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Joshua Anand Slater’s Grandma John’s Indian Shepherd’s Pie


This recipe for shepherd’s pie is Ellen John’s, my Indian grandmother, a Mumbai native, as told to my mother and as fed to hundreds of hungry Indians, Canadians and Americans, an “introduction dish” for people new to the family table.  When my grandmother arrived in Canada in 1960, well before the first major wave of Indian immigration to North America, she suddenly had to feed five children and her husband on entirely different resources. Lacking Indian spices and groceries, and hoping to fit in with some sort of “Canadian” food, she made do with what was then current in Canada; what we might think of as a Yorkshire or Scottish grocery list. One of the family favourites is her recipe for shepherd’s pie.  

When the British say “mince” they mean one of two things: either ground meat or the glorious fruit mixture for Christmas pies. That usage was transferred to English-speaking Indians (my family, in example), who use it to refer to the dish the wider world knows as keema: a mixture of ground meat based on a rich savoury masala. When grandma came to Canada, she had to synthesize the flavours with available ingredients: hence a mixture of powdered ginger and ginger marmalade to approximate the sweet fresh ginger of a Bombay greengrocer.

I suggest cooking this once as written before mucking about with the spices!  I’ve never managed to rebalance the mixture effectively with the possible exception of adding in a bit of Indian chilli powder to knock the heat up a touch.  It feeds six hungry people twice and reheats well.  And in my grandmother’s words... “don’t skimp on the butter!”


Meat layer:

2lbs lean ground beef (85%) or a combination of ground turkey and ground beef

2 tbsps canola oil

2 med/lg onions, very finely chopped (run through a food processor)

2 generous tbsps finely chopped parsley

2 generous tbsps finely chopped celery leaves

1/8 tsp each: ground clove, cinnamon, pepper, mustard

1/4 tsp each: ground ginger, garlic, turmeric

1/2 tsp of ground cumin

1 tsp ground paprika

1 tsp ground coriander

Salt to taste

1/2 to 1 cup of canned diced tomatoes

Dash Worcestershire sauce

1/2 tsp ginger marmalade

1tbsp flour

Heat oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan

Sauté onions slowly in vegetable oil until soft and yellow - do not brown

Lower heat and add the spices: clove to coriander. Sauté 30 seconds

Add chopped parsley and celery, marmalade, Worcestershire sauce. Sauté 1 min.

Add diced tomatoes a little at a time, stirring as you increase heat to medium.

Continue sautéing for 10-15 mins, adding a little tomato/tomato liquid or dashes of hot water to keep the ‘paste’ from burning. As you sauté keep scraping the pan and stirring until the paste is smooth and begins to separate.

Add the meat, stir and fry on medium-high heat, browning thoroughly.

Add salt to taste.

Sprinkle flour over meat and stir quickly. Pour in approximately 1 cup of water and stir.

Simmer, covered, for 30 mins minimum, checking to see if the mixture remains moist but does not stick to the pan.

When done it should not have excess water. Drain away any fat if you wish by pressing the meat to one side with your spoon and tipping the pan. Remove fat that drains and discard it.

Spread the mixture into a greased 13”x9” baking dish or 2 smaller baking pans, pressing it down evenly.

Potato layer:

Peel and cook 10-12 medium potatoes.

Drain thoroughly in the pan, drying any residue water by putting the pan back on the warm burner for 30 seconds or so.

Mash the potatoes adding salt, pepper, butter and milk (1/4 cup approx.) to your taste.

Whilst hot, spread on top of the meat mixture in the dish.

Cheese layer:

Sprinkle 1 cup of grated cheddar cheese over the potato layer.

Crumb topping:

Crumble 2 or 3 slices of bread in a bowl. Put 2 tbsps butter over the crumbs. Melt in the microwave for about 20 seconds. Toss crumbs with the melted butter. Sprinkle over cheese. Substitute cornflakes if you like.

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