Mamta's Kitchen

Forum Thread - Keema

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Neil, on 31/5/2009 10:22am

Hi Mamta,

I tried your keema recipe yesterday, and it came out really good. I was just wondering if you could help me out on a few issues.

1. Is the order in which you add the ingredients important : you add tomatoes before the mince? I have read in many recipes, that sealing the mince in the hot oil gives better results i.e. adding mince before the tomatoes. If you add tomatoes before the mince you will only be able to simmer/stew the mince in the water from the tomatoes, rather than seal it.

2. This question applies to all curries really: do you find the taste of whole cumin seeds in curries rather strong? I find that biting into the seeds gives such a powerful flavour that it takes over the whole dish. At the moment I tend to add the equivalent amount in cumin powder, which I add with the other powdered spices. Is this a common practice?

Thanks very much for any help and the wonderful recipes


Askcy, on 31/5/2009 10:28am

Neil, its a fair comment that adding things in different orders makes a difference to the end result !

I start the majority of my own recipes by frying the onions first then adding meat, where many people would fry the meat then add the onions. I find if I put mincemeat in first it ends up like little hard bits in the sauce and the onions tend not to brown properly. The other way around the onions can soften and caramalise and the meat stays lovely and soft....

As for cumin seeds over powering ? I've just been to my spice cupboard and eaten one straight from the jar, its not a massive hit of flavour ! Its a mild underlying curry flavour (almost identical to taste of cumin powder). If anything was giving you a big hit of flavour in a curry I would have thought it would be the cardamon seeds ?


Askcy, on 31/5/2009 11:40am

I think its a case of each to their own...

I've seen curries made by mixing all the spices in water to create a paste...

curries where the spices are the first thing into the hot oil

Others where the onions and peppers are cooked then removed then the meat is cooked then the spices added etc...

Here is my general thought on adding spices to a dish (and not just for curries)

Lots of the actual chemicals that make up the spice flavour are only fat soluble so don't mix well in water.

Dry frying some spices would make it easier to grind them up (by drying them out) which would suggest its drying the oils/moisture out of them and as you can smell it in the air would suggest some of the chemicals are being lost to the air. I can see a need for this sort of thing for a toasted flavour but I have an electric powered grinder so I simply put my spices in that (unless following a recipe of Mamtas that states put this into dry pan etc).

If you add spices into water they tend not break down as much as when added to oil then water (which I presume is because the parts that absorb the oil can soften better and then the water can breakdown the rest) if you add spices to water it sometimes gives a gritty texture (especially if you aren't leaving the dish to cook for hours)

As for the onions/meat/tomato etc...

Well I'm a fan of well browned onions that give much more flavour, breakdown in the sauce better so I'd always put the onions on first.

If the meat also wanted that browned/seared texture I'd remove the onions and let the pan heat up again, then put the meat in... otherwise I'd just add the meat into the onions..

Tomatoes don't really seem to gain much by frying them, they go a little sweeter, maybe a little stronger but generally they contain a lot of water content which means you don't get this when frying a lot of them.. for this reason I see them as stock, so add them when I've finished softening and browning things...

As you said it drys up and sticks when you add the spices (if powders) so I'd get everything like the onions, peppers, meat fried, then add the spices so they get mixed in the oil and have a few minutes to really cook and absorb, then add the wet ingredients like stock, tomatoes, vinegars etc... anything like cream/coconut milk I'd tend to add last and much later on so I can see whats going on and don't end up with it splitting etc...

There are however exceptions to these rules... and if I'm using fenugreek seeds (methi seeds) I tend to put them in with the onions right from the start as they seem to need a lot of breaking down and add a wonderfull smell/taste to the onion...

If I'm making my most recent chilli recipe I've started adding a big teaspoon of cumin seeds at the start with the onions as it adds a subtle background flavour.....



Mamta, on 31/5/2009 12:17pm

Hello Neil

As I understand it, sealing the meat is a little outdated and not really necessary anymore. Although I still say it in many of my recipes (I haven’t gone around correcting them). I have discovered over the years, that a curry where you put all the ingredients together in the pan, along with the meat, and then slow cook it without going to all the trouble of frying this and that, it still tastes pretty good, as long as you cook it over hours!

