As soon as you enter Peppermill’s dining room, there’s no mistaking the vibrant influences of India. Colours are bold and design aspects are ornate enough to adorn a maharaja’s palace. But that’s not where the colonial cues end.
I’m here to meet brand chef Dilip Johri, the man behind the haute-Indian restaurant’s new menu, and head behind the scenes to the kitchen where I’ll try my hand at making some of the restaurant’s fare – dishes that hearken back to the subcontinent’s colonial era when its exotic and endemic spices mingled with European cooking styles.
Entering the kitchen, I’m happily slapped in the face by heady, spicy aromas. It’s early in the day, before the lunch crowd has arrived, and the kitchen is in full preparatory mode: marinated fish sizzles in an enormous karhai, butter chicken (an unsurprising best seller) bubbles in vats and ground spices and fresh herbs cover tabletops waiting to be sprinkled into curries.
I’m looking forward to making my own curry, but I’m first led to a table with neatly arranged containers of diced chilli peppers, cumin, ginger, chopped coriander, grated potato and kingfish that had been marinated then sautéed before being shredded into fine pieces. Appropriately, I’ll first be creating a couple of the new menu’s appetisers before digging into a rich curry.
The chic interior of the Peppermill in Abu Dhabi
I begin with Dakshin Fish Cakes. The Hindi word dakshin translates to “south”, the region where these fried cakes originate, as well as the spices and ingredients spread before me. “Authenticity is key,” says chef Johri, “and we prepare each dish as true to its original recipe as we can, excluding only the occasional, odd ingredients we are unable to obtain here.”
Combining all of the ingredients, with as little grated potato as possible – enough to bind the ingredients but little enough to ensure the fish flavour prevails – and a squeeze of lime, the mix is patted into 7-cm cakes before gently frying to a golden crisp. A simple way to ease into cooking Indian cuisine, they’re ready to bite into before I know it. The result? A patty exterior that’s light and crisp, with the succulent flavour of fresh fish, and a light hint of spice that doesn’t overwhelm.
A little more involved are the Anglo-Indian Chicken Cutlets, a favourite colonial recipe hailing from Calcutta that I’m delighted has re-emerged today in this kitchen. Readying to sautée freshly minced chicken, I first toss a bouquet of spices into the frying pan. As heady aromas are released, chef Johri quickly cautions: “Never cook the spices too long – they’ll go off colour and off taste”. Duly noted.
The Malai prawn biriyani is nothing less than succulent
Once the chicken has cooked with sautéed onion paste, ginger and garlic paste and tomato, it’s ready to be stuffed into a casing mix that consists of grated potato with breadcrumbs, salt and coriander, then flattened and shaped into a tear-shaped cutlet, and eased gently into a pool of oil to deep fry. A few minutes later it emerges golden from the vigorously bubbling pot, a crisp, savoury and subtly spicy treat that is enhanced with Peppermill’s house-made tomato chutney – a dollop will do for a sweet and spicy kick.
Rounding out my meal is the Homestyle Chicken Curry, a hearty and straightforward recipe you could imagine being dished up on a chilly evening at a hill station outpost – although it’s still readily found today throughout the entirety of the country. Spice, along with rich ghee, is key as always. “It’s as simple as this: If you don’t add spices to the ghee, the curry will not be good. It’s essential,” says chef Johri.
After the bouquet sizzles in the ghee (but only briefly, I’m careful to ensure), ginger and garlic paste, sautéed onion paste, then a melange of ground spices mingle together before adding tomato sauce and large chunks of chicken. An aroma that’s almost sweet – courtesy of the ghee and tomato – emanates from the karhai, but before long the addition of chicken stock (necessary because the meat used is boneless), chopped coriander and garam masala bring a rich and savoury scent to the curry that any Indian-cuisine connoisseur will find comfortingly familiar.
With the chicken cooked through, I’m ready to sample my final creation – a creamy and flavoursome gravy that ensconces juicy bites of chicken. It’s a treat to my taste buds fresh from the stovetop, but “give it a day to mingle all together,” chef Johri sagely advises, “the flavour enriches and infuses with the chicken, making it all the better”.
The important bit