That curious flavour called ‘curry’

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Curry sign

‘Curry’. It’s a term which can be debated endlessly, as idly or hotly as one’s demeanour demands. Appropriately for the fiery, spiced-up stews those five little letters call to mind, it’s a topic that both inflames tempers and ignites heated exchanges. ‘Curry’ may well be a lazy, catch-all, meaningless word; but it also speaks to the British psyche like few others can – hence charities like Find Your Feet harnessing it to cleverly raise cash for a cause.

In Britain, rightly or wrongly, ‘curry’ has become shorthand for almost anything that’s even slightly saucy and spicy; oft-considered ‘nectar’ to the vast majority. The most widely accepted linguistic origin of the term is the Tamil ‘kari’, which loosely translates as ‘sauce’ – and indeed, it’s thought that most mass-produced proprietary ‘curry powders’ are based on South Indian sambhar powder.

In America, too, ‘curry’ is the accepted name for a singular spicerack stalwart; a sunset-hued dry blend as omnipresent as the essential Cajun or Old Bay seasonings for keen cooks. If Food Network’s Guy Fieri spends as much time enthusiastically bellowing at you from the telly in your living room as he does in mine, you’ll know that it’s frequently the ‘spoonful of curry’ that maketh the dish.

So, like so many culinary ‘hot potatoes’, the true meaning – or non-meaning, for that matter – of ‘curry’ will always be disputed. But the fact that the matter will never truly be reconciled is music to certain ears – those of food companies with something spicy to sell and money to make. On the supermarket shelves, you’ll find the term embraced as a flavour in its very own right.

When you’re hawking a new food product, the sheer ambiguity of ‘curry’ is a real plus point. You can use precisely the spices you want, in whatever quantities should so suit. You can see the dodgy logic; call it ‘curry’ and no-one can call you out. We’re conditioned to merely expect fire, spice’n’ all things nice – after all, that’s what ‘curry’ is made of.

Vesta beef curry ready meal

And largely, that’s what you get from the majority of these ‘curry-fied’ concoctions. It all started with Vesta Curry – now known as the most anachronistic ambient ready meal one can encounter, but in their 1950s heyday, quite the way to get a little taste of India. If, y’know, India actually ate dehydrated rubbish wetted down into a sloppy, gloppy mess on the stovetop.

A pack of 2-minute Maggi Noodles can save any lonely evening, offering a supper for one that’s surprisingly sublime – as any Indian worth their sachet of Chatpata seasoning knows. But in Britain, one flavour packet you’ll find in Bachelor’s Super Noodles is ‘Mild Curry’. Fancy your meal in a mug? How ‘bout Bachelor’s ‘Cup A Noodle Curry’?

If you can’t even be bothered to use your noodle long enough to watch a pot boil, you can simply sluice a Pot Noodle with boiling water and wait for that ‘Bombay Bad Boy’ to soften somewhat. Or opt for ‘Original Curry’ – a flavour whose adjective almost certainly pertains to it being the ‘first in the range’ and not ‘the most authentic’. See ‘Trampy & The Tramp’s’ verdict of both here.

Bachelor’s ‘Mild Curry’ flavour also finds its way into the same company’s Super(?) Rice. A little more nice is Tilda’s ‘British Curry Rice’, concocted by chef Dhruv Baker and proudly proclaiming to be a quintessential contrivance of our green and pleasant land, rather than masquerading as an authentic Indian immigrant.

It won’t be long before any newly-arrived Indian immigrant encounters good old Heinz Baked Beans. Hopefully, though, they’ll steer well clear of the variety that comes already-curried. Don’t get me wrong, masala beans are a beautiful thing – but Heinz needs to know that a quick spot of home-pimping is the only way to go.

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Small babies have a way to go before they learn that Heinz Meanz Beanz – but in the meantime, that company offers a ‘Very Mild Chicken Curry’ in its ‘7 Months Mum’s Own Baby Food’ range. A little further upmarket, Plum Baby provides an organic Sweet Cape Curry With Beef’.

For children who can chew, there’s Ella’s Kitchen ‘Creamy Coconutty Chicken Curry’, and Tilda Kids’ ‘Mild & Sweet Curry’ rice. To be fair, these dishes are probably a better bet than many chilli-laden ‘curry’ concoctions out there. At least they’re introducing Indian flavours from an early age. And hey, they might lack salt, but often even the most over-spiced items manage to be under-seasoned.

Well-seasoned supermarket shoppers will be all-too-familiar with some of the ‘fast-fix’ shockers on the shelves. If you’re not amongst them, freeze in the freezer aisle awhile and eye up dubious delights like Bernard Matthews’ ‘Chicken Curry Mini Kievs’, and the ‘Greggs for Iceland Chicken Curry Pasties’ – though you’ll sadly no longer see the much-missed ‘Chicken Curry’-flavour Findus Crispy Pancakes, which made a brief return in 2010 following a Facebook campaign .

In fact, as large retailers go, Iceland seems to have the monopoly on ‘curry’ calamites. The flavour finds its way into everything, from the legendary ‘Chicken Tikka Lasagne’, to frozen ‘Hungry Man pasta‘ and a thin’n’crispy pizza. The retailer has even seen fit to create – and please take a moment to strap down your eyebrows lest they raise to the roof – the ‘Chocolate Chicken Curry’. Yes.

Iceland chocolate chicken curry

But actually, chocolate in curry’s not so shocking – it’s just usually a little more chocolate and a little less curry; as is the case with Cocomaya’s ‘Mumbai Curry’ milk chocolate and Duke of Delhi’s chevdo-crammed bars. The combination can be surprisingly successful; but I do wish they’d chosen a curry powder sans garlic for the former. Then, of course, there’s India Dining’s cross-cultural ‘Vishneaster’ Egg

If you like to keep your sweet and savoury separate, there are all manner of limited-edition curried crisps with which to cram your mouth full – notably, Seabrook’s’‘Desi Curry’ and McCoy’s ‘Rogan Oh-My-Josh’, ‘Lamb Vindaloo’ and ‘Chicken Jalfrezi’ varieties (Foodstuff Finds’ review here). If you took a walk over to the Walkers a few years back, you’d have spotted ‘Onion Bhaji’ crisps. Nowadays, if you’re nuts for nuts, try Walker’s Tiger Nuts in ‘Masala Curry’.

