With his mastery of Indian cooking techniques and a particular skill with spicing, chef Alfred Prasad has earned London's Tamarind restaurant a Michelin star. Here he takes Michael Raffael through the process of making tandoor-baked seafood kababs.
Kabab" is a word with a history. In Turkish, "kebap" refers to roast meat and "şiş" (shish) describes the chunks that go on skewers. The word kebab found its way into English 300 years ago from the Hindi "kabab" and it's this form that figures most often in Indian restaurants.
In the subcontinent there are hundreds of variations on the kebab-kabab theme, and not all refer to skewered meats. Some are fried on a kind of griddle or tawa; some are chargrilled; and some are baked in a tandoor, the clay oven that originated in north India and that we tend to associate with Punjabi cooking.
Broiling fish over coals isn't new to India any more than elsewhere. Baking fish or shellfish in the clay oven is a recent technique - not least because the Punjab is landlocked. Tandoori cooking gives an added dimension to fish and shellfish cuisine: it alters the texture both on and beneath the surface. Herbs and spices penetrate the core. They also form an outer crust.
Obtaining the characteristic taste calls for a specific preparation method. The key to it is a two-step marinade. In the first, salt and lemon juice extract moisture from the flesh and help to firm it up. At the same time a ginger and garlic paste acts as a kind of flavour "undercoat". The second, yogurt-based, marinade protects the surface during the baking. It also carries the herb and spice seasonings that give a recipe its distinctive notes.
This method isn't suited to small gobbets of fish or shellfish; it doesn't produce flesh that's rare on the inside. It does pack a punch, though, and enhances flavour in the same way that a sauce américaine, say, can lift a broiled lobster.
Alfred Prasad had already been executive chef at the Chennai (Madras) Sheraton hotel when he came to England in 1999. Initially a sous chef at Namita Panjabi's Veeraswamy, he joined Tamarind two years later, becoming its head chef in 2002. This year the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star.
His kitchen, he says, has a different feel from one with a typical Western brigade. The last chef to join him has already been there three years. He also argues that his team works fewer hours: three split shifts and two straight.
His tandoor chef Ali Mustaq has, he says, a pivotal role, far more demanding than that of any grill chef, because each kabab will cook slightly differently in the clay oven, as the oven's temperature will fluctuate according to how many orders come through at one time and how busy the restaurant is.
Prasad's special skill is his command of spicing and seasoning. He has an unerring ability to match Indian know-how to Western palates.
BASIC PREP BEFORE STARTING**
GARLIC GINGER PASTE This is a flavouring that's an integral part of Tamarind's basic prep, made up in quantities of at least a kilo at a time.
Weigh equal amounts of peeled, fresh ginger and garlic cloves. Pass them through a fine-blade mincer. Blend in a food processor with 1-2tbs of oil to help emulsify the mixture. Store in a sealed container.
Prasad says that in India the ginger is more pungent and there he'd use a higher proportion of garlic to ginger.
GARAM MASALA There are as many garam masala recipes as there are cooks, and no two are alike. This is the version Tamarind uses in the second stage of its marinade.
Broil (dry-fry) a handful each of broken cinnamon sticks and cardamom and half a handful each of cumin and black peppercorns until they become fragrant. Mill them to a powder with 1tbs cloves, two blades mace, about half a grated nutmeg and 4-5 bay leaves, depending on their size.
GRAM FLOUR ROUX This prevents the yogurt marinade dripping from the prawns or fish. It's one of the routine kitchen preparations made in batches of 1kg upwards.
Heat ghee, or clarified butter, in a large pan. Add an equal weight of chickpea flour (gram). Cook out slowly until the roux has a sandy colour - something more than a classic blond roux. It will separate when cooled with a thin fat layer on the surface.
BATCH SIZE AND SERVICE
Tamarind serves between 100 and 140 covers in the evenings, and about 80% of those eating order at least one tandoor-baked dish. Because there is no pre-cooking and reheating, the food preparation needs to be both structured and precise.
A typical batch size for the jhinga ajwaini kabab could be 20 portions. The prawns get a first marinade and are refrigerated at least 30 minutes before service. At the start of a session the complete batch is mixed with the second (yogurt) marinade and kept chilled.
When an order comes through, the prawns (four per portion) are threaded on to the skewer and baked. This would be a very large serving for one person, but the dish is often shared by a table.
COST AND YIELD
Tamarind's giant salt-water tiger prawns have a 4-5 per kg calibre. The cost per piece with its marinade is about £4. One portion of four prawns sells for £22. The side dishes - rice, bread, pickles, daals, curries, starters and desserts - balance the books.
