Once, when I was studying at Oxford, I found myself staring blankly at the ready meal aisle of M&S for over an hour. I’d come down with some horrible bug and was feeling exhausted and sorry for myself. Convinced I had no energy to cook, I thought that once, just this once, I would ‘treat myself’ to a nice ready meal. Except it turned out to be not such a treat after all. They all looked so soulless and tragic in their sterile little boxes, the portions stingy, the ingredients congealed, with the kind of matt, pallid hue that only a flimsy black microwaveable box can bestow. They all had unnecessarily unpronounceable ingredients in them. They were all far too expensive to justify their meagre contents. Paralysed with indecision, probably exacerbated by my increasingly ill and fuzzy mental state, I stood there for over an hour, wandering the aisles, trying to find something I fancied, trying to justify spending five pounds on a tiny tub of ravioli that I was convinced would only leave me hungrier, trying to urge myself to just get over it and stop being so precious about what I was going to have for dinner (I have urged myself to do this on a daily basis for nearly a decade now, incidentally - it never works).Read More
Sometimes, you read a menu description that sends you into paroxysms of longing and desire, and has you practically gaping at the waitress as you urge her, wide-eyed, to come over and take your order instantly so that the kitchen can quicken the transition of your food from plate to mouth. These moments should be cherished, as they help to prevent that cursed state, the bane of many a food-lover’s life: menu indecision. It’s rare that I hand my menu over to the waitress feeling wholly confident that I’ve made the right choice; anything that can facilitate this state of total wellbeing is truly a blessing.Read More
Let's be realistic. No matter how long it sits on my 'to-do' list, I am never going to get round to delivering that lengthy, nuanced, insightful, evocatively-written, anecdote-peppered, florid prose masterpiece that is 'Elly's travels around Thailand' on the blog. I think I exhausted myself for life in that area when I wrote an almost book-length post on Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago, and have never had the inclination to repeat the effort. I keep a hand-written travel journal and simply cannot find it in me to take the time to transcribe it for the benefits of the internet. But, since we're all obsessed with lists and bite-size chunks of information these days, I thought I would deliver a Buzzfeed-style recap of my trip that cuts out the boring parts and gets straight to the valuable, the memorable, the gastronomic...and the cat-related. Because I've heard the internet loves cats too.
P.S. Scroll down to the bottom for accommodation/restaurant recommendations.Read More
If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
Before I even go into the wild and wonderful merits of this beautiful dish, let’s just revel for a second in the fact that it’s called ‘amok’. Apparently this is simply a Cambodian term for cooking a curry in banana leaves, but I don’t think we use the word ‘amok’ enough in English and so let’s take a moment and think about how we can incorporate it more into our lives.
Good. Now you’ve done that, let me tell you about the beautiful amok.Read More
There are two things I absolutely must do whenever I go travelling to a new place. Number one is to take cooking lessons from the locals. All the better if this takes place in gorgeous open-air surroundings by a Vietnamese river amidst gardens of fresh lemongrass and Thai basil and a swimming pool for when the exertion of cooking all gets too much, as I was once lucky enough to experience in Hoi An, but any form of cooking lesson is hugely exciting for me, even if it’s just a street food seller taking the time to demonstrate to me how they make their delicious wares. If they let me eat said wares along the way, even better.Read More
When I was in Cambodia last September, I took more than a passing interest in the food. In between sitting down, chopsticks in hand, to gorge myself on its robust flavours, I would read up on the cuisine of this fascinating country in my guidebook or on the internet. The same sentiment kept recurring. In between mouthfuls of spicy fried rice with pineapple and seafood, creamy coconut and papaya shakes, stewed beef with pineapple and tomato, banana flower salads, black sesame ice cream and succulent spiced fish steamed in banana leaves, I would read the same words:
"Cambodian cuisine isn't as sophisticated as its Thai or Vietnamese neighbours."
Which, me being a PhD student and all, got me thinking about definitions and objectivity. What does it even mean yotsay a cuisine is 'sophisticated' or 'not sophisticated'? Who decides these arbitrary definitions? Moreover, does anyone have the right to dismiss something as nuanced and sprawling as an entire country's gastronomic heritage with the word 'unsophisticated'? Issues of authority aside, sophisticated is an entirely relative term; food cannot simply exist in isolation as 'sophisticated' without a point of comparison.
