The roadside restaurants of Tamil Nadu

How a two-thousand year-old recipe taught me about the essence of food

At the point on the map where southern India tapers off in perfect V, Tamil Nadu sits snugly on the eastern coast.

As a destination, it may not have the instagram-ready, ‘bucket list’ pull of Indian states like Kerala or Rajasthan. But if there’s one thing Tamil Nadu does better than anyone, it’s TEMPLES. With over 33,000 ancient monuments – some up to 5,000 years old – Tamil Nadu is India’s official ‘Temple State’.

If you’re awarding that prize to India’s biggest single temple – Tamil Nadu wins again. Every book I’ve read lists Meenakshi Ammam in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, as India’s largest and most important Hindu temple.

Over two days in December 2018, I toured Meenakshi Ammam’s 15 acre site with a professional guide. Add the beauty of the architecture to the giddying height of the 50 metre towers; add the size of the crowds to the visual intensity of rituals – and you have possibly the most engaging spiritual space I’ve ever visited.

50 metre stone tower of Meenakshi Ammam

I’ll never forget the ritual of the night ceremony in the heart of the temple, in which an image of Lord Shiva (in the form of Sundareswarar) was transported in a silver chariot by temple priests to spend the night in his wife Meenakshi’s shrine. As incense billowed around us, temple priests welcomed Lord Shiva to Meenakshi’s shrine – to a chorus of chanting, drums and horns.

I could write several blogs on the sacred buildings of the ‘Temple State’, and the insights they gave me into Hinduism. Countless words have been written about these world-ranked temples, by people vastly more knowledgeable than me.

I want to dedicate this blog to humbler, non-sacred buildings across Tamil Nadu – and their gentle rituals – which became my personal journey.

I want to celebrate the roadside restaurants of Tamil Nadu.

I want to shout out the virtues of these minimalist foodie palaces… that gave me some of the best food I’ve eaten, and some of the most memorable food rituals I’ve ever shared.

It was the flame that drew me in. Even in the cauldron of an Indian afternoon, the sight of a wood-fired griddle lured me into my first Tamil roadside restaurant – like a moth.

Stepping into the darkened room beyond the griddle, I could see two tired wooden tables, and some plastic stools. It didn’t shout: ‘delicious’.

But sometimes, your gut knows best.

It had taken me years to get to this point.

After countless conversations with other cyclists, and clicks through adventure travel sites – I had finally booked a dream cycle trip: pedalling from West to East across India.

The details of the trip were important. Starting with a swim in the Arabian Sea, at Cochin in Kerala, I wanted to cycle across the country to Pondicherry, and dive into the Bay of Bengal.


Day One: Arabian Sea… 800km to the Bay of Bengal

I’d be connecting two oceans with a bike – and bringing all my passions together in one hug: India; cycling; sea swimming; and curry. All embraced in an 800km ride.

If this sounds like a lot for a middle-aged cyclist to do solo, then I need to ‘fess up: I had help.

Lots of it.

A Keralan friend – Joss, owner of the beautiful Gramam Homestay in Cochin – had introduced me to Thomas at adventure-holiday company Kalypso Adventures. Thomas and I had exchanged emails and itineraries for months. Suddenly finding myself with a fortnight’s holiday – and not able to join any of Kalypso’s planned tours – I took the plunge and asked Thomas to plan a tour around my dates and my itinerary. I’d be the only client on the trip – with a team around me.

If I’d known my Kalypso team would be Shinas and Danny, I would have chosen the widest part of India I could find – and toured with them for months. They were the ultimate travel companions.

For this very indulgent trip from Cochin to Pondicherry, Shinas would be my one-to-one cycle guide, and Danny my dedicated back-up driver. Two-to-one support… not even Chris Froome gets that.

More about the inspirational Shinas and Danny later.

The site of the griddle was making my mouth water. Standing with Shinas and Danny at the entrance to the restaurant, I watched small, yellow flames play under the griddle. I asked what was cooking.

Dosa.

We ordered three.

The chef fetched dried palm fronds, and pushed them into the hearth. In minutes, flames were spilling out of the front – and the griddle was sizzling.

From the moment the chef spread the batter on the griddle, I knew this was going to be good.

Dosa heaven…

Dosa!

Two thousand years before dosa became the ‘go to’ dish for every fast food restaurant in the Indian sub-continent, cooks in the ancient Tamil Kingdom invented this brilliantly simple, savoury pancake. Indian food historian KT Achaya dates the birth of the dosa to the first century AD, in the Tamil heartland.

Made from a batter of fermented rice and urad dahl (black lentils), dosa is on my list of all-time delicious Indian dishes – as well as being the only one I can’t get close to cooking.

And a dosa was about to be cooked in front of me… in the land where this dish was born… using a wood-fired griddle technique as old as the dosa itself.

For a foodie, eating dosa from a Tamil griddle is like a cosmologist getting a front row seat for the Big Bang.

If you ever find yourself in rural Tamil Nadu, you’ll trip over one of these roadside restaurants in almost every village. They are a Tamil institution. Thrown open to traffic at the front, and sometimes to a yard at the back, they feel like a happy extension to the tarmac. There is sometimes no pavement; occasionally no door. The restaurant is linked to the road as happily as a hand joins an arm.

Dodging the cows and puppies that weave through the traffic in rural India, the first thing you’ll see as you approach the restaurant is the metre-square black slab of the wrought-iron griddle… flames and wood smoke below. The sight of a griddle came to make me feel hungrier than any number of Michelin stars.

For a couple of happy minutes, we watched the cook spread the batter into a perfect circle, as steam hissed upwards. Shinas, Danny and I then stepped out of the glare of road into the half-light of the restaurants, and sat at one of the tables.

The ritual that followed in that restaurant is followed changelessly – thousands of times a day – in countless roadside restaurants across Tamil Nadu.

The ‘banana leaf ritual’ went like this….

Banana leasf with idli, sambar and chutney

after a wait of a few minutes, a jug and metal beakers appeared on our table – followed by a pile of fresh, cut banana leaves. Some time later, a hand unfolded a section of leaf in front of each of us –with the spine facing the centre of the table, and the soft palm falling to the edge. If there were any flecks or blemishes on the leaf, it was swapped for another, and another, until there was a shiny green rectangle in front of each of us. Shinas and Danny then filled their right hand from their metal cup, and dotted their banana leaf with a fine drizzle. It’s a knack. Again, with their right hand, they smoothed the droplets of water across the waxy sheen of the leaf – then picked it up, and gently shook the droplets onto the floor.

All in silence.

The banana leaf was our plate for every course we were about to eat; our right hand our only cutlery. Both were clean, and dust free.

We were ready to eat.

Is there a more perfect way to start a meal?

Soon after the ‘leaf ritual’, someone brought us each a hot, rolled dosa. Another family member brought over the trinity of sauces served with this dish: sambar; coconut chutney; pickles. Each sauce was ladled from a jug, using a tiny spoon.

And the taste!

The taste!

Sambar is the single reason I started to cook Indian food. I first ate it in Glasgow’s Mother India, and it blew my mind. Because I couldn’t find world-class sambar anywhere else after leaving Glasgow, I started to buy Indian recipe books and the ingredients to make it myself. I bought Monir Mohammed’s Mother India recipe book (no sambar recipe, Monir) and have tweeted the chef repeatedly to ask for his help (so far, unanswered). I have pestered celebrity chefs in their posh London restaurant (Vineet Bhatia, I’m thinking of you) and followed their tips. I have got agonisingly close to cooking Mother India’s masterpiece, but never quite arrived.

Eleven years later, sitting in this nameless Tamil roadside restaurant, I am back in the arms of perfect sambar. The zing of homemade tamarind sauce meets the soothing balm of fresh drumsticks. It is genius. The sambar blends perfectly with the coarsely-ground coconut chutney, and firey red pickle.

