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.

 

 

 

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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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Everything’s relative

Grandfather20150621_20015639

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes, cousin Richard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the story of Edwardian youth.

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

– and the album falls off a cliff.

The Great War has started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then nothing.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Perfect 10

Curry20150617_13004334

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

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

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

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

The next minute is engraved on my memory.

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

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

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

1.00.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it does.

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

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

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

And on we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“PERFECT IS A THING!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:00.

Posted in Darjeeling Express: Asma Khan | 2 Comments

On meeting your hero

Curry20150615_12180176 

Meeting your hero can be a tricky business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page: ‘What do you want?’

Friend: ‘Are you Jimmy Page?’

Page: ‘Yes.’

Friend: ‘Hello.’

Page: ‘Bye.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

He radiates warmth.

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

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

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

It looks horribly messy, but Vivek is intrigued.

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

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

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

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

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

The good times:

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

And the not-so-good times:

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

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

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

But Vivek instantly feels like a member of the gang.

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

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

And his recipes!

My God, the recipes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for giving me so much pleasure.

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

You just need to pick the right one

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

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

 

 

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