Food

Punjabi mutton curry- the perfect home curryAnyone seeking out the “authentic curry experience” is on a fool’s errand. Leaving definition aside, everybody’s got a different idea of what makes for a Perfect Curry. There are so many variations it’s easy to boggle the mind as well as the palate. Even narrowing it down to just dishes from the Indian Sub-Continent, there are almost as many individual cuisines to sample as there are corpses bobbing around in the Ganges.

Ingredients and cooking techniques vary wildly, depending on the region and the ethnic background of the person cooking. The rich and densely reduced sauces of the Punjab have little in common with the rasam (“pepper soup”) and dosas (“savoury pancakes”) of the south. Both of these are as far removed from the Keralan fish mollie as the piquant fish dishes of Bengal, cooked in pungent mustard oil for added bite. It almost goes without saying that the glutinous splurge masquerading as supermarket “curry sauce” is about as authentic and tasty as liquidised Pot Noodle®.

In large Indian cities, the way a dish is prepared, spiced, and cooked, can vary from street-corner to street corner. A dish served one way in a restaurant will be prepared totally differently in another, and different again when it comes from a home kitchen. The recipe and techniques used can depend on whether the cook is from a Moslem, Buddhist, Parsee, Christian or Hindu background. Also on the caste they were brought up in. Some say there’s no such thing as an authentic Indian curry. I prefer to think there are thousands.

I’ve been cooking and eating “Indian” food for the best part of forty years. I even had the dream job of assessing Indian restaurants in London for the Time Out Eating Guide and Eating Awards. I could eat in the capital’s best Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan restaurants at Time Out’s expense. Back then London’s restaurants were going through massive changes. It was starting to dawn on food snobs who ran Michelin Guides and suchlike that there was more to great food than truffade, ragout and galettes. As a result, some of the best chefs in the world descended on London to cook different foods from around the world. Even curry.

I was noshing divine food every day, but generally the best Indian meals I ever had were eaten in the homes of ordinary people. The time, care, and attention of the skilled home cook adds an extra dimension to multi-dimensional spiced food that’s almost impossible to recreate in a commercial kitchen.

Most people have become aware that Britain’s “Indian” restaurants are almost entirely Bangladeshi-owned and run. Only the best of them feature dishes from their home country. The rest are content to serve “curry house” staples, a mish-mash of Sub-Continental dishes that evolved in the UK’s Indian restaurants from the late 1950s onwards. Dishes were reinvented, partly to appeal to more conservative British taste-buds, partly to knock out the need for long cooking times and adapt to the constraints of the restaurant environment. Very often authentic ingredients were unavailable at the time, and so substitutions had to be made.

The results were dishes with names familiar to Indian food lovers, but describing dishes that were as alien as haggis and jambalaya. The likes of prawn vindaloo, chicken tikka masala and lamb korma were streets away from the original dishes whose names they had purloined. Although most diners didn’t know it, they were eating uniquely British meals rather than authentic versions of original Indian dishes. In India, a korma might well contain a handful of chillies but never so much as a splash of cream. Vindaloo was a Portuguese pork dish from Goa rather than a hot curry with potato, which was included simply because “aloo” is Hindi for potato. Good guess, but no coconut (which is reserved for the so-called “Sri Lankan” style).

The best way to sample authentic Indian food is either to travel to the Sub-Continent, or else cook it yourself. Even if you do go down the DIY route, chances are you’ll be following a recipe that’s been adapted for European tastes. Most Indian home cooks work from memory and only measure ingredients very approximately. That’s why I think it’s best to learn authentic techniques, rather than try and master individual recipes.

There’s a definite home cooked taste that comes from using fresh spices and grinding them yourself. Here’s a revealing YouTube clip of British chef Rick Stein watching a woman in India make culinary magic with chillies, garlic and a few other “wet and dry” ingredients:

Rick is wrong about the grinders. I’ve had one for some time – admittedly bought online from India – but now you can get them from Amazon. Here’s a rather grand link showing the one I use:

Having got your grinder, you can improve the taste of your curries 100%. One way to do that is to roast and grind your own cumin and coriander seeds. Simply buy a pack of the whole seeds (check to sell-by date to be at least one year away), and roast them gently in a dry frying pan. You’ve got to constantly move them around in the pan to roast every seed individually. After a few minutes, the aroma with change slightly and become more nutty. This means they are done.

