Cinnamon and Apple

Tandoori mushrooms

If you’re hungry for innovation… why the Cinnamon Club eats Apple Inc for breakfast.

It’s 6pm on a mild October evening, and leaves the size of saucers are falling drowsily from the plane trees as Sue and I cross Parliament Square.

To be fair, Sue is walking… and I’m practically jogging. I’m as excited as kid.

First, it’s autumn, and the game season is upon is. For the next precious weeks, I’ll take every opportunity I can to savour the taste of the ‘wild’… mostly the mushrooms I’ll hunt myself in the New Forest, but also some mouthfuls of truly free-range protein. (More about ‘shrooms at the close of this blog.)

Next, Sue and I are heading for the Cinnamon Club – and for only the second time in my life I’ll be eating their game tasting menu. Four years on from that first meal, I can remember it course-for-course (the ‘crown of partridge’ is maybe the most delicious dish I have ever eaten). I still have the printed menu.

Finally, tonight is the Cinnamon Club’s ‘game and Burgundy’ tasting dinner – pairing a four-course menu with four legendary vintages.

It’s as if all my passions have been distilled to their essence – and served to me in a shot glass.

Walking with Sue up the steps to the Cinnamon Club, I get a moment of foodie angst. Have I over hyped this? Can I ask ‘gourmet lightning’ to strike twice in the same place?

As Sue and I are ushered into a room next to the main restaurant, I’m looking for clues to buttress my new mood, when the nearest person in the group introduces himself: Laurent Chaniac.

Wait a minute… this is THE Laurent Chaniac, the Cinnamon Club’s sommelier – and the man who wrote the book on matching spices and wines. If you’re looking for an atlas that matches climate, soil, grape and vintage for every major growing region – to every spice known to man – then pages 216 onwards of The Cinnamon Club Cookbook are the place for you.

The table is set for about 20, and lottery of the place-setting has put Sue and I to Laurent’s right. We’re about to journey through a game/Burgundy landscape with the man who practically invented the concept of matching wine with curry.

I sense that the evening is going to be a masterclass.

Laurent introduces the first vintage (an Aligote). He describes the wine before we drink it – and I wish I could remember the cast-list of climate, soil physics, geography and botanics he uses to evoke it. But I can’t.

What I do remember is his tip that the wine should taste have a particular before eating the food – and then a series of different tastes as two work together, and you discover new complexities in both.

Does it work?

The Aligote is delicious. And as we eat the first course (char grilled partridge with ginger and dry melon seeds) you sense the magic spread around the room. The tastes of the wine and curry aren’t just talking to each other – they are dancing together.

And so it goes. The second course (tandoori pigeon breast with kasundi mustard) is paired with a 2003 Burgundy – and the raspberry of the wine reveals the flavours in the game – like the curator’s audio-guide to a block-buster art exhibition. The mix of flavours is beyond complex… it’s like swallowing a kaleidoscope.

Next, Head Chef Rakesh Ravindran Nair is with us in the room – who, together with Executive Chef Vivek Singh – created the menu for the evening. I can ask him in person why this pigeon tastes like no other I’ve ever eaten. The answer: the Cinnamon Club’s pigeon are reared in France, able to fly in their aviary and fed on a special diet that makes them… in wine terms… appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC).

And so it goes.

A third course of clove-smoke venison saddle – paired with a 30 year-old Santenay Premier Cru.

A final course of British cheeses paired with a Mersault that feels so fantastically at home in my mouth that I think (for a split second) that I am the glass the wine is being poured into. This has not happened before.

And somewhere in the magic of the meal, in the buzz of incredible flavours, I get the insight from Laurent that gives me my Eureka moment: the Cinnamon Club team start the whole process of planning the meal with the individual wines!

They pick specific vintages that interest them in terms of their constituent parts – acids, fruits, minerals and flavours – and then painstakingly choose the individual spices, marinades and ingredients which match them.

For me, as a curryphile and foodie, this is the outer edge of creativity.

This meal has been days or weeks in the planning… right down to selecting the onion seeds and ajwain that soften the tannins in an elegant red – and make an austere wine more approachable.

And the proof is there on the plate, and in the glass.

Over the evening, Laurent generously shares his encyclopaedic wine knowledge; he is great company. Head Chef Rakesh is also charm itself – and takes me on a tour of the Cinnamon Club’s kitchen. He sends me home with a handful of spice I have never even heard or read about (the bonfire-scented ‘marathi moggu’ and a recipe to cook it with).

If I were a physicist, this is like being taken on a tour of Cern – and sent home with a Higgs Bosun particle in my pocket.

Later that month, I drop off a batch of some wild mushrooms I’ve picked as a gift for Rakesh and the Cinnmanon Club kitchen team – and within hours Rakesh has tweeted me a photo of (and recipe for) the world’s first dish of curried ‘pieds de mouton with fenugreek leaves’. He’s invented a masala twist on an autumn staple – and it makes my day… if not my whole ‘shrooming season. I share the recipe below.