Cuisines are complex beasts, each one carrying within itself a vast array of dishes that will inevitably vary in terms of their sophistication. Not all French cuisine is fine dining and Michelin madness, for example - they also have the much-loved croque monsieur, which I think you could argue is fairly unsophisticated, in that it essentially comprises carbs, fat and more fat. While Japan has the highest proportion of Michelin stars in the world, Japanese cuisine also features what is perhaps the simplest meal known to man: a bowl of earthy miso soup.
Comparing Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine (I've never been to Thailand but I cook and eat a lot of Thai food and I have been to Vietnam), I really cannot fathom this completely thoughtless dismissal of Cambodian cooking, nor can I comprehend the authors' definitions of the word 'sophisticated'. For a start, there is a lot of overlap between these three cuisines. They all feature staple ingredients such as lime, coconut, lemongrass, chilli and garlic. They are all based around small amounts of meat or fish, and plenty of rice or noodles. Fragrant soups feature heavily, as do spring rolls in various guises.
Some of the best food I've ever eaten was served to me in Cambodia. I am particularly in love with their 'national dish', amok, which involves steaming fish in a fragrant 'custard' made with coconut milk, spices and eggs, often wrapped in a banana leaf. The fish stays moist and delicious, enriched with the spices and softened by the coconut that surrounds it. I also loved a stir-fry of chicken, tomato and pineapple which hit the spot on a sickeningly humid and exhausting day exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. In the same vein, few words can express the delicious and satisfying nature of sticky rice cakes filled with gooey banana, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled so that the outside of the rice turns crunchy and caramelised while the inside is sweet and gooey.
Wash those down with a pineapple and coconut shake from a street stall, perhaps, or visit one of Siam Reap's chic modern ice cream parlours for flavours including durian fruit, lemongrass and 'four spice'. At the market you can pick up fluffy steamed buns filled with egg, meat and vegetables for less money than a bottle of water in the UK, while various street vendors set up stalls at night and offer cheap and cheerful fried rice and noodle dishes.
My experience of Cambodian food (which was limited to a mere three days in Siam Reap - not enough!) was thrilling, satisfying, nourishing and a complete adventure. Sophistication, or lack thereof, is irrelevant.
Since that memorable trip, I've been experimenting with Cambodian food in my own kitchen. I quickly discovered that the backbone of many Cambodian dishes is kroeung(don't ask me how to pronounce it), a spice paste used in the same way as Thai curry pastes - fried at the beginning of cooking until fragrant then mixed with other ingredients before further cooking.
Kroeung is a generic term for a spice paste, so there is no real 'standard' version (just as with Thai pastes), but my Vietnamese/Cambodian cookbook uses the same version for its recipes, so I started with that. I've tweaked it a little bit to result in something I'm perfectly happy with, adding a little more of flavours I particularly love (think lemongrass and lime leaf).
Kroeung is easy to make. You basically put everything in a blender and blitz it up to form a coarse paste, flecked with vibrant marigold from turmeric (fresh if you can get it), scarlet from chillies, green from shredded lime leaves, and pale yellow from the lemongrass and galangal. If you haven't used galangal before, try and track it down at an oriental supermarket - it's a pale, woody root with a similar peppery flavour to ginger, but sharper and more astringent. Ditto lime leaves - the dried ones in the supermarket are not worth bothering with; try and find frozen leaves in oriental supermarkets, which defrost almost instantly and are ideal to keep on hand for curries - the flavour they impart is just incredible. I've listed substitutions for some of the more exotic ingredients, though, should you be unable to find them.
I'm sharing this with you because there are a few Cambodian recipes due to appear on this blog over the next few weeks and months, and this recipe is the backbone for all of them. If you don't want to wait for those, you can try my Cambodian aubergine curry (it's amazing), or get creative - use kroeung as the basis of a Thai-style curry, simply adding some coconut milk, a splash of fish sauce to season, a little brown sugar, some shallots and the vegetables or meat of your choice.
