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?

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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.

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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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Two tales of turmeric

Meet two Indian men doing very different things with turmeric – and meet one confused food blogger.

turmeric-pic

 

The tiny charcoal brazier stands 12 inches high off the patio – about the height of a seated baby – and a whole team of adults fuss around it as if were a new born child.

We’re sitting in the garden of Punit and Sanjana Kothari, in Jaipur. I have been in India for 48 hours, and in that time I’ve enjoyed more hospitality from the Kotharis than you’d expect from a whole country in a month. They’ve taken me to meet the city’s most famous paneer wallah; paid for me to swallow a flaming, camphor-coated paan; escorted me to markets; fed me; poured me drinks until late in the night.

But now we’re stepping up a gear. To experience a truly authentic Rajasthani feast, we’re sitting cross-legged on rugs in Punit and Sanjana’s garden, enjoying food cooked over charcoal… served on leaves… and eaten with fingers. There isn’t a utensil in sight – just the essential ingredients of heat and hunger.

The food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

On the far side of the brazier are a man and wife who’ve come to prepare the rotis. They’re dressed in the flowing robes and headscarves that would look out of place anywhere except the pages of a glossy Indian tourist brochure – or a Rajasthani wedding. The man feeds the charcoal, and adjusts the vents. His wife rolls and cooks the rotis. They are very good at what they do.

roti-pic

To my left are Punit and his wife Sanjana; to my right is their friend Pankaj. We’re eating a traditional Rajasthani dish – dal baati churma – and I am learning new things. I am learning that a seemingly impossible foodie combination doesn’t just work… it’s irresistible.

Spiced dal + roti + melted ghee + heaped jaggery = bliss.

 

And this blog is going to be my personal dal baati churma.

I’m going to try to take two very different stories that maybe wouldn’t sit together in a regular foodie post – and blend them into something new.

India has taught me that you can happily mix stuff that shouts ‘don’t’.

This post is my attempt to blend savoury and sweet in one story.

 

Punit and Pankaj are men in their early 40s. They met at school, aged ten, and started a friendship that’s lasted a lifetime.

Today, they both use Rajasthani food to create magical effects for the people who consume those ingredients – but in very different ways.

 

If you’ve eaten in one of Vivek Singh’s restaurants, then you’ve sampled the fruits of Punit’s hard work. If you paused over the freshness and pungency of a dish with turmeric – or wondered at the brilliant red hues of a dish with Kashmiri chilli – thank Punit. He’s the guy who grows the spices exclusively for the Cinnamon Group in carefully selected areas of Rajasthan, dries them, and airfreights them direct to London. Ten days before your curry was brought to your table, Punit was overseeing the drying and grinding process in Rajasthan.

Punit and Vivek worked together when both were starting their careers in hospitality. Their careers took them both to Bangkok. Years later, when he launched the Cinnamon Club in 2001, Vivek wanted to take Indian cuisine to new heights. One of the people he called to help him was Punit.

Punit remembers the conversation: “Vivek called me from London, and his question was this…. ‘how do we capture the flavour of the freshest chillies?’ We worked together to find the answer.”

chilli-mountain

For the last 14 years, Punit has perfected the process that keeps the Cinnamon restaurants supplied with the yellowest, freshest turmeric and the reddest, freshest chilli. For foodies interested in the minutest detail of provenance, the tumeric on your plate has been dried in the earth before harvesting; the chilli has been sun-dried for seven to ten days (depending on the season and temperature) before being turned to tan on the other side for another week. It’s then ground, and flown straight to London. Every shipment is tested for organic purity, and in over a decade only one single batch has failed (by 0.5 microns).

chilli-test

Looking to the future, Vivek and Punit are working to source more organic spices together from India, including cumin, black cardamom, coriander – and, of course – cinnamon.

Punit’s passion for spices spills over into the way he and his family cook and look after guests. As we eat, I ask myself if I’ve ever been looked after more generously by new friends – and the answer is ‘no’.

 

So much for the first serving of this blog – a story of shared, foodie passion for fresh ingredients.

The next serving is less traditional.

Both involve the power of fresh turmeric – but that’s where the similarities end.

 

The year is 2008, and Pankaj and his family are sitting by the hospital bed of their eight year-old son, Bhavya. They have been told their boy has days or hours to live.

Twelve days earlier, Bhavya had been diagnosed with dengue fever. Each year, up to 500 million people worldwide contract the disease. The vast majority recover in a matter of days. Tragically, 20,000 people die.

Listed as a tropical disease, dengue fever is spread to human beings by mosquito bite. Early stages include a high temperature, vomiting, muscle pain and skin rashes. In a tiny minority of cases, the disease goes on to cause a collapse in the number of the patient’s blood platelets – followed by internal and external bleeding – and death.

For the average reader of this blog, your platelet count will be between 150-450k per microliter of blood. Bhavya’s platelet count was at 6k. His blood pressure had collapsed, his breathing was shallow and he was bleeding from his eyes. Despite every effort by the hospital to help him, Bhavya was entering the final stages of dengue shock syndrome. The hospital had exhausted every known remedy.

In one of the hospital corridors, Pankaj was approached by a stranger. The man was visiting a relative, had heard about Bhavya’s condition, and had come back to offer the family a natural remedy.