As Steve says, different people cook differently and come to very good results.

I can’t say that I have ever had cumin seeds come between my teeth individually, to be able to bite into them. I love cumin and I don’t find the flavour strong at all. I use coarsely ground roast cumin in almost all of my Raitas and some of the salads. If you taste seeds and then powder, I think powder is stronger flavour, as long as it is fresh. Adding powdered cumin is different from adding cumin seeds to hot oil at the beginning of cooking or at the end, as in ‘tarka’ for dals etc.

Some people insist on adding spices to oil first, to release their flavours they say. But I find that if you are not fast, you can burn them and loose all the flavours, or worse. So, I tend to add them after onions/tomatoes and in case of curries and after adding vegetables to the cumin (or other seeds) tarka, as many of my vegetable bhaji pictures show. This has been done in Indian households for ever, and it works well.

Basically, you add whole spices to hot oil, then onion/ginger/garlic/then tomatoes, if used, then spices and then the main ingredients. Sometimes this changes, there are no hard rules. What you have written in your second post is fine, except that I wouldn’t cook the meat in a separate pan, unless there was a recipe which specifically needed this.

Basically, do whatever you feel comfortable with, and get the results you want. Most methods work. There are many ways to skin a cat. (Why do people say that! I have never known anyone skinning a cat!)

Someone gave me an Indian cook book by Penguin yesterda, a paper back. It was published in 1970 for the European market. It explains various cooking methods in Indian cooking. Some of them don’t have the same meaning as they do now! Things change. So don't worry too muach about who says what, just try what works for you. The recipes are difficult to follow, but it is fun to read.


Lapis, on 31/5/2009 12:24pm

this is a huge subject and key to cooking Indian dishes, but also to other cuisines as well. Please excuse the length of this reply, but I hope it will help others understand the reasons why certain things are done in a certain order.

Firstly, let me start with meat. This can be divided into two kinds, tender and lets say not so tender. The tender meat needs to be cooked quickly, as prolonged cooking will toughen it, as water is squeezed out. Tender meat includes fish, chicken and fillets of beef, lamb and pork. Tough meat comes from regions of the animal where the muscles have to do work, like legs, thighs and neck. It needs prolonged cooking to break down tissues, making them far more tender. On the good side, these tougher meats are said to have more flavour, and are usually cheaper. Indian recipes do not often state the cut of meat, I think this is because we are usually talking about goat rather than lamb ('mutton' in India is usually goat!)and goat is tougher. So prolonged cooking is the norm in India, although fresh lamb is available from super/hypermarkets now. Minced meat is usually from the tougher cuts (its cheaper!) so lower heat is needed, or you can end up with little bullets!

Sealing meat is a fallacy, probably propagated by celebrity chefs. The word is not seal, but sear. We cannot seal meat by heating it, in fact it will leak juices even more, because of the higher temperatures involved. Searing produces flavour, not by caramelizing (another celebrity chef fallacy) but by controlled burning. Caramelizing only occurs with sugars, which are not present (to any significant amount) in meat. Frying meat produces browning, a group of flavour compounds called pyrazines and others which together provide the lovely roast/nutty flavours we like. These flavourings are produced at all temperatures (even in our own bodies) but the rate of production increases with an increase in temperature. This is why frying meat provides the flavours we want, and boiling does not.

The order in which ingredients are added to the cooking pot will depend on the recipe (and to a large extent on the knowledge and experience of the cook). However, if water is present in the mix, no matter how much heat we apply, the temperature in the pot will never rise above 100°C, until all the water has gone. This means very little (if any) browning will occur, and certainly none if significant water is present. So, if you want to brown the meat, no water should be present. The exception is braising, where a piece of meat (on the bone) is placed in a covered dish, and water and fat'oil added to no more than half way up the joint, browning then occurs, but only above the level of the fluid. The temperature in a braising oven is usually around 120-130°C.

