Hopefully, you’ve been enjoying the posts in this short series on Northern Indian food from a marathon cooking session in my friend Srividya Venkatasubramanya’s kitchen. In the first post, I covered tandoori roti (delicious Indian flatbread), and in the second I covered the basmati rice and some of Vidya’s kitchen essentials.
Today, finally, we arrive at the “meat” of the meal: malai kofta (which are sort of vegetarian meatballs) in sauce or gravy. However, I think this name for the dish completely undersells its absolutely fantastic merits. The kofta are basically delicious, deep fried shredded vegetable balls and the sauce is a savory and spicy tomato-based sauce. I found myself craving this dish for days.
Just as with the roti, I’m going to link to some more legitimate recipes for this dish from excellent Indian chefs. This post is just meant to share some of the basics, but you should rely on an expert (i.e. not me) for precise directions!
As a basic definition, mali = cream and kofta = ball, creating a savory dish in a tomato and cream sauce. The prep work for this dish began with pre-boiling some large potatoes, peeling carrots and grating them (and eventually the potatoes) into the dish. Vidya had me get started on the grating, but at my rate (being careful with the shredder and obsessing everything) the dish would never have been complete, so she finally (gently) pushed me aside and handled it herself. Thank goodness. The potatoes should be sort of mashed and grated, but not too the point they are too smooth – you ultimately want the dish to stay firm so it doesn’t melt. (I can attest to the importance of this as my first solo try at this dish came apart when frying!)
I love that Vidya said “Don’t ask me quantities!” Essentially, she grates the potatoes and carrots until there is an adequate amount to make the number of koftas needed. While boiling, incidentally, she noted that “potatoes can always take a little salt” to taste.
Next came the addition of paneer (see below), salt ajwain and a little red chili seasoning. Ajwain is part of the fennel family and has a distinct taste. Vidya noted that it is very good for digestion and commonly used in India to release gas or simply aid in digestion – one might boil a tablespoon of ajwain with water like a tea and drink it for health. Ajwain is added to many recipes, but only a smattering because it has a sharp taste. Vidya also noted that you can add a little red chili, but she prefers to add most of the heat to the dish later in the making of the gravy.
Finally, this mixture is formed into balls to create the koftas – do not be afraid to form them tightly, otherwise they break apart when deep frying. Occasionaly, an addition is placed in the center of the kofta – minced pistacios, almonds or raisins – not soft nuts like walnuts or pecans, but those that stand up well to heat and do not get soft. Ultimately, the koftas are friend (Vidya used canola oil).
The gravy, or sauce, when made in the traditional way takes more than an hour. Vidya called hers the “shortcut way” with quick slicing. The sauce began with the butter or ghee and chopped onions. She quartered roma or plum tomatoes and added them along with green chilis (which she notes have better flavor than red), which are cut into small bits and added fresh.
I estimate that Vidya used the following approximate amounts: one whole onion, five tomatoes, three green chilis (but up to six – she said it still wouldn’t be too spicy, but my palate found it pretty hot with just the three!) as well as about two fingers of diced ginger.
Vidya added garam masala (which she said is a bit of a sweeter mixture with more cinnamon and goes with anything and everything, gives a lift to any meal) as well as a can of tomato puree or sauce. Masala, she noted, is basically a spice blend. She added plenty of water (“You want it almost watery”) and salt, two tablespoons of dhanya powder (“Don’t be shy!”) and a little bit of red chili powder, cumin powder and black pepper – these will all help thicken the sauce.
In older times, Vidya said the spices (such as garam masala, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, black pepper, anise flower, lychee, cardamom) would be fried and added early to the dish, but now that spices are processed she likes to add them at the end because the flavor and smell come through better. She added the lid to let the gravy thicken and ground it very smooth in a bullet-style blender – no chunks, please! More butter is added and it all goes back in the sauce pot.
Similar to cottage cheese, paneer is a fresh cheese that is made by heating/curdling whole milk and adding acid (such as lemon juice) to separate the whey from the curds, which are then drained (often overnight) in fine muslin cloth and hung overnight to drain, making the paneer used in various Indian dishes. Vidya used to make paneer herself, but time retraints and its availability in the Indian grocery store have made it more realistic to purchase. In the conversation (see that post) about kitchen staples, Vidya pointed out that everything used to make the entire dish covered in this series was readily available in the larder (or pantry) and inexpensive, and that the paneer would be considered the only pricier special-purchase ingredient.
Vidya mentioned that the paneer is sometimes used to make bhurji, which is similar to scrambled eggs and made using crumbled paneer with the addition of onion, tomatoes and spices such as dhania (or coriander).
Ultimately, the result of all this work and all these posts is the dish itself, called malai kofta. The deep fried koftas are added to the heated sauce just before serving and given one quick turn – this softens them but they do not lose their shape. Add a little fresh cream on top (hence the name of the dish) and serve with the basmati rice and rotis.
This entire dish took less than two and a half hours (this seems lengthy, but keep in mind we were talking, entertaining two toddlers and pausing to take LOTS of pictures, so the meal can easily be prepared for a normal dinner with advance planning in an hour or so.
And, again, please consult a complete recipe for this dish since I have not provided a full list of ingredients and steps, just some tips and basic information. The following two sites have excellent recipes and photographs for malai kofta:
Let me know what you think!