If you’re tipping out a tin for a speedy feed and are seeking spice, Tesco offers tinned mackerel swimming in curry sauce, whilst Frey Bentos pops an entire ‘Fiery Chicken Curry Pie’ in a canister. Further ambient aisle abominations include Uncle Ben’s Rice Time – ‘Medium Curry‘, Knorr’s misguided ‘Curry Flavour Pot gel’, and Great Scot’s ‘Red Lentil Dahl Mix’ – which oddly eats as if it includes not a single Indian aromatic.

Soup and sandwiches are the staple lunchtime diet of office workers up and down the country, not the divine dabbas eaten in India. In the UK, curry’s just not done at desk – unless, of course, it’s in the form of a carton of Asda’s non-specific ‘Chicken Curry’-flavoured chilled soup or a tub of Tesco’s curried ‘Coronation Chicken’ sandwich filler.

When you consider all these, Alex James’ short-lived ‘curry cheese’ for Asda really is the thin end of the wedge. Celebrity chef Simon Rimmer’s even come up with a brew he feels perfectly accompanies ‘a curry’. This carbonated concoction is called, lengthily and simply, ‘Simon Rimmer Presents A Beer To Go With Curry’. But WHICH curry is it suited to specifically??

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All and any, it would seem*. In fact, perhaps it’s actually apt; a ubiquitous beverage for a curious, catch-all term….

(*If you are interested in less-ludicrous beer-and ‘curry’ combinations, see sensible suggestions from Quilon’s Sriram Aylur here.)

What odd ’curry’-flavoured  foodstuffs have you encountered? I hereby invite you to name and shame – or politely praise below!

 

 

 

Indian pop-ups, events & restaurants Springing up this season

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Following last week’s edible introduction to Spring’s most incredible Indian eats, I very much hope you’ve been feasting, not fasting. And now, I’m imploring you to get your skates on and explore all the new residencies, pop-ups, markets and restaurants bringing subcontinental sparkle to the Britain’s burgeoning food scene. Here’s an overview to help you build a healthy appetite…

Hit the streets

France and Noonan menu

There’s a spring in the step of anyone with a penchant for a pop-up. New markets and events are bursting forth all over the shop; much like the blossom currently bursting out all over Britain. Darjeeling Express‘ Asma Khan got the ball rolling early with her mammoth stint at the The Sun & 13 Cantons, where she’s been busy introducing Soho to the delights of true Calcutta khana.

Traditionally, there’s not been much true Indian khana to be found around Brick Lane, despite the area being the historic homeland of the classic curryhouse. But now Baba G and his Bhangra Burgers have rocked up for a residency at Apples & Pears, the number of innovative Indian edibles is on the increase. With classic wry humour, he’s telling customers to #eattweetbogof – offering two-for-one deals for those who share snaps of snacks on social media. The #3chillichallenge, meanwhile,  is only for the foolhardy.

For those preferring a rather less-lethal dabble with the cuisine of India’s dhabas, new start-ups Arti and Upma of Dhaba Lane have embarked on a packed programme of markets, pop-up suppers and Bollywood theme nights. Brighton’s Curry Leaf Cafe will pop along to the city’s Craft Beer Co. for a monthly pop-up. Back in East London, France & Noonan are becoming pretty ubiquitous; enjoying a resoundingly riotous reception for Rotli Crew (see pic) – a menu packed with Indian-inspired funked-up flavours.

Alchemy market Southbank Indian food

There will be plenty of funked-up Indian flavours on the Southbank as we march into May, with the arrival of the Mayor’s Vaisakhi celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 4th May, plus the Flavours of India market that makes up the foodie arm of the annual Alchemy festival. Past years have seen Vivek Singh doing some thrilling grilling at his Joho Soho grill, the temporary installation of Roti Chai’s Chaat Shack, and the likes of Dosa Deli and Horn Please just plain pleasing the masses with their fine food. Even with a full ten days to tuck in, the greediest gannet would be hard-pressed to try it all.

In the meantime, you’ll find The Cheeky Indian chappies making both mischief and very tasty tucker all over the show, including the new Badric’s Bazaar in Battersea and Brixton Night Market. Out of London, Loiners and those who care to join them will find rola wala’s residency at Leeds’ much-hyped Trinity Kitchen, where punters can try the equally-hyped #WorldsHottestIceCream created with Indie Ices.

Noted Indophile Katy Perry would no doubt serenade her serving with the words, ‘it’s hot then it’s cold’….

Eat-In Eating

Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala and Zoe Perrett The Spice Scribe

Meanwhile, down the river and off the streets, a smart new restaurant has opened its doors to feed the need for fine Indian food to be found in Chelsea Harbour. Amani Chelsea Harbour is the latest opening in Azad Miah’s portfolio – and, with chef Rajiv Kumar having both Oberoi training and a stint at the Cinnamon Club under his apron, you know the kind of  refined Indo-French dining you’ll find.

Fellow Oberoi alum Cyrus Todiwala has been as busy as the bumblebees that keep finding their way into my bathroom and catching me quite unawares. For those who aren’t aware, the chef launched Assado last month – the Goa Portuguese place ticking boxes for a hat-trick of food trends tipped for the top in McCormick’s ‘Flavour Forecast’; ‘Modern Masala’, ‘chillies’ and ‘Brazilian Influence’.

The notion that the chef wields widespread influence is simply not up for contest; and with his latest contest, Zest Quest Asia, Cyrus is aiming to use his gravitas to influence and inspire a whole new generation of talented chefs to aim for the upper eschelons of the Asian restaurant industry.

Historically, the sector has allured all-too infrequently – passed over, perhaps, in favour of studying classical European cuisines. But there are plenty of positions for Asian-trained chefs at the top-end; as The Ambrette’s Dev Biswal will prove as he expands his restaurant empire across Southeast England later this year.

