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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Pan Grilled Sea Bream

Cast iron utensils had been a part of the kitchen since several decades.
There were shinier-than-gold brass and copper vessels and light weight porcelain.
Glass was not to so common then. Lunch was often served in ‘Kopa’, a large bowl.
When Aluminium and Stainless Steel made their debut, cast iron became a cast away.
Heaviness and maintenance were pointed out as reasons.
They are still maintained and stored carefully for their emotional values.

Stove top grill pans are healthier than cast iron skillet.
Raised strips in the grill pan present the food being cooked with the grill marks.
Partially charred marks add to a kind of unique flavour to the meats and vegetables cooked in it.
Much more than the visual effect is the health. The raised strips keep the food being cooked away from the fats.

Fish monger at the supermarket enquired about the week-end project and suggested to try grilling fish. Sea Bream is fresh, he added. Yes, he was right. Bright clear white eyes with no faded colours. Skin that reflected the light as if newly polished mirror. Reddest possible gills. Firm to touch flesh. Smell of the sea… matched all the descriptions of a fresh fish. The fish looked farmed not caught from sea.

“Sea Bream for dinner”.
Not much of a reaction from the family.
Busy evoking the picture of Sea Bream on the screens.
Many handheld mobile devices lit up.
Sea Bream came on screen.
“Woooooow! Sea Bream…”
And off they went their ways.

It was decided that Sea Bream would be accompanied by steamed vegetables and sautéed mushrooms served with Kubooz. Fish shall be grilled and not fried.

Chose cumin, garam masala, red chili powder, lemon juice, parsley and yogurt combination. Fish was cleaned at the supermarket. But washed and cleaned again to make sure perfectly cleaned fish. Sharpened the 8″ Rostrfrei. (Miyabi would be the dream knife. Awaiting the day when the price drops, but it wouldn’t).

Glass bowl.
Marinade.
Fish goes in.
An hour.
Overnight is best. Always the case.

Pan took under 8 minutes to reach the desired temperature on medium high heat.
That sizzle when the fish touches the pan.
Left undisturbed for 7-8 minutes.

Thin bamboo spatula.
Now time to swap sides.
Another sizzle.
Beautiful black stripes on Sea Bream.
Fat begins to melts and makes one think if they are grilling or frying.
All the fat moves away from the food and settles below the top of the raised strips.
Mechanical timers rings. Its 8 minutes.

(No electronic devices are usually brought into the kitchen except cameras or mobiles.
The photographs seen here are captured with iPhone 7. Smoke and steam must be driven out using the powerful exhaust before attempting to bring in devices.)

Time to steam vegetables.
Zucchini. Broccoli. Sweet Potatoes.

Mushrooms are chopped and sautéed in a dash of cold pressed extra virgin olive oil with a pinch of paprika and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Thick bottomed copper pans cost their weight in gold. Weighing a ton for its size, cast iron rules the kitchen with years of tradition.

Hidden Gem

Muharraq is where one can find a place many casual cafés and restaurants that serve brunches with Kadak Tea and Turkish Coffee. Though some places are not advertised much, a wanderer-of-streets finds them anyway; either by chance or through a casual recommendation from a friend. But the one located in a narrow by-lane, that just let a car pass by, blew away most of the cafés in terms of ambience, authenticity and the traditional food served.

The place serves only traditional Bahraini breakfast which includes ful, eggs with tomato, balaleet, beans, breads and more. Fresh juice or coffee compliments the food served.

Lanes of Muharraq are also best places to hone the art of driving while they offer several photo opportunities to those interested in photography.

Delicious Memories

Rice with a heavenly fragrance of unknown spices and herbs; garnished with semi-fried onions (ah, that charred taste…), brown-roasted cashewnuts and succulent raisins. A spicy chicken-thigh, hidden inside the rice with the masala. Hard-boiled egg, partially dipped in the centre of the rice as no biriyani is complete without the egg. A deep-fried papad; a piece of fresh lemon pickle and a bowl of raita.

Masala Chai is served after the biriyani but we kids often sadly let go the offer. Not because we have lesser appreciation for the nice hot spicy tea made with cream and sugar but the heavy lunch does not allow us from imbibing the luxury drink. We never ever said no to the Gulab Jamun that followed.

Such was the dear memories of Chicken Biryanis prepared and served back home when most of the people were taller and wiser than me. Visiting relatives and a festive season were inevitably linked with the dish. Happy memories, still refusing to fade away after many years of constant petting and caring, adamantly and comfortably clings to mind just as the four-year old child awaken from the bed with much reluctance, perches on her Dad’s arms, refusing to budge.