Quickly plunge the base of the pan into a little cold water, to stop the roasting process, but don’t let the seeds get wet. When the seeds are cool, pour them in to the container of your wet & dry grinder and pulse a few times until ground. You’ll probably have to do this in 2-3 batches. Smell the resulting powder and compare it to the much more muted ready-ground type. I guarantee you’ll never go back.

You can add more of that fresh taste and aroma to every curry you make by mastering the very simple technique of making a fresh paste at home. Here’s one I often make at home, and serve with perfect rice and a simple salad made from chopped onion, tomato and cucumber.

The exact spices and the ingredients of the curry vary, and I might decide to mix and match. Sometimes I make it with peas and potato, other times mixed vegetables, Quorn pieces or prawns. I’m a Pescetarian, but you could easily use chicken, beef or lamb if you want to. Quantities are given as a rough guide only. Feel free to experiment.

The (almost) Perfect Curry

You’ll need:

1 fairly large onion (or 2 smaller ones)
3-6 garlic cloves
1-2 cm piece of fresh ginger root chopped into smaller pieces
1 or 2 fresh green chillies (de-seeded if you don’t like it too hot)
a handful of black peppercorns. 3-4 for mild, 12-14 for something really flavoursome.
2 bay leaves (Indian bay leaves from a packet, if possible)
1 sprig of curry leaves (optional)
fresh or tinned chopped tomatoes

Preparation:

Slice the onion and fry in a little oil over a medium heat. Stir frequently to prevent burning.

While you’re doing that, fill your grinder receptacle with the peeled garlic, ginger, chillies, peppercorns, bay-leaves and curry leaves (without the stalks), or indeed any other curry spices you fancy. Add a dollop of tomato and/or a tiny bit of water to make a paste. Grind down using pulses rather than a long grind.

When the onion is soft and turning golden, add a small amount of cold water to cool it down and pour in the ground cumin and turmeric. Cook over a slow heat until the oil starts to rise. When it does, add the spice paste from the grinder. Stir until the spices cook. The smell will change from “raw” to “curry”, and the oil will rise again.

Add your main ingredient (unless you are using fish or prawns), with more tomatoes and water to cover. Throw in a little salt, and cook until the curry is cooked. You’ll have to rely on testing and experience for knowing when it’s ready. Keep adding water as necessary to maintain the curry consistency. For prawns and fish, you need to cook your sauce, and then add them at the last minute; otherwise they’ll over-cook.

Season to taste and serve hot with rice, salad and maybe a bowl of dahl.

Keep experimenting and mix and match the spices and ingredients to find what works best for you. You’ll be amazed at the fresh taste this method gives the curry, In all probability you will never be able to go back to curry powder or cook-in sauces again. It’s a big moment.

I hope you enjoy my take on the perfect curry.

Britain’s position in northern Europe makes it natural beer and cider country. It’s all to do with the weather. Even though southern English vineyards like Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Rathfinney have recently achieved spectacular success, our climate is better suited to growing barley and hops. That’s why the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Poland brew the best beers in the world; and why France, Italy, Australia and South Africa are generally known for their sublime wines.

A good beer is a wonderful thing. I can’t think of a better meal than a pint of spectacularly good real ale – such as Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord or Caledonian Deuchars IPA – served with slices hewn from a crusty freshly-baked cob, and a chunk of proper cheese. The thing cheese has over other sources of protein is that it’s gentle on the teeth. No bones, no hard seeds, and no need to find a dentist after taking a bite.

When it comes to cheese, greasy supermarket cheddars and plasticine pre-packed portions just will not do. It’s got to be something great: a crumbly Hawes Wensleydale, a proper Farmhouse Double Gloucester or even a smear of Stinking Bishop. At the moment, I’m addicted to a crunchy Belton Farm Red Leicester made exclusively for Waitrose. As there’s no Waitrose supermarket within an easy gallop, it means a bit of a trek for me. The full, mellow flavour and salt crystal crunch make it a worthwhile journey.