All three blend in puddles on my banana leaf. I look at my hand – fingers coated in sauce – and I realise I have never seen or tasted a better eating implement in my life. I touch the banana leaf – lending its subtle flavour to the sauces poured onto it – and know that any other plate, bowl or dish is an insipid imitation.

This is food at its simplest, most elemental – and most delicious.

And I’m freed from the nagging voice that talks to me in almost every dish I eat, in any modern restaurant, in India or anywhere else. For all the agonising attention to detail of contemporary eating (rare ingredients, micro-angled lighting, global wine list) I’m nagged by the sense there’s something missing.

This roadside restaurant shouts the answer: MEANING!

For hundreds or thousands of years, Tamil roadside restaurants like this have been serving a dish that’s a local to the place as the earth on which the buildings stands – cooked over wood that grew nearby – and served on leaves which shaded the village that morning.

Everything is connected, and belongs.

And if you cook a dish for millennia, you get very, very good at it! The dosa and sambar of Tamil Nadu are breath-takingly delicious. There is nothing you could change.

Eating this food, I’m reminded of the most-striking visual art I’ve ever seen: painted 14,000 years ago, one kilometre deep in a neolithic cave in the Pyrenees. I’m reminded of the words of Pablo Picasso as he left the world-famous buffalo cave paintings of Lascaux: “Nous n’ avons rien appris.” Tasting this two-thousand year old recipe, cooked with technology that dates back to the iron age, I realise that – for me – Picasso’s verdict applies as much to food as art.

“We have learnt nothing.” In our journey to modernity, we’ve slowly swapped food that was steeped in place, history and ritual… for something shallow.

Parata… spun in the air

Like water, oxygen and human skin, food is meant to be elemental, pure, unadorned. Nothing should get in the way: no cutlery or tablecloth or food fads. The more you mess with food, Michelin-ise it, deconstruct it – the worse it gets.

We order two more courses, both served on the same leaf: masala omelette, and Tamil tomato rice. I could write an entire blog about the tomato rice. Fragrant, but complex; fresh, but with a huge aftertaste. Perfect.

Before we leave, Shinas and Danny showed me the final stage to the ‘leaf ritual’. Rolling it from both sides, you lift the ends so that the leafs sags in the centre and becomes a sealed envelope. You then carry the leaf to the street, and leave it for passing goats or cattle.

The circle is complete. It’s so perfect that I want to cheer.

We ate nine courses between us, and drank six cups of cardamom tea. The bill came to 300 Rupees (about £3.20).

For an entire week, twice a day, Shinas, Danny and I ate in these Tamil roadside restaurants. Cycling from 6:30a.m. to beat the heat, we’d eat breakfast after 9, and then stop again for lunch between 12 or 1.

As soon as we were around those times, I’d smile as the road led to a village, and the smell of wood-smoke promised a griddle not far away. It didn’t matter what we ordered… idlis; biryanis; samosas; vadas; parata. Every mouthful was sublime.

Cassia for sale

With the help of Shinas and Danny, we even got to the point where we brought our own ingredients to the restaurant. Visiting the vegetable and flower market in Madurai, I found a man selling a fresh Indian ingredient I’d never seen before: Senna Auriculata. Native to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Senna Auriculata is a canary yellow flower on tiny acacia-like leaves. It looked too delicious to leave behind, and thanks to the skills of Shinas and Danny, we were soon in a roadside restaurant – watching the yellow flowers being plucked, ground and added to the dosa batter – just as the seller in the market had described. Delicious.

Plucking the cassia flowers for dosa batter

Each day had so many highs, it didn’t seem possible that the next could match it. But it always did.

Just after sunrise, Danny and Shinas would arrive outside the homestay they’d found for me the day before (nothing was booked in advance; the homestays were comfortable, friendly places – costing about £20 a night). Then we’d cycle into the soft dawn light.

In my emails with Thomas, I had asked to be shown: “rural India, on the quietest roads you can find.” Kalypso more than delivered on that request. We cycled through fragrant cardamom hills, tea plantations, rice paddies, jasmine farms and pineapple orchards – sometimes with more bullock-carts for company than internal combustion engines. The route-finding was perfect.

Bullock carts sometimes outnumer cars in rural Tamil Nadu

Even when we were hundreds of miles from his home in Kerala, Shinas seemed to know every twist in the road – and spot the tiny left or right turn that would take us to the next empty road, with its villages, shrines and roadside restaurants. Towards the end of the trip, when I asked Shinas, how he knew the back roads so well across two states – he confided Thomas had given him two weeks to cycle India from coast-to-coast (there and back) in order to recce every metre of my trip.

Even better than the route finding, was the warmth that Shinas and Danny showed to every person we met across India. In the cities and villages, fields and shops, temples and shrines – they greeted everyone we met warmly, introduced them to me, and translated. I saw India through Shinas and Danny’s eyes. It was very special.

Arriving in Pondy: Danny (left) and Shinas (right)

And to answer two simple questions I often get from friends:

  • No, I never once got sick from a meal in any roadside restaurant. Although washing facilities were mostly a bowl of water and cup, hygiene was impeccable.
  • No, I never felt in danger cycling on Tamil roads. Shinas steered us to rural B roads, and when we were on highways, the surfaces were good – and traffic manageable.

Among all the insights that Shinas and Danny unpacked for me in Tamil Nadu, maybe the one that ties all the strands of this blog together – ritual, art and food – is kolam.

Unexplained in any guidebook I could find, kolam is the Tamil tradition of hand-drawing a symmetrical pattern in front of your house, every day. Before dawn, a member of the family takes a brush and water – sweeps away yesterday’s kolam from in front of their house – and creates another. Some, drawn in ground, white rice flour, are simple. Others, adding bright colours to the flour, are elaborate.

Kolam: created fresh every day – at dawn

Cycling through a Tamil village in the early morning, the freshly-drawn kolam spring up from dampened earth like blossoms. For the millions of Hindu women who create them, kolam are an invitation for guests to enter the home, not the least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth. And according to who you read, the rice-based motifs are also designed to feed and welcome ants and birds – linking the sacred ritual to the natural world.

Looking at rows of kolam in the December sunshine, I smiled at the Tamil genius for connecting things: past and present; sacred and domestic; food and everything.

If you’re looking for modern Tamil Nadu, of course, you’ll find that too. From the tech centres of Chennai (former Madras) to the Tamil movie industry of Kollywood (named after the Kodambakkam area of Chennai), Tamil Nadu is at the cutting edge of contemporary India.

But for reasons I’m not sure I understand, it’s the timeless side of the state that talks to me.

In eleven days of travel from west to east across India, I’m sure I missed many things – and misunderstood even more.

But as I hope this blog shows, I’m grateful to Thomas, Shinas, Danny and Tamil Nadu – for an amazing journey, and for the things that they and the roadside restaurants taught me.

With thanks, also, to friend and fellow cycle-nut Hemal – who promised to serve me a masala chai when I got to ‘Pondi’ – and did just that.

And a very big thank you to Susanne, who was hit on her bike in London while I was away in India. She selflessly didn’t tell me about her broken arm, and made me promise to finish the journey.

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WOKE… BY A YOLK

How a soft-boiled egg taught me that all food is a gift

Is there a lovelier, more relaxing thing on Earth than a hot spring?

36-c.jpg

Of all the surprises the planet has to offer, who’d have thought that one would be a 24/7, open-air bathtub – where hot, crystal-pure water gathers in smoothed rock like a masterpiece of natural plumbing.

God’s hot tub.

And if there is one thing more indulgent than a hot spring, it’s a hot spring in Thailand.