The man wasn’t a doctor, had no medical training – but offered Pankaj a remedy for his son because he’d seen it work before. Pankaj agreed to try it – totally at the family’s own risk.

Pankaj vividly remembers the conversation with the stranger. “He said the remedy could make my son’s platelets go up – but that he was worried. He wasn’t sure. He said it had to be my decision. I told him that I was ready to try anything. I trusted him.”

Three days later, Bhavya was fully recovered.

 

In the following days, Pankaj tracked down the stranger to thank him. They discussed the recipe: an infusion of turmeric, combined with aloe vera juice, papaya leaf and neem leaf.

Pankaj immediately wanted to share the cure with others: “Why shouldn’t other people have the happiness my family felt to see our son recover?” He made small batches at home. If he read about a local patient with a blood platelet crisis, he took a batch to the hospital. Some accepted, others didn’t.

Word spread. As the season for dengue fever came around each year, from September to November, people made their way to Pankaj’s house. At first, he prepared cures for 100 people a month. Today, he might treat as many as 2,000 people a day. He has never charged a single patient.

 

To get to this kind of scale, you need a lot of back-up – and the network built slowly. “Punit supported me from the start,” says Pankaj, “and that made me strong.”

Following Bhavya’s cure in 2008, Pankaj – together with his father, mother and wife – distributed the cure as a cottage industry. In 2010, members of the wider family and local community joined in. “They recognised the cause,” says Pankaj, “and saw how happy it made us to be involved. They came forward to help.”

Today, the 17 year-old Bhavya helps create the cure that saved his life – along with dozens of other children from the community. “This was the ‘wow’ moment for me,” says Pankaj, “when our kids and our neighbours’ kids understood what we’re doing, and wanted to help mankind.”

The cottage industry has turned into a big deal. Doctors and medical journals contact Pankaj; businesses give him raw ingredients for free; his employers give him paid leave each year from September to November.

Eight years on, Pankaj has shared the remedy with over 100,000 dengue sufferers – with 100% cure rate, and no recorded side-effects in any patient.

 

As he tells the story, Pankaj has two gears. Describing the science behind the disease and the cure, he’s buttoned down and detailed – talking about platelet types and numbers, blood pressure levels, physical processes. It’s like talking to a doctor.

But ask him about his interaction with the people he helps to cure – and he beams. “One father of a recovered child asked me what he could give me. He said I could take anything he owned. I told him he owed me nothing… that I’m just a medium… and he should thank God, not me.” His face lights up – and I sense is that every patient cured reconnects Pankaj with the joy of his son’s recovery.

Other than the sheer physical fatigue of the role (Pankaj gets up at 4am in fever season to work for 18 hours on preparing cures) his only complaint is when someone tries to sell the cure. Batches sometimes get onto the black market, and are advertised for around IR 500 (£5). Pankaj has to track down the seller, and get the remedy back.

Beyond that, he sees every part of his huge volunteer role as a privilege. “If I help mankind,” he beams, “God will help me.” He’s one of the most contented people I’ve ever met.

 

So where does that leave the two halves of my blog – the sweet and savoury?

As a foodie, I find it completely natural that Punit should be flying Rajasthani turmeric thousands of miles to give diners in London the best possible experience. I understand what’s happening.

As someone who’s only ever know western medicine, I’m excited that Pankaj’s remedy has cured over 100,000 people of dengue fever – but I’m also confused. I’m confused because the cure is created by one family in their home – and not sold by a pharmacist in a tamper-proof bottle, with a brand name and a best-before date. I don’t understand what’s happening. I want to believe, but there’s a western, cultural brake in my head that won’t let go.

Shouldn’t the numbers be enough? 100,000 cured! What more evidence do I need? I ask myself… if Pankaj had patented his cure, branded it, charged for it – would I find the evidence easier to accept? Sadly, that might be true. The power of western marketing has tinged my thinking.

Years ago, I read about a family in Hyderabad who treat up to 500,000 asthma sufferers a year – with a secret remedy of a live fish swallowed whole. Meeting Pankaj, I have the privilege of encountering another of India’s leading healers. And if Pankaj himself is part of the cure… if it’s his belief, the strength he finds in his family, friendships and religion which helps heal so many people… does that change anything?

 

The warmth from the brazier spills over the rugs towards us. Punit takes a thick roti from the charcoals, and breaks it into molten crumbs in his hands. Sanjana pours over ghee, and teaspoonfuls of jaggery – and serves it to me with the sharp, spiced dal.

It is delicious.

punit-sanjana

India has a lot to teach me about mixing sweet and sour; about mixing science and belief. I have a lot to think about.

But some lessons have gone home this evening:

  • Charcoal is the best cooking medium
  • Leaves are the best plates
  • Fingers are the best cutlery
  • Punit, Sanjana and Pankaj are the best hosts in Rajasthan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Turmeric natural cure | Leave a comment

Soul food

Eat like a God in Varanasi

 

If Chef Vivek Singh suggests that you try an experience… do it!

When I asked him what I should do on a trip to India, he replied: “Go to Varanasi; eat at the Nadesar Palace.”

He told me I’d never forget these experiences.

I won’t.

 

Is it just me, or does almost everything in India come back to food? I’m looking at the evening sky in Varanasi, and the setting sun looks so much like a piece of tropical fruit that I want to grab and eat it.

