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Appalachian Masala
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On a North Carolina mountainside, the chefs of Chai Pani introduce us to an exciting new era of Indian-American home cooking.

Meherwan Irani likes to joke that he didn’t eat Indian food until he moved to the United States at age 20. “We didn’t sit around saying we’re eating Indian food, because you’d never call it that,” says Irani, now 47 and the owner of progressive Indian-American restaurants in Atlanta and Asheville, North Carolina—Chai Pani and Botiwalla. “But if you had to pick one thing that represented Indian food as a whole, it would be chaat.”

“Chaat” literally means to lick your fingers, and it’s also the colloquial term for street food in India. With chaat, you may first think about crispy, crunchy samosas, tikkis, and pakoras. But chaat also extends to dishes like dahi vada (dough and lentil balls soaked in yogurt) and the wonderful bhel puri (puffed rice fragrant with cilantro, onion, and green chiles, tossed with tamarind chutney).

In the eyes of Irani, chaat is most at home in big cities, where immigrants from all over flock to find work, with many eventually opening little restaurants, cafés, or stalls popping up off busy streets. These industrious cooks bring puris from Pune and chickpea flour noodles from Gujarat, which collide in rows of steam and spice on the packed streets of Bangalore and Hyderabad. “What makes chaat perfect for a dinner party, and what we do at our restaurants, is there’s no rules.” At a recent dinner I was lucky enough to attend, it was clear we wouldn’t be frying the classics (“No samosas or crap like that here,” snaps Irani), but the meal would be based on the principal of chaat. Cooking without borders or restrictions. And what a dinner it would be.

Meherwan Irani

At Irani’s supremely awesome invitation, I traveled to Woodfin, North Carolina (a small town near Asheville), to cook an Indian feast at a friend’s house in the mountains. It wasn’t necessarily log-cabin living, but the crackle of musket fire could be heard in the distance, and large cuts of lamb were roasted over coals. Rare bourbons and Châteauneuf-du-Pape flowed.

Irani had suggested the setting to show me how he and his three chefs and partners—Mikey Files, James Grogan, and Daniel Peach—transcended the clichés of Indian home cooking. There was a stainless steel masala dabba (a traditional Indian spice box), brimming with coriander seeds and garam masala, but also a bottle of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon at the ready. The soundtrack was more Animal Collective than pulsing Hindustani sitar. Indian home cooking was kind of packed into a small box, Irani surmised, and he wanted me to enter his modern world on a chilly January afternoon.

“What we’re doing here is basically making, let’s call it Appalachian chaat,” Irani laughs while flanked by Grogan, his chef de cuisine, who washes and dices beets for a roasted vegetable dish seasoned with cumin, turmeric, Kashmiri chile powder, and finished with a burst of lime juice and a fist of chaat masala—a generically named utility spice mix that Grogan compares with Mexican chile lime salt. “Masala” means “mixture,” and the version we are using includes the face-slapping blend of green mango powder, black rock salt, crushed pomegranate seeds, cumin powder, and chile powder.

Homemade rotis

Leg of lamb marinated in soy sauce, white vinegar, curry leaves and tamarind pulp

At the sink, Peach (btw, the greatest last name for a Southern chef, am I right?) breaks down a box of mustard greens for a masala. Irani recalls as a kid going to the subzi mandi, or vegetable market, and shopping with his father before his mom would start cooking at 11. “She’d say, ‘Buy whatever looks good,’” he says, imitating his mother’s pronounced accent. “And like that, we saw that the mustard greens looked good, so we bought them.” (Irani’s mother, a source of inspiration for the chef both spiritually and in the kitchen, was born in Dehradun, a farming community in a fertile valley at the foothills of the Himalayas. Raised a Hindu Brahmin, she ate and learned to cook a mountain-style cuisine called Garhwali.)

On to the rice. Rule number one about rice in India is that if you’re having a feast, you make a pulao. That is, you don’t just make plain basmati rice. You jazz it up. “Nuts, raisins, silver leaf if you wanted to, add some onion, drop some fresh mint on top,” says Irani about the slightly fancy side dish.

Daniel Peach

Grogan, Peach, and Irani readying the grill for lamb kebab

And last but not least, we’re arriving at the leg of lamb. Irani and Grogan have rubbed the leg with a go-to marinade. “If anything’s going to be grilled in India, it’s going to have this particular flavor profile,” Irani explains, rapidly slicing ginger. In India, grilling typically happens in the north—home of the great tandoors. In the south, meat is more commonly braised. But that is my oversimplification. I ask Irani to explain the religious and geo-politics at play—related to meat consumption in a country of 1.25 billion, and he amazingly summarizes:

With its deep roots in Hinduism, the south of India is still primarily vegetarian. The people who do eat meat in the south are Christians—the missionaries that came over converted them and introduced beef and in some regions pork. Although meat consumption is on the rise in modern India, Hindus don’t eat beef, and Muslims don’t eat pork. Some Hindus in central and northern India will eat meat but only chicken or goat meat (referred to as mutton). Grilling meat is an outdoor-style activity and reserved for restaurants and street carts that clearly identify themselves as Muslim. Vendors are careful to stay in the Muslim quarter or do it out of sight, whereas cooking beef at home is more kind of personal. So you can be a Christian or Parsi family cooking beef at home and not violating other people’s aesthetics. But vendors grilling meat almost always do it outside, on the street.