A day’s drive from Chiang Mai, the Tha Pai springs sit in a gentle strip of jungle – where the Thai genius for pleasure takes indulgence to the next level.

As the hot water makes its way downhill, some inspired soul has channelled it into ever bigger, deeper pools. The result? A chain of open-air, organic spas, where the temperature of each pool cools by a few degrees as you descend the valley.

The choice is yours. Each pool has a wooden sign, with gold-embossed letters announcing the temperature… starting at a steamy 36 C, and cooling gradually into the 20s.

(For reference, 36 C is HOT. The International Plumbing Code states: “any temperature above 102 degrees Fahrenheit/39 degrees Celsius can affect a person’s health…”)

Tha Pai is a magical place. Set in pristine jungle, the hot pools are bordered by trees which seem to want to relax into the stream. In places, branches dip below the water like lazy limbs – creating the perfect headrest for your soak.

As part of a two week stay with my nephew – who lives and works in Chiang Mai – Adam and I added a side-trip to Thai Pai. Arriving in the late afternoon, we’d soaked in the pools for a couple of hours: simmering in the shallow 36 degree water before cooling off with gentle laps in the cooler, deeper spas.

It was bliss. Your senses simply said: ‘Yes’

The only thing saying ‘No’ were slightly baffling signs (also gold embossed) reading: “No boil egg”.

no egg

We didn’t get it. You couldn’t hope to boil an egg in any of the pools, even at 36 C. Had something been lost in translation? Was this an instruction, or a statement? The signs were everywhere, and we were pleasantly baffled.

Comfortably numb after our hours in the water, we were about to leave when Adam suggested following a path up the hill. He’d seen Thai villagers walking up, and wanted to see where they were going.

It was the discovery of the day.

And for me, one of the discoveries of a foodie lifetime.

Ten minutes from the pools, the path reached a small plateau – less tended than the slopes below – and with a sense that you were off the beaten track. This was somewhere tourists didn’t come.

Several Thai families were grouped around a spot, and even from several metres away – the strong mineral smell told us we were at the source of the spring.

Ten to twelve feet across, and three feet deep, the source was brim full with bubbling water at 100 C. Perched like fishermen around the edge, each family had a bamboo cane reaching into the water.

Following the line of the canes under the surface, we saw – on the end of each – a basketful of eggs.

Of course!

egg-basket.jpg

Using the spring to cook nature’s most hermetically-sealed food-source, the villagers were borrowing the energy they needed – and leaving the pure, unsullied water to flow downhill to the bathing pools and their village.

Genius.

In theory, the source would cook anything – veg, meat, noodles, whatever – but any by-products would quickly turn the whole watercourse into a kitchen drain.

By cooking eggs – and only eggs – the villagers and their hot spring can co-exist indefinitely.

Helped by Adam, who speaks Thai, we got to understand the micro business at the source. Young men rent out the bamboo canes and wicker baskets to the families who come to cook. Nothing goes into the water that either doesn’t grow next to it – or could pollute it.

It was a timeless moment. As the evening air started to cool, Adam and I watched the families tend their clutches of eggs with the diligence of mother hens.

Thanks to the generosity of one family, we got to taste our first thermally-cooked meal. Pulling their basket from the water, they handed us each an egg – lopped off the top with a knife – and drizzled it with soy sauce. Standing inches from the boiling water, and wrapped in the smell of minerals, we drank the soft-boiled liquid from the shell.

wolk.jpg

It was beyond delicious.

The family gave us each another egg. They wouldn’t let us pay. Apologising, they explained they had to leave to get the eggs home for the evening meal.

And then I got it.

For the first and only time in my life, I’d eaten cooked food that had consumed no energy, polluted nothing and left things in perfect balance.

All of the other meals I’ve eaten have taken something from somewhere.

Eating is borrowing.

If this sounds hippy and ‘tree-huggy’, I don’t mean it to. Standing next to the spring at Tha Pai, I came face-to-face with a simple truth:

every time you eat, the planet gifts you part of itself.

I’m sure that the point I’m trying to make about sustainability is implicit in ‘food miles’, veganism and other approaches to eco-friendly eating.

But the thing that blew me away at Thai Pai was the perfect sense of partnership and balance between man and nature: the one-in-a-million combination of a fresh spring and thermal heat producing an endless, controlled flow of boiling water – which cooked the food we ate.

As I said before, it’s the only cooked meal I’ve ever eaten that didn’t require a single man-made calorie to warm it. Not a match, not a flame, not a hob. Nothing.

In the precise moment that I write this, a plane flies over my London flat, mocking the fact that the carbon footprint of my flight to Thailand rubbishes anything that I can do or say about food. I get the irony.

But I am left with the fact that a soft-boiled egg scrambled my head.

I’m lucky enough to be able to buy the food I want. But that doesn’t change the fact that food is a finite commodity.

Today, looking at what I eat, I try to ask myself what I’m doing to look after the planet which provided it.

I don’t have many answers.

In his landmark book, Collapse, Jared Diamond forensically unpicks the implosion of different human civilisations: from Easter Island to the Maya. In every instance, the society collapses because it slowly consumes all of the natural resources it needs to survive.

Diamond is explicitly asking us to look at our own behaviour.

Is it possible for human appetite and the natural world to exist in balance?

At Thai Pai, I’ve seen human beings display amazing humility and restraint to do just that.

Egg fishers

But back home, what am I doing to play my part?

First, as often as I can, I try to eat things which have consumed the least energy and resources. I fail often.

Next, I try to remember – as inspired by the generosity of the Thai family – that food is all about sharing. It’s been gifted to you; the least you can do is share it with others. I am slightly more successful at this.

Finally, I ask these questions via this blog:

Is food a commodity that’s ours to take, or is it a gift from our surroundings?

And if it’s the latter, what are we giving back… before it’s too late?

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A taste for infinity

Curry is such a varied cuisine that it may feel infinite…. but is it?

infinity3

And while we’re on the subject… does infinity exist?

In the distinguished company of Archimedes – and Professor Ian Rumfitt, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College Oxford – Good Korma travels the path to infinite knowledge.

 

 

archimedes2

When Archimedes experienced his famous ‘Eureka’ moment, he was at home, in Sicily ­- lying comfortably in his bath.

When I experienced my micro-Eureka moment, I was in Chennai Dosa restaurant in Tooting Bec – staring at a glass of Kingfisher.

It was a Saturday evening, and while billions of people were going about their daily lives, I was fretting about my relationship with infinity.

For months, I’ve wanted to write a curry blog, titled ‘A taste for infinity’. I want the blog to explain that part of my love of Indian food is driven by the sheer limitlessness of South Asian cuisine… by the existence of hundreds of original Indian ingredients, captured in hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, cooked via tens of millions of recipes – and interpreted by over a billion Indians.

For me, exploring Indian cooking is like looking at the Milky Way… and I want to share this sense of wonder with other curryphiles.

infinity

Even with one hundred lifetimes dedicated to cooking curry, I’d still only be scratching the surface.

 

But here’s the snag – whenever I sit down to tackle the ‘infinity’ blog, I realise I am totally unqualified to write it. Leaving aside the question of how much I do or don’t know about curry, the fact remains that – as a human being – I simply don’t ‘get’ infinity.

Let me unpack this…

My instinct is that asking a homo sapiens to explain infinity is like asking a snowflake to explore the nature of heat, or asking a kitchen sieve to understand the properties of water. The one is just not equipped to understand the other.

Let’s face it… as a species, we human beings are so gloriously finite!

Am I alone in thinking that the whole of human civilisation might turn out to be a match-flame in a minor galaxy… with a single human life counting for less than a ten-billionth of that flicker? Mankind may hunger for the infinite, but all the evidence is that we are as transient as mayflies.

barnes

And even if we were presented with the gift of infinity, would we know what to do with it?