Four of us are standing on an elegant, stone-flagged patio, drinking tea. We’re sipping from the tiny earthenware cups which chai wallahs use across India. Every time I raise the clay cup to my lips, I inhale an intense aroma of earth.

And suddenly, the distinctive smell takes me back to my early childhood – when puddles were as inviting as swimming pools, and the mud on your hands smelt as edible as chocolate. It’s an intense, happy memory.

But it feels at odds with the place, because we’re standing in the Nadesar Palace: probably the most exclusive hotel I’ve ever set foot in, and as far from muddy puddles as you can get.

hotel-3From the moment the gates at the Nadesar Palace swung noiselessly open before me, I knew I was stepping into something new. And before I could actually take a step, a turbaned chauffeur invited me to settle into my private golf buggy – and piloted me towards the hotel.

Arriving in India two weeks earlier, I’d been exploring the country and its food – and loving every second of it. I’d sat cross-legged in the garden of a Jaipuri family and shared a Jain feast cooked over charcoal. I’d explored countless bazaars; enjoyed dozens of varieties of street food. I will treasure those moments for ever.

But this was going be different, because I was stepping out of my comfort zone. I was swapping my life of budget travel for a pleasure dome where over 40 staff cater for just ten couples – in a Maharajah’s palace.

 

If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll discover lots of it at the Nadesar Palace.

But because this place is rooted in the soil and history of Varanasi – centre of the Hindu universe – the real luxury at the Nadesar Palace is discovering more about you.

 

My journey at the Nadesar Palace starts with Chef Saurabh Mathur – the man whose cooking Vivek Singh urged me to try. Dressed in gleaming chef’s whites, Saurabh invites me to join him on a tour of the palace grounds.

For any guest, this would be a pleasure. For me, as a foodie, it’s a joy – because the 26 acres around the palace are the open-air larder for the palace’s kitchens. Mango orchards, fields of yellow mustard, heads of flowering onion for kalonji seed, beds of fresh turmeric, … even wood apple trees… they’re all here. Pristine, organic.

As we meet each new crop, Saurabh explains when it will be picked, which dishes it will feature in and how it will be cooked. Although we won’t sample it today, I’m intrigued to hear him describe the drink served to guests as they first arrive: a fresh sherbet concocted from wood apple. The drink is unique to the Nadesar Palace, and I make a mental note to ask him some day for the recipe.

Saurabh is a natural host, and knows how to bring the grounds and everything inside them alive for guests. I’m in a state of grace – and we haven’t even got into the building.

 

Inside the palace, we’re welcomed by Piyali Pal, the Nadesar’s Wellness Manager. Piyali starts by explaining how guests are greeted at the hotel in regal style… as Maharajas.

Even as a verbal description, it’s giddying. As a physical experience, it must be off the map.

Following the Indian protocol for welcoming royalty, the first thing guests hear is a blast on a sacred conch – as they enter the palace under embroidered parasols. From there, you can choose to follow as much of an authentic Maharaja’s journey as you want: from consulting with the palace’s resident Hindu priest on your personal astrology –  to taking a purifying bath in rose petals, milk and holy Ganges water. During this abhisheka ceremony (translates as ‘coronation’) you experience the formal, ritual anointment of a Maharaja.

It’s as close as any of us will get to becoming Hindu royalty.

The mere sight of the sunken ‘Jiva’ bathing pool – afloat in a small sea of fresh rose petals – is enough to make me want this Maharajah lifestyle very, very much.

Piyali continues with the physical tour of the hotel. And if this place looks like an authentic Indian palace – that’s because it is.

In an innovative business move, the descendants of the Maharajas connected with palace are still very much part of the place today. Having agreed a joint venture with the Taj Group in 2002 to convert the building to a hotel, the family continue to be very involved in their heritage. Much has changed since the last Maharaja lived here – but the original family portraits, stately furniture and much else besides are exactly where the family put them. The desk where you check in is the Maharaja’s own.

Like a lot of historic buildings in India, the Nadesar Palace has been home to a number of dynasties – the East India Company and British Raj have both left their mark. But since the late Maharaja Lt. Col. H. H. Prabhu Narayan Singh conceived of it in 1889 as a place welcome distinguished guests – including King George V and Queen Mary – the palace has continued to do just that.

It’s the real thing.

 

And as Piyali explains, the same goes for each experience at the Nadesar Palace. The conch-blowing welcome for guests may sound a bit Hollywood (or Bollywood) – but it’s based on the Hindu shanka ceremony, where a conch is blown to signal an auspicious start.

“None of this,” explains Piyali, “is done for show. Like everything in the Hindu world, there’s a logic to it… nothing happens by chance.”

Which brings us to the heart of what the Nadesar Palace is trying to do.

“For more than three thousand years,” says Piyali, “people have been coming to Varanasi to think about the things that are important to them, to learn more about their belief and about themselves. We’re part of that tradition. The Nadesar Palace can be a place that helps you think, and connects you with what you want to do next.”

As we all know, Varanasi is the holy city famed for its open-air, riverside cremations. It has the most bewildering energy of anywhere I’ve ever been. Imagine a city as ancient as Stonehenge, with the spiritual complexity of Jerusalem, the culture of Rome… add in Glastonbury crowds… and place it all on the bank of a holy river. That’s Varanasi.