As a kid, Biriyani was a complete mystery dish.

Why it takes so much time to prepare the Biryani with so much of cleaning and chopping?

What are the secret ingredients that went into the dish other than rice, onion and chicken?

How did they manage to get that unique aroma rising in the air filling not just the kitchen or the entire house, but the whole neighbourhood?

In spite of serving the dish with just a raita and a papad and may be a lemon pickle, how it tasted so great?

After many summers… and festive seasons.

Did some research on Biryanis in an attempt to recreate that delicious memories one more time at home. Hyderabadi Dum Chicken Biriyani [Note: Long-grained rice (usually basmati) flavored with spices such as saffron, layered with lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables cooked in a thick gravy. The dish is then covered, its lid sealed on and cooked on a low flame.] was chosen to be the star.

Surprisingly simple to make in just three steps.

1. Cook rice.
2. Prepare chicken.
3. Garnish.
4. Assemble and serve.

Some tricky in-between operations ensure that the biriyani could come out as close as the memories of yester-years. The magical taste was all about those in-between operations.

So this is not about any dish, let alone Biryani, but about the reliving of those wonderful years amidst noisy cousins and loving, kind relatives and parents, back home. Come with me, dear readers, on that exciting journey.

Deciding the rice was the first part. Long-grained Basmati or Wayanadan Kaeema. Kaeema was chosen.

Then the cook gets up early on a Friday, sacrificing the prerogative of a get-up-as-you-like week-end day and drives to the supermarket for the freshest chicken and herbs. The summer sun is already up and the temperature is a cool 35 deg C already. Herbs are just waiting in their racks… Cilantro & Mint for the Biriyani. Parsley for baked fish and Dill for Chicken Kofta, later. Some Chives for French Omelette. Now to the meat section: thighs of Chicken, bone-in. Fresh not Frozen. The recipe called for some chopped pineapple. Cashew nuts and black raisins (kish-mish) for garnishing. Saffron for mixing with creamy milk diluted with warm to add that wonderful golden-yellow colour to some rice.

Fresh eggs. Papad, a rice flour and urad dal wafer, served deep-fried. There is lime pickle and then yogurt for raita (Cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, green chili chopped and sliced served in yogurt seasoned with salt and Sumac).

Almost all spices are available at home so did not had to purchase.

Always the responsibility of the daughter to check and ensure all items required by the recipe is available: in the shelf, cabinet or refrigerator. Hope she had done a great job.

  1. Rice washed and soaked for 20 minutes.
  2. Chicken thighs marinated in chili powder, turmeric powder with some sea-salt.
  3. Chopping board. Onions, ginger and garlic. Indian garlic preferred though not-so-good looking as their Chinese friends. But more potent and difficult to handle.
  4. Mix rice in ghee in a pan on medium heat while water boils.
  5. Bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise goes in with a couple drops of pineapple flavouring and rose water.
  6. Boil rice using lightly salted water in the ratio 1: 1.5, till rice absorbs all water. Remove from flame while the rice is almost cooked al-dante. Let it cook bit more on the colander/sieve.
  7. Sauté onions, for the chicken. Add all the spices and fry till the raw smell is gone. Add chicken and cover and cook.
  8. Fry onions for the garnish. Roast cashew nuts and raisins in ghee.
  9. Chop fresh mint and coriander leaves.

Take a deeper breath now and rest a while. The cooked food gets some time to settle. You will be amazed at the magical flavours that had filled the kitchen as you re-enter.

Pre-heat over to about 345F. Assemble the biryani in a glass bowl.

Chicken, rice, chicken, rice, chicken, rice. Garnish with 1/4 of a pineapple chopped small, fried onions, cashew nuts, raisins and finally coriander leaves. Cover bowl with an aluminium foil and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Some lessons learned:
1. The flame needs to be adjusted often as the food is being cooked through various stages.
2. Get only the best ingredients for the dish.
3. Thighs with bone-in is most suitable for this biryani.
4. The mistake made by choosing white onions instead of red onions proved to be a near disaster.
5. Prefer small garlic compared to large, perfectly-white ones.
6. Use pineapple flavour (essence) sparingly as it could easily overpower other subtle flavours.
7. Use not more than 1/4 of a medium pineapple.
8. After all is said and done, getting the rice cooked to that perfect point seemed to be the hardest part.