In his magnificent History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Julian Barnes uses the final chapter Dreams to ask if there is any pleasure, any stimulus, any goal that could sustain a human being through eternity.

If life on Earth were followed by an infinite existence somewhere else – wonders Barnes – could we hack it?

The novelist thinks the answer is ‘no’. Whatever your passion, whatever your thirst for the absolute – Barnes argues that even the intellectual giants of human history would find infinity too much to bear in the end.

The following are the last lines in the book – a conversation between Barnes and his heavenly guide:

‘So … even people, religious people, who come here to worship God throughout eternity … they end up throwing in the towel after a few years, hundred years, thousand years?’

‘Certainly. As I said, there are still a few Old Heaveners around, but their numbers are diminishing all the time.’

Human beings, it seems, just don’t have an appetite for infinity.

 

The next question is whether human beings have the grey matter to understand what infinity is, or might be?

It’s not obvious.

Here’s a very simple example that I read recently in the press – two smart people debating the nature of infinity. The point they agree on is that numbers are infinite. They also agree that within any group of numbers, there will be a smaller total of prime numbers (e.g. 168 primes up to number 1,000). The point where they fall out is that SmartPerson A is convinced that composite (non-prime) numbers must somehow be ‘more infinite’ than primes. “They happen more often; there’s got to be more of them.”

Smart Person B disagrees, stressing that both composites AND primes are infinite: “There are no ‘big infinities’ and ‘small infinities’. Infinity means infinity.”

 

For me, their debate suggests than even our simplest instincts about infinity may be wrong.

But does their conversation also point towards a wider question: is infinity simply too big a thought to fit inside human heads?

Oddly enough, Archimedes himself could probably have helped.

The famous physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer (287 to 212 BC) not only gave us the famous Eureka moment – but also built the foundations for a lot of modern mathematics. He anticipated modern calculus, as well as proving the area of a circle via an accurate approximation of pi. And when he wasn’t designing innovative gadgets like the screw pump – and war machines to protect his home city of Syracuse – Archimedes was working on a system for expressing very large numbers.

But I’m more than two thousand years too late to talk to him. And whenever I sit down to write the ‘infinity’ blog, I stop.

 

Until my micro-Eureka moment in Chennai Dosa.

I am reading a thoughtful, heart-felt piece in the Guardian by Karl Ove Knausgaard ‘What makes life worth living?’ in which the writer praises the nature of everyday objects – in the form of a letter to his unborn baby.

Ranging from the quiet beauty of plastic bags to the solace of beds, Knausgaard delivers some pretty good stuff. And as I read the final paragraph of the last of the seven sections (on Faces), he socks it to me:

“Whatever is human is changeable, it is mobile, and it is unfathomable.”

Eureka!

Just stick the word ‘infinitely’ into that sentence– and I have my answer:

“Whatever is human is infinitely changeable, infinitely mobile, and infinitely unfathomable.”

As human beings, we may not understand infinity as a concept – but we embody it in our infinite changeability and infinite unknowability.

BOOM.

Infinities R Us.

And as an infinitely unfathomable human being, I feel entitled to write my blog on the infinity of curry.

 

Postscript…

With the blog written, and my finger hovering over ‘publish’ – the Guardian chooses to blow me away with new research suggesting that the number zero (and therefore the concept of infinity itself) is an Indian invention!

maths

Deciphering a parchment document (dated via radio carbon technology to the third or fourth century AD) British scholars have recently proved that a dot on the text is the birth of the concept of zero:

“The development of zero as a mathematical concept may have been inspired by the region’s (India’s) long philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe, which lacked the same cultural reference points.

“Despite developing sophisticated maths and geometry, the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, showing that while the concept zero may now feel familiar, it is not an obvious one.

“The development of zero in mathematics underpins an incredible range of further work, including the notion of infinity, the modern notion of the vacuum in quantum physics, and some of the deepest questions in cosmology of how the Universe arose – and how it might disappear from existence in some unimaginable future scenario.”

Not only is infinity legitimate fodder for a curry blog… it turns out that India invented infinity itself!

 

A brief guide to infinity

Ian Rumfitt, Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford, shines objective light on a subjective blog.

ian

“The topic remains difficult. I confine myself to some remarks about the debate between the two ‘smart people’ that Adam recalls reading about.

“Debates of this kind go back to antiquity but a famous example is found in Galileo’s dialogue, Two New Sciences, of 1638. To establish that two finite collections have the same number of members (i.e. the same size or ‘cardinality’), it suffices to show that there is a one-one correspondence between the members of the two collections. Thus, to show that the collection of canonical gospels has the same size as the collection of Brahms’s symphonies, it suffices to pair St Matthew’s Gospel with the C minor Symphony, St Mark’s with the D major, St Luke’s with the F major, and St John’s with the E minor. In Two New Sciences, Salviati (who is the spokesman for Galileo’s mature views) observes that apparently paradoxical results arise when the same method is applied to infinite collections. Consider two such collections: the positive integers, 1,2,3,…; and the perfect squares, 1,4,9,… There is a one-one correspondence between these collections: 1 pairs with 1, 2 with 4, 3 with 9; quite generally, n pairs with n2. Applying the method, then, we infer that the collection of positive integers has the same size as the collection of perfect squares. Salviati, however, finds this result paradoxical, for the collection of perfect squares is a proper part of the collection of positive integers. Every perfect square is a positive integer, but not every positive integer is a perfect square. The result that the two collections have the same size, then, contradicts Euclid’s Fifth Axiom: ‘the whole is greater than the (proper) part’.

“The moral that Salviati, alias Galileo, draws from the paradox is that it makes no sense to assign sizes to infinite collections. In a way, this conclusion makes sense: to call a collection ‘infinite’ is precisely to deny that it has any definite size. In the 19th century, however, the German mathematician Georg Cantor argued that some collections—among them, the positive integers—do not conform to Euclid’s Fifth Axiom. Yes, the positive integers contain the perfect squares as a proper part, but precisely because there is a one-one correspondence between them, the two collections have the same size or cardinality.

“On this basis, Cantor developed a theory of precise sizes or cardinalities, each of which was larger than any of the natural numbers. Respecting the point that ‘infinite’ implies a denial of definite size, he called these cardinalities ‘transfinite’. The cardinality of the natural numbers, which Cantor called ‘Aleph Null’, À0, is the smallest of them. Cantor postulated an unending series of larger and larger alephs.

“Fellow mathematicians were initially sceptical but were gradually won round as it became clear that Cantor’s theory was not only consistent but could be used to solve problems that had been formulated before its invention. However, the series of alephs remains in some crucial respects mysterious. By way of his celebrated ‘diagonal argument’, Cantor argued that the collection of real numbers was strictly larger than that of the natural numbers. He showed, in fact, that the reals have cardinality 2À0. The question then arises where this cardinality stands in the sequence of alephs. Cantor conjectured that it was the next largest aleph after Aleph Null. That is, he hypothesized that 2À0 = À1. However, this ‘Continuum Hypothesis’ has been shown to be undecidable on the basis of currently accepted mathematics.

“Basic questions about the transfinite, let alone the genuinely infinite, lie beyond the range of the methods mathematicians now have at their disposal.”

 

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Indian Festival Feasts

New IFF cover

Vivek Singh’s new hardback may look like a cookbook – but between the mouth-watering recipes, it’s also a spell-binding look at the nature of human connections… and how food is the force that links us all.

In an exclusive interview, Vivek Singh lifts the lid on his spectacular, thought-provoking Indian Festival Feasts.

As she pulls the hardback from the row of Indian cookbooks, the young salesperson bursts into an amazed smile: “Wow,” she gasps, “what a beautiful book!”

It truly is.