Up north and over the border in Scotland, May will herald the arrival of Glasgow’s first ever pure vegetarian Indian restaurant.  The Glaswegians have always had a brilliantly bonny relationship with the classic curryhouse, owing primarily to a sizeable Punjabi population – but Usha’s will offer something a little more authentic.

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That authenticity is surprising, perhaps, when you learn that Usha’s comes from the same stable as a dude-foody American diner in the same city. Not so, perhaps, when you learn that owner Amanda James fell so hard for her mother in laws’ khana that she felt the need to unleash it on the locals by opening a restaurant named for the lady who fed her so well.

It certainly sounds like a recipe for success.  A perfectly-pedigreed international chef is adeptly adapting Usha’s own dishes to better suit restaurant service, planning plating to suit a ‘small plate/sharing’ concept. With a mixture of firm family favourites and festive foods making up the menu, Usha’s could well convert a gaggle of Glasweigan gourmets to the joys of Indian veggie food.

The British love for Indian food has been ingrained for so long now that a savour for its flavour is practically imprinted on our DNA. But the rest of Europe has been rather slower on the uptake. At Spice Monkey’s cookery class, a fellow classmate revealed that our new found skills with spice would make her hot property in her native Austria; where she said Indian food is both exotic and esoteric.

So the news that Indian cuisine is currently conquering Vienna came as a happy surprise. It appears that since 2006 – quietly, covertly- vendors have been luring sweet-toothed Austrians away from fancy gateaux towards their marvellous mithai. Once customers are sucked in by the sweetmeats, the spicy, savoury Indian dishes also on sale at over 50 establishments are currying just as much favour with locals.

A shift in dietary preference away from the traditional carnivorous fare of the country means that vegetarian items sell particularly well; popularly washed down with Indian beer rather than the wine Austrians usually find so fine. The convivial, communal style of eating has also won Austrian hearts; even the President has found his own culinary Nirvana at an Indian restaurant of that very name.

The Park Cafe specials

You might not expect to find anything even nearing nirvana in East London. Yet in the heart of Victoria Park, you’ll find Jamsheed Todiwala introducing India to this English country garden at The Park Cafe. Under the stewardship of the sparky young chap, regulars have come to relish chutney in their bacon butty, masala in their chai, and a hearty helping of spice alongside classic caff staples.

And of course, Jam’s equivalent of the ‘Full English’ isn’t exactly fully English. But, then, neither is it incredibly Indian. The base of The Park Cafe’s best-of –both-worlds brunch is a ‘flatpan nigella bread’, piled high with Chilli Country Chicken Tikka, melted English Cheddar, red onions, crispy British bacon. The finishing flourish? A masala fried egg.

That mixed-up meal is a marvellous metaphor for the most brilliant bits of our diverse British society. Any cultural committee looking to bridge boundaries could learn a lot from the tasty plate that merrily celebrates the quirky, unites cultures, and enables disparate elements to sit side by side in delicious harmony.

Just a little food for the powers that be to chew over as you chew over all your awesome Indian eating options…

Hot Indian food news to put a Spring in your step

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Indian food news

It’s finally, and officially, springtime. High time to fling off all your lingering winter woes and start gorging on all the gorgeous new foods nature’s tossing into our baskets. In penning an edible edit of all the hottest, coolest, latest, greatest Indian food news, I couldn’t neglect to notice that Easter is just around the corner. So when you feast yer eyes on this little lot, forgive me for the fact it’s rather chocablock with chocolate. In my defense, I have aimed to keep things somewhat balanced - you’ll even find fruit….

Hot, Hot Chocolate

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The Spice Scribe has been a bit ‘cocoa loco’ of late, embarking on a whole new series of ‘Culinary Adventures’ – those of ‘The Cocoa Nut’. My brand-new chocolate blog has meant thoughts of chocolate, spice and all things nice have been consuming me; and I’ve done a fair bit of consuming all those nice things myself in kind.

The reciprocal relationship may do little for my waistline, but it has led to plentiful and palatable discoveries that cleverly combine my love for Indian cuisine and chocolate – like the ‘Vishneaster Egg’ created by restaurateur Asad Khan of India Dining in Surrey. The ‘interreligious’ dark chocolate treat mixes in mango, sea salt and Indian spices. Crack the egg’s shell and auspicious items and scrolls featuring both Biblical verse and Vedic scriptures spill out.

Next, I need to spill the cracking gossip that The Chocolatier Aneesh Popat is now top-shelf material! But there’s no need to avert your eyes. There’s nothing at all risqué about his lofty appearance. We’re not talking the ‘smutty shelf’ at the local newsagent; rather, a pretty prime position in the new Chocolate Library in swish Selfridges. Also catalogued is Cocoa Hernando, whose wonderful wanderlust-inspired flavours comprise Chai and Himalayan salt.

aneesh-in-selfridges

Any Cocoa Nut worth their salt will know of India’s constant craving for Cadbury Dairy Milk. In terms of chocolate, it’s as sweet, sticky’n’sickly a substance as they come. That description might not sound like much of a boast, but in fact, it means CDM boasts the self-same qualities of all those mithai the nation goes so mad for.

Dairy Milk might be an Indian institution, but not so many folks are willing to take a trip to the dark side. Bittersweet chocolate often seems to leave sweet-toothed snackers feeling quite bitter at the wasted stomach space. For the past 5 years, Cadbury’s Bournville brand has been a rather dark horse; covertly creating cravings across India for something a little stronger – demand growing 160% from 2009 – 2011.

And now parent company Mondelez means business; investing $190m to build a big old behemoth of a factory in Andhra Pradesh that will churn out 250,000 tonnes of treats annually – a new improved Bournville amongst them. Now India’s increasingly accustomed to savouring the rich, deep flavour, it’s time to tempt new customers.

Cadbury ‘Premiumizes' Bournville to Deliver a Richer Experience for Dark Chocolate Lovers

Bournville was never an ugly duckling, but the aim is to make it into an elegant swan – something sublime to suit the subcontinental palate. After large-scale consumer tasting and testing on taste, texture (which must have been utterly torturous for the poor subjects), the sensory science is sound and the magic number has been found. New 50% cocoa content Bournville bars will be bejewelled by various dryfruits and nuts and be shinily attired; their new wrappers the ‘little black dresses’ of the packaging world.

