I spent half of my childhood in a Southern Indian city called Hyderabad. What I love the most about this city is its food. Hyderabadi cuisine is spicy, complex, and flavourful, with a fascinating history. (I’ve already touched upon some of this, including the story of the origins of Hyderabadi food and its evolution (involving the Mughals and the Nizams) in a previous post.) On top of all this, several Hyderabadi dishes play an important role in my own personal history. For instance, I have memories of delicious Biryani lunches with my father at Nizam Club, during which we would have long chats about communism, god, black holes, and the senselessness of vegetarian Biryani (I maintained, and continue to maintain, that Biryani must be made with mutton, or, in an emergency, with chicken; my father, is more flexible in principle, but frankly, seems to agree with me in practice), amongst other things.
Another dish that I love and associate fond memories with is Kheema. Kheema is spicy minced meat, and it’s made in different parts of India in slightly different ways. Kheema reminds me of Hussein, an elderly, gentle, kind, funny, patient man, who was our chauffeur. I used to be driven to and from school by Hussein, whom I was really very fond of. As it turned out, Hussein’s wife made the most delicious kheema, and every time she made some, he would bring me left-overs the next morning, which I would eat for lunch in school. This was a special treat as my parents’ was a vegetarian household, and no meat was ever cooked or served in it.
Of and on, over the past decade, I’ve craved kheema made just like that. But, I no longer eat meat, and in any case, I have no idea how to make kheema that tastes like Hussein’s wife’s recipe. Today, I decided that I was going to make some kheema, one way or another; I was gripped by a craving so powerful, that I set about crafting a recipe with a kind of single-minded determination that I only wish I could summon when I sit down to write a chapter of my thesis. Although I don’t eat meat, I do eat fish, so awful as this is likely to sound to a Hyderabadi, I decided to make fish kheema. Using a recipe for “Bhuna Kheema” and adapting it quite a bit (for instance, I used tomatoes, which isn’t common in Hyderabadi recipes, and of course, I was using fish instead of mutton/chicken), I arrived at this creation:
It was delicious, even if it wasn’t quite authentic, and it still had a distinct flavour profile that resembled the kheema from my child hood! If you’d like to try it, here’s what you will need:
1 pound fish fillets (any white fish should do, used haddock)
2-3 tablespoons oil (the more you use, the better the kheema will taste, up to a point of course)
1/2 stick cinnamon
2 bay leaves
A handful of curry leaves
4 cardamom pods
1 large red onion, (dice 3 quarters and slice the remaining quarter)
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon grated ginger
10 sprigs of coriander, chopped
5-8 mint leaves
6 green chillies, chopped
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons red chilli powder (I used 1 teaspoon Kashmiri mirch powder and 1 teaspoon extra hot red chilli powder that I bought at an Indian store)
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Boil the fish in a pot of water with 1 teaspoon of salt. Cool the fish and chop it into bite sized pieces.
Heat oil in a pan and fry the bay leaves, cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaves, and cloves. Once the spices become fragrant, add the onion and fry until golden brown. Now, add the grated ginger and crushed garlic, and fry for a few minutes.
Next, add the chopped chillies, followed by the mint, coriander, salt, turmeric powder, chilli powder, coriander powder and garam a masala. Fry for a bit, and then add the chopped tomatoes. Fry some more.
Finally, add the boiled fish with a little bit of water, and toss. Using a flat ladle, break up the fish into little pieces, whilst stirring everything on medium to high heat. Continue periodically stirring the mixture until the water dries up, and the fish begins to look like mince meat. At this point, take the fish off the heat, squeeze some lime juice on it, stir it, and serve it with some coriander and/or mint leaves garnished on top. You can eat kheema with naan, roti, chapati, parathas, or just by itself. I ate it with chapatis and dahi (Indian-style Yoghurt), and made a cup of lemon tea to wash it all down.