Express News Service
CHENNAI: It’s 7:00 PM. I can hear my stomach rumbling as I eagerly wait – with high expectations – after listening to Mohan Kumar R’s culinary repertoire, who would treat our taste buds to his popular chicken biryani and kebab at a friend’s party in Chennai. Shortly after his arrival, he waves hello, rushes into the kitchen, scans the ingredients and immediately gets to work with the preparation.
After two hours of sweating and toiling, the smell of flavorful biryani and the marinated chicken sizzling in the kadai offers some hope for my hunger pangs. “My masalas would be the secret ingredients and I conveniently forgot to bring them with me. For someone who always guarantees authenticity, this is not my best,” admits the Bengali humbly. Despite the disclaimer, the party turned out to be worth the wait , allowing us to glimpse his dedication and need for excellence.
The Case of the Missing Masala
A native of Ballagiri – which shares borders with Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – Mohan has always harbored a deep respect for regional flavors, it seems. But it took a pandemic to deliver a piece of his ancestral delicacies when his first attempt was sampled at the Ballagiri Gowdru Biryani restaurant in Bengaluru. It was also the pandemic that forced him to close the store in the second wave. But his will to make the recipes of his Gowdru community accessible and a part of everyone’s household could not be limited by the forces of the virus. And so the Ballagiri Gowdru Masala was born.
While it may be a jaded phrase that when you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you get it, Mohan’s beginnings on this mission attest to its absoluteness.
“I embarked on a bike ride through Karnataka covering Hubli, Kolar, Chikmagalur, the borders of Goa; Madurai, Dindigul and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. I spent a good time exploring the local cuisines and the key ingredients that formed the basis of the masalas. I’ve picked up most of the tricks by just watching older women effortlessly run along roadside shacks.
At home, in Ballagiri, I observed my maternal grandmother, Menasamma – an expert with hand-punched masalas – to get the exact proportions,” said Mohan, who works as a senior manager at PowerSchool India Private Limited.
“My daily job is to keep my passion. The start-up is fully up and running and my partner Rakesh Pai has been a mainstay. We have four masalas and each pack has a QR code. After scanning, customers can see me demonstrating recipes at each masala. We have been transparent about what has been going on and no concessions have been made to quality. The packaging is ready and the shooting for videos is underway,” he added.
Call it sentiment or a marketing strategy, Mohan makes sure his masala packs travel with him. “Believe me, they come in handy when I have to cook for a gang of motorcyclists in places where we have no food. On one of our trips to Ooty we stayed at a friend’s resort near the jungle where there weren’t many dining options. The boys got the groceries and the meat; I made a feast with the masalas. The sheer joy of feeding others is unmatchable. That said, it also helps me on the business front. Friends who are restaurateurs get to taste the masala and include it as part of their menu,” he says.
The Accidental Chef
For someone who has come this far with his culinary expeditions and experiments, until four years ago Mohan was familiar with just the basics: boiling an egg and preparing a bowl of Maggi. However, driven by necessity and carried by passion, the special bond he shares with cooking has only grown stronger in a short time.
“They say: a kitchen is a women’s world. But I come from a family where men ruled the kitchen. My paternal grandfather, Krishnamachari, was a fantastic cook and he prepared the most delicious curries with meat spare parts. My paternal grandmother, Kamalamma, was equally good. Like Mom’s cousin who runs a military hotel. My mother learned to make dosa batter from my grandfather. I was lucky enough to grow up with such dedicated people. Now I know the measurements on my pocket and I have the confidence to cook for a village. So it’s no wonder I picked up the art quickly, because it’s in my blood,” notes Mohan, who has taken it upon himself to continue the legacy.
Master chefs are not made in the kitchen, he emphasizes. “I have seen farmers using the fresh harvest from their fields and the available herbs to prepare a new meal. The taste of labor fills your stomach and soul. How you handle the instrument of the trade reflects in the final output. Getting the basics like spices and temperature of cooking different ingredients is crucial. People who know me know the respect I have for homemade spreads and I make sure I offer that to my friends too. My goal has been to preserve the Dravidian food culture, and my start-up is a small step towards the bigger goal. Besides having a successful business career, such milestones are very important to me,” he says. If everything goes according to plan, Mohan’s masalas will hit the market soon.
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Ballagiri Gowdru mutton biryani
For wet masala
- Shallots: A handful
- Garlic cloves: 20 to 30
- Ginger: 3-4 inches (half fist)
- Mint leaves: a handful
- Coriander leaves: A handful
- Green chillies: 8-10 (based on individual heat capacity)
- Rock salt: 1 tbsp (grind all of the above into a paste)
- Onions: 3-4, thinly sliced
- Mint leaves: 1 cup, Coriander leaves: 1 cup
- Fennel: 1 tbsp, Ghee: 1 cup, Refined Oil: 1 cup
- Curds: 1 cup, Sliced tomatoes: 3 medium, thinly sliced
- Seeraga samba rice: 1 kg (Clean it and let it soak for at least 20 minutes)
- Rice to water ratio: 1:2 (1 cup rice to 2 cups water)
For pre-cooking marinade
- Mutton: 1 kg, Rock salt: ½ tbsp
- Add 3 to 4 scoops of the wet paste, Lemon: 1/2, Cottage cheese: 2 tbsp
- BGM biryani masala: 1 spoon
- (Let it marinate for 20 to 30 minutes)
Pre-cook the mutton
- Add the marinated mutton with rice in a ratio of 1:2 water to the pressure cooker and cook the mutton (90% done) for four whistles. Separate the stock and the meat.
- Keep the stock as it is needed for cooking. Again use the stock to 1:2 ratio.
The biryani. to cook
- Keep the stove on medium heat, add a cup of ghee and a cup of refined oil.
- Add a tablespoon of fennel seeds and fry lightly until the aroma is released.
- Add the cup of mint leaves and fry well. Add the sliced onions and fry them until translucent.
- Add two spoons of BGM biryani masala and mix well.
- Now add the wet (green paste) and cook for five to eight minutes until the raw smell disappears. Add sliced tomatoes until water comes out and cook well. Add half a cup of coriander leaves.
- After two minutes, add half a cup of curd and fry everything well. Add the precooked mutton and fry for three minutes.
- Now add the stock in a ratio of 1:2. Bring the meat and stock to a good boil (2 to 3 minutes completely).
- Taste for salt and spice levels.
- Add the soaked rice, making sure to separate the rice from the water.
- Let it boil, stirring every three seconds so that the rice cooks evenly. When the rice is 80 percent cooked, squeeze half the lime, mix it well and prepare it to save it for dum.
- Take a wet cloth, cover the biryani vessel and put a lid on it. Choose something heavy to place over the lid so that the steam is trapped in the vessel.
- Keep it on high heat for two minutes and on low heat for eight to 10 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it rest for 20 minutes. Remove the lid, add ghee and you are ready to serve the biryani.