And somewhere in this exchange of recipes and ideas – and the privilege of meeting Vivek Singh, Laurent Chaniac and Rakesh Ravindran Nair – I get THE WHY of the Cinnamon Club.

It’s creativity – pure and simple.

Vivek Singh and his Cinnamon Club team are a group of very creative people – who just happen to be interested in how things taste.

The restaurants, the dishes, the books – are all the outcomes of this passion for invention.

In his famous TED lecture exploring THE WHY of leading businesses, Simon Sinek explains that Apple don’t really sell technology – they simply invite Apple’s devotees to help shake up the status-quo.

By re-inventing curry as the outer-edge of global fine dining – I think Vivek Singh has done the same.

Which makes the Cinnamon Club, for me, the Apple Inc of food.

And if I had to pick a favourite between these two innovators?

Let’s look at the options:

If the Californian tech giant diversifies into food, I’m not sure I’ll be booking a table any time soon.

But if Vivek Singh launches an app – it’ll be delicious – and I’m buying it.

Tandoori mushroom with fenugreek leaves

Serves 4

250g pied de mouton or similar meaty, chunky mushroom, cleaned

For the marinade

1 tbsp oil

1 tsp red chilli powder

½ tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp ginger garlic paste

1 tsp salt

Juice from quarter of a lemon

1 cup full fat Greek style yoghurt

1 tbsp chopped coriander leaves

1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves, powdered

Pinch of sugar

Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and make a marinade. Fold in the mushrooms and leave aside for 20 minutes.

Thread it through a skewer and cook in a tandoor or on a barbeque grill. Serve with coriander chutney and raita.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Everything’s relative

Grandfather20150621_20015639

I knew that curry could connect me even deeper to the people I know and love. I didn’t know it could connect me with the grandfather I can’t remember meeting.

Just over a year ago, we moved as a family from the New Forest to Salisbury. The physical distance is only 12 miles – but in every other sense, it was a big move. We were leaving the small-holding where we’d lived for 14 years, and kept cattle, pigs, geese and chickens. For some of those years, we were virtually self-sufficient in meat (and I’ll blog about that soon).

The garden at our new home in Salisbury might be smaller than the fruit-cage in the New Forest where we grew our raspberries – but we love the house, the street, the weekly market and the city.

And we love our neighbours – who said hello on the first chaotic day of packing cases, gave us parking slips – and have since taken us on walks to parts of the city we didn’t know, fed our cats when we were away, and sent over teenage children to fix IT issues. The stuff of modern life.

One of the phrases we kept on hearing from neighbours in the early weeks was: “You must meet your namesakes in this street… the Baines”. My wife Sue asked me several times if she thought we could be related to this other family – and I answered that I’d never met someone with our name and found a family connection.

After a couple of weeks, our new neighbours invited us to dinner. The distance from our house to theirs is about 30 feet, and every day we’d admired its carved Elizabethan exterior.

I rang the bell, the door opened – and in front of me stood a man looking exactly like my father. If he saw astonishment in my face, he didn’t show it.

Sue and I looked at each other. The man resembled my Dad in every way – even more closely than my uncle.

I lost my Dad over two years ago. I suppose my visual memory of him is fading. But the man walking us through his house didn’t simply look like my father – but shared the same mannerisms, the same gentleness.

Our new neighbours served us drinks. Chatting about careers, our host said that after retiring from the army, he’d worked for a government department (which I knew my father had also worked in).

“Did you work with Richard Baines, my Dad?” I asked.

“Oh yes, cousin Richard.”

And suddenly my world has just got bigger. A neighbour has morphed into a blood relation – and the wisdom I thought I’d lost in my Dad is alive and well on the other side of our street.

Some months later, we invited the Baines to our house – for a curry. They’d lived and worked abroad a lot – described India as their favourite country – and we wanted to cook them something memorable.

For the chutneys, I went back to almost the first ever Indian recipe book I ever cooked from: Food of India by Murdoch Books. The mint and coriander chutney – along with the date and tamarind chutney – are two of the best I know. I never tire of cooking them.

For the starter, I went back to the same book, and the street food classic of Kashmiri lamb chops. If you’re looking for a dish you can prepare the night before (in a ginger and chili marinade) and cook in four minutes on the day – this it.

For the main course, we cooked Sea bass with a green spice crust from Atul Kochhar’s Fish Indian Style. Faced with the infinity of Indian cookbooks, I don’t often do a recipe twice (so many curries, so little time) but this is a classic I come back to often. Simple to cook, and super-sophisticated on the fork.

And in the shared glow that a meal somehow creates, it occurred to me there was a book which the Baines could help me understand: my grandfather’s photo album.

Given to me by Dad some years back, the album is a thick, black cloth-bound book – filled with photos from my Grandfather’s youth. Almost every image is of school sport – sprinters breasting the tape; end-of-season team portraits.