Flavours (from spices, but from other ingredients) dissolve in oil better than in water, and after cooking, most of the flavour will be in the oil/fat layers. This is true of meat, also. Regions of the protein in meat will attract flavours far more than surrounding water. So, if you want the maximum flavour from your ingredients, use oil to extract them. This means frying in oil, but, if using powdered spices, there is a risk of burning. Its easy with very aromatic spices (those in real garam masala) such as cloves, cardamoms, cassia and mace, if kept whole, or coarsely ground, but others, such as coriander and cumin need to be mixed with a little water to lower the risk of burning.

What to fry first, meat or onions? Well, that depends on the recipe, or what the cook intended (if they know!). However, onions will cook at about 100°C, even in oil, until most of the water has boiled off. But meat needs the sulphur compounds in the onion (and garlic) to form different intense flavours. And don't forget the root ginger and chillies, which need hot oil/fat to extract the flavours and colour, and change the flavour of the ginger.

My suggestion about mince is to fry it gently with the onion. With Bolognaise sauce and chilli con carne, I don't fry the mince at all, but cook it for about an hour at lower temperatures.


Askcy, on 31/5/2009 01:24pm

I know its not really what the answers are about and its spliting hairs etc..

but water very rarely boils as 100°C unless its perfectly pure ! Anything added to water raises its boiling point (and lowers its freezing point which is why putting salt on ice makes it melt as it lowers the point at which it freezes to a temperature less than the temperature its at...).

I thought I'd just mention it from the point of view of general cooking as it can make a difference to the end product. Its why if you boil potatoes without salt in the water they seem to cook more evenly but take longer. If you add salt the boiling temperature of the water rises a little making the outside get hotter faster so it cooks quicker but not allowing as much time for the heat to penetrate right through the the middle etc..


Lapis, on 31/5/2009 01:40pm


you are correct in that the apparent boiling point of water may be dependant on what else is in the water, but in cooking, the small amount of salt (or other soluble things) in water makes very little diffence, certainly not enough to make any difference to anything. Add ing salt to any vegetables won't make any difference either, vegetables don't need salt to cook, another fallacy propergated by celebrity chefs.

However, the presence of salt has been shown to hinder the browning process, so adding salt to food at the end of cooking )just before serving) would be the wise thing to do.

Askcy, on 31/5/2009 02:05pm

maybe I'm mistaken with the cause then, but unless the salt it breaking down the potatoes in someway they do seem to fall apart (and cloud the water)quicker when salt is added ?


Lapis, on 31/5/2009 02:17pm

again, I believe you are correct, Steve, but the reason is to do with the salt disrupting the surface cells of the potato, spilling their contents.

This can be used to good effect when making roast or even chipped potatoes, if the cut potatoes are put into a strong salt solution for a few hours, the surface cells rupture, and when cooked in hot fat, give a crisper coating.

I think it interesting that when potatoes are boiled, water is given out, leaving the potatoes a bit shrivelled. I tested a few varieties of new potatoes, and found the average loss was between 3 and 8% for 25 minutes boiling, with one cut surface. Seems to go against the celebrity chefs' ideas that cooked potatoes absorb flavours!

I seem to have it in for celebrity chefs today, needless to say, although Mamta may be a celebrity in our eyes, she does know how to cook and doesn't repeat the awful mistakes uttered by TV chefs!!

Askcy, on 31/5/2009 02:24pm


that being the case it would make the Jamie Oliver suggestion that when you boil potatos and take them out, let them steam dry and while they are still warm/hot put on flavoured oil/sauces etc they suck in the flavours... as they would be trying to get back the moisture that had been taken out of them ?


Lapis, on 31/5/2009 02:32pm

yes, all a load of rubbish really, food, generally does not absorb flavours, it merely sticks to the outside. Even in marinating, the flavours rarely penetrate very far, if at all. Several days would usually be neccssary, and it also depends on the flavours and in which medium they are in (water or oil).

I should really make a list (or even write a book) about all the urban myths these chefs spout!! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so they say.

