In a scene from Konkona Sen Sharma’s film A Death In The Gunj, Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) rebukes Mitali (Kalki Koechlin) for chopping the potatoes for a mutton curry too small. Her prowess in the kitchen is admired when she suggests that the potatoes will not absorb the flavours of the gravy well.
“How do you want to cut the onions?”; “Should I dice the potatoes or finely chop them?”; “Does the recipe ask for the garlic to be minced or chopped?” is chatter sacrosanct to an Indian kitchen. If you are in a Bengali home like mine, the cut of the eggplants decides if it is going to be beguni (batter-fried eggplants sliced lengthwise) or begun bhaja (pan-fried eggplant discs) for lunch.
Slice, mince, dice, cubes, julienne—the way we cut vegetables is nothing short of a chemistry lesson. Every cut determines a set of variables such as form, texture, function, taste and mouthfeel, which combine to complete a dish.
“The fashion in which you cut fresh spices such as garlic, ginger or onions has a direct correlation with the flavour profile you wish to create,” says Chennai-based techie and food science enthusiast Krish Ashok, explaining that the chemical composition of a vegetable when cut determines the overall taste and aroma of a dish. “In the case of onions and garlic, a mince or a fine chop allows them to release enzymes due to the rupture of the cells. It is quite obvious that a finer mince will pack more flavour,” he says, establishing that cuts kick-start chemical processes which, in turn, create compounds that affect taste. In the case of chopped onions and garlic, it’s the chemical compound allyl mercaptan that gives the characteristic pungency and flavour.
Science in traditions
For generations, the khansamas of Lucknow have continued the tradition of cutting onions in particular ways for some of their most prized dishes. The dopiaza or do pyaaza is a classic example.
“The first cut involves the raw onions to be sliced into rings. They are then shallow fried until brown and removed from the oil. For the second cut, the thick white core of the onion is removed, and then chopped into four or six pieces depending on its size to prepare the meat gravy,” explains Mohsin Qureshi, executive chef at Lebua Lucknow. This technique enables the layers of the onion to open up uniformly, which in turn helps them to break down in the gravy along with other aromatics, creating a harmonious flavour. The browned onions are added back into the gravy when the meat is 80% cooked. “The idea behind this is to maintain the shine and texture of the fried onions,” he adds.
Soopashastra, a Marathi cookbook from 1875, meticulously illustrates recipes using terms such as chaar bot laambi tukde (pieces chopped to the width of four fingers) in the case of a drumstick curry, emphasizing the centrality of cuts in any dish. Preeti Deo, a UK-based Marathi food chronicler and author, mentions that certain recipes take their name from the type of cut. Vangyache kaap or pan-fried eggplant “discs”, batatyachya kaachrya or “thinly-sliced” spiced potatoes and dodakyacha phodi or “cubed” ridge gourd are some examples.
Beyond flavour, function matters, and that is to create a unique mouthfeel. “When potatoes for a simple fry are cut too small, the surface area is more to allow them to get crisp outside and soft inside. The increase in exposure helps the enzymes to react under high temperature and create a richer experience,” adds Ashok.
Cutting vegetables is an art, passed down generations under the strict supervision of mothers and grandmothers. “As a child, I remember my grandmother getting upset if a certain vegetable was not cut as instructed,” says Marina Balakrishnan, chef and founder of Oottupura. As someone who runs a delivery kitchen serving Kerala food in Mumbai, she says, “The size and shape matter in retaining the crunch and freshness of the vegetables. It is also about maintaining the aesthetic value of food, no wonder uniformity is so important,” she adds.
In the kitchen, a preferred cut is determined by the cooking time. “If the potatoes for a kaachrya (thinly-sliced spiced preparation) are cut too slim, they will become crisp in hot oil. The technique is backed by both reason and logic—medium-thin slices are enough to retain the bite-size chunks which, when cooked, can absorb the flavours of the spices they are cooked in,” explains Deo.
Similarly, if the beans for a thoran, a traditional Kerala stir fry, are cut too thin, they would be overcooked. In the case of an avial, a vegetable stew, “the choice of thickness of the cut is determined by how long the vegetables take to cook”, explains Ashok, whose book Masala Lab—The Science Of Indian Cooking is due to be launched in December.
Hand vs tools
The practice of using hands to tear or break vegetables also plays its part. “For gavarichi bhaaji, a dish made with cluster beans, the core ingredient is typically broken with the help of fingers instead of a knife or other traditional equipment. Due to its subtle bitterness, if chopped too small, it may overwhelm the recipe,” explains Deo. In a restaurant kitchen too, chefs continue tearing salad leaves with hands to ensure they remain fresh longer. “The process of cutting leafy greens using a knife initiates maximum cell damage. On the contrary, tearing them naturally keeps the cells intact, maximizing the texture and flavour,” says Ashok.
Traditional home cooks may not have cracked the science of cutting vegetables, but time-tested practices allow Indian cooking to thrive on instinct.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.