I wish I could count the number of times I’ve visited a restaurant and been discouraged to try Murgh Musallam or Meen Moilee. “Don’t have this one,” I’ve been urged. “It has no spice in it. It is white in colour.” In the Indian restaurant trade, there are a number of cardinal sins, but none is greater than serving white or yellow gravy to your guests.
I personally am not fond of chillies. I find that they add no other dimension to the food except hotness, but the rest of the country seems not to be able to do without the little red devils. So much so that any cooked dish without the trademark red colour seems to put people off. And that’s the surprising aspect. After all, chillies have only been around for four centuries. Before that, says Chef Jacob, Tamil Nadu based researcher of the ancient foods of his state, pepper was the chief “hot” spice of the state. He assured me that the Kunkanad region of Tamil Nadu still uses much more black pepper and ginger than chillies, and indeed Rasam on Raja Annamalai Road in Chennai does have fewer red-coloured curries than most other restaurants. Rasam is the only Kunkunad restaurant in the state and appears to set great store by authenticity. Raja Bhojanam Kozhumbu is pale yellow in colour but I am in raptures because of the name: King’s Food Curry is the approximate translation.
In neighbouring Kerala, Meen Moilee is a pale yellow fish curry that contains two slit green chillies for the spice quotient. Coconut milk, turmeric and half a teaspoon of cumin are the other ingredients. It is almost identical to Goan fish caldine, further north up the western coast. Caldine ranks as the only Goan seafood/meat/poultry preparation not to have an angry red hue.
Hyderabadi cuisine contains Hind Qorma, whose base is curd as well as coconut milk – which it shares in common with Kerala’s avial. The combination of coconut milk and curd is an extremely unusual one indeed. Hind Qorma contains green chillies for the all-important spice quotient (because in India, rarely does white gravy mean completely non-spicy), flavoured with cardamom.
Bengal’s Doi Machch is white – not only is there no red chilli powder, there’s no turmeric either – and Assam’s tenga has a yellow gravy. Tenga is mouth-puckeringly sour and may contain either fish or vegetables and is usually spiced with green chillies that are just slit and added to the gravy while it is being cooked. The heat of the fire helps to release the capsaicin into the food without changing the colour. You could conceivably do the same with a whole red chilli – that would add spice but not colour too, yet it is seldom used.
A whole red chilli is used in the Kashmiri classic, haaq, especially when it is steamed in an open vessel, has only water for its gravy, with a pinch of hing. Yet, it’s the one dish that Kashmiris get withdrawal symptoms for, if they don’t eat it thrice a week.
Aunty Chitra’s Moru Kozhumbu (serves four)
Half coconut grated
250 grams curd
2 Green chilies
Half tsp cumin
200 grams of any one vegetable like okra, white gourd or colocassia leaves
A pinch of turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 whole red chilli
curry patta leaves
1 tbsp sesame or coconut oil
Called Moru Kozhumbu in Tamil Nadu and Kachi Moru in Malayalam, this great standby lunch preparation can be made as thick or thin as you like. It is the South Indian equivalent of kadhi.
In a food processor, pulse together the coconut, chillies and cumin. Keep aside. Saute the okra with minimal turmeric till partially cooked, then add quarter litre of water and cook till done. Whisk the curd till smooth and empty on the vegetable, mixing well. Immediately, add the coconut and continue stirring. In a small kadhai, heat the oil, fry the mustard seeds, whole chilli and curry leaves, pour on the vegetables, bring it to the boil and serve immediately.