A potato salad for the rest of us

Indian potato salad

I love potatoes, and I love mayonnaise, but I just can't handle the combination. There's something about the standard creamy potato salad served at barbecues throughout summer that is too cloying, too much for me — I feel like one spoonful and I've exceeded my RDI of mayo three times over. It doesn't help that an alarming number of these potato salads also contain undercooked potatoes, so I tend to steer clear. I know I'm not alone: I was at a barbecue a few summers back when the topic seemed to hit a nerve in a friend's (now ex-) girlfriend who visibly annoyed asked, "Why are so many potato salads undercooked??" A voice offered charitably that maybe they're meant to be a little undercooked. "They're not okay, they're fucking not!"

Yeah, she was a psycho. But a psycho with a point.

Well you won't find any undercooked potatoes in this salad, and nor will you find mayonnaise. The salad itself is fresh and extremely simple to make, and tossed with a dressing that's tart and full of wonderful spices it's a refreshing change from the usual.

Indian potato salad

Ingredients (makes 1 generous serving, but doubles and triples easily):

  • 1 large desiree potato, boiled/steamed/microwaved with skin on
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 tsp minced shallot
  • 1/2 cup of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
  • 4 tsp vegetable oil (or any mostly flavourless oil)
  • 1 tsp spice mixture (recipe below)
  • 1/4 tsp tamarind concentrate1
  • Salt, to taste

1. Prepare the dressing by combining the oil, spice mixture, tamarind, and salt, and mixing well. Taste and adjust the sour/salty ratio as you like.
2. Chop the potato into medium chunks, and place in a bowl with the tomato, shallots, and half of the coriander. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine. Scatter the remaining coriander leaves over and serve.

Spice mixture

Used in the above recipe, this mixture also is a great base for a simple vegetarian curry.


  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 large dried chilli
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp ground turmeric

1. Toast the cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, and chilli. Cool and grind with the garam masala and turmeric, then store in a sealed container. For best flavour, use within a few days of grinding.

(1) This is a tricky one. There are so many different ways to get tamarind that unless your preparation is exactly the same a mine the balance of sourness will be different (mine is a very concentrated paste with the texture of molasses). Also, not everyone has easy access to tamarind in any form, so: If you have tamarind, use it to taste. Otherwise use lime or lemon juice, and I'd recommend about 1 tsp.

Spice advice: Cumin

Lamb & chana dal curry

Does anyone remember 'spice advice'? A part of me knew that promising a semi-regular feature would be doomed to failure. I put together this recipe for a spice advice feature on cumin, and while I won't go through the whole rigmarole of describing cumin in excruciating detail, the recipe was already written and the photograph already taken, so it would be foolish not to get it out there.

What I will say about cumin is that it is the best. It's never going to have the surprising, special-occasion wow factor that spices like saffron have, but it's an all-rounder, a staple of so many varied cuisines that it deserves maximum respect. As with many spices, it loves a bit of toasting.

Here I used it to make a curry of lamb & chana dal. I may not have taken the most appetizing photo, but believe me when I say that this is a hearty and comforting dish.

Lamb & chana dal curry


  • 500g lamb, diced1
  • 130g (3/4 cup) chana dal
  • 2.5 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 4-5 small dried chillies
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/4 tsp asafoetida
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 tbsp garlic & ginger paste
  • 5 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1/2 cup of canned tomatoes
  • 1 T ghee
  • Peanut/vegetable/canola oil
  • Salt, to taste

1. Toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and dried chillies over a gentle heat for about 5 minutes until fragrant, then remove to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.
2. Sauté the onion with the asafoetida, cloves, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt for 5 minutes to allow the onion to begin to go translucent. Add the garlic & ginger paste and fresh garlic and cook for another minute.
3. Pour in the spice powder and canned tomatoes and cook over a medium heat until the tomatoes start to break down. Add the diced lamb and chana dal with enough water to just cover, and bring to a boil.
4. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and simmer covered for 2 hours or until the lamb and dal are tender. If it's looking too dry, top up with a little extra water. Alternately if it's looking too wet, remove the lid and simmer uncovered to reduce. Salt to taste, and then stir in the ghee so it melts through the curry. For the best flavour, make this one day before serving.

(1) Use a braising cut such as lamb neck.

Chicken korma (I think)

Chicken korma

This may be the wrong thing to admit in the first sentence of a post about chicken korma, but I have a confession to make: I don't entirely know what proper chicken korma is. Although I've eaten it countless times, I've ever had the same korma twice. A quick flickr search suggests that I'm not alone, either — korma seems to come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.

