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Monday, December 4, 2023
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A promise of flavours from India

Galarza G Daniela

THE WASHINGTON POST – The cover of Vishwesh Bhatt’s new cookbook is a still-life photograph: Jars of black-eyed peas stand near silver ladles tinged with patina, and next to them, collard leaves fan out and over.

Pert heirloom tomatoes, marbled purple eggplant and a bowl of okra fill the middle of the frame.

In the front, whole and ground spices add colour and promise so much flavour.

It’s an effective and romantic illustration of Bhatt’s childhood in India and adopted home in the American South.

“I want people to see me as I see myself – an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who chose to make the South his home, and in doing so became a Southern chef. I claim the American South, and this is my story,” he wrote in the introduction to I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef.

I was immediately drawn into Bhatt’s story, as I love both Indian food and the cuisine of the American South, and his book appealed to me as a daughter of immigrants who have struggled at times to claim the United States (US) as home.

“Recently, someone important asked me if I consider myself a Southern chef,” Bhatt wrote.

“The answer is absolute yes. I know that I wasn’t born here, but this is where I have made my home, and this is where I make my living.”

Lamb Kheema served with rice. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Lamb Kheema cooking process

More than this, Bhatt wanted to help redefine Southern food. “I want the food of my childhood, the flavours I grew up with, to become a part of the Southern culinary repertoire – just like tamales, lasagna, and kibbeh have become,” he wrote.

“I want to show that the ingredients of the modern Southern pantry were very much the ingredients of my mother’s pantry as well.”

His recipes are a delicious melange of the two cultures.

Dishes like sweet potato turnovers with cardamom and black pepper; black-eyed pea and mustard green soup; peanut masala-stuffed baby eggplants; Gujarati-style okra pickle; and lamb kheema illustrate Bhatt’s perspective in using the best of both cuisines to make his harmonious whole.

I love making kheema, so I knew I wanted to share his version. It starts with ground lamb, which is often easier to find at grocery stores than specific cuts of lamb. (If you don’t see it at your market, ask at the meat counter to be sure they don’t have any in the back).

If you don’t care for lamb, or can’t find it, any other type of ground meat – or plant-based substitute – works well here. I’ve even made this with canned lentils.

As Bhatt explained, kheema “can apply to any loose ground meat, but lamb and goat kheema are by far the most common across India. Think of it as you would picadillo, or the filling for a sloppy joe”. A great kheema relies on deeply caramelised onions, which provide a slightly sweet base.

Caramelising the onions takes the longest amount of time in this recipe, but because the onions are diced rather than sliced, they’ll take less time to cook.

Be patient, and let them darken slowly before stirring in ginger, garlic, a jalapeño and tomato paste. Next, yoghurt adds richness and helps bring together the flavours of cardamom, garam masala, Kashmiri chilli powder and turmeric.

Before long, your kitchen will be filled with the most entrancing smells. Then, all you have to do is decide how you want to serve the kheema.

I love it over rice, but Bhatt suggested folding it into “quesadillas, scrambled eggs, omelettes, hand pies, and shepherd’s pie. Eat it on soft buns, sloppy joe style, like they do on the streets in Mumbai, or use it for a pizza topping with some paneer and feta”.

It’s so versatile, you may want to double the recipe so that you can use it as a base for multiple meals throughout the week.


– Two tablespoons of neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, or ghee
– One medium yellow onion, finely chopped
– Two tablespoons minced or finely grated fresh ginger
– Two tablespoons minced or finely grated garlic
– Half jalapeño pepper stemmed and minced
– Two tablespoons of tomato paste
– Half cup plain full-fat yoghurt, preferably Greek-style
– Two teaspoons ground garam masala
– One teaspoon ground cumin
– One teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder or hot paprika
– Half teaspoon ground cardamom
– Half teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
– Quarter teaspoon ground tumeric
– One pound ground lamb or another ground meat
– Chopped fresh mint, for garnish
– Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
– Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)


In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers.

Add the onions, and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the onions turn the colour of walnut skin, about 30 minutes.

Be patient and do not rush this step, as you want the richness of the caramelised onions to bring a depth of flavour to the meat mixture.

If the onions begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tiny splash of water to loosen them; if they continue to stick, slightly reduce the heat.

Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook until they begin to take on colour, about five minutes.

Stir in the jalapeño and tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste turns several shades darker, about four minutes more.

Add the yoghurt, garam masala, cumin, chilli powder, cardamom, salt and turmeric and cook, stirring often, until it forms a fragrant, golden-brown paste, about four minutes.

Stir in the ground lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula, until cooked all the way through, about 10 minutes.

Garnish with chopped mint and cilantro and serve family-style, with rice on the side.


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