Like a paint-spattered guest at a Holi party, the cover of Indian Festival Feasts is daubed in pinks, purples and oranges. Vivek Singh’s new book is a very, very pretty thing.

Hurrying down Piccadilly with my copy, I dived into the first restaurant I came to (a dim sum bar in Chinatown) and started reading. Taking my order, the waitress moved behind me so she could read the book right-way-up. “India,” she said, “so beautiful”. Within minutes, people eating at tables six feet away were craning their necks to see the pages, and waiting for me to turn.

In a lifetime of book-buying, I’ve never seen a reaction like it.

Clearing a space among the dishes for my phone, I type a congratulatory tweet to @chefviveksingh: “BLOWN AWAY by your Indian Festival Feasts. My library of Indian cookbooks just discovered its most important volume.”

My phone pings.

“Oh wow, thank you Adam! Delighted with the praise! How are you keeping?”

After five baskets of dim sum, two portions of chilli oil and a half-bottle of warm sake – I have devoured Indian Festival Feasts from cover to cover. And I am genuinely blown away. Over thirteen chapters, Vivek Singh’s book introduces you to five faiths in India (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity) and the food that expresses their most important festivals. The thirteenth chapter invites you to share in a Bengali wedding.

As you’d expect from the chef who single-handedly reinvented Indian cuisine in the UK, the book is full of stunning recipes. More surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also full of very personal elements about Vivek Singh himself: his childhood, career, family and friendships. Skipping between the chapters on Holi, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and Easter, there’s a strong sense that Vivek Singh wants Indian Festival Feasts to share a lifetime’s thinking about how food defines who we are.

Ten days after buying the book, I’m sitting with him in the bar of the Cinnamon Club – together with a copy of Indian Festival Feasts. The author is kindly making time before a busy dinner service to explain the ingredients and flavours of his new book.

New Vivel lndscp

Good Korma: Where were you when the first spark for the book came to you?

Vivek Singh: My wife and I had just been to the launch of my book Spice at Home. We were walking home late at night, hand-in-hand, when she asked me if I thought I would write another recipe book. That was the spark.

Every couple of months, I talk to my publishers – and they often ask me about what my next book might be. They pointed out that in media interviews I often go back to the Indian festivals that I enjoyed in my youth. At the same time, Firdaus Takolia, who worked with me then as my PA, started talking to me about writing on Indian festivals.

All those thoughts came together in Indian Festival Feasts. Once that door had opened, a flood of recipes and ideas started to come in from colleagues and friends. The task then became honing all of those suggestions into one book.

Good Korma: What’s your favourite piece of feedback to date on Indian Festival Feasts?

Vivek Singh: My publisher told me: “This is a happy book… a book that really brings people together”.

Good Korma: So how do you want the book to touch people?

Vivek Singh: I’m not really trying to tell people about the religious origins or the purpose of these festivals. The common thread is how the food which is the expression of these festivals has the power to bring people together. The feasts don’t just connect families, friends and faiths – but whole communities, and multitudes of faiths.

Growing up as a child in Bengal, I saw how the food from each festival brought people together to cook and celebrate – Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. What connects us is so much more than what divides us. That’s what I hope people will take from the book… that food can transcend religion as a connecting force.

Good Korma: That’s a big thought. Why is food so woven into Indian life?

Vivek Singh: Is it something around anthropology…the way that Indian society works? I was very lucky to grow up in a diverse society – and at the time I was growing up, a very significant part of the population was engaged in the full time activity of staying at home and cooking. My mother was a full time home-maker – and in an age before refrigeration and daily shopping, cooking was a way of life. Food is part of the way India lives and breathes.

Good Korma: Looking at Indian Festival Feasts, I don’t feel as if I’m reading about India… I’m actually in India! The noise, the colour, the smells. Did you set out to create something immersive?

Vivek Singh: What I hope comes through in the book is my own experience of India. It’s a complete melting pot of cultures, and it’s the place that shaped me. It may not be everyone’s experience of India – including some of the people growing up there today – but it’s mine.

lamb

Good Korma: If a reader wanted to experience one festival, in one Indian city – where would you send them?

Vivek Singh: Hyderabad, for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha. I remember living and working there, and during those two festivals, Hyderabad becomes meatopia! There are people outside the mosques, distributing food to the whole community – regardless of who’s been fasting and who hasn’t. As I explain in the book, it wasn’t until I worked as a trainee in the Oberoi Hotel that I realised I’d never experienced aromas or sheer passion for food and flavours like the ones I discovered in Hyderabad. The city has all the sights, colours and smells you expect from India – but it has added complexity of the Muslim cooking. Old and new Hyderabad are different universes.

Good Korma: In the first recipe in the book, you mention Litti Chokha as your “inheritance dish” – and describe cooking it over bonfires with your Dad. Have you introduced it to people in your restaurants?

Vivek Singh: Actually, Litti Chokha has never been on any of my restaurant menus – and there’s a reason for that. When you really love something, and it means a lot to you – you’re not prepared to sell it. Some people eating Litti Chokha in a restaurant might get it… but the moment that money changes hands there’s going to be a judgement.

What is Litti Chokha? It’s chapatti flour dough, which is starch… filled with chickpeas, which is more starch. People might look at it and think it’s too rustic, too earthy, too nomadic – and I don’t need that. Not everything’s for sale.

Good Korma: For someone coming to Indian food for the first time, which two recipes in Indian Festival Feasts would you point them to?

Vivek Singh: Mutton Biryani with Dried Fruits, and Kashmiri Spices, and Chicken Butter Masala. Biryani is a regulation dish at Indian celebrations, and this recipe is made even more special with dried fruit and nuts. In the east of India, Butter Masala is the dish that restaurants are judged on – and I learnt to cook this dish from the banquet cooks who catered for the 1,200 people at my sister’s wedding. I’d like to share both dishes with the reader.

Good Korma: In the foreword, you warn the reader that: “not all of the recipes listed in this book are ones that you will immediately fall in love with”, and that some recipes will take years to master. How high were you trying to set the bar?

Vivek Singh: The idea was to represent the celebration, and the specific dishes that express it. I wasn’t looking at a certain level of skill, or at a set of ingredients. As a result, some of the recipes are very straightforward, but others take years of practice… and very few people will go there. That’s OK.

Good Korma: What can a recipe book teach you… and what can’t it teach?

Vivek Singh: A recipe book can teach you the mechanics of putting a dish together, but you can’t teach someone to feel. Feeling is about expressing where the dish is from, and where it’s going. It’s about everything the cook is trying to express in that dish.

prawns

Good Korma: The food photography in the book is refreshingly realistic… the food actually looks like food.

Vivek Singh: Indian Festival Feasts isn’t a restaurant cook book – with restaurant-style plating. To create the sense of a domestic feast, we’ve deliberately gone for a home-style look to the food.

Good Korma: In your book, you’ve created a snapshot of India and its festivals as they are today. Were you trying to create a record of the festivals and their food?

Vivek Singh: Things are constantly adapting. For much of the 4000-year history of Indian food, we considered the splitting of milk to be inauspicious, then along came the Portuguese and introduced us to cheese. Today, India’s favourite national dessert is probably rosogolla – made from Indian cottage cheese – even though some people might think it is sacrilege.

My wife and I were having this conversation just last week – that potatoes, chillies and tomatoes only have a 300-year history in India. The food changes constantly – and so will the festivals.

Good Korma: Next week, India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence. What will Indian festivals look like in another 70 years?

Vivek Singh: India is changing every day – but if you go looking for timeless India, you will find it. I’ve seen so much change in India, but also seen so many things remain the same.

Good Korma: Reading Indian Festival Feasts, it’s touching how you credit whole chapters to friends and colleagues. You credit the chapter on Onam to Rakesh Ravindran Nair, and you christen one dish Hari’s Hyderabadi Kachi Biryani after Hari Nagaraj – both of whom have worked with you for a long time at the Cinnamon Club.