I cannot even start to unpack it.

Sharing her wide knowledge of Hindu and Indian culture, Piyali takes me on a virtuoso virtual tour of the city and the best of its giddying 108,000 religious monuments. “108 is a sacred number in the Hindu universe,” she explains. “As always, there’s a logic to it. The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth – and the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun.”

Over half an hour or so, Piyali connects me to Varanasi’s Hindu deities, temples, traditions – and their connection with modern India. By the end of our virtual tour, the Nadesar Palace has fully shape-shifted in front of us. From modern hotel, it’s morphed into an extension of India’s oldest, most spiritual and most thought-provoking city.

I need something to eat.

If you read Amitav Ghosh’s outstanding novel, Sea of Poppies, you’ll come to the chapter where the character Neel Rattan Halder – a Rajah in 19th century Calcutta – tries to negotiate the social minefield of a dinner party with Europeans.

Tradition dictates that the Rajah must eat alone.

“We didn’t plan it this way,” jokes Saurabh, “but you’re going to eat in the Nadesar Palace as a Maharaja – completely by yourself.”

And so it happens

Sitting at a table on the patio – in front of the series of fountains – the only human beings I can see are the musicians playing classical Indian instruments, on a stage to the side of the building.

Otherwise, it’s just me, the candle on the table, and the warm Varanasi night. Just like a Maharaja.

Some time later, Saurabh places a thali in front of me.

True – it’s a metal tray, about a foot across – but that’s the end of any similarity with any thali I’ve ever eaten.

What’s in front of me is ‘satvik khana’ – which translates as ‘food fit for the gods’.

So much for the name. The history which created ‘satvik khana’ involves thousands of years of research by Hindu rishis into the properties of every ingredient. Not simply the taste – but also its impact on different parts of the body, on its ability to promote health – and even its ability to enhance spirituality.

I’ll let the Nadesar Palace’s menu talk for itself: “Satvik – pure vegetarian food – is prepared without the influence of onion and garlic. Bringing calmness, purity and balance – it promotes longevity, intelligence, strength, health and happiness. If you are pursuing spiritual advancement, then purity of thought is said to depend on purity of food.”

From a Western perspective, we normally set the first hurdle for food as ‘tasty’, and the next as ‘healthy’. That’s as high as we ask food to jump. The possibility that the dish in front of you might have an impact on a specific part of your body, on your mind – or on your soul – simply doesn’t come into it.

There are seven pots of food on the thali in front of me, and four types of bread. I recognise most of the food from my tour with Saurabh.

As we walked through the gardens, he’d explained the essentials of ‘satvik’ cooking: using the simplest possible spices and ingredients, and sourcing as much as possible for the meal from the exact place and moment where it will be eaten. Satvik philosophy goes much deeper than ‘food miles’. Coming back to the logic of Hindu ‘connectedness’, the conviction is that the earth you stand on – and the season you’re in – will give you exactly what you need to thrive today. In each season, the land around you will provide precisely what your body and mind need.

From a western perspective, it’s quite a leap. Look at the average UK shopping basket (or Sunday supplement recipe) and both are packed with ingredients from far-flung continents and seasons. It’s about as far from the ‘satvik’ approach as you can get.

But right now, I’m in India, and the food in front of me has been cooked by a man who trained in Rishikesh to prepare ‘satvik’ food – and who shares the Hindu belief that what you eat directly impacts on your body and soul.

The seven pots and four breads in front of me are some of the most simply spiced Indian food I’ve eaten.

It tastes divine.

Pausing between mouthfuls to admire the different flavours and textures, it takes me almost an hour to eat the thali.

It is as special an eating experience as I’ve ever had.

As I come to the end of the meal, late into the evening, there’s a chance to thank in person all the people who made these experiences possible: Saurabh Mathur, Piyali Pal – and also the hotel’s Senior Manager Ananth Gaddala and Executive Chef Anup Gupta – who graciously welcomed me into the Nadesar Palace, and encouraged me to talk to their team. When I asked Ananth and Anup for their thoughts on the Nadesar Palace, they both insisted that they trusted Saurabh and Piyali to have shared the information I need.

It’s late at night when I finally leave the Nadesar Palace, and head back across the couple of miles to my hostel in central Varanasi. I flag down a cycle rickshaw, and I’m floating so happily from my visit that I instinctively offer to the driver to swap places – inviting him to sit under the canopy, while I pedal. It feels right. But he won’t have it.

I feel very, very peaceful.

Am I this serene because I’ve eaten food fit for the Gods?

Is this what it feels like to eat food from the ground you’re standing on – and to be in tune with the moment?

I honestly don’t know.

Other people have been thinking about this for thousands of years; next to them I have no insights to offer.

And in terms of the Hindu web of cause and effect, were these experiences the unfolding of some irresistible, universal logic? Was I meant to go the Nadesar Palace? If so, what happens next?

All I know is that Vivek Singh told me this would be unforgettable.

And it was.

 

 

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Singh when you’re winning

 

Executive Chef Vivek Singh shares the ‘why’ of the Cinnamon Club

If you’re passionate about Indian food, this is like hunkering down with Michelangelo to discuss renaissance art, or exploring space time one-to-one with Einstein.