The marinade itself is interesting to dissect, and pretty wonderful sloshed on a lamb leg (or any cut of beef) and set over coals for 90 minutes. There’s black pepper, curry leaves, tamarind—and plenty of ginger, garlic, and chile (essentially the mirepoix of South Asia). There is also soy sauce and vinegar in there, too. Soy sauce? Irani: “The Europeans that were trading up and down through the Polynesian islands eventually made their way up to India and brought with them the Asian condiment of soy sauce. So you’ll see soy sauce used in a lot of recipes, as well as palm sugar and vinegar, too.”

Irani's dabba

Root-vegetable chaat

We retreat to a furnished garage and dig into the feast, which includes homemade rotis that we wrap around the meaty lamb meat. I ask Irani about the masala dabba he had been cooking from all afternoon, and how the spices had quickly and precisely woven together the feast like an industrial sewing machine. “The dabba is the cornerstone of the traditional Indian kitchens,” he says, sipping a glass of bourbon and flanked by his restaurant fam. “It’s very personalized. In fact, if my daughter got married, one of the wedding gifts or many of the wedding gifts she’d get would be the masala dabba. Engraved, with her name and the wedding date.” Would it be full or empty, I ask? “Empty. And her job now is to fill it with her spices. And the spices depend on what part of the country you are from.”

Irani is quick to point out that most spices come from the south, where the lush tropical climate makes regions like Kerala famous for their black pepper, cardamom, and star anise plantations. However, different varieties and combinations are used in different styles of cooking. But in general, in the south green cardamom, black pepper, hing (asafetida), mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried red chiles, and coriander are more prevalent in the dabba. In the north, it’s garam masala, Kashmiri chile powder, fennel seeds, bay leaves, saffron, mace, cumin seeds, and clove.

As for the Appalachian dabba?

“I’m actually thinking of an Appalachian garam masala!” he later writes via email when I press him for dabba deets. “My dabba would have ramp powder, sumac, black peppercorn, coriander seeds, bay leaves, spicebush, rock lichen, dried mushroom powder, dried chicory root, dried wintergreen leaf, sassafras bark, mountain flake salt, celery salt.”

Spice, it seems, for an Indian chef setting roots down in North Carolina, springs eternal.

Vegetable Pulao

Vegetable Pulao

3-4 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 piece cinnamon bark, broken into 2 or 3 pieces
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon slivered almonds
  • 1 tablespoon golden raisins
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced 1/4 inch
  • 1 Russet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch dice
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • ½ cup chopped mint
  • 3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or canola oil

There’s a standard side of rice, and there is pulao—a fragrant and fancy bowl of rice laced with almonds, raisins and Indian spices.

  1. Wash rice well in a large bowl, rinsing and draining 2-3 times to remove excess starch until the water is clear. Soak the washed and drained rice in water and stock for 30 minutes.
  2. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-high heat. (Pick a pot that you have a tight-fitting lid for). Add 2 tablespoons ghee or oil, and once it’s hot, add the cinnamon and cumin seeds.
  3. Once the cumin seeds are sputtering, add the almonds and raisins. Stir gently until the almonds are light brown and raisins have puffed. Remove from pan and reserve.
  4. Add another tablespoon of ghee or oil to the pan and the onions. Stir continuously so the onions don't burn. Add a pinch of salt to draw the moisture out of the onions and they'll brown faster. Fry the onions until they are golden brown, then add the carrots, potato, and cumin/cinnamon/almond/raisin mixture to the pot. Stir and mix well with the fried onions and spices.
  5. Add just the liquid from the soaking rice. Bring this to a boil and season with salt. Taste now to make sure the seasoning is correct, as it's very difficult to add salt later without breaking up the rice.
  6. As the pot comes to a boil, add the soaked rice and mix in with gentle stirs so as not to break the grains. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook on medium-high heat, checking occasionally until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and craters start to form on the top of the rice.
  7. Remove the lid and very gently slide a spoon or spatula down the side of the pot and bring the rice from the bottom to the top in 2-3 gentle turns. Add the chopped mint and cilantro on top.
  8. Return the lid, turn the heat to the lowest setting and let rice sit on low for another 3-5 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the lid on. Let the pot sit for 10-15 minutes with the lid on and the rice will finish cooking in its own steam. If you remove the lid all the steam will escape.
  9. After 10-15 minutes, remove the lid and gently fluff the rice with a fork or spatula. Every grain should be long and separate. Serve hot.
Mustard Green Masala

Mustard Green Masala

3-4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 serrano pepper, diced (or two if you like it a bit spicy)
  • 1 large red onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 4 bunches mustard greens stems removed and roughly chopped

Masala means “mixture,” and this is one fine combination of ginger, garlic, onions, and a flurry of delicious and fragrant Indian spices (turmeric, coriander, garam masala). We call for mustard greens here, but you can substitute with other leafy greens, like kale or spinach.

