Posted by Emily Solomon on September 23, 2014 (0 Comments)
Last night I went to dinner and I was blindfolded. I was afraid to spill anything or dip my hands firmly into any sauces, so I carefully skittered my fingers around my table mat feeling for the sharp edges of my utensils and the bottom part of my wine glass. The other guests were blindfolded as well, and I could tell that they found the whole experience quite entertaining as they talked to each other without knowing exactly which person was receiving their words.
First, we analyzed the wine, almost like a blind tasting in reverse. I noticed the citrus lemon and orange notes of the wine right off the bat. Kristin, who sat across from me, thought for sure that it had to be a Sauvignon Blanc due to its light body and grapefruit notes. I had picked out the wine beforehand so I knew exactly what we were drinking. However, I knew the stainless steel fermentation was going to trip the guests up in terms of determining the varietal.
After a couple of minutes, the first part of our meal arrived. I felt the round structure of the bowl, reached for my spoon and began to taste the delicious concoction. It tasted earthy, with mild spice undertones, almost like nutmeg mixed with butter and black pepper. I later found out that there was no nutmeg in the dish whatsoever. Instead it was a yellow lentil soup cooked in chicken broth, tomatoes and turmeric, then combined with Tadka (a technique where black mustard seed is popped into hot coconut oil or ghee – clarified butter that originated in India – infused with onion and garlic, and, once all the flavors have blended, is added to a dish to flavor it). The wine went perfectly with this meal. The spices were mild enough so as not to overpower the lighter body of the white wine, and the malolactic fermentation accentuated the ghee very nicely. “Emily, can you tell us what the wine is already?” asked Kristin. I answered, “Summerland 2013 Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County”. She was surprised to know that her least favorite varietal could be something she may actually desire. Never say never when it comes to wine.
Next, we moved on to the shrimp, which has quite an interesting texture when you’re blindfolded. The fact that it was chewy and had a tail was the biggest tip-off to what we were eating. “There is a dipping sauce to your 12o’clock,” said Wynne. At first I dipped my finger into it to taste its pureness, then I managed to maneuver the shrimp off its skewer and into the cilantro chutney. The fresh cilantro paired wonderfully with the Garam Masala spices on the shrimp.
The shrimp was significantly more spicy than the lentil soup, and little did I know that Dinesh was just getting our palates ready for the even hotter spices to come. While the food continued to amaze me, my sommelier skills did not prove to be as helpful as I would have hoped. Unfortunately, the wine I had picked did not possess any residual sugar, so it seemed bitter in relation to the spicy Brinjal Bharta, an eggplant dish that had so many exploding flavors of Garam Masala and onions that all of us kept yelling “Carb! Carb!” in order to stop the fiery feeling inside our mouths. This was a dish for which cold beer or even an Alsatian Pinot Gris or Riesling would have been better suited to balance the spiciness of the dish. I hadn’t experienced a bad pairing before, nor had anyone at the table, either – or at least they had never been made aware of it – so I am going to just chalk the experience up to a scientific experiment (a.k.a. don’t pair red wine with spicy Sri Lankan food).
Another smart move on Dinesh’s part was to have his yellow Sri Lankan fried rice with the Brinjal bharta on hand to subdue the heat of the eggplant. The texture of the fried rice was crunchy with a slight sea-like aroma. At first we all thought Dinesh had used some sort of fish flakes to top the rice. My friend Wynne could not stop laughing as we continued to guess the ingredients in the rest of our meal. “I swear it feels like I’m eating with the ninja turtles,” she said. The rest of the people at the table were great at guessing some of the hidden ingredients of cloves, cardamom pods and turmeric. It just went to show me that while I may know the slight differences between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, my palate is not nearly as mature on South Asian cuisine, but that’s why I love meeting great cooks. They won’t tell you their culinary secrets; however, they will let you take a quick adventure around their country’s greatest treasures in return for your company.
The final dish consisted of a Tandoori chicken made with bone-in thigh, leg and breast meat marinated in Tandoori spices and yogurt and then broiled on the grill. The tenderness of the chicken was juicy and delicious. Kristin exclaimed that she had to take off her blindfold because bones were involved. To avoid choking, I followed her lead, as did the rest of the group. It was a funny way to have a meal, but putting your palate to the test is one tasty challenge!
How to Make Brinjal Bharta
- 2 large eggplants
- 2 large tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or canola oil
- 2 medium onions finely chopped
- 2 tsp grated or chopped ginger
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 to 2 tsp cayenne powder
- 2 tsp salt or to taste
- 2 tsp Fragrant Garam Masala
Dice the eggplant and tomatoes. Heat ghee or oil in a large saucepan and fry the onions and ginger on medium heat until they are soft and the onion starts to brown. Add the turmeric powder, cayenne salt and fragrant garam masala and stir thoroughly. Add the eggplant and tomatoes, stir really well and cover. Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally until all the liquid evaporates and the combination of the eggplant and tomatoe forms into a thick purée.
Served hot or cold, Brinjal Batha is ideal as a dip for naans and pita bread.
Tip: Grill the eggplant over charcoal to impart a smokey flavor.