When someone asks me where to find the most authentic Indian eats, my stock response would be ‘in a home’. Being invited to take tiffin, tuck into a steaming and simple plate of dal chawal, or even break fast with a Muslim mate during Ramadan allows you to experience Indian food well outside the remit of most restaurants. But unless you’re in the habit of knocking on random doors and singing for some supper, chomping on cracking Indian home-cooking is largely reliant on one having a wealth of buddies possessing both culinary talent and a need to feed.
Lucky for those of you who lack such great mates, London is full-bellied with Indian supperclubs, where hosts hawk their own home-cooking to a crowd craving culinary enlightenment and conviviality. Supperclubs and restaurants might both be in the business of feeding paying guests, but the two experiences are rather distinct. A restaurant offers food as just one part of the wider dining experience – undoubtedly a vital cast member, but rarely the solo star. At a supperclub, what’s on the plate is both the rhyme and the reason.
And when it comes to diverse Indian eats, London supperclubs have it sewn up. Possess a travelcard? The subcontinent really is your Oyster, with Mauritian fare from Yummy Choo Eats, Calcutta khana from Darjeeling Express, and Punjabi food from Joginder’s Supperclub all found within the reaches of the Tube network. These domestic goddesses are opening their homes and family cookbooks to paying guests, putting Indian food – and the culture informing each dish – firmly on the menu.
A good Indian supperclub takes you directly to the heart of a region’s cuisine via the food on your plate, feeding your mind and your tummy with delights from the host’s highly personal pantry. Committed foodie folks converted to the cause devote themselves to doing the rounds, on a perpetual ‘urban pilgrimage’ – an ongoing quest to reach spice-laden supperclub nirvana. It’s a tasty journey well-worth embarking upon.
And it’s not just the guests who feel they’re in heaven. Supperclubbing might be tough, crazy business for hosts, but it comes with the ultimate reward – the chance to share your heritage and skills with a roomful of diners every bit as greedy for knowledge of your culture as your khana. These folks want meaning with their Damn Good Curry. And at the supperclub of that very name, you’ll get a full-on edible experience. I like a good chinwag with host Nilanjani Pai, so won’t you grab a chai and join us?
How on earth do you manage to have a finger in so many diverse regional foodie pies?
I was Born in Bombay, but raised in Goa. My parents are the perfect cosmopolitan Bombay couple – Maharashtran Dad, Punjabi Mum, both born and bred in traditional families settled in Bombay. My enthusiastic foodie mum embraced what came her way with open arms! She learnt different cuisines from friends and neighbours which she successfully incorporated into our daily lives. I was lucky enough to be able to absorb these influences from her early on.
Later in my life, other influences came from my husband’s Bombay Goan family and my sister-in-law. The former have a distinctly different coastal cuisine like no other. The latter opened the doors to the closely-guarded Tamil Brahmin (vegetarian) cuisine. My world widened – and, frankly, continues to!
Who inspired you to roll up your sleeves and master so many Indian menus?
My Mum! Actually, I would say all women…Mums, Grandmas, Aunts and anyone who works really hard to feed their families a PROPER Indian meal on a daily basis with a smile on their face while they are at it. It’s not easy to do things from scratch, but when you do, you realise its well-worth the effort.
How did you get started sharing your Damn Good Curry?
I moved to the UK about 5 years back from Bombay with my husband and little girl. Having quit my job in the voicing industry to become a full time mum, I had the opportunity to go back to basics, and revisit the old-fashioned way of life. Living away from my family, and being the obsessed foodie that I am, I began recreating the food that I loved and sharing it with our new-found friends. It became quickly apparent that there was not much around where I lived that qualified as real Indian food.
In fact, all our friends stopped eating from curry houses and takeaways as they felt the food didn’t quite measure up to what they ate at ours. I knew then that I had to do something – although it took me a good 3 years to actually launch Damn Good Curry at Waltham Forest’s Appetite 2013 food festival.
One’s first supperclub can be an experience both daunting and life changing. Can you demystify your dinners for nervous supperclub virgins?
A supperclub is a wonderful way for a passionate foodie to share his or her food with like-minded people! Most supperclubs are held in peoples’ homes. Mine isn’t – all the more reason for me to make an extra effort to make people feel at home. At a Damn Good Curry supperclub, it’s all about digging in. We encourage communal seating, as it’s the way we eat in India, serving big bowls of food to share among a table of 8 to 10 guests.
I get things started by talking a little bit about the food being served which helps loosen up the atmosphere and gets people talking… if they haven’t already! I do try to keep popping in to have a one-on-one conversation with my guests as and when I can. It’s intriguing how complete strangers end up having really interesting conversations by the end of the evening. I do believe that food brings people together. Supperclubs are living proof!
What have been the biggest challenges when you’ve planned and executed Damn Good Curry events – and how did you cope?
I must admit I’m quite a control freak! I do like things going to plan. Needless to say I learnt the hard way that’s hardly ever the case! I’m a firm believer in making lists, but there’s always something that’s not on the list or some incident that’s completely unexpected. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment! My mum is a Kathak dancer and a performer, and the one thing that I learnt from her is that the show MUST go on no matter what. It’s important to reflect on what went wrong and learn from mistakes in the future, but not at the cost of your diners’ satisfaction in that moment.
I know from experience what an opinionated lass you are. You’re never shy of sharing your view – so give me your best gyaan!
Life is all about taking chances! I’m all for calculated risk. It won’t kill you to ask or try, but if you don’t, it’s definitely an opportunity lost! Also, you are never too old to learn – and, no matter who you are and where you come from, you always have something to give and receive in terms of knowledge…or gyaan!
What’s next on the Damn Good Curry menu?
My next supperclub is called ‘Goa On Your Plate‘ – a truly authentic feast! We will be serving up some Goan classics like Xacuti, Cafreal, Prawn curry and Choris pav, using totally traditional ingredients – many supplied by Spices of India. It’s a really exciting accolade to receive endorsement from a company offering such a wide range of Indian groceries – and a great compliment to know Spices of India likes what I do enough to put the brand name behind Damn Good Curry! Also I am really enthusiastic about being part of Action Against Hunger‘s 2013 ‘Supperheroes’ campaign – I’m starting to compile the menu, so keep an eye out.
Your Walthamstow supperclub is clearly just the start – what do you see in the future for Damn Good Curry?
I would love for Damn Good Curry to move beyond Walthamstow in October, if not earlier. I want to be able to reach out to more people and to showcase the Indian food that’s not known by most people, and that deserves the chance to shine. I will continue to stick to what I know best… truly authentic Indian home-cooking!
- The next Damn Good Curry supperclub is Goa On Your Plate on 30th August, using ingredients provided by Spices of India. To book a place, click here
- For more on Damn Good Curry supperclubs, visit damngoodcurry.com
- Follow @NilanjaniPai on Twitter