Feeling hot? Eat chilli curry

Mirchi Ka Salan keeps it cool

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Mirchi Ka Salan 550

I knew something good was in the air. The weather folks predicted a few consecutive days of hot weather, then we got warnings of a heatwave. Britain was finally going to get hot weather in July. In most places, this is better known as summer.

The nation went into a frenzy. Sales of swimwear and sandals went through the roof, while offices whacked up the air con to recreate mid-winter.

I responded in the best Indo-Brit way I knew: stripped the kids down to their undies, gave them a mango each and pointed to the paddling pool in our shady garden. Then nosedived into the largest vat of Pimms I could find, surfacing from time to time to marvel at the wonders of pale Provencal Rose and Sipsmith Summer Cup.

The only thing to cook, in hot weather, is kebabs in my humble opinion. Out came the barbeque and on went Tandoori Chicken, Lamb Chaanps, Seekh Kebabs and Paneer Shashliks, served with vegetable pulao and summery yellow dals.

Also, chillies. Plenty of them. Because when its hot, chillies keep you cool. And even if they don’t, your tongue will burn so much, you won’t notice much other discomfort.

For the opening gambit, I simply threaded a row of fat red chillies onto a skewer and drizzled lightly with oil before flash grilling. The second barbeque, I scooped out the inside of the chillies, stuffed them with mango pickle, dipped them in a Besan batter and shallow fried them.

The third time, I went for a Hyderabadi Chilli Curry I have been meaning to try for yonks: Mirchi Ka Salan. This is a to-die for dish with the intense flavours of chillies smothered in a peanut, coconut masala. I was always put off by the long list of ingredients, but with a bit of quick thinking (and general laziness), it wasn’t too onerous and a fantastic side to grilled meats. Or even as the Sabzi on the side to a low-fuss yellow dal.

Do wash your hands well before wiping your tears as you eat this. Don’t eat them all at once. And lets hope summer lasts forever!

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    Package treat

    Kashmiri paneer

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    Kashmiri paneer 550

    We’ve long avoided the family holiday. Someone said it was “the same shit, different location”. ‘Nuff said.

    It didn’t take long to flip. The tots are growing fast. My time with them is limited to say the least. Mad aunty Mags suggested a resort near her finca in Tenerife, threw in a few days/nights of babysitting, and we were in. Hook, line and sinker.

    Pretty quickly we knew this was not quite one of the lux holidays of our gilded past. The tattooed bald man who ran after his errant child shouting “oi” at the boarding gate kind of gave it away. The man and I looked at each other two shades paler than check-in. Package holiday here we come.

    The fun continued overseas. The spirited (read: hyper) toddlers slid in and out of sugar comas brought on by unlimited ice cream, day glo slush and blazing sunshine. That’s all 200 of them.

    In the meantime, parents loaded their plates with the free buffet and a generous helping of fries from the kids section. Who cares if there was a seafood salad bar, an endless selection of cured meats and cheese – a ripple went through the mainly British crowd at the rare sight of pie and mash.

    Still, it was fun. I discovered fine Cava, served in a bar conveniently located by a water feature/kids play area. The kids slept for long enough during the day for us to soak up the sunshine. And add two weeks without domestic chores, work deadlines and rubbish weather and life was definitely beautiful.

    All good things, sadly, must come to an end. The end came quickly in the shape of showery LOndon, 400 work emails and an empty fridge. What better time than now to be thankful for mother’s higgledly piggledy packages of suspect spices.

    Said suspect spices were, in fact, the basics needed for Kashmiri-style dishes. Soonth or Sonth is a delicate ground ginger, Saunf is fennel and Kashmiri Chilli Powder is like paprika, better loved for its colour and smokiness than its burn rate.

    So I made Kashmiri Paneer. Great with a defrosted portion of dal and some fresh and steaming hot Basmati rice. A gently way to creep back into life.

