Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cooking with Mustard Seeds

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My Aunt Iysha (pictured above with her grandson Sean) makes the loveliest lemon pickle. Tart and tangy, it’s the perfect accompaniment to freshly steamed white rice. To show affection, she often sends guests off with a bottle of the potent condiment.

In 2008, my sister traveled through Bangalore airport with a jar of the pickle in her carry-on luggage. As she inched her way toward security, she caught sight of a large sign banning FIREARMS, SHARP OBJECTS, AEROSOLES, and…PICKLE. She obediently, though regretfully, pulled out Iyshakochamma’s beloved gift upon reaching the counter. The airport clerk confirmed that she couldn’t take the pickle on board. Before my sister could throw it out, he asked where she got it. She explained that it was a gift from her aunt. To her surprise, he offered to take it home, insisting that it shouldn’t go to waste.

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Like so many Malayalee specialties, pickle gets some of it’s punch and a bit of crunch from brown mustard seeds. The tiny, gray-purple seeds are related to the yellow variety that is pulverized to produce ballpark mustard. However, brown mustard seeds are smaller than yellow ones and have a stronger flavor. They are available in the bulk spice section of most Indian grocery stores.

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Whole mustard seeds must be heated to release their pungent flavor. In Kerala, they are commonly “popped” in hot oil using a process that’s akin to making fresh popcorn. Oil is heated and the mustard seeds are added. As the seeds release their moisture, they start a riot, ricocheting off the bottom and sides of the pan. Aromatics, such as chopped onions, ginger, and garlic, are often added to produce a chutney or a vegetable sauté.


Mustard seeds are also used to flavor oil with dried hot pepper and curry leaves, which is stirred into stews, such as sambar (pictured below). 

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Mustard seeds cook quickly and burn easily, producing a bitter taste. Typically one or two seeds will pop and, after a few seconds, the rest will start to shoot about. Once that starts to happen, watch them carefully. Quickly move on to the next step, whether it’s adding onions or removing the seasoned oil from the heat, after about a fourth of the mustard seeds have popped.

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