Until this moment, the black-and-white (and often strikingly formal) photos had seemed remote from me – like a language you struggle to understand.

But in the Baines’ hands, the images suddenly came to life.

Turning the pages, and reading the dates hand-written in white ink, my neighbour calculated that his father and my grand-father were exact contemporaries – both born in the last decade of the 19th century.

Starting with a photo taken in 1903, my grandfather’s album follows him through every school and every sports team. Cricket, football, hockey. Press cuttings with scores from the matches are pasted on pages opposite. The faces in front of us mature from young children, to boys, to men.

It’s the story of Edwardian youth.

Then the date gets to 1914, my grandfather’s goes to university, pastes in a photograph of the college cricket team in his first year (see the picture at the top of the blog – my Grandfather seated on the bench, centre)

– and the album falls off a cliff.

The Great War has started.

My neighbour’s father volunteers at the age of 17; my grandfather at the age of 20.

“It’s incredible they both made it back alive,” says my neighbour, “so many didn’t.”

Over 700,000 British soldiers died in WWI – the bloodiest in the country’s history.

And suddenly the young faces on the pages look at me from the page in a different way. Almost all would serve in the war; more than one in ten would die in combat.

Both men in our families survived. My grandfather went back to university to finish his degree.

But the album stops in its tracks in 1914 – along with the Edwardian world that vanished with it.

After dozens of pages of sporting camaraderie, the final image in the book is my grandfather sitting with his new regiment. Drawing on his own military career, my neighbour points out details from the photo: my grandfather’s rank, his regiment, the fact that all the men are wearing breeches – meaning the future campaign would take place in Asia.

And then nothing.

Blank page after blank page. The Great War has started, and the pictures stop.

We talk, briefly, about the two men’s experience of the war: details too personal to share.

Long into the night, after our guests have gone home, I read and re-read the notes in the album. My grandfather feels closer to me than at any point in my life.

All thanks to our new neighbours – and to the timeless alchemy of a shared meal.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Perfect 10

Curry20150617_13004334

How many moments can you remember from a lifetime… frame by frame… as if they happened yesterday?

For me, it’s a short list – and this was one of them.

It’s a July afternoon in 1976, and I’m slumped in an adolescent, introspective heap on the sofa. In the background, the TV rolls live footage from the Montreal Olympics. It’s mostly the ‘B sports’, and early heats of weight-lifting and discuss scroll past me as quietly as faded wallpaper.

But suddenly, I’m back in the room – and along with millions of people around the planet – I’m watching the elfin figure of Nadia Comaneci focus her gaze on the Uneven Bars as she tees up for the Olympic final.

The next minute is engraved on my memory.

Comaneci takes a step towards the bars… springs up… and becomes the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a human being in flight. She seems immune to gravity. While Comaneci’s in the air, she makes us all weightless.

But suddenly she’s back on the deck, and reality kicks back in. The crowd in Montreal goes bonkers, and the camera pans back to the scoreboard.

After what seems like an age, the Omega-branded panel blinks with a score…

1.00.

The crowd gasps, Comaneci pales, the commentator swallows audibly.

And then the audience screams with one voice as they, the commentator and Comaneci realise she’s the first gymnast in Olympic history to score a perfect Ten.

(Spare a thought here for the Omega tech team, who’d been told a perfect Ten couldn’t be scored – and programmed the display unit to hold only three digits… meaning the world’s first ever 10.00 was flagged up as 1.00.)

Back to teenage me. I’m in turmoil. Yes, yes, yes – this other-worldly creature (two years younger than me) has just done something truly extraordinary, and charmed the entire planet. But PERFECT?

As she came back to Earth, didn’t I see her wobble for a millisecond? Surely 9.99 would have left a door open.

Breath-taking? Yes. Genius? Yes. Best in history? Yes.

But PERFECT? No. I’m with the Omega tech team – there’s no such thing as four digits on the human scoreboard. People don’t do perfect.

Fast-forward 39 years, and I’m sitting in the Cinnamon Club, bubbling with anticipation at Asma Khan’s ‘Darjeeling Express’ pop-up lunch in the high temple of Indian cuisine.

It’s January 2015, and this is only the second time that that Asma has cooked here (we hadn’t met when she chef’d her first Cinnamon Club pop-up – and I felt wounded by what I’d missed. Vivek Singh had famously led the room in a standing ovation of Asma’s biryani, and I’d begged her to invite me to any follow up).

So here we are, just minutes away from my first ‘Mughal Feast’.

Is it just me, or is there part of everyone who loves curry that wants to know what is was like to eat as a Mughal emperor?  Can you read about the era when Indian princes competed to create the greatest ever feasts – and when top chefs were feted like the most famous poets and artists – without wanting to live it? Just once?

While I know it doesn’t help to ramp up expectations – I’ve dialed everything in my head up to 11.

I am in the greatest restaurant in the world, being looked after by the best pop-up hostess I’ve ever met, and about to taste the last word in imperial Indian luxury. I am hyped.

