There’s a scene in the endlessly-enjoyable stage adaptation of East Is East where the young British Pakistani Khan clan commit the ultimate act of rebellion – stuffing down sausages and breakin’ out the bacon whilst their father, the fearsome Mr Khan, isn’t there to pick up on the porky scent hanging heavy in the air.
On his unexpected return, it’s imperative they smother the stench. The answer is an unconventional air freshener – a large tin of Bolst’s curry powder, sprinkled liberally into the atmosphere. The scene completely flipped the script on my own recent experience whereby the neighbours took great umbrage at my ‘constant ‘curry’ cooking‘, and could possibly be replicated round my way next time they’re feasting on a fry-up.
With eight shows a week, even the biggest carnivores amongst the cracking cast must struggle with the great rate of chipolata consumption occurring onstage. There are a few biscuits; notably taken with tea in lieu of breakfast and served to the Shahs when the couple visits with a view to
getting shot of marrying off their ungainly offspring to the unimpressed elder Khan boys.
At various points in the play, the family chippie supplies yet more sustenance. Where waistlines are concerned, it’s a good job East Is East is so energetic.
But eating on the job doesn’t satisfy the soul. Hence the cast fast diving headfirst into the trays of canapes laid on by Mint Leaf for the onstage afterparty on the night of my visit. Ayub Khan Din was especially enthusiastic. As father figure Mr. Khan, the playwright and actor literally gets ‘not a sausage’ during the drama. As we chatted ‘curry’, Ayub announced himself as a fan of Pat Chapman’s ‘Curry Club’ cookbooks – which he might turn to when cooking at home in Spain.
But Ayub’s pre-show snack is less spicy; perhaps a Prêt sandwich, or the chain’s chicken soup or tuna salad. On the occasions when the actor actually ‘can’t face any of them’, he’ll make a quick trip to McDonalds. His post-show plate might be pasta – pesto, carbonara or bolognese – except on Fridays when it’s ‘curry night’ and saag ghosht is in order; from a Pakistani place like Miran Masala in Olympia or Mirch Masala in Tooting.
As the rest of us grabbed with gusto, svelte Taj Atwal spurned a samosa in favour of the lighter bites on offer, citing the quantity of pastry as the reason for rejection of the triangular pastries making all the rest of us that little bit rounder. After all, staying in shape is a major concern for an actor – treading the boards is an almost athletic pursuit, especially when playing a character as animated as Meenah Khan.
Just as animated in terms of exaggerated facial expressions is Mrs. Shah, mother of the two apparent ogres that have been optioned as potential spouses for the Khan kids. The character is played by Rani Moorthy – a wonderfully-poised woman whose own ‘Curry Tales‘ have previously spiced up the stage; the show featuring Rani cooking live as she treads the boards, using food as a vehicle to address complex cross-cultural themes.
As Mrs. Shah, Rani doesn’t appear onstage until the end of Act 2, so she can enjoy a substantial supper before her cue. After the applause, she’ll sometimes return to her Singaporean roots and eat a comforting bowl of noodle soup. The actor is a fan of slurping; the traditional belief says that the longer the noodles are, the longer the eater’s life. The process helps Rani relax – she says, ‘it takes me a long time to wind down, especially as Mrs. Shah is so conservative!’
As a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in Malaysia, studied in Singapore and decided Britain was Great enough to settle in, Rani’s food preferences are as diverse and delicious as her life story. In an interview with Chubby Hubby, she revealed that, where food is concerned, she literally goes with her gut instinct – listening to what her stomach craves. She says a South Indian vegetarian thali would be her ideal eat; accordingly, after the show, we talk hungrily of a future meet’n’eat in East Ham.