I’m in the Cinnamon Club – the restaurant where Indian food was redefined for the 21st century – and sitting opposite Vivek Singh, the chef who made it happen.

Executive Chef of the Cinnamon Club, Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho – and author of six landmark cookbooks – Singh is the man who brought Indian cooking to the high table of modern cuisine… to rival any food on the planet.

Two decades into his career, Singh is as hungry as ever to share his passion for Indian food and culture, and 2017 sees the launch of a new London restaurant and new book.

But from the day I first ate in the Cinnamon Club, I knew I’d never tasted anything more delicious in my life. And the question that’s nagged me ever since is: WHY?

Why is Vivek Singh’s cooking the best I’ve ever eaten? Why did a chef steeped in Indian cooking want to reinvent his country’s cuisine?

Why does Vivek Singh cook?

It’s about 5pm, and we’re sitting in the Cinnamon Club bar; people buzz around us as the restaurant gears up to thrill another roomful of diners. Vivek Singh serves us champagne.

The journey starts…

Good Korma: Next year, you open your new London restaurant: Cinnamon Bazaar. What will people discover there?

Vivek Singh: Cinnamon Bazaar will be a meeting place… for cultures, cuisines and people.

Bazaars were dotted all over the Spice Route and the Frankincense Route, and for over 5,000 years they’ve been a place where people exchanged things… not just goods, but also ideas and influences. The bazaar is a space where you interact socially, where your tastes are changed – and long before democracy was invented, they were a democratic institution where people went to discover new things. I’m trying to bring all those emotions together in one place.

In India, before the age of TV, one of the most common pastimes was what we called ‘marketing’. When I was growing up, we’d spend hours browsing, eating and shopping in markets. It was one of the biggest Indian forms of entertainment and enjoyment, and I’m bringing it to Cinnamon Bazaar.

Good Korma: Re-winding to the start of your career, you discovered Escoffier at an early age. How old were you – and what impact did it have?

Vivek Singh: I must have been 21, and was still in hotel school – before I’d decided to become a chef. What impressed me about Escoffier was that it was a such a well-documented log of recipes that you could go back to again and again. Up to then, I hadn’t found many Indian cookbooks that were as good at sharing knowledge. I was impressed by how seriously the French took their cooking.

Good Korma: Were there other books that shaped you?

Vivek Singh: The books that really changed the way I thought about food were Michel Guerard’s Cuisine Minceur and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. These chefs opened my eyes about how committed you can be to the craft. They taught me that if you really take cooking seriously… almost as a religion… there is so much you can do.

Good Korma: Is this where your marriage of Indian and European cuisine started?

Vivek Singh: No, I was just taking things in. At the time, in the 90s, people asked me what kind of food I wanted to cook for the rest of my life, and I was still saying ‘Indian’. I liked the depth and complexity of Indian food, and I wanted to be seen as an expert in it.

Good Korma: As you built your career as a chef, you worked in a number of Indian cities: New Delhi; Mumbai; Kolkata; Jaipur. Did that journey change your food?

Vivek Singh: Every new city added another layer, another half dozen recipes. That’s what human beings do… we’re foragers, we collect things. Every place I’ve lived has a clear effect on my menus. And when I’m cooking those dishes for other people, I’m not trying to take it to a new level of luxury – I’m trying to recreate the excitement I felt when I ate it for the first time.

Good Korma: Then your career came to a crossroads?

Vivek Singh: After a number of senior chef roles in India, I finally got to a point where I wasn’t learning anything new – and wasn’t doing anything different to anyone else.

As much as I loved the food, I thought it was stuck in a time warp. I didn’t imagine then that I’d come to do everything that happened later, but I knew that there so much more you could with Indian food… if you weren’t wedded to the concept of authenticity and tradition.

Good Korma: What did authenticity mean to you then… and to other chefs?

Vivek Singh: There was no shame in using better ingredients – and yet we didn’t, because that wasn’t authentic. There was no shame in presenting things better – and yet we didn’t, because that wasn’t authentic.

I got to the point where if authenticity is a reason for not doing things better – then I’m prepared to sacrifice it for progress, and for something more exciting. And that’s when authenticity and I parted ways.

Good Korma: You were born in a country steeped in tradition – but your cooking sets out to challenge and invigorate its cuisine. Looking outside food, where does Indian tradition support you – and where do you challenge it?

Vivek Singh: There’s hundreds of ways in which Indian tradition supports me… the Indian approach to family… the colour, the life, the energy, the festivals.

There are things I do every year, whether it’s having a Diwali party at home or organising Holi. We all pass on what we love – we don’t want that to get lost – whether it’s food or ritual, and I want my kids to experience that.

I’m lucky in my position of being the perfect outsider. I’m a foreigner back in India, I’m a foreigner in London… I can be a foreigner anywhere! I’m blessed to have the perspective of an outsider looking in. I try to connect the best of both worlds: east to west; old to new. I support tradition – but not as a purist, and never for tradition’s sake.

Good Korma: Your father was an engineer, and there’s an expectation in many Indian families that a son follows his father’s career. You didn’t. How did your family feel?