Amelia Rope’s chocolate, on the other hand, is the master of  elegant understatement. Each bar comes neatly wrapped in plain brown paper; the shiny coloured foil peeping out around the borders hinting at the flavour found within. And soon, those within the subcontinent will get to savour the flavours Amelia has so carefully picked to perfectly please the national palate. Hint: India is in for a true treat.

And, with cocoa production on the increase in India across Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, this chocolate wunderkind could soon have a whole new range of raw materials with which to work…

Tasty Tidbits & Fruity Gossip

Indie Ices Rola Wala kulfi World's Hottest Ice Cream

Back in Britain, the good folks of Leeds are going nuts for the hottest, coolest ice cream innovation of all time. It’s not just hyperbole – this frozen treat meets both those descriptions in the most literal of senses. Two of the UK’s incredible Indian-inspired street food vendors have teamed up to create a very, very spiced ice indeed.

‘The World’s Hottest Ice Cream’ is the product of a cool collaboration between artisan kulfi-wallah Indie Ices and all-round wrap-star rola wala. To a base of Mike Tattersall’s award-winning mango kulfi, the duo have added a pinch that packs a real punch – a little lethal lacing of Mark Wright’s killer Moruga chilli powder. Check out A Tale of Two Sittings‘ taste test here.

A big fat Indian wedding was also spiced up with Mike’s wares when he drove in on Asha – his tricked-out tuk-tuk. For someone not expecting to be upstaged by another woman, bride Laura certainly kept her cool – especially when she discovered Asha came completely crammed with kulfi. Congratulations go to Spice Kitchen’s Sanjay both for his new nuptials and for being discreet about the treat!

Indian mango ban

For Brits craving Indian mangoes through summer, a super scoop of Mike’s marvellous kulfi might well be both the best and the only option. As we tuck into our first luscious Alphonsos of the season, news comes that EU authorities are sufficiently distressed by the prospect of a nasty little pest to ban all Indian mango imports from May until 2015, even if it means depriving mango-lovers of their annual fruity affair. If you want to voice your opposition to the ban, you can sign Monica Bhandari’s petition here.

Most who’ve fallen for that fruit would argue there’s just no substitute for the majesty of a real mango, but product technologists Sensient Flavours still reckons that it has correctly captured the essence of Badam, Alphonso and Kesar varieties in its natural flavourings. Whilst we’re short of the fine fruits, these could perhaps provide us bereft Brits with a small sliver of subcontinental sunshine – as could all these alternative varieties from around the world.

For her new range of Chutnis for The Spice Tailor, Anjum Anand has opted to miss out mango in favour of some lesser-spotted ingredients. In the crowded condiment market, it’s refreshing to see such a fulsomely-flavoured range inspired by authentic recipes.  And it’s especially great to see her take on wonderfully sticky-sweet papaya-based ‘plastic chutney’ make the line-up. I might write the site’s bi-monthly blog, but that doesn’t mean I’m biased – just all-the-more aware of Anjum’s commitment to quality.

Quality, not quantity, chaps; that’s what we’re always told is key. So on that note, I will leave you to digest my little Spring digest and get ready to relish the restaurants, pop-ups and edible events in next week’s post…

Any more news I need to know about?

Leave me a comment below. 

 

 

Indian culinary ‘red herrings’ – An introduction to some deceptively-named foods

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red herringThis April Fools’ Day, I’m not planning to pull any pranks. Instead, my plan is to demystify some mischievous Indian ingredients whose names seem to be given with the express purpose of leading you up the garden path. Every culture has eccentrically-named edibles; and we Brits are hardly blameless.  Scotch woodcock? Devils on horseback? Spotted dick?? I rest my case, m’lud.

Throughout the world, foodie red herrings are many and varied – and Indian cuisine offers its own fare share.  The trick of understanding these treats is simply to delve headfirst into the historical and cultural whys and wherefores of the nomenclature. For lovers of language, a spot of edible etymology is the most delicious diversion around.

Anyone who patronised a British curryhouse pre-1997 when imports were outlawed may well have got their first surprise upon ordering Bombay duck – which of course is nothing of the sort, unless you know of a particularly suspect bird breed that smells more than a little fishy. The term in fact refers to salted, airdried lizardfish that’s fried and served as a snack.

Bombay duck bummalo

As with many historic monikers, the origins are up for debate. One theory has it that Bombay duck’s curious name came from the delicacy’s city of origin, combined with a corrupted pronunciation of ‘daak’ – the train which transported the treat from West-East during the Raj; although this tale could be as much of a red herring as the dish in question.

You may well question what place ‘juicy balls’ have in your box of Bengali sweets, but there they are – rasgolla in all their glory. Bawdy Brits will no doubt enjoy the double entendre, and, once they wipe the smutty smirk off their face long enough to slip one into their mouth, will enjoy the spherical sugar-soaked semolina-and-cottage-cheese sweetmeats just as much.

Let’s purge all the puerility at once, as I ask you to consider sprinkling a little devil’s dung into your dinner. Asafoetida, or ‘hing’, is the thing that’s had this filthy-sounding moniker foisted upon it; somewhat unfairly, I feel. The pungent resin is an awesome addition to any cook’s arsenal, adding an allium-like element to all sorts of dishes. It also reduces flatulence, a nugget sure to please toilet humourists immensely.

asafoetida hing Vandevi

Those of a certain age will remember being threatened with ‘the slipper’ if they lost their composure at inappropriate moments. Perhaps a more appropriate punishment for a foolish foodie would be to have their chappli kebabs whisked away; the meat mixture’s form resembling the footwear it’s named for. There’s more potential kebab confusion with the ‘nargis’ variety that’s named after a flower because of the yellow-and-white centres of these Scotch-egg-like savouries.

Certain enticingly-named savouries you see in the supermarket contain more artificial additives than actual food. On the flip side, there are a couple of Indian items that do precisely the reverse. Plastic chutney and nylon sev sound nigh-on inedible, but are actually perfectly pure and worthy of real relish. The former is a condiment containing crystal-clear, paper-thin pieces of green papaya; whilst the later simply refers to the finest grade of munchy, crunchy-fried chickpea flour noodles.