Amit Shah, who plays the oldest Khan, Abdul, is no stranger to fine food, having played Mansur Kadam – the sensible sibling amongst yet another chaotic family – in the Spielberg-and-Oprah-directed foodie film, ‘The Hundred Foot Journey‘. On show evenings, vegetarian Amit splits his supper into two halves; first fuelling up with falafel or a sarnie, then winding down with a bowl of cereal or soup before bed. In terms of Indian food, he’s mad for masala dosa and gulab jamun – so much so his mum-in-law had them specially made for his wedding day.
One of the show’s highlights is Maneer Khan’s comic, teatowel-aided dance in the chippy. Darren Kuppan plays the character with the perfect mix of piety and humour, powered by the big ole burrito from Tortilla that he devours before taking to the stage. Before he heads to bed, it’s cheese on toast he likes the most. When quizzed on his favourite South Asian entree, Darren chooses chicken karahi scooped up with naan.
I don’t get time to sound out the food preferences of Sajit/’Twitch’ (Michael Karim, who thankfully drops the tic that earns the character his nickname when one speaks to him as an actor); although I learn that understudy Deepal Parmar loves both Bombay street eats at Dishoom and her mum’s Gujarati fare.
Nor do I get to hobnob with the biscuit-loving, matronly Auntie Annie (played by Sally Bankes) or Jane Horrocks – digestive-dunking, chain-smoking matriach Ella Khan; Ashley Kumar, who plays the rebellious, Danny Zucco-esque Tariq; or Nathan Clarke, aka secret art student Saleem.
But by my reckoning, it’s already crystal clear that whether in or out of character, the East Is East cast are not averse to a hearty helping of East-meets-West fusion food.
To my mind, few chefs nail non-poncy ‘modern Brindian’ food as Tony Singh. In keeping with the show’s setting, the Punjabi-Scot chef’s tamarind mushy pea-stuffed fish fingers make perfect post-theatre feasting; whether you’re observing the action or actually on the stage…
Tony Singh’s Baked fish fingers with a surprise
If only my school dinners had included these … I would have been such a good boy.
Makes 14–16 fat fish fingers
For the fish fingers:
- 250g panko breadcrumbs
- 1kg skinless haddock fillet, cut into fingers about 12 x 4cm
- 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
- salt and pepper
- 2 medium eggs
- caper mayo or aioli (see the ‘Tasty’ cookbook for recipes), to serve
For the mushy pea and tamarind purée:
- 50g unsalted butter
- 2 tsp tamarind extract
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- salt and pepper
- 1 x 300g tin mushy peas
Preheat the oven to 220ºC/gas 7.
Start by making the mushy pea and tamarind purée. Melt the butter in a pan, add the tamarind, sugar, some salt and lots of black pepper. Keep on the heat for 2 minutes then remove and mix in the mushy peas. Place in a bowl to cool.
Lay the breadcrumbs out in a thin layer on two baking trays and toast them for 6-8 minutes until lightly golden. Remove and leave to cool.
Spoon a line of the cold pea purée down the middle of a haddock finger and sandwich another finger on top. Repeat till all the fish is used up. If you have any purée left over you can serve this on the side.
Pop the fish sandwiches in the fridge. Tip the breadcrumbs into a large bowl, break them up, then toss with the oil and plenty of salt and pepper until evenly and lightly coated. Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl.
One at a time, dip the fish fingers into the beaten egg and then into the breadcrumbs to coat. Arrange them in one or two large oven trays, spaced slightly apart. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, or until crisp and lightly golden. Serve with caper mayo or aioli.
- Recipe and image extracted from Tony Singh’s ‘Tasty’ – read my review here
- East Is East is at London’s Trafalgar Studios until 3rd Jan 2015 – on 28th Nov, ticket-holders are invited to stay on for ‘Stories Unplugged: Open Mic Night’ hosted by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Read more about Rani Moorthy’s Curry Tales and other Rasa Theatre productions here
- Read more about The Hundred Foot Journey, featuring Amit Shah, here and here
- What biscuits do the cast like best? See The Guardian taste-test here
All East Is East stage images credited to Marc Brenner