger. “Whoa, that’s a klugman,” we say.
Yet I love chilli. Without a healthy respect for chilli most Asian and Latin American cuisine is meaningless. I just prefer to still have a tongue when I am done eating and be able to approach tomorrow’s bathroom duty without fear. My pepper of choice is the bird’s eye chilli (a.k.a. “mouse shit chilli” for its shape), the dangerous little fruit of the species Capsicum frutescens so beloved in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, India, and Cambodia. Once upon a time bird’s eye chilli was considered the hottest chilli in existence, but further research proved it actually hovers around 100,000 on the Scoville scale. For comparison, pepper spray is about 5,000,000 units. Now, that’s hot. Let’s see you eat a law enforcement grade pepper spray sandwich, Klugman. 100,000 is still respectable, however – the peppers above the bird’s eye on the scale have intimidating names like the Naga Viper pepper (excuse me?), the Infinity Chilli, and my favourite, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. The TSBTP ranks way above the infamous Scotch Bonnet and is another example of how macho people can get when it comes to (CH3)2CHCH=CH(CH2)4CONHCH2C6H3-4-(OH)-3-(OCH3).
So, feeling the need for a burst of heat in my life, I put together my version of milagu kuzambu, which is often called ‘pepper gravy.’ It is, essentially, curry with no vegetables, no meat, nothing in it but spices, curry stripped down to the bare essentials. And, intriguingly, it is made with tamarind, which is a spice I never know what to do with. I have a brick of tamarind pulp in my fridge (it comes in brick form) and very few ideas of how to use it. (Tamarind is not to be confused with the adorable tamarin monkey. Don’t worry, I have no plans to eat monkey. Indiana Jones put me off that one. Tamarind, while we’re on the subject of primates, provides about half the diet of all the ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Well done, tamarind.)
To use tamarind, you hack off a corner of the brick with a heavy chef’s knife. I use a chunk about the same mass as a golf ball. Soak this chunk in a cup or two of just-boiled water for about an hour, and it will fall apart into a kind of unattractive brown goo that tastes like sour candy. Push the goo through a sieve into a bowl, rubbing over and over with a spoon and scraping off the pulp that collects on the bottom of the sieve. Discard the remains, struggle valiantly to clean your sieve, and you are left with a cup or two of delicious brown water which makes the basis for this spectacular pepper gravy.
1 lump of tamarind pulp about the size of a golf ball
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon dried yellow split peas
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 (at least) bird’s eye chillis
1 teaspoon hot curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 large pinch asafoetida
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
Soak the tamarind in the hot water for an hour. Pour through a sieve into a bowl and retain the soaking liquid, rubbing the pulp through with a spoon as described above. Discard any remains in the sieve.
In a small frypan toast the split peas, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds until brown but not black. Transfer the spices to a mortar and pestle or food grinder, and grind. The split peas will give you the most trouble, so give up when they are broken but before they are powder. Add the chopped chillis with seeds, curry powder, salt and asafoetida, and grind it a bit more. (Asafoetida is a very strange spice. Uncooked, it smells like an accident. Cooked, it’s like deliciously sauteed leeks. What is not intriguing about a spice which is simultaneously known as both “devil’s dung” and “food of the gods”?)
In a small saucepan, heat the sesame oil. Drop in the mustard seeds and let them sizzle. As soon as they start bursting all over the place and leaping out of the pan scrape in the spice mix and give it a good stir. Add the tamarind water and simmer for half an hour, or until the oil separates. Serve over rice.
Milagu kuzambu is absolutely delicious but hardly a complete meal. The advantage of it is that you can prepare the entire thing ahead of time, leaving only the final simmering, while you prepare the other courses of your Indian feast. I served this with rice, palak paneer (cheese in spinach), and achaari baingan (eggplant and tomato in pickling spices). I made the paneer myself, which is not only amazingly easy but a great way to use up milk approaching the use-by date. In fact, here’s how you do it:
Paneer (Indian Fresh Cheese)
About a gallon of milk
About 1/3 cup lemon juice
Heat the milk on the stove. Just before it reaches boiling, pour in the lemon juice. As soon as the milk boils it will curdle and separate into curds (white lumps) and whey (yellow fluid). Take off the heat and let sit for about ten minutes to allow the curds to develop some character, then strain through a cheesecloth-lined colander (yes, you will need cheesecloth. I admit cheesecloth is not the most useful tool in the kitchen, but it sure comes in handy when making cheese). You can drink the whey, apparently, but I just toss it because I’m not that concerned with my whey levels. Wrap the cheesecloth in a bundle and gently squeeze the remaining liquid out (I do mean gently. Too energetically and the cheese will escape through the holes in the cheesecloth like so much playdoh). Put the bundle on a plate, put another plate on top of that, and weight down the whole thing with a heavy bottle or book. Dump out the water as it accumulates in the bottom plate. For best, firmest paneer, leave overnight in the fridge before unwrapping.
There it is. Proof I can make a vegetarian meal. Just don’t hold the heat.