Contrary to common thought, ‘tikka’ is also a term pertaining to size and shape and not a neon-red marinade with a strength somewhere between the curryhouse ‘korma’ and ‘madras’. On the topic of tikka, classic ‘chicken tikka masala’ is also a curryhouse contrivance, created in exotic Edinburgh from a can of Heinz tomato soup for a fussy customer to sauce up his portion of chicken tikka.

chicken tikka skewers

If you’re interested in Indian food, you’ll likely know how far removed the Brindian vindaloo is from the original spicy stew the Goans adopted and adulterated from the Portuguese preparation.  But as the name incorporates ‘aloo’, it’s easy to assume the dish must accordingly incorporate potatoes. Not so – on the West coast, the word for ‘potato’ is the Portuguese ‘batata’, and the suffix is a corruption of ‘alhos’, denoting the presence of garlic.

You’d be forgiven for assuming aloo bukhara is also some sort of potato preparation. But these fruity beauties are miles from the humble spud – unless they’re nestled up together in a biryani. The jammy plums originate in Iran, their Urdu name literally meaning ‘potato of Bukhara’. Why name it so? Again, ‘aloo’ is a simple corruption, this time of the farsi ‘alu’ – plum. What a palaver.

There’s another fruit found in the lexicon of the sweetmart. The name of the widely-adored ‘gulab jamun’ translates to ‘rose fruit’; the fruit in question a hi-shine black beauty of the same oval shape and size of the syrup-soaked dumplings themselves. If you prefer a pud of sweet sooji, seek out real Indian semolina sold as ‘cream of wheat, not the durum wheat stuff commonly bought in Britain.

chukku kaapi

When you quaff a coffee, you kind of know the flavour you’ll be savouring. So allow me a brief chuckle if I should see you sip your first cup of ‘chukku kappi’. The South Indian speciality brings dry ginger, holy basil, black pepper, cumin and jaggery to the brew – undoubtedly tasty, but totally unexpected.

In Britain, mutton isn’t often dressed as lamb, but it sure means sheep; a flavoursome old beast over two years old, long in the tooth, and in need of a good long cook. But in Indian cuisine, the inference is that mutton means kid goat. If the mix up means your meat is goat, don’t bleat at the confusion – just eat up and realise goat is worth getting into in its own right.

Let’s get things right. ‘Roti’ is not ‘A bread’, it’s ‘ALL bread’ – a blanket term for the entire category. Don’t dip your fingers in a dish called ‘navrattan’ in the expectation of digging out ‘nine jewels’ – it’s a mere metaphor for culinary treasures like dryfruits, nuts or veggies. ‘Chickpea flour’ comes not from those fat white kabli channa, but the tiny black variety that’s been split, skinned and ground.

By now, you might feel that the whole Indian culinary lexicon has been created purely to confound you. So to preclude any misunderstandings over motives, allow me to point you to one particular term that not only explains exactly what it is on the tin, but also offers a disclaimer: bitter gourd. When you scrumple your face at the taste, just remember – it did try to tell you.

And I tell you what else; offering that karela to an unsuspecting victim is an excellent prank to play – on April Fools’ Day or any other occasion. Just don’t tell them I told you to do it.

karela bitter gourd

Pervin Todiwala – the First Lady of Britain’s Indian food scene

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Pervin Todiwala

This post was penned with Mothers’ Day in mind. Growing up motherless, I never had to concern myself with leaping out of bed at the crack of dawn to design the perfect breakfast in bed, or agonise over which heady scent would take Mum back to her carefree childless days. Instead, the occasion has always offered me the opportunity to reflect upon other mothers I admire.

One woman I’ve always regarded with wonder is Pervin Todiwala, or, to afford her the full title she so fully affords, ‘Pervin Todiwala: Marketing Whiz, Charity Champion, Honorary Dame d’ Escoffier and TIAW 100 World of Difference Award-Winner’. Someone so humble would never introduce themselves with such fanfare; her lack of trumpet-blowing making it all the more imperative you understand that this lady is a legend.

Aside from the aforementioned accolades, Pervin can add ‘mother’, ‘wife’, ‘warm wit’, ‘faithful friend, ‘businesswoman’ and ‘bon viveur’ to her achievements. All those parts of her personality are afforded equal importance, and they add up to an all-round good egg – the metaphor especially apt for a person of Parsi heritage, since that culture holds those awesome ovoids in such esteem.

Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala young

Since way, way back in the day, Pervin’s partner in love, life, leisure and absolutely everything else has been the esteemed chef Cyrus Todiwala. The pair prop each other up, two equal halves of a whole that everyone wants a little piece of. So much so that the duo don’t get much peace; roving the globe, opening restaurants, writing cookbooks, championing charities…

And, of course, trying desperately to hang out with the myriad mates they’re accrued since landing up in London over twenty years back. Dinner invites come thick and fast, but the couple’s crazy schedule means they run no risk of resembling the ‘jaro pudero’ (fat beetles) of Parsi proverb*. Although, with their ever-expanding empire, the Todi two do have a lot under their metaphorical belts.

For someone of her standing, Pervin is delightfully down-to-earth; decidedly devoid of the delusions of grandeur that the Parsis pronounce as ‘motai na musa’. No; this woman is certainly not afflicted with those unpleasant ‘haemorroids of greatness’* – the rather rude saying excellently expressing the fact that Pervin is in rather rude health when it comes to staying grounded.

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Pervin’s feet may be firmly planted, but her butterfly mind flits from project to project, and her eyes remain trained on whichever ball she’s watching. She helps people get into a right pickle at home with Mr. Todiwala’s Splendidly Spicy Pickles & Chutneys, invites gourmets to greedily feed their piggy proclivities at Cafe Spice Namaste’s monthly Khadraas Club dinners, and now also entices spice fans to expand both horizons and waistlines still further at Assado and The Park Cafe.

When your husband can cook like Cyrus and your eldest son is quite the master mixologist, you need never lift a finger in the kitchen. But trained chef Pervin gets stuck in with the best of them; often assisting at Cyrus’ many masterclasses. Her genial demeanour curries favour even with the greenest cooks – the type about whom Parsis might proclaim, ‘gaan neh soodhlo nathi’ (their arse is clueless).