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      Surprise encounters

      Saving Saag Aloo

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      Saag aloo 550

      There are two things a long career in PR has given me: 1) thick skin and 2) a great shoe collection. But this scathing critique for my Saag Aloo recipe sent a stiletto piercing through my epidermis:

      “Can’t put into words how awful this recipe is!
      My diners referred to it as sediment dredged from the River Thames!
      Needless to say, as it wasn’t even edible for the dog, it went into the bin!!”


      Saag Aloo is a British curry house favourite of the world’s two blandest vegetables combined in what can only just be rescued by the miracle of spices. The keyword here is just.

      I felt a weak moment approaching. So I went straight to the man for sympathy. The resident photographer and food taster.

      Serves you right“, came the pat response, “I can’t think of a worse combination of things to make a recipe of.”

      This, from a man brought up in the land where potatoes originated.

      I didn’t make it up. It’s an actual recipe. It’s also one of the most requested recipes on my blog, I persisted, and one of the most common keywords for people to get here.

      “Tell them they’re wrong. That’s what you do, isn’t it?!”

      Not content with totally missing the point of this blogging business, he proceeded to refuse to photograph the next effort. Not ready to be outsmarted, I dished up try 3 with a full meal and held the feast back until the photo was taken.

      If my gruesome intro and ghastly description hasn’t put you off, this recipe is actually quite lovely. The key is to cook the potato with the spices without parboiling and to use lots of salt, some green chilli and a squeeze of lemon juice at the end to lift the spinach. I always ate this back home with pureed spinach. But you could just use chopped, frozen spinach like I did here.

      And here it is. If this is what you get when you put the world’s two blandest ingredients together, I’ll have a 2nd helping with an extra serving of abuse, thanks.

      PS = That’s my lucky oven glove in the pic. Waiting for your verdict with bated breath…
      Read on for recipe »


        Quest for Karma

        Mid-week Kofta Curry

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        Kofta curry 550

        The quest for karma continues, with yet another set of yoga classes. I snuck into the back of a heaving local class popular for using scented oils. All great, until someone fired up a sausage BBQ behind us.

        Yoga is always at the top of my list of after work exercise classes. After all, I did have about 12 years of relentless sun salutations under my belt.

        Back in Calcutta, my mother signed us up to the local yoga centre. A stern lady resembling the love child of Indira Gandhi and Maggie Thatcher (God rest their souls) would give us home lessons. All I remember are the gruelling stretches and her rising blood pressure as we pleaded through every extra count for mercy.

        On arriving in London, I discovered I was very much on trend. Years of yoga had already set me on the path to spiritual enlightenment. If I could do ujjayi breathing, I could pretty much do anything. Technically.

        So through life’s ups and downs, my various half-hearted attempts to regain yoga supremacy this is what I have discovered about the different types of yoga in the West. From an Indian’s perspective:

        • Hatha yoga: Proper yogi stuff. Wear white and be prepared to chant, stand still on one leg and sing in a strange language. Sanskrit, I think. More here
        • Ashtanga yoga: If the poses don’t stretch your limits, the breathing techniques will. Wear spandex and cancel your gym membership
        • Prana yoga: Not entirely sure, but I think its about meditation and controlled breathing. I did neither when I went thanks to the pounding house music straining through the exercise room’s double doors.
        • Bikram yoga: This is what happens when you do yoga in the heat of summer, during a Calcutta power cut. The brainchild of a Bengali. No surprise there.
        • Pregnancy yoga: Yoga to lull you into a false sense of security. It will hurt. Sorry.

        Of course, I am no stranger to taking something old and giving it a new spin.

        Like this mid-week Kofta Curry. I bought a pack of quality ready meatballs, sizzled up a curry sauce and let the meatballs simmer gently in them until they cooked. Not exactly the stuff from the courts of Mughal India but it tastes brilliant and is easy enough to knock up  after a busy day.

        Inner peace next. Om.

        Read on for recipe »


          Curry in a big hurry

          Night off with Pataks

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          crab cakes 550

          Shubho Noboborsho to you all. As I was going about my business towards the end of the Bengali year, I got a cryptic email in my inbox. It was on behalf of none other than Patak’s, the British Indian curry sauce people.