Tamarind operates with 24-26% food costs. "If our customers just ordered bread and prawns," says Prasad, "we'd be broke."
GIANT TIGER PRAWNS Tamarind buys giant salt-water tiger prawns imported from south India. Whole, they weigh 200g to 300g each and are 20-30cm long.
Giant tiger prawns marinated with ginger, yogurt, paprika and ajwain
Note: For the photography, the chef worked with a small quantity equivalent to about two portions. The ingredients listed below relate to 10 portions.
Note: Ajwain seeds often get compared to celery or caraway, but their taste is distinctive. They contain similar essential oils to thyme, but this isn't a substitute. Use it with discretion because the flavour is strong.
• 40 giant tiger prawns, without heads
For the first marinade • About 100ml lemon juice
• Salt to taste
• About 70ml vegetable ghee (neutral oil)
About 150g garlic ginger paste (see above)
For the second marinade • 1tsp turmeric powder
• 2-3tsp strong paprika or chilli powder
• 2tsp garam masala (see above)
• 1-2tsp ajwain
• 50ml vegetable ghee
• 60-70g gram flour roux (see above)
• 400ml Greek yogurt, strained
Photo by Lisa Barber (www.lisabarber.co.uk/)
Remove all the shell from the prawns, except around the tail (1).
To extract the gut, cut down through the middle of the back from head to tail; take out the length of intestine with the tip of the knife. The cut should be quite deep so that the prawns will split open when skewered and baked. Rinse the prawns and drain.
For the first marinade, put the prawns in a basin or colander. Add the lemon juice and salt and mix well. Add the ghee and garlic ginger paste. Mix until the prawns are evenly coated. Leave to drain in a colander or similar for at least 20 minutes so that any moisture drains away, and refrigerate until just before service (2).
For the second marinade, sprinkle the turmeric, paprika and garam masala over the prawns. Add the oil and ajwain. Knead gently for a minute or two. Add the gram flour roux and yogurt (3). Continue to mix by hand until each prawn is well coated with the marinade (4).
If the texture of the marinade is correct, the surface of the prawns will look pasty and there will be no water seepage. Marinate for at least 30 minutes before cooking. Keep chilled.
For threading the giant prawns, Indian restaurants use skewers made from iron as they are excellent conductors of heat. They are about 90cm long and have a hook at one end.
To thread four prawns on the skewer, pierce each one twice so that it stays in place during baking (5). They should fit comfortably in the middle of the skewer, neither too near the base nor too near the top (6).
Baking in the tandoor depends on its heat, but from start to finish cooking time will take less than 10 minutes (7). During this time, the skewers may be moved or turned so that the cooking is even. The shell tails will be charred at the tips.
Note: Tamarind always bakes to order. During service, it might part-bake the kabab, hang it from a hook and then return it to the tandoor for flash-roasting at the last moment before serving.
ZAFFRANI MACCHI - KINGFISH KABAB
When choosing fish species for kababs, work with firm-textured fish: monkfish, kingfish, mahi-mahi, grouper or (sustainable) tuna. They should also be relatively large species, because each piece of fish should weigh about 50g.
• 12 x 40-50g cubes of king fish fillet
• Lemon juice, salt, oil and ginger garlic paste marinade
For the second marinade • 1tbs cumin powder
• 1tsp chilli powder
• ½tsp turmeric powder
• 1tsp ground mustard powder
• Pinch Iranian saffron
• 2 lime leaves, finely shredded
• 2-3tbs coriander leaves, chopped
• 2tbs gram flour roux (see above)
• 150-200ml yogurt, strained
Follow the same instructions as for the prawns. Marinate in lemon, salt, oil and ginger garlic paste, allowing the fish to drain over a colander.
Coat with the second marinade, taking care to knead thoroughly. The marinade changes colour and becomes reddish-brown. Leave the prawns for at least 30 minutes before threading on skewers and baking.
Tamarind uses two tandoor ovens in its kitchen - one for cooking breads the other for meat, fish, cheese and vegetables. Both are heated by charcoal, although gas-fired ovens are available as an alternative.
The ovens cost about £650 each. They need relining with clay once a year (£300-plus). The restaurant serves about 1,000 covers per week, and during that period it will burn 12 bags of charcoal at £11 per bag.
Newly clayed ovens have to be seasoned before use, partly to prevent cracking and partly to give a patination on the surface that will allow the breads to stick. Tamarind cures its ovens with jaggery, oil and spinach purée. A layer of paste is spread on the surface and the oven is heated gently until the coating burns away.
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