No such statement could be made about Pervin’s own posterior. In 1991, she suggested the Todiwala clan made the move all the way to the UK from Bombay – that superbly successful strategy bringing the additional benefit for us Brits of allowing us to adopt one of the finest families to step on our shores as our very own.

Cyrus and Pervin cooking

Merely having the Todis here feeding us so well should surely be sufficient, but this family is pure Parsi – and that means philanthropy. Myriad causes in Pervin’s adopted country have her fighting their corner; including the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, Action Against Hunger, Learning for Life, the Asian Restaurant Skills Board, and Find Your Feet – the tiny charity where she’s a Trustee. In addition, Pervin promotes protection of the environment and speaks out on sustainability.

So she’s no stranger to playing poster girl for a cause, and, in 2011, her face graced Caterer & Hotelkeeper’s cover alongside her husband’s; their front-page feature a first for the Asian restaurant industry. Pervin’s both a stigma-smasher and a smashing supporter of her peers; not least fellow female hospitality professionals whose hard work she’s quick to praise loudly and lavishly.

It’s blindingly obvious I’m biased. You couldn’t possibly accuse me of that Parsi equivalent of fence-sitting: being a ‘gaan vugur no loto’ – a ‘pot without a bum’. Nope – I’d proudly park my rear alongside Pervin in Camp Todiwala any day of the week and any time of day. One of the most wonderful things about this woman is that she always has the time of day for absolutely anybody – and it’s high time everyone gave her due recognition.

Now let’s hear you loud and clear…

“Three cheers for Mrs. T!”

Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala

Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala and Zoe Perrett The Spice Scribe

  • *Thanks to Mumbai Boss for the newly-learned lexicon; my gyaan gained from the site’s splendid post on ‘Parsi Bol’, a new book of old sayings. To read the original article, click here.

 

A spicy science: the art of understanding curry and its culture

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chillies spelling out hot

Curry’ and its surrounding culture is an emotive issue. Wherever you sit on the sliding scale which ranges from abhorring the very word, feeling it belittles the rather large world of Indian cuisine, through to believing chicken tikka masala’n’chips is the most brilliant Brindian invention ever, dropping a ‘c’ bomb can ignite opinions as strong as the spices put into its preparation.

There’s a lot of science behind those spices – along with a whole pile of psychology involved with the enjoyment of Indian food. In fact, there’s so much to the collective concept of ‘curry’ that King’s College saw fit to devote an entire evening to exploring the cuisine that’s become a beloved British institution at its recent ‘Feed Your Mind’ festival.

Sat beside me was a sort-of ‘Spice Nazi’ – a woman who knows a thing or two about what constitutes a Damn Good Curry; as well she ought, being the mind behind the so-named supperclub. In putting ‘the Science of Curry’ to the test, Nel was my litmus paper. If these chaps could captivate her, it would be safe to say they knew their Bombay onions, not to mention their asafoetidas from their elaichis.

 In the promotional paperwork, Clive Page, Andrea Selia and Mark Miodownik promised to make a big bang of sharing the theory behind the so-called ‘Science of Curry’. The night certainly started with a noise, although it was the universal pleasure of poppadom-crunching rather than the sound of worlds colliding that kicked things off.

Ever heard the line ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop’? Turns out it pertains to poppadoms, not Pringles. The uniform regularity of a snack like the latter actually helps humans exercise personal portion control – put simply, smarties say that you’ll eat more multicoloured M&Ms than you would if they came in a single shade.

So it’s irregularity that appeals – rendering the bubbled and blistered, crazy-paving pieces of a broken poppadom irresistible. More so if they come in multiple flavours. Although in the West we commonly crack into the crisp discs as a pre-starter, in India they’re often offered with a main meal; a crunchy contrast to something softer.

stack of poppadoms

However you eat yours, the sensory pleasure of poppadoms is undeniable. Biting down on something so brittle is like a firework display exploding inside your head, the colour coming in the form of flavour. Bar the odd muffled crunch overheard by your immediate neighbours, the oral and aural pleasure is private.  But the eating experience is so much better shared.

Remember sharing a packet of crisps in the playground, digging deep into the crinkly packet for the final crumbs? It turns out that the pleasure of poppadoms and similar snacks also has a lot to do with packaging. Crinkly materials that sound as crisp as the foods found within suggest freshness – ever noticed that big brand snacks favour foil-lined packs whilst cheaper crisps are in less-rustley receptacles?

A soggy poppadom is a crime every bit as heinous as those soggy-bottomed pastries that so perturb Paul Hollywood in the Great British Bake Off. Textural interplay is a factor oft-overlooked in Western cuisines. But in India, ‘Poppadom Science’ is widely practised and preached. You’ll find sensational contrasting sensations evident in everything from a well-balanced thali to streetfood snack platters.

That crunch doesn’t always come from carbohydrate – sometimes the stinging bite of a fresh, crisp green chilli is what’s called for. Don’t be fooled, there’s more to the pleasure of these spicy little numbers than pain. One of the lecturers’ first points on the hot topic of chillies is that the thing responsible for the burn, capsaicin, is an antidote to that very affliction, well-known for its anaesthetic effects. Chillies can also create feelings of euphoria, leaving you craving more.

It’s perfectly possible to build a tolerance to heat – in fact, in clinical trials, repeated exposure to chillies in young animals has resulted in the irreversible destruction of sensory receptors. The concept carries interesting possibilities concerning chronic pain management; indeed, we learn that a tiny pocket of Pakistani people have been identified as being immune to pain, although any connection with chilli consumption is by no means confirmed.

What is confirmed by all present is that ‘The Cinnamon Challenge’ is not one to try at home. We watch in horrified fascination as the team streams a slow-mo Youtube clip of two chaps attempting to hold a teaspoon of dry cinnamon powder in their mouths. The result? Think a spice version of Holi gulal-flinging; the powder pouring from their bug-eyed faces like fire from a dragon.

chillies (2)

Anyone who’s roasted spices or fried chillies in an unventilated area will have had the experience to a lesser extent – that burning irritation in the chest which triggers an insuppressible and violent fit of coughing. Basically, when the volatile chemical compounds in the spices meet your sensory receptors, expect explosive results – and, perhaps, open a window before you get cooking.

