This is a favorite meal of ours for those nights when we don’t have a lot of time, we hardly have any fresh vegetables in the house, and we want something with a lot of flavor and a definite comfort factor. Kheema is like the Indian equivalent of chile con carne, or sloppy Joe mix, or spaghetti sauce. There are many different versions – probably as many as there are cooks who make it – and it can be tweaked to accommodate whatever you have in your pantry, as long as you have 1. ground meat 2. chile peppers (fresh or dried) 3. canned tomato and 4. spices. Onions and garlic are helpful, but not absolutely required.
My favorite kheema recipe for when we have no fresh chiles in the house is from Madhur Jaffrey’s first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking. It’s warm with onion and whole sweet spices as well as dried red chiles, and tastes wonderful. But our current favorite kheema is from the Parsi cookbook My Bombay Kitchen. It uses whole slit green chiles as well as cayenne pepper, so it has a complex spiciness, and it can be made as thick or soupy as you like, depending on how you’re serving it. We usually ladle it over white rice, but the last time we made it I griddled some fresh chapati and we spooned the kheema into the breads with yogurt and chutney. It could also be eaten straight out of a bowl, maybe with tortilla chips. Why not? Not to mention the possibilities of using it for stuffing samosas, or topping pizza.
And for breakfast, I can recommend making a sort of huevos rancheros with leftover kheema and runny fried eggs over sourdough toast or chapati or tortillas. Oh, yeah.
A note about the recipe: there are a few odd ingredients here, but please don’t be scared off by them. We keep curry leaves in our freezer, but the kheema will be perfectly fine without them. And don’t worry about the dhana jiru or the sambar masala – we happen to have both of those, because Jon loves to make spice blends at home, but you can either leave them out, or do what I do, which is to look up the blend, see what the major flavors are, and just add a few of the more important-sounding ones. I’ve indicated a few possible options in the recipe.
Adapted from My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking by Niloufer Ichaporia King
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb
- 2 green chiles
- 5-10 curry leaves (we keep these on hand in the freezer)
- 2-3 whole cloves
- 1 onion
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp ginger, minced
- 1 tsp Dhana Jiru or garam masala or ground coriander (optional)
- 1 tsp Sambar Masala or ground fenugreek and mustard seeds (optional)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
- 1 can diced tomato
- 1-2 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
First, get your mise en place ready – you don’t want things burning while you measure spices. It really helps to have everything chopped and standing by before you start cooking.
Slit the green chiles from the tip up to the stem, leaving the stem end intact, and put them in a bowl with the curry leaves and whole cloves. Measure the various dry spices into another bowl. Dice the onion.
If you have fresh cilantro, chop up the leaves (some stems are fine) and set aside. We have cilantro in our garden right now, but if we happen to be out it’s not the end of the world. I love the flavor it adds, though.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the curry leaves, cloves and chiles. When they have sizzled for a minute or so, add the onion and cook until soft. Add the ginger and garlic and cook a minute more, then add the dry spices and most of the chopped cilantro (remember to save a little to add at the end).
Add a can of diced tomatoes and stir well. Cook for a moment more.
Add in the ground beef and stir it into the sauce, breaking up all the chunks into small pieces, then add as much of the water as you like (you can always add more later to make it soupier). Mix in the salt. Bring it all to a boil, cover, and turn down the heat so it simmers. Cook about half an hour, stirring occasionally. This is a good time to make rice or bread.
The kheema is done when the meat is tender and the oils have separated out of the sauce. Sprinkle on the last of the cilantro, taste for salt, and serve!