By Joe Yonan
Kashmir loomed large in Romy Gill's imagination long before she visited.
As the British Indian chef and author writes in her new book, "On the Himalayan Trail", she marvelled as a child at the "paradise" she saw in Bollywood movies that were filmed in the remote valley. That was when she was growing up in West Benghal, where she later learnt about the culture, religion, language and – perhaps most importantly for her future career – the food of the region from Kashmiri families who worked with her father.
Gill finally travelled there last year, during the pandemic, to research a book she hopes will inspire readers to discover the region through their kitchens.
Kashmir makes headlines because it is a disputed territory, with India, Pakistan and China fighting over it. Besides its renowned physical beauty, Kashmir is known for violence and turmoil, making it akin to South Asia's equivalent of the Palestinian territories, as one Washington Post opinion writer once put it.
Gill doesn't shy away from politics entirely in her book. But, for the most part, she wants to keep the focus squarely on the glories of Kashmiri cuisine, which is influenced by two communities: Pandits and Muslims.
This Kashmiri recipe from author and chef Romy Gill channels the best of the region's cooking: a simple technique with a delectable result, full of complex flavours from the layering of spaces. Gill calls it a "beautiful, tasty bowl of yellow sunshine", and it is. To make the dish vegan, substitute extra-firm tofu for the paneer and full-fat coconut milk for the dairy milk.
Chaman Kaliya (Paneer in Yellow Gravy) (Serves 4)
3 tablespoons mustard oil (may substitute neutral vegetable oil, such as sunflower)
450g paneer (may substitute extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry), cut into cubes
8 green cardamom pods
4 black cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 dried bay leaves
2 whole Indian green chillies, such as Kashmiri (may substitute Thai green chillies or serrano chillies), halved lengthwise
1½ teaspoons ground fennel
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon asafetida powder (hing)
1¼ cups hot water
1¼ cups whole milk (may substitute full-fat coconut milk)
1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi)
Cooked rice, for serving
In a large pan over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the paneer and fry until lightly browned on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. (The paneer tends to sputter in oil; use a splatter guard if needed.) Transfer to a plate.
Add the green and black cardamom, cloves, cumin seeds and bay leaves to the pan and cook, stirring, until very fragrant, about 1 minute, then add the chillies, fennel, turmeric, ginger, salt and asafetida. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute, then pour in the hot water.
Increase the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until the liquid is simmering, add the fried paneer and cook until the water slightly reduces, about 3 minutes. Pour in the milk and cook until the gravy thickens, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the fenugreek leaves, divide among serving bowls and serve hot with rice.
Adapted from "On the Himalayan Trail: Recipes and Stories from Kashmir to Ladakh" by Romy Gill (Hardie Grant, 2022). The book is available to purchase on Loot.co.za for R514. Click here to place an order