AskCy, on 31/5/2009 08:36pm

Heston Blumenthal actually did tests with yoghurt and none yoghurt based marrinade on chicken showing that with yoghurt the chemical composition of the meat was change almost all the way through. Result based on MRI scanning of the meat!... make not all marinades and not all meats react the same way, but it was quite clear that it made a lot of difference ! It did also show that the marinades without still penetrated but only a centimetre or so...


Lapis, on 31/5/2009 09:57pm

I've done similar tests (though not using MRI !) and it showed that, even after 24 hours marinating, the colours only penetrated to a maximum of 1 cm. The flavour compounds would probably adsorb onto the nearest hydrophobic moieties on the proteins, but bacteria, etc., may go further!

But I have no doubt yoghurt does tenderize meat, well, chicken anyway.

Mamta, on 1/6/2009 06:08am

Vow, what an interesting discussion!

As said many times before, I am not a cook by profession and am learning about food/cooking all the time. I find that so many things our mothers did by instinct, are based on scientific reasons.

One thing though Lapis, though I agree with you about cooking good meat quickly, fish/chicken do not toughen by prolonged cooking, they fall apart. May be you are talking about individual meat fibre and its structure that toughens from some form of coagulation?

Only time I ‘seal’ meat is really searing it as in cooking steak/lamb/pork chops or similar or finishing off tandoori type of chicken/meat under a grill to give it a burnt flavour.

Prolonged cooking without searing, as in one pot cooking, still gives very good result, whatever the reason and science behind it. I used to have Pakistani registrar when I was a young house surgeon, working in East London. Every Sunday she cooked lamb/mutton curry for all of us juniors. She just bunged everything in a huge pan, added water, brought it to boil and left it to simmer on low for hours, while she went and did her week-end chores. That was one of the best mutton curry I have ever eaten, it used to fill the whole place with a lovely aroma .

As for frying spices, I add whole spices and seeds to hot oil, this does release flavours. If I am adding ground spice to hot oil, it is literally for seconds. I stand over it to add other ingredients quickly.

I thought salt was added to boiling vegetables to preserve their colour, not to cook them faster? I have stopped adding salt myself during boiling years ago, mainly to reduce salt content of my food. We don’t sprinkle it on top either. I always boil my potatoes without salt, with their skin on. They don’t break up as easily. This is how my mum and her mum did it, as do most Indians. Also agree about flavours not penetrating. I prick the potatoes with a fork, if I want the flavours to penetrate a little bit. Or, you can cut them small, so each piece is coated well with the gravy, giving the impression of being seeped in it.

Same way, the reason you prick the chicken/meat etc. before marinating (must admit I don’t always do this in everyday cooking), the flavours do go through the holes, though not ‘in’ the meat fibres. The end result is the same, with spices ‘filling’ your mouth with each bite. Flavours not being absorbed is very clear if you cook the Tandoori chicken with the skin on, unlike in Indian cooking. As soon as you remove the skin and discard it (not good for you cholesterol wise), all the flavour goes with it. That is the reason most Indians cook chicken water removing the skin. The yoghurt addition to a marinade does make a vast difference. I sometimes add lemon instead of yoghurt. I wonder if it works on the same principle scientifically

I think that the better chefs do understand about these things, studying food must be part of their training, no? If not, they should have a theory course too, like many other professions.

It would be good to have a list of myths about food Lapis, I am sure we will find a place to add it here somewhere. I will ask Kavey and Pete.

I have got to go swimming now, will come back and join the discussion later.


Lapis, on 1/6/2009 01:04pm

Is it coincidence that the things found empirically by generations of cooks/chefs that work have a sound foundation in science too? I think not !

