Sort of reminds me of that old TV cook show from the 90’s (or was it 80’s?) with a Chinese chef, some Martin Yan, who had this perpetual smile plastered across his face that was somehow both endearing and unbelievably irritating all at once. He almost grew on you with that signature line of his, the same line that named his show and that he’d chant out religiously at the beginning and end of each episode “if Yan can cook! Sooo can YOU!” Ah memories.
Well, that sort of signature line is not exactly a compliment in some ways. If I were a chef, I’d want to be so brilliant at it that people should have their hands burned and scarred before they could recreate the products of my inner culinary genius. No ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to whip up my master creations on their stove tops. I tend to be competitive like that.
But on a different note, I also think back to Yan’s words with some cynical disdain. It just makes me suspicious when T.V. chefs or good home cooks (especially grandmoms) tell me that something is so easy to make that anyone can make it. “It’s as easy as pie!” Right. As if baking pies were as easy as slapping together a bread and jelly sandwich. It’s a trap I tell you. Don’t be fooled. Sure, the recipe sounds simple…a dash of this, a dash of that, and it's done! But in reality, there’s usually some mysterious, indescribable element – call it love, or talent, or sheer magic – that no one but the chef can add, most often unconsciously, which completely transforms a simple sounding dish into something that hits the spot in this incredible sort of way that no imposter recreation can. Like the rat in Ratatouille, who didn’t just serve a recipe, but rather, created an experience, an association, a feeling, that transported his customers, even the tight-lipped English food critic, chef Anton Ego, to a world beyond food. The moral of that animated story was that if someone something as insignificant and wretched as a rat can become a master chef, we all have this great potential in us too. The quintessential American dream.
But I’ll say it again. Don’t be fooled. If Yan, or the rat in Ratatouille for that matter, can do it, doesn’t usually mean you can. That’s just the harsh reality of a world where food is not just about the physiological elements – taste, touch, smell. But also of many intangibles that only some, rare and gifted chefs, can incorporate into their edible works.
(One fool proof way to detect when you cross one of these humble, gifted chefs who lead you completely astray with their "simple" recipe is when their response to:
how much of ingredient x did you add in this dish?
oh, there’s no real hard and fast measurement, just a teaspoon or two, I just do it based on gut.
Damn that gut. It’s impossible to copy.)
Now some chefs are recipe-followers. Or executioners of sorts – they see a recipe, and do a darn good job of executing it. Like Julie in Julie and Julia. She basically aced each of not her own, but Julia Child’s recipes. Nothing wrong with that, these people are good at what they do. As precise as scientists, following the recipe to the ‘T’ and pouring out that cup of milk right to the mark. Nothing more, nothing less.
But where the glamour is really at is for those chefs who are Artists. Thinkers. Creators. They design recipes in their mind, like the Southern waitress Jenna in the movie Waitress.
Jenna deep in thought one day, worried sick about getting pregnant and subsequently cheating on her horrid husband Earl, and then thinking up of the perfect pie for her sad, twisted situation. Earl Murders Me Because I'm Having An Affair Pie... You smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust. I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong And I Don't Want Earl To Kill Me Pie... Vanilla custard with banana. Hold the banana. Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie... Lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in. Flambé of course.
That’s a creator. Who follows no recipe, but the strange creative longings of her own mental taste buds. Who knows what inspires her, but when she's in the kitchen, she become an artist at work. And God help you if you just skip away thinking you can just dabble around and get the same result on your own. I repeat, don’t be fooled.
Coming back to the person I started talking about before my whole philosophical detour on artistic vs. scientific chefs and getting conned by the former, my dad is an artist. Complete free spirit in the kitchen, no rules, no constraints. And definitely no measurements. As I mentioned earlier, his most famous creation is his proprietary slow braised Indian curried turkey. After all these years, I’m still in awe at how he gets every layer of that 6 kg mass of bird to sop up all the masala and gravy, to the melting point where it literally separates into thin juicy strands of turkey meat, falling into a heap at the touch of the carving knife. How he does it, only he knows. His flippant response when you plead for the recipe is: “Ah it’s really nothing. So easy. I just throw in whatever I feel like and it works.”
Don’t. Be. Fooled.
Over the last month, he’s made that blessed turkey twice – once for my sister’s birthday, and then once for our office staff. Both times, people swooned. They raved. They flattered. And many begged for the recipe. So despite the fact that I believe that this turkey is a product of creative artistry – and cannot be recreated – I’ll indulge myself and all the others who’ve begged for the secret ingredients by penning down a recipe-looking version of the script I’ve managed to extract from my dad. Goes without saying, none of the measurements are exact.
- Whole turkey – dad’s favourite is the Butterball brand. Available at your local Spinneys if you're in Dubai. Last time he used a 6, or 6 ½ kg one.
- Ginger garlic paste (available at almost any grocery store in Dubai, and definitely all Indian stores)
- 1-2 Lemons (basically enough to give the whole turkey a good rubdown)
- Baby carrots or 1 inch cubed regular carrots – as many as you fancy
- 1 inch cubed potatoes – again, no set quantity. If you’re a potato lover, you can go all out and add 10. If not, stick to 3 or 4.
- Deep fried and well-drained (i.e. super crispy, non oily) onions. If you don’t know how to fry them to a dry crisp, then save yourself the agony and get them from a store. That’s what I’d do anyway.
For the Yogurt Marinade:
- 2kg of plain yogurt
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 3-4 tbsp coriander powder
- 3-4 tbsp cumin powder
- 2-3 tbsp red chilli powder (more or less, based on your spice tolerance)
- 1 tbsp of garam masala
- Salt to taste. He probably added in 3 tbsp or so…though again, even he doesn’t exactly know.
