Growing up, I definitely had a thing for cutlets. They didn't make all that frequent an appearance in our home, and so when they did, they were definitely viewed as treats—and eaten up quite quickly. Cutlets were categorised as snacks—which meant they very occasionally made an appearance at tea time—but mostly, they were reserved for more special occasions, like evenings when guests came to visit or birthday parties. My mother made them from either steamed mashed potatoes or steamed, crumbled fish, adding flavour with freshly chopped coriander, green chilli and spices. She then formed little patties, dipped them in coating of breadcrumbs and then deep fried them. They were delicious eaten steaming hot, dipped in some tomato ketchup—crisp on the outside and soft and flavourful on the inside. Even cold, they were a treat, but I don’t think any were ever left over that long. If some did manage to survive, they could be eaten pressed between two slices of bread as a sandwich. Even though it’s quite a simple dish, the beautiful medley of flavours and textures (the crispy outer coat, the tang of the ketchup or tamarind sauce to dip in) combined to make cutlets something we looked forward to on the occasions my mother decided to make them. This was always quite a task, given that she made everything from scratch and making up a big batch of these did take time!
I re-discovered cutlets a couple of years ago at one of my go-to restaurants here in Frankfurt. It’s owned by a lovely Greek gentleman and has an Indian chef and some of the Indian-inspired dishes they think up are quite interesting. On their menu, cutlets popped up as “Indian potato cakes”, served with a small side salad and some yoghurt sauce. They were delicious and I loved the combination of the cutlets with salad—it somehow did help lessen the guilt of eating something deep-fried.
I’ve also started experimenting with cutlets at home, pan-frying them to ensure using as little oil as possible. My favourite cutlets so far have been this recipe with roasted sweet potato as the base. You can adapt freely here: use boiled potatoes with peas if you’d prefer, leave out the spinach or substitute with another green like kale or rocket and consider adding roasted peanuts for crunch and some crumbled feta for a salty tang. I like to serve these as a starter with a tamarind chutney and a green chutney—one sweetish, one hot—but we’ve eaten the leftovers the next day with some salad or on a slice of toasted wholegrain bread. You can also make the assembly faster by roasting the sweet potatoes the day before, if you’d like. and if frying isn't your thing, you can bake these in the oven: place the cormed cutlets on a baking tray lined with parchment, brush the tops with some sunflower oil and bake for about 15 - 20 minutes on 175° C or until browned, then flip over, brush the other side with oil and bake again for about 15 minutes.
Sweet potato and spinach cutlets
Makes about 20 medium cutlets
3 large sweet potatoes, washed and peeled
3 large handfuls of spinach, washed and chopped
1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
1 heaped teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 large egg
3 - 4 tablespoons semolina or all-purpose flour + more for coating
3 to 4 tablespoons sunflower oil + 1/2 cup for frying
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander leaves, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Chop the sweet potatoes into roughly 2 cm cubes and transfer onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. In a small bowl, mix together 3 tablespoons sunflower oil, cumin, coriander, chilli powder, turmeric and some salt to taste. Using a pastry brush, evenly coat the sweet potatoes with this mixture. You can also just pour it over the sweet potatoes and mix it in using your hands. In case you feel the oil isn't enough, add half to a whole tablespoon more. Transfer the tray to the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are done, turning over once or twice using a spatula. Remove the tray from the oven and allow to cool.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, heat half a teaspoon sunflower oil in a large pan. Add the chopped spinach and cook, stirring, for two or three minutes until the spinach wilts. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Transfer the sweet potatoes to a large mixing bowl and mash into a fine paste using a potato masher. Squeeze the spinach to remove any water it might have released and add to the bowl along with the egg, 3 tablespoons of semolina or all-purpose flour and some salt to taste. Mix together using a spoon or your hands to combine everything into a homogeneous mass. If the mixture seems too wet, add another tablespoon or two of semolina or flour. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Place a few tablespoons of semolina on a plate. To make the cutlets, place a tablespoon of the mixture around the size of a golf ball into one palm, and gently shape it into a cutlet using the other hand. Having a bowl of water on the side and frequently dipping your forming hand into it helps a lot. Gently press each side of a finished cutlet into the semolina to coat, then place on a tray lined with parchment paper.You should be able to make about 20 cutlets with this mixture.
Heat half a cup of oil in a large frying pan on a high heat. (If you prefer baking the cutlets, read the notes above for the process). Place a tray lined with kitchen towels or paper napkins by the side of the stove. Once the oil is hot, gently lower the cutlets into the pan and fry in batches for about 1 - 2 minutes on each side until golden, then place the finished cutlets on the kitchen towels to drain. Transfer to a serving platter, garnish with fresh coriander and serve with a green chutney and a tamarind chutney.
Images: Vatsala Murthy