Kroeung (makes enough for 2-3 curries, about 300ml):
- A 2-inch piece fresh galangal (or fresh ginger), peeled
- a 4-inch piece fresh turmeric (or 2 tsp dried turmeric)
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 lemongrass stalks, tough bits removed
- 2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 10 lime leaves (or zest of 2 limes)
- 2 hot chillies
- 1 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp shrimp paste (or Thai fish sauce)
- 3 tbsp flavourless oil, such as rapeseed or groundnut
Method: put everything in a blender and go crazy. Store the paste in the fridge or freezer.
Banana flower salad with chicken and sweet-sour dressing
Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as being “less sophisticated” than its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, which seems to me a highly unfair accusation. For me, Cambodian food is just as exciting as Thai or Vietnamese, particularly its curries. These are often based on a spice paste called kroeung, a heady mixture of galangal, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli, given a savoury kick by fermented shrimp paste. To this is added coconut milk, more lime leaves and a little sugar, resulting in the most delicious sweet-sour-salty-coconutty curry sauce, fragrant with lime and lemongrass, hot with chilli and deeply savoury from fish sauce and shrimp paste. For a delicious introduction to the cuisine, try out this stunning vegetarian curry recipe - my latest post on the Appliances Online lifestyle blog. For the recipe, and a little bit more about Cambodian food, click here!
Making a proper, involved, Indian curry sometimes makes me feel a little bit like a witch. Into a bubbling cauldron (okay, a Le Creuset casserole), I chop, sprinkle and throw a vast array of ingredients, whose individual fragrances, flavours and perfumes mingle magically and alchemically into a heady and potent end result. Although it can be quite tedious and time-consuming to rifle my spice cupboards (yes, I have three - no that shouldn't surprise you if you know me or read this blog regularly) for all the different ingredients required, to extract them from their various jars/sellotaped-down packets/tupperware boxes and to toast, grind and dice them as necessary, I love the way they all contribute their own unique qualities to the final dish.
While I often use maybe two or three herbs and spices at most in a single recipe, there are times that call for more than that. To spoon them from their jars is a pleasure; I can appreciate the vivid marigold of turmeric, the shocking vibrance of scarlet paprika, the delicate shape of a floral star anise or furled cinnamon stick, the wrinkled citrus perfume of a jade cardamom pod, the deep warmth of cumin, the pungent earthy aroma of ground coriander...I could go on. I love the way the aromas emanating from the pan shift with every addition, becoming slightly more earthy, or slightly sweeter, or a little bit more astringent (particularly when you throw in a bit of feisty cayenne pepper).
The main reason for making this curry was a little packet of mango powder, a recent acquisition from the excellent JustIngredients. I've never cooked with it before but I am a total fiend for mangoes, so it made sense to add another manifestation of this exquisite fruit to my culinary repertoire. Mango powder is made from green, unripe mangoes, so it possesses a wonderful tartness, and is often used for this reason in curries and stews, perhaps where you might otherwise use tamarind or lime juice. I'm keen to try it out soon in a marinade for chicken, but first had the idea for this curry.
Although I do love a good meat-based curry, particularly involving slow-cooked red meat like lamb or beef that braises down into melting, spicy tenderness, I try not to eat too much meat. Chickpeas are a lovely substitute in curries, because they possess a good substantial texture and are also an excellent vehicle for carrying the fragrant sauce. I love the texture of an earthy chickpea against a mound of fragrant rice - it's that slightly sinful yet delicious marriage of carbs with carbs.
This curry uses a lot of spices. They mingle together during the cooking time (another bonus - much quicker than a meat-based curry) to result in a gorgeous fragrant sauce, sweet with cinnamon, hot with cayenne pepper, earthy with cumin, coriander and turmeric, zingy with cardamom, and slightly sour from the mango powder. The base of the sauce is chopped tomatoes and a little brown sugar, which turns dark and rich and sweet/sour, laced with tender strips of softened onion. I love the tang that the mango powder brings to the whole dish - it makes it incredibly moreish.