          Now Patak’s and I have a long history together. Mostly involving my early days in England at university, when I first discovered housework, illegal substances and the horror that I would have to feed myself. I slowly made my way from Taj Mahal takeaway to boil-in-the-bag rice and yep, Patak’s curry sauce jars for sustenance.

          Somewhere since then, I stumbled upon Jamie Oliver and mother’s very own chicken curry recipe. The rest as they say is history. But while the curry sauce jars fell off my weekly shopping list, I still reached for Patak’s Mango Pickle and shook my head dutifully at their “when I was a little boy” adverts.

          What exactly did they want? Request no 1:  Would I like to be one of the faces of a new campaign for their curry pastes? A loaded question. Here I am, preaching the joys of cooking Indian food from scratch, savouring the pleasure of adding each spice lovingly to sizzling oil and watching oil ooze through pores on fresh masalas. Yes I would. Everyone needs a bloody night off. I need several.

          Request no 2: Would I mind sharing a platform with my friend and professional chef, the better looking and far more sensible Maunika? Would I ever? I’m just hoping some of her eventually rubs off on me. (NOT like that, behave)

          Request no 3: Please could I bring some bright coloured clothes to the shoot. That basically killed my entire wardrobe. And no, animal print did not qualify as a “vibrant pattern”.

          So I settled on a denim shirt. Knocked back a glass of Lansons and went for it cooking three recipes, with two spoons of a jar of Patak’s masala paste. Or something. The resulting dishes were delicious: Crab Cakes, the perennial favourite Palak Paneer and Karwari Jhinga, a coconut prawn curry.

          A jar of Patak’s masala paste will now join the lofty ranks of the Thai Green Curry Paste well by its use by date in my fridge. The video is here for your viewing pleasure. Poor mother has racked up 1,000 clicks on it alone. I’ll be standing against a fence waiting for the rotten tomatoes to land.

          Do me a favour: try one of the jars to see what you make of it and tell me what you do on your night off. Will you?


            Bake off

            Savoury lentil Handvo fixes the baking bug

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            Handvo 550

            I am no baker. I never was crafty. Mother, a staunch feminist, insisted we didn’t have to learn to sew and knit. Until my all-girl school in Kolkata saw sense in teaching us carpentry and light metal work too. Never mind International Women’s Day.

            In the meantime, I grew older happily embracing the tadka pan but quietly rejecting the notion of modern femininity that is, in my humble opinion, the cupcake.

            The problem is this. I love eating the darn things. They are so pretty. They cost a bomb in the shops, for essentially, a bit of flour, sugar and eggs. I knew I was trapped into a dark hole with only a Wilton 1M and a muffin tray for company when Mini Basu, aged nearly four, requested cupcakes at one of our weekly cookery sessions.

            No matter. I have done worse in the name of motherhood.

            I snooped around my favourite baking blogs by Deeba and Jules. I just needed a moment to launch into action. The office Valentine’s Day Bake Off was it. With divisions pitted against each other, the stakes were high and someone found a photo of me stirring a curry online. I was soon labelled the “professional” in their midst.

            I frogmarched the team to the local supermarket to source supplies. Co-ordinated the team entry assigning tasks all round. Then came home, drank half a bottle of wine and merrily baked a batch of by far the most deeply unattractive cupcake-muffin hybrids I have ever seen.

            We were commended for taste. I should have taken a stash of Handvo with me instead.

            This is a spicy, savoury lentil cake from Gujarat, baked in a hot oven, that makes a healthy and very moreish snack. Nanny K kept bringing me boxes full and I got her to share the recipe with me. The only trick part to this is sourcing Ondhwa flour (also Handvo flour), which is a powdered lentil and rice flour, readily available in ethnic stores.

            It took just the first go to get it right, and the results were reassuring. They disappeared nearly as quickly as a batch of cupcakes. Next stop: oven baked dhokla. And if that goes well, I’ll try my hand at a Black Forest Gateau. Or something.

            Read on for recipe »