Vivek Singh: It’s my way of acknowledging all the support I’ve had. I’m lucky enough to have my name on the cover, but so many people helped. I hope that crediting my friends helps to make the book more timeless.

Good Korma: Your credit to Firdaus Takolia is pretty unique for an author. You say: “I’m not wrong in feeling that Indian Festival Feasts is as much her book as it’s mine”.

Vivek Singh: Firdaus was involved in Indian Festival Feasts for almost a year and a half. I’d write a chapter, and it was Firdaus who’d send them to the publisher, help with the queries, check the recipes, shop for prop and select the photos. We share the book.

Good Korma: Time and again, Indian Festival Feasts brings the reader back to the connections between people. What has life taught you about human connections?

Vivek Singh: I’ve learnt that simple things like where you grew up and what you do are important. But in this day and age, physical presence and geographical locations do not mean a lot. What means a lot is who you’re connected to, and who’s in your network. For example, I could be having three different conversations with three different people in different parts of the world. I am connected to people in New York, Perth, London and India simultaneously. That’s how connections have changed.

Good Korma: Indian Festival Feasts is full of your personal connections. Does that make it a record of who you are?

Vivek Singh: Yes, the book embraces my family, my friends – and the network and communities I interacted with. These connections are unique to me.FestivalFeasts_Packshot_v2

 

 

 

 

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Music in the Body

How the Happy Mondays helped me understand the meaning of curry

HappyMondays

You think you understand something important to you… a phrase, a concept, an idea.

And then you realise you weren’t even close! Something happens that means you have to start again, rip it up… rethink everything.

I owe the Happy Mondays for helping me rethink what curry means to me.

 

I’m sitting in a London curry house, March 2017, and the evening is not going according to plan. The name of the restaurant (which I won’t share) promises masala nirvana – but it turns out to be pretty much the opposite. The channa saag is maybe the worst I’ve ever eaten; the chicken jalfrezi squeaks under the fork like polystyrene.

But, hey, it’s still a curry. It’s the end of a long working day… the staff are friendly, the naan is good, and I have a bottle of Kingfisher. I’m happy.

The restaurant soundtrack is playing the classics 90s ‘Madchester’. Years back, my younger brother Tom was a student in the city at the peak of the Hacienda scene, and I rode shotgun  with him and his friends for a couple of great nights out. I was probably the oldest person in the room – but no one seemed to mind.

Fast forward 20 years, and as I listen to the Madchester anthems in the restaurant, the stabbing keyboard intro of the Mondays’ Step On suddenly cuts through my bland mouthful of channa saag.

Instantly, it changes my mood.

This is music that inhabits you… music that races down your arteries. You can actually feel the melody tweaking the dials of your internal chemistry – turning everything up.

And that’s when it it hits me… THIS is what the sages of Indian cuisine mean when they describe curry as ‘Music in the Body’.

I’d always thought it was a cutesy, abstract concept… one of those trendy, physical-meets-spiritual thingies (‘Landscape of the soul’ etc). Interesting – but ultimately not connected to anything real.

But the Mondays slammed the lesson home.

‘Music in the Body’ has nothing to do with abstraction. It describes flesh-and-blood, on-your-fork reality.

‘Music in the Body’ tells you- maybe better than anything else – about the sheer, tingling delight of eating great Indian food. Curry doesn’t just thrill your senses… it thrills your being.

Your head, your mood, your heart… curry can and does change them all.

Just like great music.

And THAT is the point.

Thanks to the Mondays, I finally get it…

‘Music in the Body’ describes what would happen if you could actually pour the notes of a banging tune onto your plate… and eat them… swallow them whole! You’d wouldn’t feel the music as something semi-remote… a soundwave – but as a tangible, physical presence that inhabits your physical being. You’d feel the tune descending your throat, and literally coursing through your arteries.

That is what Music in the Body means!

And that physical sensation is what great curry means to me.

 

(PS. if you can translate what the Mondays mean by ‘you’re twisting my melon , man’ – please explain)

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THE GRATEST!

If you’re nuts about coconuts…

get your hands on the Odiris…

the greatest grater of them all!

Odiris 1

Some decisions are difficult; others are easy.

This one is as easy as it gets… if you eat freshly-grated coconut, click here.

The miracle you’re about to connect with is the Odiris A8.

And, you should buy one.

NOW.

You’ll be very happy together.

 

Technically, you can call the Odiris A8 ‘a coconut grater’ – but that would be like describing the Taj Mahal as ‘a building’ or the Mona Lisa ‘a painting’.

The Odiris A8 is THE coconut grater.

It belongs to that elite group of objects… the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel… which once invented, cannot be improved.

“You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon,” said Umberto Eco. He could say the same about the Odiris A8.

coconuy x many

It is 4pm on a hot, sultry afternoon in Ernakulam – and things are not going according to plan.  Situated a short ferry-ride from the historic city of Kochi, Ernakulam is the commercial hub for the state of Kerala. It has a bustling port, hundreds of restaurants, acres of markets – and it’s here that I’ll find the coconut grater that’s eluded me for a decade.

Why here?

Because this is the land of the coconut – quite literally.

coconut tree

In the local language, Malayalam – ‘Kera’ means coconut and ‘Alam’ means land – making Kerala the physical and spiritual home of the coconut. There are hard numbers to back up the claim. Of the staggering 11 million tonnes of coconuts harvested in India each year, 45% are grown in Kerala. If you’re eating a dish in India with coconut, there’s nearly a 50/50 chance it came from Kerala – via Ernakulam.

So, during my month of travels across India, I haven’t even asked to buy a coconut grater in any other city – because I’m headed for Ernakulam, global capital of the coco’. I know this place will have what I’m looking for.

Except it doesn’t.

I am in my sixth or seventh hardware shop, and a pattern is emerging. I’ll talk to the owner/manager – a large man in his forties of fifties, sitting at a tiny desk at the front of the shop – and ask him if he has a coconut grater. He nods, calls a younger man, and asks him in Malayalam to bring something from the depths of the shop. I wait excitedly – and one of two disappointments plays out.

Disappointment A: the younger guy comes back with a promising package about a foot high. It starts well as he unpacks the base (a wrought-iron worktop clamp) but then things go pear-shaped as he shows me the business end: a static, forked blade. Basically, this grater is a knife on an adjustable  stick. I know from bitter experience that this won’t work. The essence of coconut grating is circular motion – and I mime this to the team. They send to the next shop.

Disappointment B: the younger guy comes from depths of the shop with a smaller package, and I know before he opens it, what it will be. It’s the rotating grater reviewed in 2017 by the Guardian’s Rhik Samadder that secures to the worktop by a suction pad. Let me be clear: Rhik is a professional reviewer of kitchen gadgetry – and he knows his onions. But Rhik, on this occasion… I humbly beg to differ. I’ve owned and used this model (which dominates the online market, and is sold right across India) and it doesn’t cut the mustard. First, the central crank soon develops a wobble – which you need to fix with a handful of extra washers. Once you’ve done this, you’re into a slow, inevitable death spiral with the suction pad. It will fail you – it’s just a question of when. And when it does, you’re left with a grater that skates around the kitchen like Robin Cousins.

Odiris crop

And so it goes. I drag myself through the bustling streets of Ernakulam – and no one can sell me the coconut grater I have in my head. Over two hours, I’ve visited every hardware and metal shop in the coconut capital of the world, and I’m going home empty-handed.

I know what I want – but it doesn’t exist here.

 

Back in the 1950s, somewhere in Sri Lanka, another man was going through his own coco’ crisis.