Onion tears are far more real than the crocodile kind, and are another unpleasant effect associated with curry cooking. This topic proves even hotter than the conversation caused by chillies, as attendees offer their tips for eluding the effect caused by alliin When cut, oxygen enters the onion, releasing this enzyme; a substance so potent that it’s been used in warfare.

Meanwhile, our battle is over the best method of staying dry-eyed. Ideas range from the practical – wearing goggles, to the strange – sucking a spoon. The Spice Nazi insists that a brief pre-chop immersion in water works; whilst the professors suggest that turning on a kitchen tap can stop you turning on your body’s own by creating a localised ventilation system.

Just ensure all that ventilation doesn’t result in ground turmeric flying about the place – stains supplied by that sunshine-hued spice are a bugger to get out. The vibrancy we perceive is all to do with electron movement, and applying bleach stops this movement in its tracks. So the stain remains; we just don’t see it. A dab of an alkaline like milk will change the PH and lighten the mark.

Full marks from The Spice Nazi so far, until we touch upon turmeric’s medicinal application. The spice has been suggested as an effective anti-carcinogen in both Eastern and Western disciplines, but the academics don’t address the vibrant root’s antiseptic nature. It’s a minor omission, but an odd one – surely the notion of packing a wound with turmeric to improve healing isn’t so esoteric?

But then, tonight’s lecture only touches upon the medicinal effects of common curry ingredients. For deeper discussion, we should have signed up for ‘Hot & Spicy Drugs’- the Feed Your Mind event devoted to exploring solely that subject matter. Back in ‘The Science of Curry’, we’re onto the subject of what substance is most soothing for the soul – or at least, a spice-singed mouth.

beer cans and curry

The British hypothesis has always had it that the hydration offered by an ice-cold pint is the perfect pairing when consuming curry. There’s a storm brewing with The Spice Nazi, who does not concur that anything brought from a brewery will bring anything of any merit to the experience. She suggests wine as a more refined tipple; something sufficiently complex to stand up to spice.

But what does science say on the subject? For a start, the coldest watery beverage won’t wash away capsaicin – it’s not water soluble. You need something oilier to obliterate the burn; hence buttermilk-based lassi. Milk works, too; the richer the better. Whilst pure alcohol is used as a solvent in the calculation of chilli strength on the Scoville scale, the amount present in a pint of beer couldn’t diffuse a dopiaza, let alone a proper chilli bomb.

So why has beer become the choice of the curryhouse connoisseur? It could be the chill factor. Whilst your mouth doesn’t really get hotter when you foolishly fill it with phall, your sensory receptors trigger the same response to the phantom increase as it does when you have a fever. Cool liquids cause the adverse to occur – the actual temperature change offsetting the perceived one.

It’s also suggested than we love the pleasant prickle of carbonated liquids, and that the clean, cool bitterness of beer contrasts winningly with fatty, hot, rich curries. But however coolly dispassionate the science, the psychology of our burning passion for a few brews with a bhuna owes a lot to culture.

To most Brits, a ‘curry night’ is a unique experience in its own right, associated with a specific set of rituals and traditions. It’s not intended as an appreciation of the finer points of Indian cuisine; rather, a cheap and cheerful convivial evening for all-comers. Pints go further than wine in watering a crowd – and by and large, curryhouse wine lists rarely either inspire or illuminate.

The packed room is still thirsty for knowledge, but sadly, that’s our lot. The Spice Nazi and I have a lot to chew over, and our stomachs are doing rather a lot of talking themselves. Within minutes, we find ourselves ladling spicy coconut gravy over rice in a local restaurant. Call it art or call it science; curry has us firmly in its grip and, it seems, just won’t let us go.

Spice Kitchen dabba

The palaver, the fun and the Holi post: Celebrate the Indian festival in the UK

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Holi festival throwing gulal

Even if you know little of the myth and legend surrounding the Hindu festival of Holi, you’ll no doubt know it from the paint-throwing parties that are fast becoming legendary throughout the land; turning the ‘green and pleasant’ landscape Britain’s best known for every colour of the rainbow.

There’s something about flinging a fistful of gulal – coloured pigment powder – into the air. Your cares seem to go with it into the ether; then there’s a feeling of sheer euphoria as it rains down on your skin, hair, and clothes, settling in all the nooks and crannies you never knew you had.

If you partake in one of these parties, you’ll know about it for days. But that’s no reason to stay away.  You will, of course, eventually return to your usual colour. And until then, depending on your tint, you can just blame it on jaundice, a heart condition, or sheer apoplexy. It’s nothing a bit of extensive washing won’t cure, and you’d be mad to miss out.

In India, Holi occurs on the full moon day in the lunar month of Phalgun – this year, that’s Monday 17th March. Whattay way to start the week, eh? The date marks the start of springtime, and the day when divides are cast aside and young and old, rich and poor, male and female will come together to party hearty.

The popularity of gulal-throwing and water-pistol pumping is in the Hindu god Krishna’s honour; Lord, did that mischievous little blue boy love to taunt the milkmaids by drenching them in coloured water. Those festivities alone are guaranteed to get you hot and bothered, but not as much as the bonfires set ablaze on Holi eve.

These festive fires symbolise the triumph of good over evil – much like the light at Diwali. At Holi, the horrid hag Holika is the villain of legend. Her mission? To murder a demonic nobleman’s son. Since she herself was immune to fire, this was her weapon of choice. But the benevolent gods decreed twas not to be, and it was Holika herself who perished.

Cherished foods at Holi are frequently fatty, fried and/or sugar-laden. They need to be in order to supply enough sustenance to keep energy high enough for the hijinks. Want more ‘bhang’ for your buck? Many festive foods come laced with cannabis – notably, the traditional beverage ‘thandai’; savoury, donut-like vadas; and crispy-fried pakoray. The naughtiest way to say ‘Holi hai!’

