Black Stone Flower

Not long ago, may be a few months back, a recipe was found by chance that included a rather strange ingredient. This is all about that….

Black Stone Flower is one of the unusual spices in the Indian culinary repertoire. It is quite a rare dried flower and a dominant spice in Chettinad preparations.

Black Stone Flower or Dagad Phool (parmelia perlata) is a soft white, brown and black coloured lichen that gives the signature black color to various masalas like Goda Masala. Mildly leathery, it has a light musky, strong earthy aroma and a very dry, fluffy texture and feel to it. It is widely used in Chettinad cuisine and to some extent in Hyderabadi and Marathi cuisines. An edible lichen flora, which grows on trees, rocks and stones, when used in small quantities, it imparts a strong woody aroma and flavor to the preparation. For better results it must be roasted in a little oil to release its full aroma.

Ooty and Kodaikanal in the state of Tamil Nadu are places known to harbour this rare spice though no conclusions could be made on the place of domicile to this ‘spice’.

Daggad Phool (daggad = a rock or stone, phool = flower) is used in cooking traditional Chettinad food but for most, the spice is elusive and not regularly utilised. However, the blackish purple flower (lichen, to be precise) is often blended with other spices to make some indigenous masalas. In Maharashtra, it forms a part of the famous goda masala or the Andhra vaangi baath podi. It is also believed to be a part of the traditional garam masala but not many store bought ones does not include this rare find.

The resistance was not too strong on the suggestion to use this spice in our kitchen. But it was neither subtle. No one we knew ever mentioned the name “Daggad Phool” and it was unheard of back at home or the home of relatives.

Thus the experiment started.

Chicken Chettinad Curry, a dish of chicken in a spicy gravy of onion, ginger and garlic with black pepper corns and red chili powder. Plain rice or flat bread (Naan, a pita-type leavened flat bread, roti or chapati) were suggested to accompany the dish but since it was a Friday and the ‘chef’ had enough time in his hands, the choice went and stood at Vegetable Pulav. Both the dishes had daggad phool or kalpaasi as one of the ingredients.

The spice had become an instant favourite with the family when a neighbour phoned in to enquire about that “mysteriously delicious” aroma rising from our kitchen. The result of adding daggad phool to the chicken dish was beyond any expectation. Other than Chicken dishes, some Biriyanis are a good candidate for this spice. But in my opinion, when a biriyani is served with a chicken dish, either one may have the spice added. Some how this complements the combined flavour though I am not sure how this is made possible. May be more research is in the horizon.

Chicken is cut and marinated with salt, turmeric and lemon juice for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, the spices are dry roasted with no oil in the griddle over low medium flame. Each spice are roasted individually as the time required by them to reach the required level differ. Finally grated coconut is sautéed.
Tomatoes, ginger-garlic paste, onions, green chili, coriander and mint leaves are chopped.

The cooking is a 3 tiered process.

The spices are made into a paste with the coconut in a blender and kept aside. Then,

One: The marinated chicken is sautéed in oil and kept aside.
Two: Chicken is cooked with onions and tomatoes in a pressure cooker for two whistles.
Three: Chicken is transferred to a Kadai and further cooked with spice-coconut paste, initially with lid closed for 10 minutes and then open, to achieve the right consistency.

Garnished with fresh coriander leaves chopped prior to serving.

Vegetable Pulav calls for soaked and drained long-grained, fragrant Basmati rice.
Onion is sautéed along with spices. Hot water is added to which the rice is cooked.
Cooking times could not be generalised as it depends on many factors not limited to the type of kadai used and the temperature of the gas stove.

Rice must be cooked like a Pasta. Just enough to make feel the bite. Fluffing the cooked rice using a fork within the pan and outside, on a tray, is important to get that single-grained texture. Key is to keep the grains separate.

A different version using Kashmiri Chili is shown below. Being creative is often harmless but adventurous.

Aroma filling the home was enough proof that the chicken and rice turned out good. But when the faces that tasted the food lit up with a delighted brightness brought in by a spontaneous smile, the ‘chef’ ceased looking further for a more convincing proof.

Vegetable Pulav

Wash 1 1/2 c basmati rice.
Soak 15 mins.
Chop 1 1/2 c vegetables (potatoes, carrots, mint, 2 green chili, french beans, cauliflower… or a combo. Peas would be good to have).
Sauté dry spices (1 bay leaf, 1 star anise, 1 strand mace, 3/4 t shahi jeera, 3-4 green cardamoms, 6 cloves, 2″ cinnamon, 1/2 nutmeg, 3 daggad phool, 1/4 t fennel seeds)
Sauté 1 med onions.
Fry 1 1/2 t ginger garlic paste.
Add vegetables and handful chopped mint.
Sauté 2-3 mins.
Add 2 1/2 c hot water. Add sea salt. Mix. Bring to rolling boil.
Add drained rice. Stir gently.
Cook in medium heat until water evaporates.
Cover with lid.
Cook again in low heat 4-5 mins.
Switch off stove.
Fluff up rice.
(Note: We are not using the colander method to cook rice here).
Spread rice in a baking tray.
Carefully fluff up the rice again.
Serve with chicken and raita.

Chettinadu Chicken

Cut, cube, pat dry chicken.
Marinate 15-20 min in sea salt, 1 t turmeric powder, 2T lemon juice.
2 t vegetable oil. Heat pan.
Sauté chicken from pink to white.
Dry roast all spices (3T coriander seeds, 4-5 dry red chili round type, 2t fennel seeds, 1t cumin seeds, 2″ cinnamon stick, 3 daggad phool, 2t whole black pepper corns, 5 green cardamom, 1 star anise, 5 cloves)
Keep aside to cool.
Dry roast 1/4 c grated coconut.
Grind spices and coconut together to a smooth paste. Keep aside.
Heat 2 T oil in a pressure cooker.
Sauté 2 large thinly sliced onions.
Add a small handful of curry leaves, 2T ginger garlic paste.
Sauté 1 min.
Add chicken. Mix well.
Add 2 med tomatoes chopped. Mix well.
Cover cooker and cook for 2 whistles.
Switch heat off and let steam.
Transfer chicken from cooker to a kadai.
Add more water if required.
Add ground masala paste and mix.
Cover. Simmer 10 mins.
Add fresh coriander leaves.
Serve with vegetable pulav and raita.

Note: South Asian cuisine is mysterious and therefore quite adventurous, with plenty of opportunities to be creative. The lack of precise measurements is thought to be the reason. A perfect knowledge of the characteristics of the dynamics of various spices is a prerequisite. Consistency could be achieved over a period of time. But some oldtimers achieve that perfection without ever tasting the food they are cooking but by the highly trained olfactory perceptions alone. In the wide piquent culinary spectrum, with the humble salt and pepper seasoning at one extreme, Chettinadu Chicken may not move up towards the opposite end. But it sure comes closer. Daggad Phool would inconspicuously be absent from within that spectrum and that is where its true power lies. It could be compared to a zero in arithmetic; alone it has no value but with the right combination of spices, the synergic potency could never be undermined by any diner who is also a discerning connoisseur.

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