Odiris Perera was looking at holy trinity of kitchen tools used by every housewife in Sri Lanka – the chilli grinding stone, pestle and mortar and coconut scraper – and he knew the scraper didn’t cut it.

OdirisPerera

Almost every Sri Lanka meal uses ground coconut, and for centuries the white flesh has been gouged from the shell by static metal scrapers. It’s messy, fiddly, time-consuming stuff – taking way longer than it should. The process almost puts you off coconuts altogether. I own an antique brass coconut scraper – and while I treasure it as an object, it’s defined by the word ‘pretty’. Very pretty to look at; pretty useless at what it does.

Odiris Perera took the problem by the scruff of the neck, and in 1952 this 38 year-old railway engineer experienced his coco-eureka moment. He knew the solution called for a rotating head, combined with the stability of a screw clamp. Add in world-class engineering – stainless steel blades, cast-iron body, sealed-system bearings – and you have the ultimate coconut scraping machine.

He gave the product his own name.

Sri Lanka knows a good thing when it sees it, and the Odiris-branded scraper sold from the moment it was launched.

Then, in 1959, things went viral. To quote The Nation newspaper: “[Odiris Perera] owned a small Fiat car and while participating in a motor car parade, he fitted a table onto his car and got two beautiful damsels to demonstrate coconut scraping with his machine… the following day, the picture of his car and the coconut scraping was flashed in all the newspapers in their front pages”

Odiris Perera went onto a fabulous career – not just redefining the scraper but also designing a range of breakthrough kitchen tools. In 1998, he launched a revolutionary, self-dousing kerosene lamp – giving a safe light-source to the millions of people in Asia without access to electricity. “This lamp costs only Rs 20 [20p],” said Perera, “and it was not invented with the intention of selling commercially. It was made with the purpose of giving it to the poor.”

Hallelujah.

In 2007, at the age of 94, Odiris Perera passed away – leaving a thriving pan-Asian business. To this day, he is still celebrated in Sri Lankan media as the leading entrepreneur of the post-colonial era.

 

Back in the UK, after my travels, I was determined not to give up. I knew my scraper was out there – somewhere.

Googling time and again with the properties I was looking for (circular action/ screw base) I finally came to the site for the Odiris Engineering Company Ltd. And there… on the homepage… it was! The machine I’d wanted, for a decade.

Just below the image of the Odiris A8 was the name and address of the EU distributor: Nishan Enterprises. I called the mobile number listed, and on the third ring spoke to the charming Nishantha Udeni. “Yes”, said Nishantha, he could send me a sample Odiris A8 to review. “Yes”, he could set up an Amazon page to bring the A8 to the UK. “And yes”, I could work on a piece with his son Pawan which would celebrate the legacy of Odiris Perera.

For me, every part of this journey has been a privilege.

 

So what will happen when you get your shiny new Odiris A8 though the post – and you become one of the first people in the UK to own one?

First, you will appreciate the sheer beauty of the thing – the quality of the green glaze of the metal-work, the satisfying weight and heft in your hand.

You will clamp it to a worktop (almost any surface, up to about two inches thick). Your Odiris is now as solid as a rock.

You will split your coconut with a hammer (I put mine on the floor, and strike the middle; two or three blows usually does it).

coconut hammer 2

You will offer up one the freshly-split hemispheres to the scraper, and turn the handle. Soft coconut flesh will meet the Odiris – in an effortless, irresistible union – yielding a bowl of soft, white flakes.

Contemporary press reports from the media spectacular of 1959 don’t tell us exactly how the “two beautiful damsels” demonstrated the Odiris on top of his Fiat – but use the machine once, and you can use your imagination.

 

And that, I think, is how the coconut itself would want it to be.

coconut beach

For people in the West, the coconut is the tropical fruit of palms hanging at lazy angles over soft beaches and azure water. For people in East, the coconut tree is the sacred provider of food, firewood and shelter – and its fruit is an auspicious part of every celebration.

The coconut doesn’t want to be a tough nut to crack. It wants to yield to the Odiris.

 

To the late Mr Odiris Perera: I salute you.

To all future owners of the Odiris A8: happy scraping

 

 

 

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UP IN SMOKE?

Can you really put live charcoals into a curry?

Is this a living Indian culinary tradition– or just a pile of embers?

And what can YOU do to help keep the flame alive?

smoke-716322_1280

So that’s that… the ambitious curry I’m planning for my daughter’s dinner party is NOT going to work.

I’m talking to sharply-dressed colleague and fashion blogger Gurjeet – and he has feedback for me from a lifetime curry expert.

“She’s never heard of this technique – and she says it won’t work.”

The ‘she’ in question is Gurj’s Mum.

I know enough about curry to realise that Indian Mums are the gatekeepers of the country’s cuisine. In the centuries before recipe books and fast food, they passed the flame from generation to generation – creating the techniques and recipes which shape India’s culture. Indian Mums are the country’s culinary DNA.

So when an Indian Mum tells me a recipe won’t work – I’m listening.

But I’ve promised this specific dish to my daughter and four of her friends, as they celebrate the last week of summer before going back to university. I’ve promised them a recipe where we plunge a red-hot charcoal into the curry… and watch smoke infuse the dish.

If it works, it will be pure foodie theatre.

But to even have a chance of succeeding, I need to remember where I found the recipe.

 

This is trickier than it may sound.

On the shelves in our kitchen, there are over 100 Indian recipe books. At a conservative estimate, that means a library of at least 10,000 recipes. Looking at the books, I have a vague memory of turning a page and finding a recipe for smoking charcoal – but I have no idea where it is.

img_20161028_205851

No sweat.

Like every modern quest for knowledge, there’s the internet.

 

A few minutes later, a search for ‘cooking with charcoal’ has given me 28 million results. The trouble is that Google assumes ‘cooking with charcoal’ means using it as a heat sourcenot an ingredient. I have millions of suggestions about how to cook food over charcoal, and precisely zero about how to cook charcoal in food.

No matter. I refine the search to ‘charcoal in food’. 19 million results – and it just gets weirder. I meet people who add powdered charcoal to their food to get healthier, and others who tell me that if I do this I will die.

For half an hour or so, I try every possible search combination I can think of for charcoal/ food/ smoke/ Indian/ recipe.

For the first time ever, the web fails me totally. The thing I’m looking for does not exist in cyberspace.

The voice of Gurj’s Mum rings in my ears.

THIS.

WON’T.

WORK.

 

I go back to analogue. I will have to find the recipe in one of my cookbooks.

It’s Saturday morning. My daughter and her friends come to eat this evening. I look at the bookshelves, and am consumed by panic. There’s about two metres of curry literature… I’m searching for a straw in a culinary haystack.

I make two piles of books – each about the height of a toddler: Pile A contains the cookbooks which I know really well, and where the recipe definitely won’t be; Pile B has the books I know less well, and where it might be.

For stability, Pile B builds upwards – biggest books at the bottom, smallest at the top. I skim through the pocket-sized books. Nothing. I work my way through the paperbacks (mostly Penguin India). Nada.

Which is when I ask myself… did I just dream about this recipe?

It’s happened before.  I was once convinced I’d found a recipe for curried drumstick – spread on toast. It sounds delicious, but I’ve never been able to re-find it. It probably doesn’t exist.

The voice of Gurj’s Mum is now turned up to 10 in my head as I come to the coffeetable books at the base of the pile. Last and biggest of all is Christine Manfield’s magisterial Tasting India.

And as I reach page 133, my head explodes. There it is: Dry Lamb Curry, Gosht Kandahari. The text at the top of the page reads: “Adding the dhuni, a piece of hot charcoal that imparts the aromatic smoky flavour, is the magic ingredient and a really neat trick.”

manfield

I am in business.