  1. In a wide-bottom pan, heat 1/4 cup of canola oil over medium-high heat. (You can use some of the frying oil). Add the cumin seeds and within 30 seconds or so add the diced serrano peppers, and then within a minute add the onions with the salt (the salt helps the onions cook quicker by drawing out the moisture.)
  2. When the onions start to lightly brown, add the ginger-garlic paste and cook on medium heat until the onions start turning completely brown.
  3. Add the powders (red chili, cumin, turmeric, coriander), and when they start to clump together with the onions, add half the cilantro and 1/4 cup of water to deglaze the pan. Stir and scrape to get all the fond (good stuff) off the bottom of the pan. The spices cook quickly, around 2-3 minutes.
  4. Once the water has sizzled and evaporated, add the crushed tomatoes. Cook on medium for 10 minutes or so until the tomatoes are completely broken down and the mixture looks glossy.
  5. Add the garam masala and stir well into the tomato mixture, and then add the mustard greens and a cup of water. Stir and fold the greens till they start to wither and cook down.
  6. Cook the greens on medium for 10 minutes or until the greens are dark and tender. Salt to taste, garnish with the rest of the fresh cilantro, and serve with rice, warm roti, or paratha.
Root Vegetable Chaat

Root Vegetable Chaat

4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 medium red beets, peeled, 1-inch dice
  • 2 medium golden beets, peeled, 1-inch dice
  • 4 carrots, peeled, 1-inch dice
  • 1 turnip, peeled, 1-inch dice
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled, 1-inch dice
  • ¼ cup canola, olive, or coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • Juice from one lime
  • 1 tablespoon chaat masala
  • ½ cup small diced onion
  • ½ cup cilantro
  • ¼ cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Roasting root vegetables is a tradition that spans the globe. Here’s a delicious and fragrant Indian take, where beets, carrots, and turnips are tossed with Indian spices and finished with lime juice. Not boring!

  1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. While the oven preheats, toss all of the diced root vegetables with the oil, salt, cumin, Kashmiri chile powder, and turmeric.
  2. Place the vegetables on a baking tray in a single layer, using two baking trays if necessary.
  3. Roast for 40-45 minutes or until edges are crisp and brown and the vegetables are tender.
  4. Toss the roasted vegetables with lime juice, chaat masala, onions, and cilantro and garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Indian Lamb Kebabs

Indian Lamb Kebabs

3-4 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups rough-chopped red onions
  • ½ cup curry leaves
  • 1 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons rough-chopped serrano chilies
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ cup soy sauce (dark preferred but regular is okay)
  • ¼ cup white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 3-pound boneless lamb shoulder

This Indian kebab marinade is equally perfect for a weekend barbecue or a Tuesday night dinner (and the marinade will keep in the refrigerator for up to four weeks and can be used with beef, lamb, or chicken). And soy sauce in an Indian dish? You better believe it. It’s natural umami and takes the lamb in a very interesting direction.  

  1. Heat 2-3 tablespoons oil in a wide, nonstick pan. Add the onions and reduce heat to medium. Lightly fry the onions for 3-4 minutes until the onions are translucent and the edges are lightly browning.
  2. Add the curry leaves, ginger, garlic, serranos, and stir for 1-2 minutes. Keep the heat at medium-low; you don’t want the onions or garlic to overcook.
  3. Add the sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper, and salt. Stir thoroughly and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until thoroughly combined. Remove from heat.
  4. After the mixture has cooled, blend in food processor and buzz to a smooth paste. Note: The mixture (masala) will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.
  5. Cut the lamb into small even pieces (approx. 2 inches) that can easily be skewered. Approximately 5 pieces should fit on a 10-inch skewer.
  6. Season the meat liberally with kosher salt. Let the meat sit for 10 minutes so that the salt incorporates into the meat and then liberally apply the marinade; about 1/3 cup per pound of meat should be just right.
  7. Let the meat marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to 6 hours.
  8. Skewer the meat (if using wooden skewers, soak them for 5-10 minutes so they don’t burn on the grill) and brush with canola oil.
  9. Fire up the grill and cook your skewers to the medium-rare. On a hot grill, it should take a couple of minutes per side. Enjoy as a taco or wrap on warm pita with a creamy slaw, fresh onions and cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice.

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller.

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