Indian lamb kheema makes a flavorful base for versatile meals

Lamb Kheema. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post.

The cover of Vishwesh Bhatt’s new cookbook is a still-life photograph: Jars of black-eyed peas stand near silver ladles tinged with patina, and next to them, collard leaves fan out and over. Pert heirloom tomatoes, marbled purple eggplant and a bowl of okra fill the middle of the frame. In the front, whole and ground spices add color and the promise of so much flavor.

It’s an effective and romantic illustration of Bhatt’s childhood in India and adopted home in the American South.

“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,” he writes in the introduction to “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef.”

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I was immediately drawn into Bhatt’s story, as I love both Indian food and the cuisine of the American South, and his book appealed to me as a daughter of immigrants who has struggled at times to claim the United States as home. “Recently, someone important asked me if I consider myself a Southern chef,” Bhatt writes. “The answer is absolutely yes. I know that I wasn’t born here, but this is where I have made my home, and this is where I make my living.”

More than this, Bhatt wants to help redefine Southern food. “I want the food of my childhood, the flavors I grew up with, to become a part of the Southern culinary repertoire – just like tamales, lasagna, and kibbeh have become,” he writes. “I want to show that the ingredients of the modern Southern pantry were very much the ingredients of my mother’s pantry as well.”

His recipes are a delicious melange of the two cultures. Dishes like sweet potato turnovers with cardamom and black pepper; black-eyed pea and mustard green soup; peanut masala-stuffed baby eggplants; Gujarati-style okra pickle; and lamb kheema illustrate Bhatt’s perspective in using the best of both cuisines to make his own harmonious whole.

I love making kheema, so I knew I wanted to share his version. It starts with ground lamb, which is often easier to find at grocery stores than specific cuts of lamb. (If you don’t see it at your market, ask at the meat counter to be sure they don’t have any in the back.) If you don’t care for lamb, or can’t find it, any other type of ground meat – or plant-based substitute – works well here. I’ve even made this with canned lentils.

Lamb Kheema. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post.

As Bhatt explains, kheema “can apply to any loose ground meat, but lamb and goat kheema are by far the most common across India. Think of it as you would picadillo, or the filling for a sloppy joe.”

A great kheema relies on deeply caramelized onions, which provide a slightly sweet base. Caramelizing the onions takes the longest amount of time in this recipe, but because the onions are diced rather than sliced, they’ll take less time to cook. Be patient, and let them darken slowly before stirring in ginger, garlic, a jalapeño and tomato paste. Next, yogurt adds richness, and helps bring together the flavors of cardamom, garam masala, Kashmiri chile powder and turmeric.

Before long, your kitchen will be filled with the most entrancing smells. Then, all you have to do is decide how you want to serve the kheema. I love it over rice, but Bhatt suggests folding it into “quesadillas, scrambled eggs, omelets, hand pies, and shepherd’s pie. Eat it on soft buns, sloppy joe style, like they do on the streets in Mumbai, or use it for a pizza topping with some paneer and feta.”

It’s so versatile, you may want to double the recipe so that you can use it as a base for multiple meals throughout the week.

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Lamb Kheema

1 hour

4 servings

This flavorful ground meat stew is full of warm spices. Often made from lamb or goat, kheema can also be made from ground beef – as it is in India’s Muslim communities – or turkey or bison. (A plant-based ground meat substitute would also work here.) The most time-consuming part of making kheema is caramelizing the onions. Starting with finely chopped onions helps them caramelize faster, but the process will still take at least 30 minutes. It’s worth the effort, though, as you’ll be rewarded with an incredible depth of flavor.

If you have time, start with whole cumin seeds, toast them, and then grind them into a fine powder; if not, use already ground cumin. Stuff kheema into buns the way you would sloppy joes, as the Mississippi chef Vishwesh Bhatt suggests in his cookbook, “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef,” or serve it over steamed rice. It also makes an excellent samosa or hand pie filling.

Out of yogurt? Add 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes instead.

Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

Where to Buy: Garam masala and Kashmiri chile powder can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, Indian markets, spice shops or online.

INGREDIENTS

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

1 medium yellow onion (9 ounces), finely chopped

2 tablespoons minced or finely grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced or finely grated garlic (from 1 or 2 cloves)

1/2 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup plain full-fat yogurt, preferably Greek-style

2 teaspoons ground garam masala

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder or hot paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 pound ground lamb or another ground meat

Chopped fresh mint, for garnish

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onions, and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the onions turn the color of a walnut skin, about 30 minutes. Be patient and do not rush this step, as you want the richness of the caramelized onions to bring a depth of flavor to the meat mixture. If the onions begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tiny splash of water to loosen them; if they continue to stick, slightly reduce the heat.

Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook until they begin to take on color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the jalapeño and tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste turns several shades darker, about 4 minutes more. Add the yogurt, garam masala, cumin, chile powder, cardamom, salt and turmeric and cook, stirring often, until it forms a fragrant, golden-brown paste, about 4 minutes.

Stir in the ground lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula, until cooked all the way through, about 10 minutes. Garnish with the chopped mint and cilantro and serve family-style, with rice on the side.

Nutrition information per serving (1 cup kheema) | Calories: 450; Total Fat: 35 g; Saturated Fat: 13 g; Cholesterol: 87 mg; Sodium: 384 mg; Carbohydrates: 10 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 23 g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Adapted from “I Am From Here” by Vishwesh Bhatt.

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