Kind of…

As I read down the list of ingredients, I realise this may be the weirdest curry I have ever attempted. First ingredient: 300g dried pomegranate seeds. 300g! A pack of 100g of anardana normally lasts me for six months – and I’ll use three times that in one dish? Fifth ingredient: 100g of Kashmiri chilli. 100g – an entire pack, for a spice I normally add in 5ml teaspoonfuls! Eighth ingredient: 30g of long red chillies.

What is Christine trying to do to me? Is this a curry, or a weapon of mass destruction?

 

No matter. The show must go on.

I shop for ingredients. Amazingly, my local Indian retailer in Salisbury actually stocks the industrial quantities of anardana and Kashmiri chilli I need. But it gets trickier when I go to a hardware shop for the charcoal – there are so many types to choose from: briquettes; high-heat briquettes; self-lighting lumpwood; natural lumpwood.

The briquettes look too industrial to add to food; the self-lighting stuff stinks of paraffin. I opt for natural lumpwood. The smallest bag weighs 5kg, and I calculate on the way home that if this recipe works (if) I have enough charcoal to re-do it 5,000 times.

 

Show time.

Before I cook a thing, I want to rehearse the charcoal finale. Christine Manfield is crystal clear: “To prepare the dhuni, heat a piece of charcoal over a flame until it is red, then dip the charcoal in a little oil and drop it into the lamb curry.”

She is spot on.

Held in a pair of tongs over a gas flame, the charcoal takes about five minutes to turn from black to grey – then glow red hot. When it does, I take it into the garden (smoke alarm/ fire risk) and dip it nervously into a ramekin of cooking oil. The second the charcoal hits the surface, it gives off a plume or curling, white aromatic smoke.

It’s the dry-ice of Indian cooking. I am thrilled.

 

Several hours later, my daughter and her friends rock up at our house for dinner. The curry is a pit-stop on a day that started at lunchtime and will spill over into the next morning. To my astonishment, they are excited about the charcoal curry – and up for helping to cook it.

I am so fazed by the day’s recipe-hunting, and by the weirdness of putting nearly half a kilo of dried spices into a single dish – that my palate is shot. I just can’t taste what I’m cooking.

But the dhuni comes up trumps.

The friends take it in turns to braze the charcoal over the flame. The moment it’s dunked in oil, it throws off a column of smoke – all the way to the curry pot – where it sizzles aromatically. We pop on the lid.

Someone has filmed the moment on a phone, and it’s very pretty.

Ten minutes later, we eat the smoke-infused Gosht Kandahari together – and everyone at the table says it’s delicious.

Happy days.

 

The date of the dinner was August 29th, 2016 BC (Before Charcoal).

Since then, life has fed me more morsels of knowledge about the dhuni.

From knowing absolutely nothing about this obscure technique – I might now own more published fragments on the dhuni than almost anyone. Maybe?

And without wanting to, I seem to have become one of the guardians of this (tiny) eternal flame.

I feel a duty to help keep the dhuni alight.

 

So here’s what I’ve learnt since that first day…

In the impossibly rare Indian Muslim Cookery – a four volume masterpiece, kindly sent to me from Mumbai by food blogger Antoine Lewis – there’s a tantalising recipe for Khichda with: “5/6 pieces of burning coal.” The directions state: “Heat ghee in a pan, add cumin seed, fenugreek seed, burning coal. Then add them in the mutton vessel. Remove the coals after sometime and serve.”

As well as being impossibly hard to buy (I can find no trace of this book online – and might own the only copy in the UK) it’s also a learning curve to work from. The book reads right to left, and some terms are unfamiliar (“Onion: make barista”). Would FIVE lumps of coal really work? Do they mean coal or charcoal?

For all my quibbles, I’m desperately proud to own this box set of Bohra/ Kashmiri/ Kokani/ Memon recipes – and will definitely cook the Khichda one day.

muslim-recipe

At one of Asma Khan’s legendary pop-ups at the Cinnamon Club, I had the privilege to meet Pushpita Singh – and get a signed copy of her Rajasthani Kitchen.

Tucked away on page 93 of her excellent book, there might be more information about the art of cooking with smoke than in the rest of Indian cookbooks put together:

“SMOKE – the process of imparting a smoked flavour to the preparation. Heat a piece of coal over the flame until it becomes red hot. Overlap 2-3 onion peels to form a small cup. Place it in the middle of the dish, with the preparation to be smoked. Place the coal in the onion peel cup. Smoke with either of the following…”

Over half a page, Pushpita goes on to explain how cloves, garlic paste or clarified butter can each be poured over the smoking coal – to take the flavour to the next level. This is seriously delicious stuff, and I urge you to buy the book. Pushpita Singh is the Michelangelo of smoke cooking – and I salute her.

rajasthani-3

(After I’d read Rajasthani Kitchen, I happened to see the 2016 game menu for the Cinnamon Club – featuring ‘clove smoked grouse’. I’ve had the privilege of eating Chef Rakesh Nair’s game cuisine before – and would be humbled if he could share the secrets of this dish.)

And finally, because the curry journey never ends, the postman brightened up my life this week with a brand new copy of Sumayya Usmani’s sensational Summers Under the Tamarind Tree. It’s a genuinely beautiful book, full of inspirational recipes. And in the very week I find myself writing about the dhuni… Summaya tell me on page 23 that: “[smoking] is my favourite cooking method”. She goes on to share details of the smoking process, as well as a recipe for bihari kebabs. I urge you to to buy the book. I’m glad I own a copy (and slightly baffled about the timing of its arrival… as if some unseen hand is feeding my hunger for smoke).

tamarind tree

In terms of printed evidence of the smoking technique in Indian cuisine – these three books, together with Tasting India – are the only copies I’ve held in my hand.

Back to the web.

Armed with the word ‘dhuni’ from Christine Manfield, I reckon I’m going to be able to refine my online search – and get more information.

It’s a bit of a surprise.

For the entire first page of returns, Wikipedia defines the Dhuni as: “a sacred site represented as a cleft in the ground. This cleft is emblematic of the yoni or female vulva and generative organ.”

No mention of cooking.

I wonder if Christine Manfield has been had – if some wise-cracking Indian chef or translator has fed her the wrong word in Hindi, just to see if it ends up in print?

I search on. To my relief, among the 78,000 search results on dhuni, pages 5 and 6 on Google bring it back to food: an interesting foodie blog site The Picky Bowl has a post on what looks like a sensational Dhuni Wale Rajma; while has Saransh Goila’s epic foodie travelogue India on my Platter has a Dogri recipe for dhuni using mustard oil. I have ordered the book, and can’t wait to hold it.

 

And that – as far as I can tell – is it.

Five books, and one blog site, which contain all recorded human knowledge of the dhuni.

I’m sure there’s more, and I look forward to discovering it.

I offer this post as work-in-progress on the dhuni. Indian cooks have taught me so much; this post is my modest research into a little-known technique – to celebrate the dhuni… before it goes up in smoke.

What can YOU do to keep the flame alive?

  • Buy one of the books I’ve listed… or email me, and I’ll share any of the recipes I have.
  • Buy a bag of lumpwood charcoal… or call me, and I’ll send you some of mine.
  • Above all… invite friends over, roast a piece of charcoal to red hot – dip in oil – and infuse your curry with the heady aroma of smoke.

 

And my thoughts for Gurj’s Mum?

  • First: you’ve brought up a great son.
  • Second: your curry knowledge is 1,000 times greater than mine, or more.
  • Third: but the ‘dhuni’ works, trust me.

 

Thank you…

This post was made possible with the help of the following people:

Antoine Lewis

Asian Foodstore, Salisbury

Asma Khan

Gurj Sohanpal

Mia – and her lovely friends Ed, Helen, Kaye and Sam

Pushpita Singh

Sumayya Usmani

 

 

 

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