Just to add to the excitement, I’ve invited as many of the people I love as we can fit on the table. My wife Sue, my daughter Mia and her friend Xannie, my Curry Club buddies Michael and Marc, and Michael’s new wife Julie. I want them to love every mouthful.

And while I know it’s crazy for me to feel ‘butterflies’ before a meal (Asma’s doing the cooking – all I’m doing is eating) I still somehow feel like an athlete… waiting for the starting gun to fire.

And then it does.

The first course is at the table: Lasun Jinga (garlic prawns). The spices are married to the seafood as seamlessly as the sweetness in honey. I have never tasted anything like it.

Then there’s Hyderbadi Haleem. As the dish is being served in simple earthenware bowls at our table, the lovely Asma appears to explain its history: that in the closing moments of a bitter sectarian siege, the community trapped inside the city had come to share their last night alive together. Pooling the few edible morsels they had left – bones of dead livestock, oats, lentils – they simmered the unlikely mix of ingredients until dawn. And created Haleem. The story of the last meal is exquisitely poignant. And Asama’s dish is exquisite. In a way I can’t explain, it tastes more intensely of marrow bone than marrow bone itself.

Next comes the Shikampuri Kabab – meat minced again and again until it’s the texture of silk – then stuffed with yoghurt, fresh mint and green chilies. The person Asma’s invited to sit next to me does ‘taste’ for a living – and it’s his palate that selects the gourmet teas (at £2,000 a kilo) which grace some of London’s top restaurants. As he eats the Kabab, he pauses, then turns to look at me: “That’s the single most delicious thing I have ever eaten”. And I would agree.

And on we go.

Four starters (each of which is served two or three times). Eight main courses.

We make friends with Khare Masale Ka Gosht, Bhopali Achar Chicken, Hyderbadi Mirchi ka Salaan. I can still picture and taste these dishes now – and the latter (green chilies with onion, ground nuts and coconut) would justify the chili’s historic journey from South America to India. It’s sensational.

And that’s all before Asma serves us her Calcutta style Murgh Biryani.

I have biryani recipes in a number of books, and have never dared to cook it. It’s too big, too emblematic – and too technical. Whole websites are dedicated to the search for the perfect biryani. If this dish were a high-board dive, it would have a complexity rating of 6.0. Asma’s Calcutta style Murgh Biryani disappears without a ripple. The word ‘fragrant’ starts to get you there (and maybe there were words in the Mughal courts to describe a taste this subtle) but the English foodie vocabulary falls short. The entire table goes silent in appreciation.

Finally, two desserts: Sheer Korma and the saffron-infused Shahi Tukra. I still miss the Sheer Korma – and cook my own imitation at home to help manage the separation anxiety.

In among it all, my table buddy – the gourmet tea sommelier – takes the room through a tasting of some of India’s rarest, most costly and most delicious infusions. We sip the tea from tall, tulip-shaped wine-glasses. It is a taste revelation.

At close to 5pm, and countless courses and flavours, the lunch winds to a close. I’m surprised to find I feel as light as if I’d just eaten a salad.

Family and friends are getting from our table, and there are hugs and smiles all round.

And walking back to the Tube with Sue in a fug of happiness, I want to shout back across four decades to my teenage self on the sofa:

“PERFECT IS A THING!”

It doesn’t happen often, but it’s real.

And in a Mughal feast where Asma needed to conduct an orchestra of dishes and people – nothing, nothing was less than perfect.

In July 1976, Comaneci went on to score six more perfect Tens. In June of this year, Asma cooked another perfect pop-up at the Cinnamon Club.

Turning the lens right back to the Mughals themselves – whose reign spanned the mid-16th to 18th centuries – maybe each of us would be surprised to glimpse the depth of their legacy: an empire that embraced more a quarter of humanity; the architectural masterpiece of the Taj Mahal; the invention of the rocket; a shipping industry so sophisticated it built-to-order for the European fleets.

And then the food… cooked by Asma as she keeps alive their centuries’ old tradition.

Counting the votes from today’s guests at the pop-up, and from yesterday’s courts of the Mughal emperors, a score flickers up at the Cinnamon Club:

10:00.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On meeting your hero

Curry20150615_12180176 

Meeting your hero can be a tricky business.

Over the years, friends have shared experiences about the moment they’ve finally met a personal hero – and it seldom works out happily.

One buddy (a sensationally talented guitarist and lifetime fan of Elvis Costello) talked red-faced about the time he queued for three hours in HMV to get his copy of Elvis’ new CD signed by the great man himself.

Finally getting to the front of the queue, heart pounding, my friend fingered the breast pocket of his denim jacket – where he’d tucked a tape of the songs he’d composed and recorded. A gift for Elvis… and just possibly songs his hero might want to listen to… and enjoy… and maybe call my friend to chat about. Maybe.