Vivek Singh: It wasn’t an easy thing for my parents to come to terms with. There was the disappointment of my not following the family line, and whether I had enough information to know this was leading somewhere good. When I decided to come to the UK, it was more emotional upheaval for my parents. I think my dad was more than delighted with the way things turned out.

Good Korma: It’s March 2001, and you’re about to open the doors to the Cinnamon Club. What did you want your first guests to experience as they ate your food?

Vivek Singh: I wanted them to experience something they’d never experienced before. I wanted every dish on the menu to be new to them. When the food arrived, I hoped they’d never seen a dish like it. As they ate, I wanted them to recognise the ingredients but never to have seen or tasted them in that combination.

Good Korma: You were setting out to reinvent Indian food. How big a risk were you taking?

Vivek Singh: Everyone thought we were mad.

No one understood what we wanted to do at the Cinnamon Club, and no one thought it would work. The odds were stacked against us.

Good Korma: But it worked. Why?

Vivek Singh: From a restaurant perspective, you’re right, we were doing things that hadn’t been done before. We challenged the status quo, we asked a lot of questions.

But all of that wasn’t necessarily why we became successful. We used the best ingredients, we made the food look better… all of that helped create a following.

The real reason the Cinnamon Club succeeded was simply that we weren’t listening to anyone.

We had the ability to listen, but we didn’t have the bandwidth. We were 100 per cent inward-looking, focussed on what we were doing. That year is a blur in my mind.

And because we were so isolated from the world, we could create a single-minded focus on what we believed in. If we’d been going round industry events, trying to find out what other people were thinking – I don’t think we’d have done the Cinnamon Club.

Good Korma: So… you wanted not just to cook the best Indian food in London, but to cook the best food. What next?

Vivek Singh: Yes – that was the line we gave ourselves. After the Cinnamon Club had opened, I was looking for the next thing and decided to write the Cinnamon Club cookery books. Essentially, they’re an extended blog of how we were thinking at the time. Again, it was about the single-mindedness of the whole project.

I’m not sure the reaction to the books would be so excited now… people aren’t as interested by precision and technique.

Good Korma: I have your books – with the date I cooked each curry, and names of the friends I cooked it with. Can you tell me about your new book?

Vivek Singh: I think you’ll like it. It’s published in 2017, and it’s about Indian festivals and the feasts associated with them. There are thousands of festivals across India, so you can’t cover them all… but the book looks at twelve, including Holi, Diwali, Parsi New Year… with a thirteenth chapter on an Indian wedding. Bengali weddings were the highlight of my youth.

Good Korma: You grew up in a Bengali coal-mining community… and today you cook for elite communities across the world. How do you move between those two worlds?

Vivek Singh: Effortlessly! It’s simpler than most people think. It only becomes a challenge if you love one world more than the other. If you love both, it doesn’t really matter. I never thought that the world I was heading into was better than the one I was leaving behind.

I look back to my past as fondly as I do to my future. Bengali celebrations are as generous as anything you’ll ever come across.

Good Korma: You’ve achieved a lot. What’s your long-term ambition?

Vivek Singh: I don’t want to set myself the goal of having the most restaurants in the world, or the most Michelin stars – I want to work out what I’m known for, how I’m seen.

When you think of seafood you think ‘Rick’. If Rick Stein says something is fantastic then it’ll take off worldwide because it is fantastic.

That’s where I want to be for Indian food.

Good Korma: If we distil everything from today into one sentence: why do you cook?

Vivek Singh: Human beings are the only species in nature who cook – it’s is a uniquely human thing to do. Cooking is the best gift you can give anyone, and the best gift you can receive. I’m very lucky that I get paid to do this.

Good Korma: What has cooking curry taught you?

Vivek Singh: I’ve cooked Indian food for one third of my career inside India, and two thirds outside. I’ve travelled most of the world to cook. What I’ve learnt about curry… about the reasons for its success, longevity and universal appeal… is its sheer adaptability. Curry taught me to work with lots of different ingredients, and the result is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Curry is like a liquid – it takes the shape of the vessel it’s in. No matter where in the world you are, curry lives on.

Cross-cultural cooking… fusion… call it what you want. It isn’t a new thing… people have been innovating for millennia.

 

 

 

Posted in Chef Vivek Singh | Leave a comment

What has curry taught me?

 

Sometimes, that’s all it takes… a sentence, an idea… and you’re launched.

BOOM!

The spark that lights the journey can come from anywhere…. this time, it came from the clutter of a Sunday newspaper.

Tucked away in his ‘Food Monthly’ column, Nigel Slater mused that every single day he’s spent around food has taught him something new.

BOOOOOM!

I’ve been following Slater since he started his Observer column back in the 90s (and faithfully pasted dozens of his recipes into family food diaries). After Vivek Singh, he matters more to me than any food writer alive.

As I ponder his claim – my instinct is that he’s right. That cooking can teach anyone… about almost anything.

Which begs the question:  what has a decade of obsessive curry cooking taught ME?

KA-BOOOOOM!!

With a simple observation, Slater has lit my mental touch paper.

Wisely, perhaps, Slater didn’t share his list of insights. But as soon as I’d read his piece, I knew the thought would itch in my head until I had some kind an answer.

I start by looking at the books scattered around our home. It’s a bit of a shock.