- Fresh milled pepper. The only kind you should use. The pre-milled pepper shakers just make you sneeze without adding much of anything to flavour.
- …and his (now not-so) secret ingredient…2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar. Very uncharacteristic of Indian marinades, but this may be what makes gives dad’s turkey its sour, tangy edge. That’s a spark of the artist, right there.
(For those recipe executioners out there, you’ll appreciate how scientific I’ve tried to be about an absolutely laissez-faire method of making turkey):
Note: T = time at which you plunk your fork into the turkey and take that first gravy-drenched bite of tender white meat.
T – 2 days of marinating time – 6 hours of cooking time
After recently discovering the incremental juiciness of a turkey marinated for 2 days, rather than just 1, Dad swears by his two day marinating ritual. Start out by piercing the bird all over with a knife – this helps ensure that the marinade seeps all the way in. Next, rub the entire surface down with ginger garlic paste and lemon juice, and drown submerge the turkey in a large pot containing a well-combined and stirred yoghurt marinade. Now's also a good time to throw in those carrots and potatoes that you'd cubed up at the start.
Let the turkey lounge about in your refrigerator for the next 2 days (if you have a tiny fridge, this may be a great opportunity to throw out the dead, fungi-infested leftovers that you’d been hoarding up since New Year’s to make place for the marinating bird).
T – 6 hours
Remove the turkey from the fridge at least 1 or 2 hours before you’re going to throw it into the oven so that it has a chance to return to room temperature. Dunk some of the yogurt marinade from the bottom of the pot over the bird so that it can recoat the upper surface, and then liberally sprinkle it all over with crispy fried onions and almonds.
T – 4 hours
Preheat the oven to 260 degrees C or 500 degrees F.
T – 3 hours
Once the turkey has returned to room temperature, cover the bird with aluminium foil and lug it into the oven. If you’re a lightweight, this is a good time to find some strong muscly friend who can heave the bird in and out of the oven. All for the price of free curried turkey of course.
You could reduce the oven temperature a bit – to around 220-240 degrees C or so (420 – 460 degrees F). Dad just typically stands near the oven, gets blasted with the heat, and then accordingly adjusts the temperature up or down based on ‘what feels right.’
T – 2 hours
Remove the turkey from the oven, and re-ladle the bubbling gravy from the bottom of the pot all over the surface. This keeps the turkey focused on absorbing all that savory masala flavour as well as its own juices that have been released into the pot.
Now here’s the tricky part. Turn – yep, you heard it right, turn the entire 6 kg burning hot and wet mammoth – turn the entire thing over so that it’s belly flat in the pot. This does two things for us. First, it allows the meat on the top of the bird to get braising time in the curry. And second, it also allows the lower part of the bird to get browning time up on the top. Once dad’s turkey braising skills came out in the open, we invested in these huge fork-like implements made specifically for handling turkey from Williams-Sonoma in New York.
Even with these trusty weapons, you may still need two people and an additional fork or knife or whatever you can use to prop and stabilize the turning turkey. If you don’t own these, don’t despair. Dad has made turkey without them on many an occasion just using gigantic carving forks and ladles.
Wear an apron. Yogurt marinade in mouth is delish. Yogurt marinade on your skinny jeans, not so delish.
T – 15 mins
Time to check on doneness. Pull the turkey out, turn it back right side up, and check whether it’s done. Different people have different ways of checking for doneness – does a morsel near the thigh taste done, does a thermometer pierced into the thigh record around 76 degrees C (170 degrees F), or is the turkey meat disintegrating into smithereens (a little too overdone for some, but I love that texture…almost like gravy plump strands of Southern style pulled BBQ meat.) We typically use the first and third methods, the thermometer being far too precise and jarring in a kitchen where creative flow and improvisation reigns supreme. In the words of dad, (as he caught me looking up poultry cook times for this blog), “better not to follow anything. Just do what you feel like.”
If it’s done, and not overcooked yet, throw it for another 15 mins on the broil setting – this gives it that last finishing touch of golden brown crust up top.
Carve (or rip away at the bird like a barbarian if you can’t be bothered with formalities).
I usually eat only the turkey meat on the first day – no bread, no rice, no distractions. Just the meat, and the salty, brothy gravy full of masala and turkey juices, which I lap up with more meat. Other folks on the table are usually less barbaric and build up daintier looking plates with rice and accompaniments. But dainty is over-rated, I just want my meat.
The baby carrots deserve a special mention, they’re just so soft and plumped up with gravy that you’d almost wish all vegetables were born like that. Intoxicated with turkey gravy.
The curried turkey stores up really well. We usually drain out much of the excess gravy and store the meat in the fridge, reheating the entire box every 5-6 days or so in order to kill any lurking bacteria that may have found shelter in the refrigerated meat. In fact, I’ve been eating toasted turkey and cheese sandwiches every day for the last 20 days since the day we made the turkey (and I'm still going strong!), and the meat is still - in KFC lingo - finger lickin' good.
So there you have it. Every last detail of dad’s self-made turkey recipe. I challenge those of you planning a traditional Thanksgiving stuffed roast with cranberry chutney this year to switch it up for this Indianized version…after all, ethnic is in these days. All I ask of those of my adventurous friends and colleagues who have tasted the real turkey by the man himself, and who are now attempting this feat in their kitchen, don’t beat yourself up if it tastes nothing like the original. It’s not that you didn’t get the ingredients right. Or that you set the temperature all wrong (though that may well have been the case too.) It’s just that darned gut factor, that evasive magic touch, and that I can’t transcribe.