Two minutes later, my friend found himself blinking in the sunlight on Oxford Street – holding his signed copy of Elvis’ CD in one hand, and his own mix tape in the other. In the glare of excitement of meeting his lifetime muse, he’d forgotten to say a single word to Elvis, or hand over the tape.

Another buddy shared the time when a shopping trip as teenager in a sleepy Surrey suburb suddenly changed gear as he realised the person sifting through the pile of second-hand albums next to him was rock-legend Jimmy Page.

Before he’d been able to plan what to do next, Page had left the shop – and, in a star-struck daze, my friend started to follow him. For ten agonising minutes, Page tried to get on with his weekend shopping (newspaper from one store, loaf of bread from another), stalked step-by-step by my friend. As Page entered a third shop, an anxious-looking rock god turned to square up to his stalker:

Page: ‘What do you want?’

Friend: ‘Are you Jimmy Page?’

Page: ‘Yes.’

Friend: ‘Hello.’

Page: ‘Bye.’

And Page rushed back to the street, leaving my friend alone in the shop with a bewildered florist.

So, as the delightful Asma Khan taps me on the shoulder at her pop-up lunch at the legendary Cinnamon Club – and says she’d like to introduce me to Vivek Singh – I feel a mix of emotions:

First… excitement: Vivek Singh isn’t just the creative genius behind the Cinnamon Club (my favourite restaurant in the world) he’s also the person who led the charge for Indian cuisine in the UK – hauling it from its flock-wallpapered, gloopy, 80’s curry-house past into its glittering, palate-tingling present. And because I cook a new Indian recipe almost every week – and buy an Indian recipe book every month – this makes Vivek Singh a very, very important person for me. I’ve wanted to meet him for years.

Second… embarrassment: As I walk across to where Vivek Singh’s table, I realise the item I’m going to ask him to sign is a battered, six year-old, turmeric-stained copy of his book: ‘Curry, Classic and Contemporary’. In a world of sleek iPads and tablets, it suddenly looks very analogue.

Finally… anxiety: Will this be my Elvis Costello or Jimmy Page moment? Will I simply fluff it?

As Vivek stands up from his table, and shakes my hand, I sense it’s going to be OK.

He radiates warmth.

“It’s great to meet you,” I say. “I just wanted to tell you how much pleasure you’ve given me and my friends.”

As a one-liner, it might not be up there with the greats (“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”) but at least I got the words out.

I open the book for Vivek to sign, and the first pages have no blank space where he can put his pen. The double-page is a scrawled log of every recipe I’ve cooked from the book. Red biro… black… blue… whatever we had at the time to capture the moment.

It looks horribly messy, but Vivek is intrigued.

He works backwards and forwards through the book – exploring the recipes we’d chosen.

On the photo page for each dish, there are more scribbles – a record of who was at the meal, what we were celebrating, how we tweaked the recipe. And, course, how it tasted.

Reading the scribbles over Vivek’s shoulder, I start to relive all of these moments: special meals with my family; birthdays and Christmases; parties with neighbours.

But the theme which keeps coming back from the book is the ‘Curry Club’ – a posse of two my closest friends, who meet five or six times a year to talk, share, drink and cook. Always a curry.

And as Vivek turns the pages, and reads the inscriptions from Marc and Michael (aka the Curry Club) I realise just how much the three of us have shared together.

The good times:

the curries we cooked together as house-warming parties in new flats and houses; meals to mark new jobs; spontaneous get-togethers; and all-nighters celebrating new relationships and marriages. Each one of these eaten with a curry from Vivek’s book that was so delicious we could hardly believe we’d cooked it.

And the not-so-good times:

the scribble on the page for Vivek’s ‘Old Delhi-style Chicken Curry’ reads: ‘This dish was the back-drop to dinner following Michael’s Dad’s passing. Another wonderful, honest evening. Love Marc.’ And I realise with a tender shock that in the five years we’ve been cooking together, each of us has lost our father. And that, on each occasion, we’d marked the wake with one of Vivek’s recipes. Messages for my late father and Marc’s father are there too.

Standing in the Cinnamon Club, I realise it’s a slightly incongruous scene.

We’re two men who’ve only just met – standing in the heart of the Westminster spin-machine – and the words tumbling off the page are among three friends who feel comfortable sharing anything.

But Vivek instantly feels like a member of the gang.

  • And while he is too modest to say so, I think he knows what he’s done. Through his recipes, he’s been the glue in the ‘Curry Club’… the virtual fourth member who’s steered us through every ingredient, every recipe, every life stage. And each mouthful of each celebration.

And now, in person, he’s unpacked for me what we’ve shared as the Curry Club – and tied it back up with a bow.

And his recipes!

