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 »


          Alternative Life

          Pancakes with a spicy twist

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          Pudla 550

          The man packed his bags to go to LA for “work” for two weeks. The pint-sized princess, i.e. little sis, moved in to “help”. And I had a crash course in the life of a single mother and the grapes of Anjou.

          The first two nights were hideous. Armed with the three-pronged strategy of disobey, defeat and destroy, the toddlers wreaked havoc at bedtimes. The third night, I took a glass of ice-cold vino to their bath time and Charlie Taylor’s Divas and Dictators to my bed. By the fourth night, the bottle was complete. And so was I.

          The second week was not much better. A long work day, followed by a meeting in Brussels and a colleague’s farewell do, meant three consecutive nights of missed bedtime. Ably filling in, the pint-sized princess declared: “I have had a taste of your life. And I don’t want it.” Lovely. Thanks.

          But there was no going back now. I gave my new avatar one last push last Friday, my day off work. By 10:00am, I had trialled pancakes ahead of Shrove Tuesday with the toddlers, played make-believe jungle, dressed 2.5 not so little people, done the laundry, handed over to the nanny and made my way to the hairdresser for some much-needed R&R.

          Just when I thought I had achieved near super mum status, I set off my rape alarm in front of our home. Only to be caught trying to piece the darn thing together by my neighbour and her dog.

          I should just stick to what I do best. So this Pancake Day, I will first make my man pay a heavy price for his disappearance and then whip up Pudla instead of pancake.

          These spicy savoury pancakes made from chick pea (gram) flour hail from Gujarat in India. But a version of it with onions and tomatoes is also cooked like an omelette in North India called Chilla. It makes a quick and easy brunch centrepiece or even tea time snack. In case you get the bug for an alternative life!

          Read on for recipe »


            Older not wiser

            Beef curry without bad thoughts

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            Mangshor Curry 550

            I have been fretting for weeks about the inevitable happening. A birthday. And, hey presto, it did. And now I am a whole year older than I used to be.

            Every year, I go through the same old emotional rollercoaster. First I fret: A year has passed. What have I achieved? How many new wrinkles/grey hairs have I grown? How much more have I got to read/learn/do?

            Then I recover just in time to discover the man and pint-sized princess (i.e. the little sis) have NOT planned the biggest, almightiest of parties for me. I throw my toys out of the pram. Cue: a spontaneous celebration, where I pretend I had no idea about the crate of booze and oversize cake that had been sourced last minute.

            You’d think 35 was a good age to start growing up.

            This year, the family took no chances. All my ridiculous bleating was met with glazed eyes and pseuodo-sympathy. On the big day, I got whisked off for a spot of karaoke with the nearest and dearest of friends, followed by a Mexican feast and the best hangover yet for 2013.

            To celebrate being a year older, none the better or the wiser, I want to raise a glass to two fabulous fellow bloggers who have been busy achieving in the last year:

            • Kathryn Elliott, my go to source for no nonsense and highly practical nutrition advice, and author of the Limes and Lycopene blog has been writing a series of seasonally based e-Magazines. The latest one is on desserts and the photography by Lucinda Dodds and recipes are to die for.
            • Rinku Bhattacharya, who writes the Cooking in Westchester blog, published The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles, a book on Bengali recipes that you can easily make at home. The title of the book is, of course, inspired by Panch Phoron, which no self respecting Bengali’s kitchen can be without!

            The recipe I want to share today is a simple meat curry, Mangshor Jhol, cooked with goat meat at my home in Kolkata.  Near impossible for me to source on work days, I use stewing beef or lamb neck fillet  instead. A brilliant mid-week curry, this just stews in its own juices, while you have a breather from the day’s chaos. Wear that shower cap and prepare to shower afterwards though, as the taste and aroma of this little beauty will linger.

            Unlike bad thoughts before birthdays!
            Read on for recipe »