I have a bit of an idea, though. When I think of korma I think of a rich, creamy gravy, warm, sweet spices, and nutty, mellow flavours. As the story goes korma was first made for rich North Indian merchants wanted their curries to be as luxurious as possible, so unsurprisingly korma is not dish done by halves. Cook this low and slow to ensure as tender chicken as possible, and for the best results cook it the day before you plan to eat it. This is good advice for all curries, but the subtle flavours in this curry benefit particularly well from a night in the fridge before serving.

Chicken korma

For the onion paste:

  • 1 onion, sliced thinly
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil

1. Spread the sliced onions out on kitchen paper and salt well. Leave this for 20 minutes.
2. Heat enough vegetable oil to deep fry the onions until well-browned (but not burnt).
3. Puree the fried onions in a blender, adding just enough of the (cooled) frying oil to make a paste.

For the curry:

  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • 1 blade mace
  • 5 cloves
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 4cm piece of cinnamon
  • 1 small onion, blended to a paste
  • 2 tbsp garlic & ginger paste
  • 600g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 tbsp roasted cashew nuts, ground
  • 1 tbsp blanched almonds, ground
  • 1/2 tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground garam masala
  • 1 quantity of fried onion paste (above)
  • 150 ml cream
  • 1/4 tsp saffron threads
  • 1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

1. Add the mace, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom to the vegetable oil and ghee, and bring to a medium heat. When the spices become fragrant, add the blended raw onion and cook until it just begins to go golden. Stir in the garlic & ginger paste and ground nuts and cook for another 2 minutes.
2. Add the chicken, chilli powder, ground coriander, and sugar and stir well to coat the chicken. Cook for 3 minutes, then pour over about 1/3 cup of water with the garam masala and fried onion paste (above). Bring this to a very gentle simmer, then cover and cook until the chicken is very tender.
3. Add the cream and bring to a low boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then stir in the saffron and fresh coriander and remove from the heat. Cover and let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving, or ideally refrigerate overnight and serve the next day with basmati rice or naan bread.

Spice advice: Coriander seeds

Coriander seeds

For most Western cooks, European herbs and spices are manageable: if you don't like parsley you can leave it out, and pepper fans will add it to taste without batting an eyelid. The more 'exotic' spices, however, are another story. When a recipe calls for a mixture of these spices many will follow it unquestioningly, amassing a catalogue of recipes with very little understanding for what they're actually doing.

This might not be you, and perhaps I'm addressing it to the wrong crowd. However I know heaps of people who "love cooking Indian food" yet couldn't pick fenugreek out of a spice lineup. This is okay; we're not all obsessive about food, and with so many good recipes out there it's easy to make tasty meals from obscure spices. But that said, nothing's more freeing than having the confidence and experience to improvise.

With that in mind, I had a crazy idea: to profile all of my favourite spices over a series of posts. For each I'll try to describe how they taste, and give a recipe that showcases that ingredient's best qualities. It's ambitious and I make no promises about how far into this journey I'll get, but hopefully I can inspire you to experiment with spices and learn a thing or two myself. Here goes nothing.

No wait, here goes coriander seeds.

Chana masala

Chana masala

I'm a little pressed for time, but I want to post this recipe for you to try because it's so damn good. To that end, I'll be brief and keep the paragraphs of bullshitting to a minimum. Chana masala is a North Indian chickpea curry that may be one of the best value dishes around. It's inexpensive, simple, quick (with canned chickpeas), and of course, really tasty — this dish is much more than the sum of its parts.

The flavours should be hearty, spicy, and a little sour. Serve it with basmati rice or even more tradtionally, battura.

Chana masala


  • 3 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil
  • 1/2 an onion, diced finely
  • 1/4 tsp asafeotida (hing)
  • 1.5 tbsp ginger & garlic paste
  • 2 green chillies, chopped finely
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 cup of canned tomatoes
  • 400g can of chickpeas, drained (or dried chickpeas, soaked overnight)
  • 2 tsp amchur (mango powder)
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 handful of coriander (cilantro), roughly torn up

1. If using dried chickpeas, boil for 1-1.5 hours until soft, then drain and set aside. Toast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind to a powder.
2. Cook the onion and asafoetida in the oil over a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add the ginger & garlic paste, green chilies, and ground spices from before and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the turmeric and canned tomatoes and bring to a simmer.
3. Simmer the mixture until the tomatoes break down and reduce. Salt to taste, then add the chickpeas, mango powder, garam masala, and 1/2 cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes, until the texture is not too watery. Add the coriander/cilantro, salt to taste, and serve.

Stuff white people like: Murgh makhani (butter chicken)

Murgh makhani (butter chicken)

Lucy and I were at an Indian festival a few years ago when we ran into an Indian fried from uni. When I mentioned that we were about to get something to eat, she looked at us and said, "Oh, you should get butter chicken. White people love butter chicken!" I felt vaguely offended at the stereotype, but when you think about it, white people kinda do love butter chicken. It's on the menu of every western Indian restaurant, and its close cousin tikka masala has been called England's national dish. If you ask me, the stereotype is accurate. I can say that, too — some of my best friends are white!