My God, the recipes:

  • Tandoori Grouse with aubergine crush and layered bread  ‘This was sublime. Not only did we break bread, we baked it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. First time the Curry Club has ever eaten before midnight’
  • ‘Keralan-style mixed seafood with coconut and vinegar sauce    ‘So good, these prawns are like a mother to me’
  • Wild prawns baked with coconut and mustard   ‘If there’s a finer starter out there, I’d like to meet it. Fantastic day of indulgence and treats!’
  • Mughal-style aromatic curry of Lamb Shanks    ‘A multi-layered Biblical odyssey of a curry’.
  • Roast Pork chops with sweet spices, mustard mash and date and chilli sauce  ‘The best ever? Started cooking at 8 and finished at 11:30, so not one to rush. But, but the combination of heavenly spice-rub and magical sauce. Curry perfection.’
  • Roast saddle of red deer with pickling spice   ‘Where do we go from here? A curry mountain has been climbed, and it may never be surpassed.’

And I could go on… over five years, we’ve cooked more than 30 recipes from Vivek’s books (including the two Cinnamon Club volumes). Do the maths, and it means that almost every other month he’s helped us discover another gem from India. Every one of them delicious, and each bringing people together the people I care about.

In person, the man is charm itself. He points out new recipes the Curry Club should try, tells me about changes he’s making to the Cinnamon Club. We take photos on our phones, talk to the lovely Asma – and share my copy of his book with Vivek’s restaurant team.

It’s a perfect moment. And more than anything, it’s given me the chance I wanted – to thank the chef who’s given me, my family and my friends so much pleasure.

We’ve been talking for ages – and we both need to get back to what today is all about: Asma’s mouth-watering pop-up.

Vivek shakes my hand, with the words: ‘It’s been wonderful to see my recipes living in your book… I’ve never seen anything like it

“Thank you for giving me so much pleasure.

So – with the greatest respect to Elvis Costello and Jimmy Page – it can be OK to meet your hero

You just need to pick the right one

Later this month, the Curry Club gets together to mark two of us moving to new homes. We’ll have Vivek’s book with us

And this time it’ll have the signature, and written dedication from the man who created it all.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pure Jainius – recipes from a Jain cookbook

Jain

After six years collecting Indian recipe books, I’m lucky enough to have a couple of shelves of volumes at home. As with any collection, I have my favourites: books I cook from time and again. One day, I’ll sit down to think through my personal Top Ten.

But right now, I have a crush on one particular Indian recipe book, and I can’t stop talking about it.

A couple of times recently, I’ve found myself describing the book to friends – and spotting (behind their patient nods) that I’m giving them ‘way too much information’, and that this cookbook might not be up there with Anna Karenina and Don Quixote.

The simple fact though, for me, is that it is.

I’m the first to admit that I ‘have a thing’ about Indian cookbooks.

Time allowing, I spend hours surfing curry blogs, looking for new titles. On the day the new copy arrives in the post, I read it cover to cover like a novel – marking the recipes I’ll cook. After a month or so, and eight to ten meals cooked from the new book – I move on.

Driven by this need for new books, I know exactly what I’m looking for when I surf the masala blogs.

In a word: ‘connections’.

I want a cookbook which connects me to a specific Indian community: to the food that grows around them, to their lifestyle, beliefs, festivals and culture. I want recipes which let me taste all of that – on the end of fork (or, even better, in my fingers).

I’m getting better at finding these books that connect me to Indian communities, and several have blown me away.

But since October 2014, I’ve had a total, headlong curry crush on one book: Dadima No Varso.

I’m guessing you haven’t heard of it.

(I’m also guessing… if you’re still reading… that you might be there with my friends, asking: ‘why’s he STILL banging on about this obscure curry book?’)

In one sentence, Dadima No Varso is a guide to the cooking of the Jain community in the city of Palanpur (in Gujurat, northern India).

With roots dating back to the 6th century BC, Jainism is one of the world’s oldest religions.

And in terms of ‘connecting me with a community’, Dadima No Varso is about as focused as it gets: cataloguing the recipes of one of India’s smallest religions (4 million followers in a population of over one billion), as cooked by the Jain community of one provincial city.

Even before I’d seen the book, I was intrigued by what it might hold.

When I got my copy, it was love at first sight.

Bound in hardback, A4, and almost 500 pages long, Dadima no Varso is a beautiful sight to behold. Set with Gujurati text on each left hand page, and English on the right, it’s a striking mix of the exotic and the familiar. Almost every page has original, hand-drawn illustrations of cooking techniques; every chapter has full page photographs of the raw ingredients and finished dishes. Even the font was specifically designed for the book.

Aesthetically, and in terms of practical use as a cook book – it is close to perfection.

And when you actually come to cook from the book, the results are breath-taking.

Whether you’re pan-frying guavas in dry spices, simmering banana peel to make a chutney or cooking a dal with broad beans – each dish has the hallmark of the purest, lightest cooking.

Excuse the pun, but it’s pure Jainius.

I could go on… the dals made with bottle gourd and ridge gourd, pan-fried asparagus in spices, drumsticks in besan gravy… all giddyingly delicious, and all delivering the same gravity-defying lightness of touch.

Given the heritage of Jain recipes in the history of Indian cooking (the first ever reference to the poppadum can be found in a 5th century BC Jain text) maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the heights the cooking reaches.

