A Black Pepper Curry

So it’s finally happened, folks. The day that I’ve been dreading. The one where, despite my best efforts, all of my time in quarantine finally takes its toll and I lose track of the passing of days.

This post was supposed to be up last weekend, for the end of february, but the date escaped me and I genuinely thought that I had another week to finish it. I’m really sorry that things didn’t go to plan but I guess that you’re getting two big recipes this month.

So, without further ado, here’s my latest curry:

And this one’s something quite unique, since it’s not the north indian cuisine that we’re used to, here in the UK, but something from the south. As well as being a dish that, despite containing chilli, gets far more of its heat and flavour from black pepper.

It’s called a chettinad and it tastes absolutely nothing like what we tried last tuesday. Despite both being classified as indian cuisine.

Now, for those who don’t know their indian geography – And I’d assume that that’s most of us – chettinad is actually a place in the south indian state of tamil. The place from which this curry originates.

So, as with the kashmiri and the hydrabadi, the name refers to a regional style with a fair bit of variation to it. Which means that I can’t say, for certain, that my version is authentic but I can say that it uses a lot of quite specific ingredients that show up, time and again, in chettinad curry recipes.

Things like black pepper, spring onion, nigella seeds and this stuff:

A type of dark, grey, lichen, known as “kalpasi” in the tamil language, “dagad phool” in the other indian ones, with which I’m more familiar, and “black stone flower” in english. A spice which is completely unheard of in bangladeshi british cooking, yet seems to be quite popular, almost as a flavour enhancer for other spices, in the cooking of the south.

This particular curry really highlights what the kalpasi can do, though, alongside its dark, peppery spice blend, and it’s a very different dish without it. So I’d strongly recommend tracking the stuff down, if you can.

Yet, at the same time, it’s not a bad dish without it, either. Just one that leans much more heavily on the taste of its peppercorns. Rather than being rounded out by that herbal, dusty and slightly minty, yet also woody, in an almost cinnamon-like way, flavour of the lichen.

Here’s what you’ll need to make my chettinad:

600g potatoes

50g frozen peas

50g spring onion whites (~1 bunch’s worth)

3 cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon butter or ghee

1 tablespoon gram (chickpea) flour

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon nigella (onion) seeds

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon fenugreek leaf

2 teaspoons kalpasi (optional)

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon fennel

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon kashmiri/deggi mirchi (chilli powder)

1 large blade of mace

And yes, that’s a lot of spices. Hopefully you can get them all together for today’s recipe.

Before we can begin cooking it, though, we’re going to have to toast some of them off. So pop the black pepper, coriander, cumin, nigella, fennel, mace and kalpasi into a dry pan and heat them over a low flame. Continuing to do so for around five minutes, or until they become aromatic and their colour starts to darken.

Then remove those spices from the heat and grind, grind, grind! With all of that lichen in the mix, you’re going to have to work extra hard to crush what it’s cushioning. Or maybe involve an electric grinder. But, either way, it’s worth the effort.

It’s worth taking the time to get a nice, smooth, evenly flavoured sauce and it’s worth rounding out that flavour with the kalpasi, if you can. The difference that it makes to this dish is huge. Not just in terms of the taste that it adds but also in terms of the other flavours that it highlights, as well. Keeping a whole bunch of the other spices from being hidden by the peppercorns.

Then, when you’re done grinding those spices, set them aside for now. We’ll make use of them later but we’re going to need the pan for something else, before that.

Our next step is to dice the potatoes and either boil them in a separate pan for eight minutes or cheat and microwave them for four. Either way, they should be just starting to soften and that’ll make all the difference, later on.

Now, with everything prepared for future steps, we can return to pan one.

Heating it up on low again, we use it to melt the butter or ghee and combine it with the sesame oil. In which we then frying our fenugreek leaves and spring onions, finely chopped, for approximately ten minutes. Just long enough for the onions to start browning, before we throw the potatoes back in.

Then, once the potatoes are in the pot, all that’s needed is a couple of minutes of cooking and stirring – Going up to medium, at last – to cover them in the flavourful roots, leaves and oils, before we can add our ground spices back in.

And, when we do, we can throw the ginger, turmeric, kashmiri chilli powder and garlic in with them. Continuing to fry and coat the potatoes for another couple of minutes, after that, in order to ensure that they carry the full range of this dish’s flavour.

Then, once that’s done, we can add water until they’re just shy of being covered and gently sieve in our gram flour. A simple addition that gives any curry a satisfying thickness to its sauce. Though you won’t see its results until nearer the end.

For now, just keep on cooking for twenty minutes and let the liquid simmer away, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking of the potatoes. And then, when you do start to see the dish thickening up, throw in the peas and cook for a further ten to finish off.

By which point all of the veg should be nice and soft and the sauce should be clinging to it. All ready to plate up with either rice or home-made chapati, like I’ve done here:

A surprisingly golden dish, for a curry so full of dark spices. Yet their earthy, fragrant flavour is hard to miss and so, too, is the

burn that slowly builds, throughout the meal. Growing to a high medium, in the back of my mouth and throat, without ever feeling quite like a chilli heat. Because it isn’t one.

In this dish’s case, it’s the peppercorns that provide that madras-level strength and its kashmiri chilli only server to support their more aromatic, peppery heat.

So, if you’d like to see that chilli do its own thing, you can check out the other recipes on its encyclopedia page or keep an eye out for the review after next. But, for now, why not enjoy today’s unusually black pepper-based burn?

A deep one which pairs especially well with a cooling, yoghurty side, like a lassi or raita, and comes with a delightfully different flavour. So I strongly recommend giving today’s recipe a go because it really is a delicious curry, unlike any other. And it represents a very different region of india, as well.

One thought on “A Black Pepper Curry

  1. glempsto March 8, 2021 / 9:36 pm

    One thing to be aware of – the flavours and heat of this dish get much stronger on the second day. Like most curries, the leftovers are the best part of the meal.
    Or you could make it a day in advance to make life easier on the night.

    Either way, it’s well worth making as it’s delicious.

    Liked by 1 person

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