Welcome back to Dirty Work , our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, Chef Sujan Sarkar, chef-owner of Baar Baar and champion of forward-thinking, modern Indian cuisine, joins us to show us how a true master does duck korma.
In the heat of the summer, chef Sujan Sarkar visited us for a morning of wandering the MUNCHIES rooftop garden for all of the perfect veggie accompaniments for a lush, elegant duck korma. In his crisp chef whites, he quietly and meditatively poked around the raised beds while we trailed after him, sweating a bit and hoping he wouldn't go for too many of the spicy peppers, ‘cause we weren’t sure how much more heat we could take.
He wanted to find the most colorful array of carrots, kohlrabi, and onions, since his plan was to broil the heck out of them, and needed some bright colors to be hiding under all that charred skin. Colorful is what Sarkar does—the dishes on the menu at his Lower East Side Indian-gastropub concept Baar Baar embrace the maxim that to eat well, one should eat colorfully. (Even Baar Baar’s lamb burger is served with an entire rainbow’s worth of pickles and condiments.)
He pulls basically the full color spectrum in the form of carrots, a bright purple kohlrabi, a smattering of ripe and underripe blackberries, and some of the first cherry tomatoes of the season to be perfectly vine-ripe for us. Inside, his chef de cuisine Paramjeet Singh, who joined him for the day, fastidiously washed everything to the point that you’d never know that it had literally just been ripped from the soil. (We got the feeling that Chef Sarkar runs a pretty tight ship in his kitchens, judging by the precision and attention to detail with which Singh works.)
There are many components to this dish, and its clear that that’s how Sarkar likes to work, building up flavor with layer after layer of meticulously spiced and seasoned elements. First, because it’s easy, he starts with toasting the panch phoran, a custom spice blend of mustard, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, and nigella seeds. He tosses them in a hot, dry pan on the stove, agitating them occasionally until we can start to smell the different spice notes wafting up. This mixture is going to get rubbed on the skin of the duck after it’s been seared and gets nice and crispy. Singh begins rolling the toasted mixture out with a wooden rolling pin, rather than putting it in a spice grinder. “We want the spices to still maintain their appearance,” he says, to explain why we’re not doing this the mechanical way. “You should be able to tell what each spice is in here.”
While that’s working, Sujan cleans and trims two beautiful duck breasts with an extremely intense fat cap. He scores the skin so that it cooks evenly and doesn’t curl at the edges, and so that the fat underneath has the chance to render out a bit. He cooks these relatively low and slow, to make sure the skin crisps up and the meat has a chance to cook through at an even rate. (These really were some fatty duck breasts—he drained the excess rendered fat out of the pan several times, to prevent the duck from basically deep frying in its own oils.)
Into our pizza oven—why yes, we have a dedicated open-flame pizza oven, don’t you?—went the vegetables and onions, tossed with olive oil and salt, on a small sheet tray. (A broiler at home works just fine.)
Sujan occasionally checked on their doneness, rotating the pan frequently, but took them out when the carrots and onions just started to caramelize and char, and the kohlrabi’s interiors were turning molten while their outsides were starting to get crisp.
In a small sauce pot, a few scored cherry tomatoes and ground cherries are dropped into boiling water to loosen their skins. With impressive patience, Sujan dunks them into an ice bath and removes their skins with a paring knife.
(We know, for a fact, that if we recreate this at home, we would not have the patience to do this and those babies would end up in the final dish, skins and all. But that's what separates the plebes from the Sarkars, and so the fact that he owns a small empire of restaurants around the world suddenly makes perfect sense.)
We’ll confess that they cheated a little with us that day, as they brought the next component pre-made from Baar Baar—the korma sauce. We’ve got some high-quality pieces of equipment here at MUNCHIES, but it was probably good that he let his kitchen handle it—it takes a truly powerful blender to get a sauce to such a perfectly smooth and lump-free consistency. This korma was a truly otherworldly level of silky. Poems ought to be written about that korma.
Onto the crisp, bubbly duck skin goes a spread of whipped honey, acting as an adhesive for the panch phoran spice mixture. The perfectly-medium-cooked, mouthwateringly juicy breasts get sliced into half-inch slices.
MAKE THIS: Duck with Tomato and Ground Cherry Korma
While plating this masterpiece, he carefully ladles the korma into the bottom of the bowl, then arranges juicy slices of duck in the center. Tender and smoky vegetables and onion petals get tweezer-placed in what looks to be a careless fashion, but is obviously anything but. It took all of 15 minutes for this entire dish to be demolished by the hungry waiting audience in the Test Kitchen. He served it that day with a sweet, saffron-infused soft Indian bread, but a side dish of basmati rice would do the trick, too.
And Chef Sujan, if you're reading this, just know we've been dreaming about this korma since the day you visited--so expect that poem any day now.