Into this aromatic sauce go tinned chickpeas (I never cook them from scratch because the tinned ones are perfectly good - just make sure you get a good Asian/Middle-Eastern brand rather than the supermarket own brand) and a load of spinach, which wilts down amongst the chickpeas and thickens the sauce. It also contributes the 'something green' that must be a component of every meal I cook - it's become a bit of a compulsion.
To continue the mango theme, I decided to add some cubed fresh mango to the curry at the end of cooking. This was, if I say so myself, a great idea. Because the sauce is so earthy and has that kick of sourness from the mango powder, and the chickpeas are quite starchy and neutral-tasting, the fruity mango contributes a delicious fresh, sweet flavour and a lovely texture that works so well with all the other elements. Add to that a sprinkle of fresh coriander, and you have a perfect marriage.
Although this has a long list of spices involved, it's an incredibly easy curry to make and takes very little actual cooking time. I know a lot of people are put off by the idea of vegetarian curries, as they never quite manage to live up to the richness of meat-based varieties, but this I think is one of the best I've ever made or had. It's comforting and warming yet healthy and fruity at the same time, and a real pleasure both to look at and to eat.
The sauce is also a good base for adapting - I think some cubed aubergines cooked along with the chickpeas would be excellent, softening into slippery deliciousness. You could add strips of chicken if you really can't live without the meat. Pomegranate seeds scattered over the top as well as or instead of the fresh mango would be excellent (I wanted to try this, but didn't have any pomegranates), or maybe some dried apricots added to the sauce along with the chickpeas. Try this mango version first, though, because it's great.
I'd also like to clarify that I don't stand by my hob chanting 'hubble bubble' while making these sorts of things...but once you've made this, you might understand my strange notions of cooking with spices as being magical.
Chickpea, spinach and mango curry (serves 4):
- 1 tbsp olive/rapeseed oil
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tsp
- ground cumin
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 tomatoes, finely diced
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp mango powder
- 3 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 2 x 400g cans chickpeas
- 500ml water
- Two large handfuls fresh coriander, finely chopped
- 4 large handfuls spinach
- 2 ripe mangoes, cut into 2cm cubes
Heat the oil in a large casserole dish and saute the onion until softened and golden. Add the cumin, cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and cook for a minute or so until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt, mango powder, coriander, garam masala, cayenne, turmeric and sugar. Partially cover the pan with a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes on a low heat until the tomatoes have softened and thickened.
Add the chickpeas, water, and half the coriander and cook, covered, for 20-25 minutes until the sauce has thickened. If it's too runny, cook uncovered for a few minutes more. Add the spinach and cook for a minute or so until it wilts into the sauce. Stir in the mango, and serve immediately, with steamed rice, sprinkled with the remaining coriander.
I'd like to introduce you to a new contender for my 'favourite cookbook of all time' award. It's a keeper. It's going to be adorned with sauce splatters, anointed with oil smears, christened with overkeen garlicky fingers and placed in pride of place on my shelf before the summer is out.
When I first picked up my copy of Reza's Indian Spice, kindly sent to me to review by Quadrille Books, I flicked through the pages briefly. I'm pretty good at surmising from the quickest of flicks whether I'm going to be interested in a new cookbook or not. There are several factors that contribute to this:
- The amount and quality of photography (sad to say, but I'm generally not interested if there are no photos - how are you supposed to be drawn in by a dish if you can't see it presented to its full potential?)
- The general style and layout of the pages (although I enjoy the sparseness of - for example - Nigel Slater's books, sometimes simple can mean boring)
- The way the book falls open (yes, this may sound silly, but if the pages aren't going to fall open for you to cook from without holding the book open manually, then that's a pretty useless cookbook - Dan Lepard wins points for Short and Sweet, whereas Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day is severely lacking in this area, requiring the machinations of several pieces of kitchen equipment to keep the pages apart long enough to glance at the ingredients)
- The desserts section (always the one I flick to first, reading the book from back to front, rather like the way a keen sports fan reads a newspaper)
- And, of course, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal.
Reza Mahammad is a TV chef, and also owns the 'Star of India' restaurant in London. The philosophy behind this book, as it proclaims on the title page, is 'Eastern Recipes for Western Cooks', and I couldn't think of a better summary. Reza was brought up in London, educated in India, and has a house in France. He is passionate about all kinds of cuisine, but even more so about combining them to result in new and fabulous recipes.
This is evident from many of the dishes in the book; 'Frindian' (French/Indian) ideas such as 'Paupiettes of lemon sole with saffron sauce', or a dessert combining a very English ingredient, rhubarb, with the Indian flavours of almonds and oranges. Reza adds cinnamon to a classic celeriac gratin to serve with duck and orange, takes Italian polenta and adds a hefty dose of Indian spice, stuffs a haunch of venison with dried fruit and chilli after rubbing it with anise, cardamom and allspice, puts a spin on meatballs with mint, coriander, ginger, chilli and cumin, uses the very European beetroot in a lemongrass- and lime-infused salad, and even provides recipes for an Indian High Tea, featuring crab samosas, masala tea, sweet potato cakes and saffron halva with pistachios.
The book is simply divided into sections. 'Quick and chic' dishes are exactly what they proclaim themselves to be: chilli-seared mackerel, spicy beef salad, lemon and coriander chicken, and several lassi recipes (mint and cumin, roasted fig, rhubarb, minted mango, strawberry and cardamom) which I thought was a nice touch - you can complete your Eastern feast by stretching the theme as far as the drinks. 'Slow burners' are those that require a bit more cooking time, like sweet and sour stuffed chicken, or 'Royal leg of lamb'; 'Showing Off' are those perfect dinner party dishes designed to impress, like stuffed chillies, stuffed quail, and spice-crusted monkfish; 'Classic Curries' are fairly self-explanatory - think tandoori prawns, red fish curry, chicken in a cashew nut sauce, lamb and potato korma; 'Perfect Partners' are where you'll find all the side dishes and chutneys to accompany your chosen recipe, like mooli and pomegranate salad, roast potatoes with chilli and chaat masala, saffron-roast cauliflower; and, finally, 'Sweet Like Candy' contains the dessert offerings.
So, let's go through my checklist, in case you need any more convincing as to the merits of this book.
The photography is absolutely gorgeous. Truly stunning, with a rather dark and moody aspect that really highlights the exotic qualities of the food, allowing its amazing colours to stand out. The photos of myriad spices scattered over bold backdrops and beautiful crockery are some of my favourite, as is an image of pomegranates on the contents page. Whereas some recipe books post photos of the dish simply to provide a reference point, these images are works of art in themselves, vibrant still lifes that really bring the book alive and infuse you with a zest and passion for the heady spices that are boldly used in each recipe.
The pages are beautifully laid out, with a little description of each dish (I always think this is essential - my favourite part of reading a recipe book is learning about the provenance of each dish; how it relates to others in the country's cuisine, where it originated, how the author feels about it). The font is simple and undistracting, and the ingredients clearly listed. What I particularly like is the little note at the bottom of each recipe recommending a side dish or accompaniment, ranging from simple coconut rice to something more elaborate, like 'sambal with lemon grass', or 'kidney beans with dried lime', all of which can be found later in the book. It's sometimes so hard to know what to pair complex spiced food with, especially if you are a 'Western cook', but this takes all of that stress away, while inspiring you to cook not just one but maybe two or even three dishes from the book at the same time.
Also, the book easily stays open on each page. Towards the beginning and end you might need to gently weigh it down with something (my iPhone normally serves this purpose), but generally it's very easy to cook from. Points for that.
The dessert section is relatively quite small, and I have to say I'm not hugely drawn in by any of them, but that's mainly because quite a lot of milk and cream is involved - think white chocolate, cardamom and rose pannacotta, Vermicelli milk pudding with pistachios, mango creme brulée, and rice pudding with rose petal jam. They all sound lovely, exotic and sweet, but I'm not a big fan of dairy in desserts (apart from cheesecake). This is totally personal, though - I'm sure they taste fabulous if you're a fan of that sort of thing, and once again the photography is gorgeous.
Finally, the titles of the dishes and whether they appeal. You only have to read 'Five jewels dal', 'Persian chicken with saffron and cardamom', 'scallops with coconut and ginger', 'spice-crusted monkfish in tomato sauce', 'duck breasts with orange, ginger and cinnamon', 'lamb pasanda with green mangoes', 'beansprout salad with chargrilled asparagus and coconut', and 'gingered carrots with maple syrup' to understand why I couldn't wait to get cooking. The dishes are at once exotic and familiar, putting an Eastern spin on well-loved European classics, or giving us an authentic version of things we love already - tandoori prawns, chicken masala, beef tikka.
I dived in the day after I received my book, and made the 'sweet potato and goat's cheese samosas'. These use filo pastry and are baked not fried, which Reza seems proud of - it "both makes them healthier and somehow intensifies the flavour of the filling". The filling consists of chunks of cooked sweet potato, mixed with ground toasted cumin seeds (toasting them first gives a wonderful aromatic flavour, which you just don't get with ready-ground cumin), goat's cheese, spring onions, coriander, chilli, cinnamon and garlic. This is wrapped in little filo parcels, which are brushed with butter and scattered with cumin seeds before being baked.
They were a real surprise, one of those dishes where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts. All the filling ingredients melded together to provide a beautiful soft, rich, deeply aromatic taste sensation, given freshness by the cheese and herbs. Reza recommends serving them with an 'Indo-Italian pesto', using watercress, rocket and coriander with chilli, parmesan, lemon and pine nuts. I didn't have time to make this, so served mine with a simple watercress and pomegranate salad, which was a lovely fresh match for the rich filling. These would be a great dinner party starter; the crunch of the flaky filo against the soft, flavoursome filling is so delicious, and they're great sharing food. I couldn't stop picking them up off the baking sheet and eating them. Allow them to cool a bit, though, and don't eat straight from the oven as I did, or you'll burn your mouth. That's how inviting they are.
I was particularly intrigued by the 'Braised and Fried Beef' recipe. Reza calls it "rich, dark and reminiscent of a Malaysian rendang". It involved an unusual method, in that the beef is braised in rich spiced liquor first before being drained and fried. I couldn't resist the gorgeous combination of spices: cloves, coriander seeds, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, plus plenty of chilli - the recipe suggested three dried chillies for the spice mix, three fresh green chillies for the braising, then another two green ones for the frying.
I'm so glad I followed my gut feeling and used only one dried chilli and one fresh. If I had followed the original, I think I might be in A&E right now with third degree burns to my mouth. Instead, I was rewarded with a really gorgeous dish. The meat was meltingly tender, with a very deep, rich flavour from all the aromatics, particularly the curry leaves which give off a curious earthy fragrance. It combined wonderfully with the onion and red pepper during the second frying stage, though I wasn't quite sure about the method - Reza suggests frying it along with the remaining cooking liquid, which means that the meat doesn't fry properly as it's soaked in liquid. Instead, I added the liquid bit by bit and ended up with more of a saucy curry (oo-er) than a dry dish, but it was delicious nonetheless. I served it with the coconut rice from the book, which was subtle and a perfect partner to the rich dish, tempering its heat (it wasn't too spicy at all; it had a pleasant kick which enhanced all of the other flavours and I rather enjoyed).
I can think of only one improvement that could be made to this book, and that would be to have a nice glossary at the front or back explaining some of the more unusual ingredients, and giving advice on where to source them. Certain types of chilli, for example, or elusive beasts like asafoetida and fenugreek. They're not the easiest things to get hold of, but if you know what you're looking for and are given the name of a decent online stockist or a recommendation to seek out your local Asian grocer, you'll be on the right track. It's also quite nice to know about the provenance of each of these exotic ingredients, and how they are generally used in Eastern cuisine.