The people in the house before us filled every nook and cranny with bookshelves (which we filled with books). Like the horizontal seams in a slab of rock, the lines of books are a geological record of what we’ve read as a family over the decades.

But here’s the shock. Looking at the books I still have from university (four years when the only thing I was asked to do was read) I realise there’s less stuff there than in my curry bookcase.

This is, surely, bonkers. I kept every book that mattered to me as a student – and this entire chunk of life has given me less written matter than a foodie hobby.

WTF?

So… what has a decade of cooking curry actually taught me?

In most of the 90 or so curry cookbooks I own, there’s a glossary of Indian spices, dals, fruits and vegetables – sometimes running to hundreds of items. With the exception of a couple of perishables I’ve never seen for sale in the UK (tamarind flowers, tamarind leaves), I’ve cooked with most of them.

There are still lovely surprises. Last year, invited by Head Chef Rakesh Ravindran Nair to tour the Cinnamon Club kitchens, I went home with a pocketful of the bonfire-scented marathi moggu – a spice I’d never even heard of. This year, shopping for a tuna curry in Bree Hutchins’ sensational Hidden Kitchens of Sri Lanka, I found the pandanus leaf I needed for the recipe – waiting for me in my local Asian Foodstore. I’d been looking for fresh pandanus for a decade – and found it when I had the recipe book in my hand.

But this, I suspect, is not the kind of stuff that Slater is talking about. Cooking with an exotic new spice is fun – but there’s a difference between a new taste sensation and a new insight.

Slater says he’s learnt something from every day of his 30 years in the kitchen.

Can I manage just five insights from a decade of cooking curries?

 

Tentatively – for #CurryInsightNo1 – I offer a dawning appreciation of the vastness of the curryverse.

Each time I cook a new curry, I log it in a scrapbook (alphabetically, under the main ingredient, and naming the cookbook it’s from) so I can find it again. I think there’s about 300 recipes so far.

Is that a lot?

Let’s start at the obvious place: Google. The search engine smugly tells me there are over a million returns for ‘Indian recipe book’; 22 million for ‘Indian recipe’; and 180 million for ‘curry’.

These are big numbers, but we’re still just scratching the surface.

As the cuisine of a country with a population of over one billion – and where individual recipes are handed down across the generations – each curry is reinterpreted by millions of different families.

At this point, the numbers get scary, so I hand over Laxmi Parida and her excellent Purba: Feasts from the East. As a food writer, Parida dedicates an entire book to capturing the cooking of just one state: Orissa. And as a maths graduate and computer science PhD – she can calculate where her 100 Orissan recipes sit in the infinity of the curryverse. On the first page of her book, Parida lays out a formula multiplying the total number of curry techniques (T) by the total number of ingredients (I) to give what she believes to be the total possible number of curry recipes (R).

She calculates that R = 62 trillion.

So my first curry insight is humility: a sense of my own total insignificance before the infinity of curryverse (and the impossibility of understanding the smallest fraction of it).

I find this thought strangely comforting. Even if I cooked each of the thousand recipes in Pushpesh Pant’s masterwork, India, I’d be lifting a single grain of sand on the shoreline of Indian food.

I’m a decade in… on a journey measured in light years. However much I learn about curry, I’ll still know nothing.

 

For #CurryInsightNo2, we move from space to time.

As I cook, I’m beginning to understand that the roots of Indian cooking are as old as almost anything in the whole of Western civilization.

The first written reference to dahi vada (the deep-fried lentil dish you can buy pre-prepared in any Asian grocery store) occurs in Sutra literature in 500 BC. And other staples you find in Indian restaurants the world over – dosa and naan – were first written about using precisely those names in 600 AD and 1300 AD respectively.

Britain is good at ancient buildings and monuments – but is there a single thing in contemporary British cooking that was being written about in 500 BC?

As KT Achaya lucidly explains in his Illustrated Foods of India and Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, almost everything on your curry platter has a history going back centuries or millennia. Eat a naan, and you’re breaking bread with the foodie geniuses who were the Mughals – and inventors of the tandoor.

So, alongside my sense of insignificance before the infinity of curry recipes, I’d add a sense of awe before Indian food’s two millennia of history. Curry is splendidly, reverentially ancient.

More than any other cuisine I know, Indian food turns your kitchen into a time machine.

 

If you’re still reading (which makes you either a member of my immediate family, or fellow curry nutter), we arrive at #CurryInsightNo3 – and plunge from the macro to the micro.

Google the ‘Protestants of Pontefract’ (I’ll explain why) and you find 78,000 returns. Scan the links, and there’s tonnes of stuff about local Protestant publications and buildings – but not one that celebrates uniquely Protestant recipes, born Pontefract. The same would be true for the ‘Evangelists of Evesham’, ‘Buddhists of Brixham’… I could go on.

The fact is that faith groups in the UK simply don’t create a cuisine that’s unique to where they are.

Explore the world of Indian cookbooks, and you’ll find that’s exactly what faith groups in that country do – to a giddying levels of detail.

According to the 2011 census, there are just 4.4 million Jains in India – making it one of the country’s smallest religions. With a total population of 110k, the town of Palanpur in Gujurat has a community of Jains that probably numbers in the hundreds. But this hasn’t stopped them celebrating the cuisine of their faith and micro-locale in the breath-taking Dadimano Varso… arguably the most perfect cookbook I’ve ever held in my hands. Hundreds of recipes – all unique to the tiny Jain community of Palanpur.