The tenderness of meat, when cooked, depends a lot on water content. As we cook (heat) the meat, the water between the muscle fibres is squeezed out as the fibres contract. More heat, more contraction, less water, tougher meat. I think you are alluding to fish or steaks that only have a little cooking. But even a piece of fillet steak will toughen according to how long it has been cooked for. There is a rule of thumb in cooking steak, if you bring together your thumb and index finger, this represents a 1 minute frying, and the tenderness of the steak is judged to be the same as the stiffness of your thumb muscle. If you use your other fingers in turn, to represent 2, 3 and 4 minutes of cooking, and press your thumb muscle with another finger (from your other hand, obviously!) you can see, as the length of time increases, the meat gets tougher. Whether this is really a good example, or just an aide memoire to learning chefs, I don’t know, but it illustrates that meat, even steak, gets tougher on cooking. With chicken (and other tender meats), the flesh does get tougher on heating, although on prolonged cooking, can ‘fall off the bone’. This is because it has gone through the water loss stage, and the connective tissue (everything except muscle and bone) starts to break down to gelatine. This is the reason behind braising and stewing. Long slow cooking of tougher cuts of meat.

Prolonged cooking without searing works if braising is done properly. This is because the meat above the liquid (a mix of water and oil/fat) can brown, in a reaction called the Maillard reaction. It is the reason why bread colours on toasting, biscuits brown, meat browns, you get the picture. You will get browning when protein and carbohydrates are heated together in very little water. The Maillard reaction is responsible for the production of hundreds of flavour compounds, some unique to what is being cooked, and some general. The Maillard reaction is also responsible for the formation of HbA1c in blood belonging to diabetics (if you can remember that ! glucose and haemoglobin).

From what you say, your friends lamb curry was a stew, and the reason the whole place was filled with spicy aromas was that the flavours from the spices should have been extracted into oil/fat, instead they floated to the surface, and evaporated off. Maybe your friend added more spices to compensate?

Some spices, like ground coriander, cumin and fenugreek, undergo the Maillard reaction too. They change flavour (and colour, they darken on cooking) to provide a nutty flavour. This is one reason I say that shop bought garam masala will taste ‘uncooked’ unless the filler spices (those just mentioned) have been roasted, in which case the flavour will change.

Adding salt to cooking vegetables will not cook them faster, and will not preserve the colour, either (another myth?). Red, orange and yellow colours in food are produced by carotenes, and are not affected by gentle heat (boiling water). Purple veg is coloured by anthocyanins, and although depend on the acidity for the colour, will not change much. Green veg is coloured by chlorophylls, which can change. I believe the explanation is that the green colour is unstable between a certain narrow temp range (say 70 -80°C, but I don’t know what it is exactly), so if you put green veg into warm water, and increase its temperature, it will take a time to pass through this temperature range, and so lose some colour. Chefs will tell you to drop green veg into boiling water until done (or nearly done) then fish it out and place into ice cold water. This takes the temperature down rapidly, and helps to preserve the colour. What the customers'reaction is to ice cold veg is never mentioned!

As you will know from your medical days, drugs will cross the skin barrier, but different drugs will take different times to do so. It is generally thought that this has to do with the hydrophobicity of the drug, in culinary parlance, how well it dissolves in oil or water. If the drug dissolves in oil better (and most do) then it will enter the skin quicker. So, to marinade meat, it is wiser to mix the flavours in oil (or full fat yoghurt) than in a water base (or fat free yoghurt). All the common spice flavours dissolve in oil much better than in water.

As regards chef training, I wonder? Maybe I will find out.

I’ll think of the list of myths, I’ve thought about having a pad and pen handy when watching cooking programmes, I sometimes think I’ll never be able to write fast enough!!


Mamta, on 1/6/2009 04:49pm

Phew, that is so much information! Thank you for taking the trouble to eaxplain and to typing it all down. My grey cells are too old to remember too much of new information, but what you say does make a lot of sense.


ricky, on 9/5/2020 09:35am



i bought some mince lamb from the supermarket where as normally i would go to the halal shop. it tasted aweful! follwed the same style as before so why did it smell and taste really fatty and lamby if that makes any sense? i had to throw the whole lot away?


Mamta, on 10/5/2020 12:18pm

I don't know why it was bad Ricky. I buy most of my meat from supermarket and mostly not halal. It tastes absolutely fine. Perhaps your had gone off a bit?


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