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

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

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

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

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

I can time that transition pretty much to the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not even close.

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

Not yet. Maybe never.

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

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

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

‘Hope you enjoyed my cooking’.

I did.

I truly did.

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

Good Korma.

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