If it excites you to discover how faith and micro-location can come together to create unique cuisines, then Indian cooking offers you a very big canvas. From Ummi Abdulla’s outstanding Malabar Muslim Cookery to Viji Varadarajaran’s Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine; from Malati Srinivasan’s Udupi Kitchen (Madhwa Brahmins of coastal Karnataka) to Sonya Atal Sapru’s Zaika (Kashmiri Pandit cuisine) – you can journey via a single book into the beliefs, culture, customs and food of these communities. Lathika George’s Kerala Kitchen (Syrian Christian cuisine) should also be on your list.

Faith and food in India are two inseparable sides of the same coin.

In Britain, they’re separate (and non-convertible) currencies.

And with the greatest respect to the Protestants of Pontefract, we Brits are the losers.

Food can be anything you want it to be – and one of the insights from Indian cuisine is that weaving food, faith, culture and locale into one collage makes every ingredient more appetising.

 

If you’re still reading at #CurryInsightNo4, we should probably meet for a drink.

Heading even deeper into the ‘micro’, I want to celebrate the uniquely Indian genius for taking two or more seemingly incompatible ingredients – and marrying them in foodie harmony.

I’m not talking here (although I could) about the miracle of blending spices. I’m more interested in the way that Indian cooks can take main ingredients which seem to shout ‘don’t’ at each other… and make them whisper: ‘I do’.

For days before I cooked it, I told friends that Vivek Singh’s recipe for Roast Pork Chops with Date and Chilli Sauce had 36 ingredients. What really blew my mind was that it called for a spice rub marrying pork with lavender. Six years later, I still look with awe at that page in Vivek Singh’s Curry Classic and Contemporary – a signed copy, and the recipe book that’s given me more pleasure than any other. (Btw: pork and lavender rock.)

Today, when I read a new curry cookbook, I’m hungrily searching for off-beat combinations. Christine Mansfield’s joyous Tasting India dared me to cook her Dry Lamb Curry – combining a staggering 300g of dried pomegranate seeds… 100g of Kashmiri chillies… and a live, smoking piece of charcoal. It’s one of the most theatrical, charismatic dishes I’ve ever cooked, and I urge you to try it.

And so it goes. The legendary Julie Sahni tells you in her Classic Indian Vegetarian Cooking how to bring unripe peaches and chickpeas together into a mouth-watering dal. Venturing into the Indian knack for transforming a by-product into the main event, Sindu Dubhashi’s Karwar Cuisine teaches you the art of making watermelon rind pancakes; Renuka Devi Choudhurani’s  Pumpkin Flower Fritters shows you how to repurpose potato skins and ridge gourd skins into a sumptuous dish.

There are endless examples of the Indian passion for making different – even unlikely – combinations work together.

This goes beyond a natural curiosity for flavours… it’s a passion for foodie affinity that treats ingredients like therapy patients – patiently exploring every intricacy that’ll bring the two happily together.

And maybe, that’s part of the same genius for assimilation that helps nurture the world’s largest democracy, and encourages the Indian Constitution to celebrate 22 languages in one country. The same spirit that brings together a wealth of faiths in one place: Hinduism; Islam; Christianity; Sikhism; Buddhism; Jainism; Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

Maybe India is just better at mixing it up than we are.

 

If you’re one of the 1% of readers still going at #CurryInsightNo5, then I ought to cook you one. Seriously, ping me, and we’ll plan a time and a menu.

This journey started with Nigel Slater – and I think it should end back with people. It’s family and friends who shape us, and what we cook and eat.

Here, I’d offer two thoughts about the interplay between curry and people:

first, I owe a debt to Husna Rahaman and her spell-binding Spice Sorcery for the insight that the final, magical ingredient of any curry is the hand that cooks it. Quoting the Kutchi Memon saying: haath ka mazaa (‘the special flavour unique to her hand’)  Rahaman reveals that personality is the unique ingredient you bring to everything you cook. (And going back to Parida’s formula, this means we need to multiply 62 trillion curry recipes by over 1 billion curry cooks!)

last but not least, I want to put it out there that all the people I’ve met on my #curryjourney just happen to be lovely human beings. From the mother and daughter who taught me how to cook Indian rice (Brixton Tesco, 1995) to the delightful Prudential colleague based in Mumbai who sent me rare books and spices; from the staff at Mother India who served me the aloo saag dosa that rocked my world, to the inspirational Asma Khan who proved to me with her cooking that perfect is a thing; from my friends Kamil and Monir at Salisbury’s Asian foodstore who keep me stocked from week to week, to Vivek Singh, Rakesh Ravindran Nair, Laurent Chaniac and all the team at the Cinnamon Club who show me how it should be done.

Of course, I can’t prove that wanting to do amazing things with food makes you a wonderful human being – but that’s been my experience throughout a decade of meeting people through Indian cuisine.

And why I christened this blog… Good Korma.

So Nigel – back at you.

I’ve answered the question you set me – and the itching in my head is easing.

These are my 5 #CurryInsights.

Thank you for the nudge. But no more big thoughts for the moment, please.

 

 

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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.

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