Everyone has a half used jar of mustard lurking around in the kitchen somewhere, right? It’s a store cupboard staple that adds a warming zing to a plethora of dishes. In India however, its the seeds themselves that are used as a spice across all cuisines in the subcontinent. You’ll recognise those little balls of punchy flavour if that jar in your cupboard is wholegrain mustard.
Mustard (the condiment and the spice seeds) has a pungent and spicy-hot flavour which makes it a great accompaniment to fatty, salty foods - hence the paint-like drizzle of the stuff on hot dogs. It’s sharp and tangy with an earthy heat that is sometimes used in place of chilli. We always use the black seeds for cooking for their stronger flavour.
My most vivid memory of mustard was soon after graduating when I interned on the picture desk of a national newspaper. Key phrase there being ‘just graduated,’ I frugally made my packed lunch of ham and mustard sandwiches everyday and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed up to London I went. I hadn’t really eaten this bright yellow condiment much, and with it not being the bright chilli-red I associated with heat, I covered my sarnies in English mustard.
“I love sauce” I said to myself,
“I want all the sauce”
as I unpacked my lunch in the canteen full of people I desperately wanted to offer me a job during the peak of the financial crisis. One bite and the burning, almost fizzing sensation of too much mustard shot from the roof of my mouth, tingled up through my nose and directly into what felt like my brain. If you’ve ever had too much wasabi in one bite the feeling is the same. With my entire head feeling like it was on fire I have no idea what shapes my face was pulling. An embarrassing but an important life lesson learnt – do not fuck with mustard.
Sarnies aside, mustard leaves are traditionally used in saag (spinach curries), and for a leafy green bring an unexpected spiciness. You can get them from South-Asian grocers, and are easy to grow too. These leaves as well as the seeds are full of lutein and carotene, which are both beneficial for eye health. In traditional ayurvedic practice in India mustard seeds are used to treat problems with digestion like cramps and trapped wind.
I’m using a new technique for using whole spices in this recipe - tempering. This is different to the tempering those of you with the Bake Off bug are used to doing with chocolate. In Indian cooking it means popping spice seeds in hot oil to release the flavours and healing properties, rather than the roasting, toasting and grinding from previous recipes. When you see tadka dhal on a menu, the chef will have finished the dhal with a tempering of spices and maybe garlic.
Cabbage Thoran is a typical south Indian dish. A simple and quick veggie side, it’s commonly eaten as part of sadya, a big meal served at special occasions consisting of lots of different dishes served on a banana leaf. The holy trinity of mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut are the backbone of south Indian cuisine, and give a flavour miles away from the traditionally north Indian or Bengali food of ‘curry houses.’
This is a tasty vegan side dish that will make you re-think any memories of sad over-boiled cabbage. The coconut really lifts it and adds a tropical sweetness to the dish, which is perfect served with dhal and rice for a cheap and nutritionally balanced meal.
You could say it really… cuts the mustard (sorry I had to).
Oil - one that will withstand high temperatures. For this reason and the other coconut added later I use coconut oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
10-15 fresh or dried curry leaves
½ tsp dried red chilli flakes
½ medium white cabbage, finely sliced and the tough core removed
Half a mug of desiccated coconut (use fresh if you can find it, but desiccated is fine)
Handful of fresh coriander, chopped
Add the oil to the pan on a low heat. Once you can see that its hot raise the heat to medium, and add the mustard seeds. I find heating the oil gently this way helps to avoid burning the seeds.
Once the mustard seeds have started to make a popping sound, add the cumin seeds and cook till they start to turn a darker shade of brown.
Stir in the onion and curry leaves with a pinch of salt to prevent them from sticking. You want to cook the onions till translucent so they will only need a few minutes.
Once the onions are nearly cooked, add the chilli and turmeric. Stir well and keep your nose locked on the turmeric smell – once it goes toasty and warm this stage is done.
Add the cabbage and mix to ensure the cabbage is coated in the yellow spicy oniony goodness. Add a splash of water, cover and turn down to a low heat.
The cabbage should take around 10-15 minutes to cook, but keep checking and stirring. You want it to be completely cooked through but still with some bite. It should start to brown in some places too.
Add the coconut and stir through. If you’re using desiccated you can add a little more water here to help plump it up and resemble the fresh stuff more.
Cook for a few more minutes, seasoning with salt and a pinch of sugar (this helps to accentuate the coconut flavour).
A really tasty and quick salad from the Gujurat region of India is tempering a load of mustard seeds in a generous amount of hot oil and quickly pouring over a bowl of seasoned raw grated carrot. Mix well, season and enjoy this crunchy, spicy and fresh side dish.
A spoon of whatever jar of mustard you have in the cupboard brings any white-sauce or cheese based dish to life. Try it in cauliflower cheese for the surprise ingredient everyone will be begging you for your secret.
Again the condiment is just generally a vegan staple. A dash adds the umami hit that is sometimes missing from scrambled tofu and any recipe where a milk substitute has been used.
Ruby (@rubydhalay) is a foodie who is passionate about finding pleasure and nourishment in food, exploring an holistic approach to cooking and eating.
Every month she'll be taking culinary inspiration from her roots and focussing on a different spice - talking about flavour, provenance, health and wellbeing, and most importantly how to get the most out of them in your cooking