When it comes to Indian eats, it’s safe to say that the majority of Brits are more knowledgeable about the North, more conversant in koftas, kormas and kebabs than kuzhambu, kootu and kari meen. But most know not of Nilanjani’s Pai’s Northern nosh. At least not unless they are amongst the guests at The Village pub, here for the final installment in Nilanjani’s Walthamstow Appetite Festival ‘Damn Good Curry’ supperclub series.
The ‘Flavours of Punjab’ menu gives a flavour of Nilanjani’s maternal khana. Although it’s supposedly summer, the heartier food of the cooler-climate regions is the perfect fare for a somewhat shiversome Sunday evening. Hearty, and packed, too, with heart – these dishes carry deep emotional connotations for Nilanjani. Preparing them, she’s invoking her mother’s skills; evoking the spirit of a woman thousands of miles away.
And that woman would be proud to see her spirited daughter darting around decisively, sampling, seasoning, serving forth food she reckons might just about pass Mum’s muster. In that case, Nilanjani’s mother must have a Michelin star. If Nil reckons her food would be judged ‘only acceptable’, the original dishes must draw accolade in spades.
For starters, take Nilanjani’s starter – a tangy, twangy, scrunchy, munchy aloo papdi chaat; verdant with dhaniya-pudina chutney; tingly with tamarind date relish; pokily pungent with garlic-chilli chutney. Each palm-leaf bowl serving is topped off with tiny squiggles of fine sev – and the whole lot is, quite simply, top. Extra green chutney is gulped down, given a glowing green light by all the guests.
Mains are equally marvellous. It sounds simple on the surface – rice, roti, dal and chicken curry being pretty familiar fare. But, then, this is the time for the sexy M&S lady to intone her famous ‘This is not just…’ phrase. For this is distinctly, definitely a cut above. This rice reeks of cumin; these rotis glisten with ghee. Each diverse dish is seasoned as much by tradition and emotion as it is by the addition of herbs and spices.
Historically, meat was the sole preserve of the men of a Punjabi household. So the mutton-loving males cooked it, whilst the women steered well clear. Nilanjani’s curry is a chicken version of her Great Uncle’s mutton, its deep flavour attributed to the lengthy, loving bhuno-ing process and the warming garam spices. The rich dish is partnered perfectly by the simplicity of rasmissa baigan – the name literally meaning ‘juicy aubergines’ – the soft vegetable chunks in a thin, soupy, savoury sauce.
For the lucky, lucky vegetarians, Nilanjani’s homemade paneer, scrambled into a bhurji – much like eggs in the much-loved Indian breakfast dish. She calls this a ‘myth buster’ dish. Why? Because it’s an all-too-common assumption all Indian dishes start with garlic and onions. This preparation contains neither – neither for religious reasons nor health beliefs, but simply because the recipe predates the Portuguese bringing those ingredients to Indian shores.
And I’m sure I could eat an ocean of it. And perhaps even more of the lauki channa dal. I have never tasted anything like it – creamy and haunting, it shakes me to the bone and satisfies my soul. I could dine solely on this splendid stuff and want for nothing else. When Nilanjani tells me this oh-so-subtle sensation is falling from favour with younger generations, I want to weep tears to fill just as many buckets as I could eat of the dal.
Life is sweet once again, though, with the serving of gur shakkar ka halwa. The dessert is well-flavoured with pure ghee, completely alien to those put off by the sweet semolina served in the British nursery. These grains are dry-roasted to a tawny shade, the earthy savour echoed by the unrefined intensity of gur. That sugar’s refined cousin, shakkar, slips in to lift the classically ribsticking pud – rendering it more ethereally light than any sooji halwa has the right to be.
Right good. It’s all right good. Damn good in fact – not just where the curry’s concerned. Nilanjani’s properly pulled it off – telling her family tale in the tastiest manner, sharing her Mamma’s meals and some fine ‘Flavours of Punjab‘ to boot. Stories; satiation; satisfaction. This is what supperclubbing is all about. Nilanjani has it down pat, and her Mum should be proud. Damn proud.
- Read about Nilanjani’s previous South Indian supperclub here.
- The next Damn Good Curry supperclub is on 17th July. To book, and for further dates and news, visit http://damngoodcurry.com
- Follow @NilanjaniP on Twitter and spread the #DamnGoodCurry good karma!
- Thanks to photographer Alex Bell for images (except my inexpert papdi chaat snap!). View more of her work here.