Diwali supper club with Maunika Gowardhan and Tilda rice

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.
This week I was lucky enough to be invited by Tilda, purveyors of fine basmati rice, to a very special Diwali supper club. It was hosted by the lovely Luiz of blog The London Foodie, and featured an absolutely sumptuous menu devised by food writer and private chef Maunika Gowardhan, who also acts as Indian cuisine expert for the Tilda taste panel. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, falls on October 26 this year, and celebrates the Hindu new year. As with all good festivals, food is at the heart of Diwali celebrations, often involving elaborate feasts with plenty of sweet things, and incorporating lots of coconut, nutmeg, raisins, cardamom, nuts and sugar. As I'm sure you can imagine from that list, I was beside myself with excitement at the idea of eating home-cooked, proper Indian food featuring a few of those ingredients.

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
4-5 cloves
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.