Lamb Kheema — From A James Beard Best Chef: South

A hearty, versatile and easy-to-make lamb kheema that's like the Indian version of American sloppy joe's.
A hearty, versatile and easy-to-make lamb kheema that’s like the Indian version of American sloppy joe’s.

Arguably, there has come a time in every ethnic person’s life, when they’ve been asked “Where are you from?” and cringed.

It may be an innocent-sounding query from the most well-meaning of people, but it invariably brings up the notion that you’re forever an outsider who’s never fully accepted.

Vishwesh Bhatt has a triumphant answer to that: “I Am From Here”

That is also the title of his new cookbook (W.W. Norton & Co.), of which I received a review copy.

Born in India, Bhatt has lived in Oxford, MS for more than 20 years and has been the executive chef of Snackbar there since it opened in 2009.

As he proudly and fiercely writes in the intro, “I want people to see me as I see myself: an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who chose to make the South his home, and in doing so, became a Southern chef. I claim the American South, and this is my story.”

Growing up the youngest in a large family — his mother was the oldest of 8 and his father was the oldest of 12 — he spent a lot of time around the house. Often, that meant helping his mother cook for the large brood who often visited or stayed with them.

Since then, a love of cooking has always pervaded his life. When his family moved to the United States for his father to take a university teaching position, Bhatt was 18, and went on to obtain a master’s degree at the University of Mississippi in Oxford after graduating from the University of Kentucky. While at Oxford, he took a job at a vegetarian restaurant and soon found his passion for cooking redoubled, which led him to cooking school, and eventually to open Snackbar with the City Grocery Restaurant Group.

The cookbook presents a unique mix of recipes that represent the many facets and influences on his life. If you come looking for Indian recipes, you will definitely find them in dishes such as “Gujarati-Style Charred Eggplant” (his mother’s family recipe) and “Sunday ‘Everything’ Dal” that mixes the tender split peas with most anything you have in the fridge.

But you’ll find decidedly Southern recipes, too, as well as unique ones that blend the South with the Southeast, such as “Sauteed Lima Beans with Mustard Seeds and Ginger,” “Saag-Style Collards,” “Grilled Shrimp with Mango Chutney Glaze,” and “Indo-Chinese Chile Catfish.”

Having lived in Mississipi so long, Bhatt knows it’s not always easy to Indian staples. So I really appreciate that in a recipe like his “Lamb Kheema,” he suggests using hot paprika if you don’t have Kashmiri chili handy.

There's only one jalapeno in this, so there's no need to fear the heat in this dish.
There’s only one jalapeno in this, so there’s no need to fear the heat in this dish.

This fragrant dish is a cinch to make. As Bhatt writes, think of it as the Indian version of Latin American picadillo or American sloppy joe filling.

It’s a meaty mixture of ground lamb cooked with caramelized onions, ginger, garlic, cardamom, garam masala, turmeric, and just one minced jalapeno for a mild amount of heat. In fact, this is a dish that is far more spiced than spicy, pe se.

By far, the longest step is simply caramelizing the onions in the pan slowly until they break down, turn golden, and take on incredible natural sweetness. Bhatt admonishes not to rush this step, because the onions are what tie this whole dish together.

A little bit of tomato paste adds a touch of sweetness that really complements the warmth of the cardamom, while full-fat yogurt lends body and a touch of richness to this homey dish.

With 2 pounds of ground lamb, this recipe makes a lot. You can definitely freeze some for later. The kheema is so versatile, though, that you’re sure to find endless ways to enjoy it, including as Bhatt suggests, in quesadillas, scrambled eggs, omelets, hand pies, and shepherd’s pie or piled on soft buns or atop pizza garnished with paneer and feta.

I think it would also be pretty darn tasty mounded atop macaroni or mashed potatoes.

Lamb Kheema

(Serves 6 to 8)

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

3 small onions, roughly chopped (about 4 cups)

2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as peanut or canola, or ghee

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 small jalapeno chile, stemmed and minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup plain full-fat yogurt (preferably Greek-style)

3 green cardamom pods, crushed, or 1 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala

1 tablespoon Kashmiri chili powder or hot paprika

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 pounds ground lamb

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves, for garnish

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Toast the cumin seeds in a small, dry pan over medium heat, shaking the pan gently so that the seeds toast evenly and do not burn, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and, when cool enough to handle, crush with a mortar and pestle or coarsely grind in a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Set aside.

Put the onions in a food processor and process until very finely chopped. If you do not have a food processor, you can achieve a similar texture by grating the onions. (If grating, begin with the 3 small onions whole rather than chopped.)

Heat the oil or ghee in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until caramelized, 20 to 30 minutes. Caramelized onion is the foundation of the kheema flavor, so have patience and don’t rush this stop, as you want the richness of the onions to bring a depth of flavor to the meat mixture. Stir the onions frequently as they cook. If they are sticking, you can add a tiny bit of water and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. If the sticking is persistent, turn the heat down slightly. The onions will turn completely brown and begin to break down to more of a paste consistency. If you taste a bite, it will have some sweetness.

When the onions are fully caramelized, stir in the ginger and garlic and cook for 5 to 6 minutes. Add the jalapeno and the tomato paste and cook, stirring to incorporate the tomato paste, for another 5 to 6 minutes, until the tomato paste gets several shades darker. Add the yogurt, cardamom, garam masala, chili powder, salt, and turmeric and cook, stirring often, until all the water has cooked out of the yogurt. The contents of the pot should be a very fragrant, golden-brown paste at this point. Stir in the ground lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula, until it is cooked all the way through, about 10 minutes. Garnish with the chopped mint and cilantro.

From “I Am From Here” by Vishwesh Bhatt

More Dishes to Enjoy Alongside: Indian Stir-Fried Corn with Basil, Leeks, and Cumin

And: Asparagus Fry with Mustard Seeds and Coconut

And: Desi Jacks

And: Sunday Morning Masala Omelet

And: Roasted Cauliflower with Cumin, Turmeric, and Lemon

And: Roasted Manchurian Cauliflower

And: A Spicy Bowl of Peas

And: Pan-Fried Zucchini and Yellow Squash with Cumin

And: Kiwi Raita

And: Cauliflower with Raisins

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  • Sounds like a terrific cookbook! Certainly this is a wonderful recipe — full of flavor, hearty, satisfying. Definitely good stuff — thanks.

  • Hi John: It’s super tasty. Hope you give it a try. 😉

  • Hi Carolyn, I am surpised to read that the ground lamb isn’t browned?

  • Hi Reuel: It gets a little bit browned, because even after you add in the yogurt, this remains a very thick, meaty mixture. So, the meat definitely gets a good amount of contact with the pan. If you give it a try, do let me know what you think. Happy cooking!

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