But there are surprises beyond the recipes.

Cook your way happily through this book (as I have) and on page 406 you flip past the last dish – and come to a summary of the Jain belief which inspires the whole book.

I’ll quote a single sentence:

‘The Jain ethos states: Ahimsa is Live and Let Live.’

As a religion with two millennia of history, Jainism is massively rich in literature and traditions.

To condense that theology into exactly 150 words, on half a page, is (for me) a masterpiece of brevity and humility.

I’m not going to pretend to know more about Jainism than I do. I know that the religion is committed to non-violence, to respecting the opinions of others and to self-control. In today’s borderless world, these strike me as very practical virtues.

And because this is a food blog, I’ll mention that the Jain commitment to respecting life not only embraces a vegan approach to cooking – but extends to respecting all living organisms (which would be killed if harvested).

This includes – maybe problematically for some Western readers – avoiding all root vegetables as food.

I’ve been cooking with the book for months, and had to scan the recipes as I wrote this. Fact: not a root vegetable used in the book. And for a curryphile who’s weekend invariably starts with peeling onions and garlic for the day’s curry – neither are used anywhere in Dadima No Varso’s Jain cuisine.

Nothing grown in the earth is used in the book.

Am I falling off the edge of the foodie map to wonder if the air-borne ingredients of Jain cooking – leaves, seeds and fruits – have something to do with the weightless feeling of enjoying their cuisine?

Does stuff grown in the ground weigh you down?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that every recipe I’ve tried in Dadima No Varso delights, and that the 80 page glossary of conversion charts, cookery terms and helpful tips is the best I’ve seen in any book.

Reading around this piece today, I’ve also learnt that Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was deeply influenced by Jain thinking – linking the religion to Indian independence, and to one of the defining historical events of the last century.

Without Dadima No Varso, I wouldn’t have made the connection.

The ‘provenance’ of a book is also important, and for my copy, it couldn’t have been richer.

I want to thank my wonderful colleagues in India, who patiently followed the online trail for Dadima No Varso to a Jain community centre in Mumbai – and then presented me with my copy on a recent visit to that city.

“We’re a bit shocked,” said one Mumbai colleague, “to find you cooking recipes from a religion that most British people have never heard of.”

She has a point.

But for all the reasons I’ve tried to list – the sheer deliciousness of the food, the beauty of the book, the definitive pages of helpful tips – Dadima No Varso is in a class of its own.

And in terms of ‘connections’, it’s introduced me to new ingredients, new recipes… and even new insights into one of the world’s oldest religions.

Not bad for a cookbook.

I’d love to share it with as many of you as possible.

The last word, I feel, should go to the authors themselves.

The text below quotes from the preface:

“Over generations, our Jain recipes have developed through innovations and interpretations. Ingredients, method and utensils all have gone through many transformations. The interest in world cuisines has changed the tastes of this generation. Yet, at times one craves for those distinctive flavours, the basic tastes, the sweet aroma, the rich colours and the stimulating textures that go with the everyday modest food of the yesteryears.

“This book has fired us, with an enthusiasm to carefully document a step-by-step description of our traditional recipes, bequeathed from dadimas (grandmothers) to her daughter and granddaughter.

“Time passes by. Combinations from the simple and original recipes bring about different aspects in cooking. Variations, adaptation and fusion are the keys to a creative urge – but the choice is definitely yours.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Lost… and found. How a bowl of Aloo Saag Dosa changed my world

img042

I started a new job this month: I’ve met some very nice people, and it promises to be a fascinating project.

And maybe it’s because the company is a global travel player, but I’ve never worked with such a nomadic group of colleagues. Every time I phone anyone, they’re somewhere new. And in 25 days in the role, I’ve only worked two consecutive days in one place.

As a result, I’ve spent many early mornings and late evenings grappling with brand new commutes – and feeling blissfully, totally lost. In four weeks, I’ve been in more ‘wrong half of split train’, ‘train going fast through next stop’, ‘no train for 50 minutes’, ‘train just left from a different platform’ scenarios than in the previous decade put together.

In the context of a #curryblog, I mention this period of ‘lostness’ because it feels weirdly like a period when I tried to shapeshift from ‘curry consumer’ to ‘curry cook’.

I can time that transition pretty much to the day.

The year was 2008, the month was December, and on the last Wednesday of the month I was eating in Glasgow’s legendary Mother India. For two years, I’d commuted weekly from London to Scotland, and filled one evening away from home in the delicious company of this local hero.

In some restaurants, you don’t get to know the team as friends, no matter how often you go there. But in Glasgow, and particularly in Mother India, you do. So it was a bit emotional when I settled up after the last of literally a hundred or so meals with them – and told the team I wouldn’t be back for some time.

They gave a me a pint of Kingfisher, and just before I left they gave me a copy of the day’s menu, signed by Ali, Amy, Dinesh, Oz, Soam and Tony – with all the messages you can read above.