With such a popular dish, everyone has an opinion on how it's meant to be made. This recipe belongs to Alfred Prasad, the head chef of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Tamarind (that's how you know it's good). I first saw him teach a chef how to make it on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, and a bit of googling turned up the recipe and an instructional video online. I find those videojug recipes dreadfully slow to watch, so I've reprinted the (slightly modified) recipe here and broken it down into its separate stages. Give it a go, you'll have white people falling to your feet in no time.

Spices for murgh makhani (butter chicken)

Murgh makhani (butter chicken)

The chicken


  • 500g boneless chicken, cut into pieces
  • 50g ginger & garlic paste
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup plain yoghurt
  • 1/2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil

1. Mix all of the ingredients except the chicken together, then add the chicken and mix well to ensure it's completely coated with marinade. Cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
2. Fire up your tandoor, or much more likely your oven grill/broiler. Spread out the chicken in one layer on a baking tray, and cook under the grill for 5-10 minutes until the outside is well browned (a bit blackened in parts is fine, encouraged even). Set the chicken aside for the final stage.

The sauce


  • 3 tbsp peanut/canola/vegetable oil
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 cardamon pods
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 15 g/1-inch piece of ginger, peeled & sliced finely
  • 5 whole green chilies
  • 400 g canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder (optional, add to taste or not at all)
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1/2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves), ground1
  • 50 g cashew nuts, ground in a blender/food processor with a little water to make a thick paste
  • Salt, to taste

1. Heat the oil to medium heat then add the cinnamon, cardamon, cloves, and bay leaves and cook for 2 minutes. Add the ginger and chillies and cook for another minute.
2. Add the tomatoes, chili powder (if using), honey, and tomato paste, 1/3 cup of water and cook for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes break down and thicken. Remove and discard the cardamon, cloves, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks and blend what's left until smooth.
3. Return the blended sauce to the pan and add the kasoori methi and cashew paste. Salt to taste and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

Bringing it all together


  • 1 tbsp butter
  • The chicken made above
  • 25 g cashew nuts
  • The sauce made above
  • 1/4 cup of cream
  • 50 g butter

1. Melt the butter in a hot pan, then add the chicken and cashews and fry for 3 minutes. Cover with the sauce, the cream, and simmer together for 3 minutes.

Chicken and cashews for murgh makhani

2. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter which should melt into the sauce. Decorate with a drizzle of cream and serve.

(1) The easiest way to do this is in a mortar and pestle with some coarse salt. However it should be fine to add them whole.

Why we cook

Dal Makhani

Dal makhani

Why do you cook? Do you cook just to feed yourself? Is it because you enjoy the food, or because you enjoy cooking itself? Do you cook to impress people? Do you cook for yourself, or do you cook for others?

Gentle reader, you'll have to be extra gentle around me today. If you've noticed the posts slowing down over the last week, it's because in my evenings I've been busy helping to pack a year's worth of clothes, providing a year's worth of preemptive tech support, and most importantly spending a year's worth of time hanging out with Lucy. And yesterday, she flew off to Japan.

This morning as I was planning my meals for the week, nothing came to mind. Left to my own devices I'll usually throw together a miscellaneous bowl of pasta for dinner, but with Lucy around I'm motivated to make things special. Now that she's overseas (I originally said 'not around', but it's not like she's dead), it's become obvious that a large part of why I cook is to serve food that makes people happy — and there's no one I want to make happier more than Lucy. I loved cooking 'hated' ingredients in a way that she could enjoy for the first time, or when we'd be eating at a restaurant and she'd say, "Yours is better". That desire to cook good food as an expression of how I felt is what started my serious interest in cooking. It's no wonder I ate so poorly when I was single.

So does this mean the end of posts at the second pancake? Not quite. Despite the sappy (but true) "cooking as love" angle, the other part of me cooks for the challenge, the competition. Some would accuse Gordon Ramsay of taking the fun out of cooking, but ignoring his media saturation and the entire US series of Hell's Kitchen, I admire him for his obsession with perfection — you can always do better.

Speaking of which, let's get on with it.

Wherein I forsake tradition: Beef & potato vindaloo with saffron rice

Beef & potato vindaloo with saffron rice

Time surges on, and now it's only two short weeks before Lucy's off to Japan. I cooked dinner for her relatives who were visiting Adelaide, and at her request: beef & potato vindaloo. I know, I know, vindaloo is made with pork. Even if it were made from meat other than pork, Indian Hindus would disapprove of beef. And despite the presence of "aloo" in the name, the dish traditionally doesn't contain potatoes either. But when traditional Indian cooking is leaving the country for a year, then I'll make it the way traditional Indian cooking likes it.

My Mum's side of the family are Portuguese-Indian from Goa, which would be an excellent launchpad to talking about how much this classic Goan dish means to me and my cultural identity. That stuff would kill. Unfortunately I've never actually had a proper vindaloo outside of a restaurant, so like most regular schmoes I used a recipe. Be careful when selecting a recipe — it shouldn't contain tomatoes, yoghurt, or god forbid, cream (really it shouldn't contain beef or potatoes, but that aside...). The recipe that I used (below) suited making it with beef and potato, but the best and most authentic vindaloo I've ever made was from this recipe on eGullet (pictorial here). Try both, you won't be disappointed.

Turn your oven up to 11: Garlic naan

Garlic naan

Continuing the Indian food theme, last night I made dal makhani and garlic naan. First things first: dal makhani. You might have heard of murgh makhani, better known as butter chicken. Dal makhani shares flavour elements with murgh makhani — particularly in the liberal use of butter and cream — but it is a distinct dish and by no means a 'vegetarian' butter chicken. This creamy, aromatic stew of pulses could take your butter chicken any day of the week. I used a recipe from A Life (Time) of Cooking, and in my opinion the recipe is flawless.

But I digress. This post is about naan, the second most delicious of Indian yeast breads (well-made Battura tops the list). This was the first time I've made naan — I could never be bothered making a yeast bread from scratch, measuring and mixing and kneading and rising and rolling and rising, just to serve as a side dish. I'm here to tell you that it's not a hassle. And if it were a hassle, it would be well worth it. Indian curries will often require you to wait for lentils to soften or meat to tenderise, and that's the perfect time to make naan. You could even make the dough in this recipe and freeze it for quick, fresh naan later on.

This recipe was adapted from Stef's at the Cupcake Project. I've made some minor modifications: these are flavoured with garlic, it's a half recipe with measurements by weight, and mine are cooked in an oven. Naan are traditionally cooked against the scorching walls of a tandoor oven, an appliance most Western homes don't have. However, by turning my oven to its hottest setting and preheating it with a cast iron pan inside, I managed to create a furnace that was off the scale of my oven thermometer and cooked these babies in less than 3 minutes. Next time I plan to turn the grill (broiler) on at the same time to boost the heat even further.

Oh yeah, the recipe...

Paneer parathas

Paneer parathas

I remember the first time I made parathas. It was a few years ago when I was starting to become interested in cooking. An indian friend heard about this, and suggested I make aloo parathas.

"They're so easy, just make a simple dough from flour and water, wrap it around some spiced mashed potato, roll it flat with a rolling pin, and cook it on both sides like a pancake."

In her defense, that is pretty much what you do. Although her instructions assumed a fair degree of prior cooking knowledge, she was so confident that I couldn't let her down by admitting confusion. The resulting parathas were a spectacular failure, suitable for little other than homemade grout in DIY bathroom renovations.

Fast-forward four years. I can now successfully boil water, toast bread, microwave beans, and if I may say so myself, cook a pretty decent paratha. This recipe would be nothing without Manjula of Manjula's Kitchen. While my paratha dough recipe is slightly different, I learnt the technique from her videos and my parathas feature Manjula's (extremely easy) paneer as a starring ingredient. I've used paneer (an indian cheese) here, but you can fill parathas with anything including potato, spinach, lentils, or minced meat.

Paneer Parathas

Ingredients (makes 4 parathas):

  • 70 g (1/2 cup) wholemeal flour
  • 70 g (1/2 cup) plain flour + 35 g (1/4 cup) for dusting
  • 2 g (1/2 tsp) of salt
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 15 g (1 tbsp) of ghee
  • 120 g paneer, crumbled
  • 1 tsp of grated ginger
  • 1/4 tsp of ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp of toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp of natural yoghurt
  • 1 handful of coriander (aka cilantro) leaves
  • Salt to taste

1. Combine the flours, water, and salt in a bowl. Once mixed, turn out onto a bench dusted with flour and knead for 5-10 minutes. Then, work the ghee into the dough. Set aside and rest for 10 minutes to 1 hour.
2. While the dough is resting, make the filling: mix together the paneer, ginger, turmeric, cumin, yoghurt, coriander, and salt.
3. Divide the rested dough into 4 pieces. Dust your bench with flour, and roll each piece of dough out to a ~10 cm circle. Put 1/4 cup of the paneer mixture in the middle, and bring the edges of the dough up around the filling, like sealing a dumpling. The technique is best illustrated in this video. Rest each dumpling for 10 minutes.
4. Once rested, dust with flour and roll out to ~0.5 cm thickness (again, see the video). In a heavy pan preheated to medium-hot, cook the parathas until browned on both sides (no oil required). Brush with ghee and serve.