Wondering where one can get their Holi kicks in the UK? Fix your eyes firmly on this little lot:

Events

Holi Dishoom celebrate

Dishoom does Holi

Britain’s very own beloved, bonkers Irani cafe has been holding Holi hellraisers for a fair few years in inimitable style. Last year’s pop-up paint party was perfection, captured here in glorious technicolour. This year the team are trying to topple themselves from the top of the tree, with a bigger, better, brighter bash held at Hawker House.

It’s greater than gulal; the luminous Vayu Naidu will be doing her story-spinning thing, kids get to render rangoli, thumping tunes will fill the air, and bellies will be filled with sufficient Bombay snacks to fuel the festivities. Don’t make so merry that you forget to save room for a spot of mithai-munching and a tumbler or three of complimentary chai

Cinnamon Kitchen’s ‘House of Holi’

City boys (and gals) are certain to go crackers for the chance to cover their gladdest rags in powder paint. Decorating their designer labels aint no thing. These folks can afford the dry cleaning, yo! So Cinnamon Kitchen’s inaugural pop-up ‘House of Holi‘ will no doubt prove popular with the prole and the poshos alike.

  • 30 minutes of mayhem comes at a cost of £8 per participant, from 11th to 22nd March. For further details, click here.

Holi at BAPS Swaminarayan Temple

It’s worth a trek to Northwest London at anytime simply to see the spectacle that is Neasden’s marvellous mandir rising above the houses. But at Holi, things get wholly more interesting. Understandably, paint-throwing in the pristine building is not permitted; the focus falls instead on the bonfires of Holi Eve. The blaze begins at 5pm with evening arti. Visitors can view the icons, perform puja, and stuff themselves silly on the sweets and snacks sold on site.

Holi at The Tree Hotels at Iffley & Cadmore End

Restaurateur Kavita Pal has had enough of missing Holi in India for the past three decades, so she’s decided to delight Oxford’s dons and local residents alike with the colourful proceedings instead. On Saturday  15th March,  visitors to The Tree Hotels at both Iffley and Cadmore End can get covered in colour, get down to live dhol and banging Bhangra, and enjoy a menu of Indian street eats.

The Spice Scribe

Holi at ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Manor

The tranquil Hare Krishna hideaway on the outskirts of Watford will become a little more frenzied when Holi happenings commence. The full festivities fall on Sunday 16th March, beginning with bhajans from 2pm. Colours will fly before darkness falls, then a bonfire will light up the night as Holika burns. If you’ve built a burning appetite, Bhaktivedanta’s brilliant prasad will be served from 6pm.

Holi in Platt Fields Park

Fancy a free family afternoon of festivities? Head to Manchester’s Platt Fields Park on Sunday 23th March, when Holi celebrations are being held at the Lakeside. If you come ill-equipped, gulal will be on sale at bargainous prices – so there’s no excuse to keep it clean. Numerous stalls ensure ample opportunity to eat, drink and make very merry.

The Dulux Colour Run Series

As if evading fistfuls of powder paint weren’t aerobic exercise enough, Dulux’s trademark 5K ‘Colour Runs’ return to the UK later this year, with locations including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton. Participants are given a differently-coloured dousing at each kilometre, culminating in a glorious gulal party at the finish line. This year’s races’ places were snapped up immediately, but both volunteering and simply spectating allow you to get into that Holi spirit.

Holi Festival of Colours at Queen Elizabeth Park

If you fancy a second go at the colourful celebrations, the globe-trotting Holi Festival of Colours hits East London on June 28th. It’s more about the glory of the gulal than it is about the spiritual side of Holi, but there’s no doubt it’s one of summer’s very best excuses to get legitimately down and dirty.

Last but not least, the date of Holi also marks St. Patrick’s Day, AND Arun Kapil’s birthday. The confluence is an especially happy coincidence as he’s the founder of Irish-Indian spice company Green Saffron. Happy Birthday Arun!

Restaurants

Memsahib'sMess at Dishoom Holi

Dishoom

Even the staff don’t keep it clean at Dishoom on Holi. They’ll be getting down and dirty getting ready to greet guests covered in colour. If you want to see the spectacle and munch free mithai, a Monday visit is a must – although the Holi menu will be available until the 23rd. Sociable sorts should like and follow Dishoom on Facebook and Twitter, where fans will be privy to passwords for free treats.

The colour-your-own lassi will please those who can’t pass a pile of virgin snow without making their mark. Veggies get okra fries, paneer besimal and biryani; non-veggies cod cheeks, lamb kofta aloo and murgh malai; and everyone gets gujjia chaat , black dal, raita, bread-rice-n-salad, Memsahib’s Mess. Plus, of course, non-negotiable House Chai.

Cinnamon Kitchen

When chef Abdul Yaseen can tear himself away from playing in the restaurant’s pop-up House of Holi, he’ll be cooking up a five-course festive feast featuring bhalla papri chaat, Pasanda-style Kentish lamb, a saffron-streaked thandai, Bengali-inspired mustard prawns and a mixture of thoroughly modern mithai. Veggie options are equally enticing, including creamy lotus stem korma.

Anise

Cinnamon Kitchen’s bar is bringing a whole lot of Holi colour to the cocktail menu. The terrific triumvirate look lively and also pack a punch – choose from ‘Holika Fire’, ‘Lasso’ or ‘Neela Heera’, or try the lot. Line your stomach with bites from a capsule collection of spicy snackerels like kachoris and lamb-topped mathries. Something sweeter? Gorge on gujias and coconut burfi.

Recipes

apple-gujiya

I could link to all sorts of edibles, but Tasty Indian Recipes and Dassana have done it for me with fulsome Holi feast where you’ll find every recipe you require, including the latter lady’s aesthetically-pleasing apple gujiya pictured in this post.

Except that bhang-ing thandai. That’s here.

AND DON’T FORGET…

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Gulal

No gulal, no glory. Get every shade of non-toxic powder paint here.

White clothing

Because other shades won’t show off that glorious gulal to the same extent.

Thandai

Best not lace it with bhang unless you want banging up.

NRG!

Best gained from plentiful amounts of proper mithai and fried snacks.

G.S.O.H.

Please kindly turn that frown upside down. Grin or go home.

holi festival gulal throwing