Four years on, I still miss the team, and I miss Mother India.

Back in London, January 2010, I had the very pressing need to find the food that Mother India had been cooking me. If I’d known more about Indian food, I’d have known to look for great Aloo Saag Dosa with Sambhar in a South Indian restaurant. Or I’d have known to hunt for Mother India’s sensational steamed fish with mustard cooked by a Punjabi chef.

But I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know that Mother India is the name of arguably the greatest Bollywood classic ever made. All I had was the name of the destination – all the dishes that had blown me away in Mother India – but no map to get me back there.

I did what we all do. I bought books, I hunted online, I talked to friends and colleagues. The dish that haunted me was Mother India’s Aloo Saag Dosa – and particularly the intense, smokey Sambhar they served it with.

Little by little, I started to get there. I swapped bottled tamarind for the plummy, home-made original – steeped over four hours in fresh tamarind pods and beans. I hunted down the exotic ‘drumstick’ vegetable that lit up my meal in Glasgow. I stopped buying ready-made powder and ground the dozen-plus Sambhar spices I found in different recipes. Once, I even sat down for a Sambhar masterclass with Vineet Bhatia in his Rasoi restaurant. (Thank you, Vineet, for finding time to talk to a curry-obsessed customer at close to midnight!)

I’m getting there. But have I arrived? Can I recreate the giddy Aloo Saag Dosa masterpiece that I ate in Mother India?

I’m not even close.

Can I cook a Sambhar that’s so good you have to put your cutlery down, and just ponder the moment as the spices play games with your head – like the yellows in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?

Not yet. Maybe never.

But I am on my #curryjourney, and loving every second of it. Loving the new flavours, the new ingredients, the new cook books, the new cooking gear, the new shops, the new friends and ideas from Twitter. Loving the whole nine yards.

And if you’re reading this in Glasgow – and in Mother India – PLEASE share your Sambhar recipe with me. I’ll fly up, go anywhere, do anything.

Until then… a big thank you to Ali, Amy, Dinesh, Oz, Soam and Tony at my favourite Scottish restaurant. And a special thank you to the Head Chef (who’s signature starts with an ‘M’ and ends with an ‘n’ – and loops in between). Your note on my menu cum leaving-card reads:

‘Hope you enjoyed my cooking’.

I did.

I truly did.

Thank you for launching me on the journey of a lifetime.

Good Korma.

Posted in Steps on a curry journey | Leave a comment

Beyond beyond: @biryaniquest reports live on a search for the Holy Grail

chicken biryani cc

As an archaeologist I would be tempted to say that the reason I am so obsessed with biryanis is because I am fascinated by the history, opulence, art and culture of the Islamic period they were invented in.

Or as a staunch disciple of the great cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris, I could justify my mania for this extremely delicious dish by pointing to my Brahmanic genes  – my strictly vegetarian Brahmin ancestors were denied meat, onions and garlic so I am making up for generations of deprivation by focusing on a dish that has all the aforementioned in plenty.

Yes?

No!

The truth is I have no idea why I love biryanis so much – I always have and always will. Bas – as we say in Hindi to emphasize a point that does not need explaining.

To the uninitiated, a “biryani” is a dish of fragrant rice flavoured with spices atop a mound of cooked meat, fish or vegetables. It is normally accompanied by a yogurt raita (salad) or with a meat or vegetable gravy. The latter in my opinion is only served in very discerning eateries that offer top quality biryanis.

I had my first proper chicken biryani (yes, with the accompanying gravy) aged 8 ½ in a rundown restaurant called Olympus in the Indian city of Bangalore. To the shock of my Mum and my sisters I polished off an adult portion and had to be wheeled out of the place.

Back home in our little town in India, my mum sent our maid off to a family friend’s kitchen to master the art of making genuine biryanis from the Indian city of Hyderabad. The maid sniffed at their ‘dirty’ kitchen, cleaned it first and came back with expert knowledge. Thereafter my mother made biryanis for us every other Sunday.

In adulthood having moved to Bombay, the obsession continued and a completely inebriated me encountered Café Noorani in Haji Ali at 3am – this being the only self respecting restaurant open at that ungodly hour. I had a chicken tikka biryani and was hooked for life. I had it once again in the sober, harsh glare of daylight just to be sure and I still remained hooked. Thereafter for a decade I looked no further than Noorani for sustenance.

I live in London now and along with the usual homesickness for family, friends, and Indian clothes came the overpowering craving for Indian food – biryanis in particular. And hence began the quest with the realization that I would have to kiss a lot of frogs before I find my prince; smell a lot of flowers before I find the perfect rose; encounter tons of hyacinths before I find the beautiful lotus – I think you get my drift.

How will I know when I find the perfect biryani? What happens when you find your soulmate? You just know, right?

Join my quest at http://www.kundaskitchen.co.uk/biryaniquest

If you’ve had a great biryani recently I would love to hear from you!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment