My first ‘blind date’ with Nilanjani Dilling Pai, after months of Twitter witter, involved kothu roti, sambhar rice, a dark golden dosa, and the insistence from my brand new buddy that, if I were really sold on eating upma, I needed to do so in her home and not demand the dish at dinnertime in Priya, our local South Indian restaurant.
But we got past the issue of my ill-timed upma craving, and indulged in a delightful date filled with gyaan and gupshup, mostly about Nilanjani’s Damn Good Curry supperclub project, and the pop-ups she had planned as part of Walthamstow’s Appetite festival. Could I – would I – help out front-of-house? Damn right. If she hadn’t already asked, I’d have begged.
Nilanjani’s as forthright as her supperclub name suggests. The Mumbai exile and self-taught cook aims to bring ‘mum’s home cooking’ to the foodie folk of East London. Damn Good Curry’s repertoire is as wide and diverse as India herself, owing to Nilanjani’s mixture of culinary influences – a mother and father hailing from the North and West respectively, paired with her own Goan upbringing.
Marrying a Goan Mumbaikar spiced up the masala further still, as did the Southern sister-in-law she got out of the deal. With a voracious appetite for edible knowledge to rival my own, Nilanjani ate up each new encounter with relish, watching, learning, tasting, understanding… ultimately putting her own stamp on the generations-old, time-tested traditional dishes she’d learnt at the hands of masters.
So, assured of food stories, satiety, and some sensationally Damn Good Curry, I signed up to deliver the daal wada, convey the chicken curry, and pass out the payassam to guests at Nilanjani’s second pop-up at Walthamstow pub, The Village. To live up to that hyperbolic name, this khana better be capable of eliciting some pretty blue blasphemy.
And, I’m pleased to report, it’s all bloody great. From hot, crunchy, light daal wada anointed with the cool and creamy chutney poor hubby Mandar spent all morning grinding coconuts for, through to the earthy sensuality of dal payassam, Nilanjani’s food is spot-on stuff. It was never going to be easy for a solo chef, plating up for a pub full of punters in a basic and unfamiliar kitchen. But this little lady’s a tiny, ultra-efficient whirlwind – darting from pot to pan like a furious kathak dancer.
We muckers-inners, meanwhile, just improvise our own moves; doing our best to co-ordinate our movements and, at some points, just stay the hell out of the way. Nilanjani’s one of the most focussed, driven cooks I’ve encountered. Watching her fry daal wada, one hand shaping and plopping them into the pan, the other scooping the fried balls from the boiling oil, calls to mind a highly regimented hokey cokey routine – all ‘in, out, in, out’, with very little ‘shaking it all about’.
Plates come back to the kitchen already scraped clean – flipping great! Talking flipping, that’s Nilanjani’s next task – tossing roti after roti onto her tawas, happily manning two at a time. A judicious slick of homemade ghee, a practised flick of her wrist, and the soft, tender breads are folded and ready to roll; along with the rice, a really rather ridiculously good rasam, thoran-style green beans, and a mixed vegetable kootu.
As you may have spotted, the inspiration for tonight’s menu is the food of the Southern states. An unusual ‘chicken Vizag’ is the star of this show, the sweet and mild Hyderabadi aromats pleasing anyone who’s keen on a korma – although this dish boasts a hell of a lot more complexity than that curryhouse counterpart. Ever the ‘culinary magpie’, Nilanjani nabbed this recipe from a family member who moved to the Southeastern city to work.
As soon as the mains are moved out, Nilanjani gets moving with the final course; ladling out her thick, hot, headily fragrant daal payassam into palm leaf bowls. She scatters a few cashews and raisins over each portion, ostensibly adding that final sprinkling of magic which was never lacking in the first place. Grateful guests departed, we finally get dive in to what little remains. Call it magic, maya, or just Damn Good Curry; Nilanjani’s certainly put a spell on me, and I’m hers.
- For more information on forthcoming Damn Good Curry supperclubs, visit damngoodcurry.com and follow @NilanjaniP on Twitter.
- Pictures courtesy of Tim Keremezo. To view more of Tim’s work, click here
- To read Darjeeling Express‘ Asma Khan’s review of Damn Good Curry on Edible Experiences, click here