But that is honestly my only slight criticism. I absolutely adore this book. It's beautiful, inspiring, tantalising and truly one to be savoured and cooked from at every possible opportunity.
|Clockwise from top left: bainhan ka bharta on the left, haraa masala chicken in the centre; Maunika preparing the bengali bhapa doi; the bengali bhapa doi; candles to celebrate the Festival of Lights.|
My experiences of Indian cuisine haven't been anything mind-blowing, nor anything remotely approaching authentic. While I do enjoy a nice Tandoori chicken in our local curry house in Yorkshire, and while I did have a great experience at Anokaa in Salisbury when I was there for a weekend (including a wonderful duck and apricot curry and a delicious scallop starter), I'm pretty sure I have never sampled anything that a real Indian would recognise.
Enter Maunika Gowardhan (of the well-known blog Cook in a Curry) and her delicious home cooking. She is influenced by recipes passed down through her family, and cooks dishes from all over India (a country whose diverse cuisines I'm sure it's almost sacrilegious to lump together under the label "Indian"), putting her own unique spin on such recipes. I was told she had been frenetically cooking all day in order to bring her menu to us, and this soon became clear when I saw said menu: nine separate dishes, not including the raita and chapatis, all totally different, all equally enticing. Tilda's rice was at the heart of two of the recipes, to demonstrate its versatility in different kinds of cooking.
Over dinner I was told about what makes Tilda so special: not only is it 100% basmati rice (other brands often label themselves basmati but actually contain a small percentage of other grains), it undergoes a stringent quality control process to ensure there are no broken grains. Broken grains apparently interfere with the cooking process, releasing undesirable starch and resulting in overly sticky and stodgy rice. They use a special machine to filter them out. Who'd have thought so much effort could go into something as simple as a pack of rice? I was also informed that Tilda produce 17 different flavours of their microwaveable rice sachets, including butternut squash; sweet chilli and lime; lemon; coconut, and lime and coriander. I had absolutely no idea and am now really keen to sample them all, particularly coconut. I tend to cook my rice from scratch, but sometimes I reckon it'd be nice to have a microwaveable pack to hand, especially in such enticing flavours.
Back to the menu. First (to accompany an intensely alcoholic orange and cardamom martini that I only permitted myself half of in order to avoid being too catatonic to eat), we had deep fried sundried tomato and mozzarella rice balls. These were like the fantastic Sicilian arancini that are just starting to become popular over here - cooked rice wrapped around a filling (usually meat or cheese) in little balls then coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. Tilda's microwaveable sachets of basmati rice include a sundried tomato flavour, ideal for recipes with an Italian twist like this one. However, Maunika added her own Indian twist by serving them with a delicious fresh mint dipping sauce. The combination of crunchy breadcrumbs, soft rice and a gooey piece of mozzarella in the centre was utterly amazing. I could have happily eaten a plateful of those for dinner and nothing else.
Next we had paneer haraa tikka, squares of Indian cheese (rather like halloumi in texture, but less salty) marinated in green herbs, garlic and chillies then grilled. The real star of this dish, though, was a wonderful pineapple and black pepper chutney. It was bursting with zesty, pineapple flavour, but intesely sweet yet sharp at the same time. Maunika had apparently made it at home over a month ago. Again, I could have eaten just that, by the spoonful. It worked really well with the creamy cheese. This is now high on my 'to make' list. I rarely cook with pineapple but I keep meaning to experiment more; it has a wonderful caramelly depth of flavour when cooked.
Next we were invited to help ourselves to an absolute banquet of delights. First, haraa masala chicken, a green stew of chicken meat, caramelised onions, fresh mint and coriander. The chicken was really tender and flavoursome, with a lovely freshness from the sauce - quite unlike your usual flourescent yellow takeaway curries with their glutinous, oily sauces. There was also lamb yakhni pulao, a sort of pilaff of Tilda basmati rice, garlic and ground spices, cooked in lamb stock and butter and containing succulent chunks of lamb (Maunika had actually made the lamb stock herself from lamb bones earlier, which strikes me as incredible attention to detail, and may have been the reason the dish was so delicious). This was really lovely, with warm spicy notes and a real depth of flavour in the rice from the stock.
There was also a Keralan fish curry (see below), which I think was the favourite dish of the evening. Maunika pan-fried fillets of sea bass and served them in a pale yellow coconut curry flavoured with fresh curry leaves, ginger and lemon juice. The sauce was just incredible; it had a really pronounced coconutty flavour, with a slight sweetness that accompanied the delicate seabass really well, but with an underlying herbal note that prevented it being overwhelmingly sweet and creamy.
We also had bainhan ka bharta, a dish of charred aubergines cooked in spices and fresh ginger. This definitely had a kick to it, but you could still detect the unmistakeable deep flavour of roasted aubergine. It was wonderful accompanied with Maunika's roasted cumin and pomegranate raita, which took the edge off the spices a little.
After seconds of such wonderful fare, I was seriously doubting my capacity for dessert. However, I only got to sample one of the two desserts because I had to dash off to catch the last train home from London (damn you, First Capital Connect, for depriving me of sweet sustenance). I missed out on coconut, ginger and basmati rice pancakes; ginger rice pancakes fried in butter and topped with grilled pineapple and maple syrup. You only have to read that sentence to feel my pain at not being able to taste such an incredible-sounding combination of ingredients. Genuinely gutted.
However, I did at least get to sample bengali bhapa doi, which was a taste sensation and surprised me rather a lot. It's like a panna cotta, except made of chilled strained yoghurt that has thickened and gone rather crumbly, a bit like a baked ricotta cheesecake. This was flavoured with cardamom, and served with a truly wonderful mango coulis. Seeing as I hate yoghurt, I was amazed to find myself eating not only mine but one of the other guests' too (imagine how that sentence would read if I had forgotten the apostrophe). It didn't taste like yoghurt; it still had a pleasant tang, but it lacked the astringent sourness that I hate about yoghurt, as well as the creamy texture. This was more solid and crumbly, and it went really well with the vibrant, nectar-like coulis.
I was astounded by how completely different all of Maunika's dishes were to anything I've ever seen on a curry house menu. The evening fully confirmed my suspicions that there is more to Indian food than Tandoori chicken and naan bread. I was also impressed by how light the dishes were; I'd been expecting to waddle home nursing a small baby of coconut cream, dough and rice in my stomach. As it is, I did pretty much waddle home and I was very full, but not in an unpleasant way, and I had eaten rather a lot. Everything tasted fresh rather than overpowering; there were no greasy, cloying sauces or mounds of heavy rice; just bright, vibrant flavours.
I had a really lovely evening, and not just because of the food. It was so nice to meet lots of other food bloggers, many of whom were highly knowledgeable about Asian food and definitely taught me a few things over dinner. Many thanks to Tilda and Wild Card for inviting me, to Luiz for allowing everyone to invade his (beautiful, Aga-sporting and envy-inducing) kitchen, and to Maunika for some truly fabulous food.
If you'd like to try the delicious lamb yakhni pulao recipe, scroll down...
Yakhni Lamb Pulao:
For the stock and meat:
600g shoulder of lamb on the bone cut in medium sized pieces
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
5 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
Enough water to cover all the meat (about a litre)
For the pulao:
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
1 inch cinnamon stick broken in half
5 green cardamom pods
2 medium onions thinly sliced
1 heaped tbsp ginger paste
2 heaped tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp nutmeg powder
350g Tilda Pure Basmati Rice
600ml lamb stock
Salt to taste
Tie up the onion and all the whole spices in muslin securing with a string. Cook it with the meat and water in a stock pot over a hob: bring to the boil and simmer for an hour and 15 minutes. The stock, along with the meat and spices, can be left in the pot overnight which will enhance the flavours.
The following day discard the muslin with its contents, separate the meat from the stock and set aside.
Prepare the rice by soaking for at least 30 minutes and rinsing in a sieve until the water runs clear.
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom pods. Fry them for a minute as they sizzle and release their flavours in the oil. Add the sliced onions. Fry the onions on a medium heat till they soften and are a light golden brown.
Add the ginger and garlic paste and cook through for a couple of minutes. Now add the nutmeg powder stirring well for a few seconds making sure the powder does not burn.
Mix in the cooked lamb and the rice. Season with salt and stir, add the stock and mix well. Cover and cook on a low heat for about 20 minutes or so, until the rice is completely cooked. Turn the heat off and garnish with fresh coriander. Serve warm with mint raita.