Natural accompaniments to our meal of ale and cheese include a flavoursome red tomato, a few slithers of English onion and maybe a touch of homemade chutney. The important thing is to complement the beer, not batter it into submission.

real_ale_pint

People outside the loop simply cannot understand why so-called “real ale” – or cask-conditioned ale, to give it its proper title – is in a class apart from keg bitters and mass-produced lagers. Unfortunately, these people usually include the accountants and strivers who make decisions for breweries, pub companies, and eating establishments.

Up to a decade ago, I used to write about beer and pubs for London’s Time Out magazine. It was a great part-time job, even if it didn’t pay enough to get drunk on. It was quite usual in those days for me to visit a bar relaunching itself as a gastropub, to find a range of beers similar to those in a boozer on a housing estate. Sometimes there’d be an expensive European lager to help boost the bottom line and appease the trendies.

Wine lists would invariably be out of this world and contain rare delights from every continent. The food was usually prepared with care and skill, but at the bar you’d be limited to the usual range of keg lagers and bitters. If you were lucky, there might be a single pump serving “bog standard” house bitter. It was like going to a restaurant striving for a Michelin Star who’d sourced their vegetables from cans in the Tesco Value Range.

What Is Real Ale?

The very best beer can and should be compared to the finest wine. Drinks writer Oz Clarke may be known for being a wine expert, but I happen to know that when given the choice, he’s happiest sitting in a corner of a quiet British pub, sampling the local real ales.

Real ale comes in two forms: as a pint of living, breathing draught beer in a pub, and as bottle-conditioned. In both cases, the beer contains live yeast. Up to around 1960, nearly every British pub sold only real ale. The problem is this: good beer requires a little knowledge, care and attention. The best of them can easily be ruined by not being properly cared for. It’s not surprising that business-orientated breweries sought to standardise the quality of their beers.

red-barrel-bar-mountWatneys’ Brewery in south-west London had developed a solution years before. Back in the hot summer of 1936,  members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club had a major problem. Most players used the club at the weekend, and in the intervening five days the beer in the bar was going off. Luckily for them, one of their members was Bert Hussey, the Watneys’ Master Brewer.

He developed a premium export bitter that was then filtered and pasteurised to kill off the yeast. The name comes about because workers at the brewery  painted the special barrels red to differentiate them from those containing lesser liquids. To replace the yeast’s sparkle, Bert came up with the idea of connecting the barrels to a small tank of carbon dioxide. This provided the fizz, and propelled the beer from cellar to the bar, meaning there was no need for traditional beer pumps. The result was a great-looking pint, served cold and fizzy.

Red Barrel was a great hit with the members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, and it became available elsewhere as a premium product. Because the gas kept escaping from wooden barrels, this type of beer was soon shipped out in metal kegs. It’s thought that Flowers’ Brewery – later to be swallowed up by Whitbread – were the first to market the new, more expensive product as “keg bitter”.

Keg bitter took hold in the UK in the 1960s. The rise of commercial television and the need for a uniform product was too tempting a prospect for brewery accountants to ignore. Perversely, the likes of Red Barrel, Double Diamond, Worthing E, Youngers Tartan, Ben Truman, Whitbread Tankard, and Courage Tavern, were brewed with more expensive ingredients and promoted as premium products over the few cask-conditioned ales that survived.

The poor quality of pub beer at the time had led to a general trend towards bottled beers after the Second World War. By 1958, bottled beers amounted for 37% of the revenue of pubs operated by English brewers. Keg provided a cheaper and more deliverable alternative.

Canned beer had existed in the USA since the end of Prohibition, and in Britain since December 1935, when Llanelli brewers, Felinfoel, launched their own beer in a can. Despite the general availability of huge cans of beer like Watney’s Party Seven, the trend for “tinnies” didn’t take off until the 1980s onwards, when major supermarkets aggressively attacked the market.

One of the tactics national brewers used to promote keg bitters was to downgrade the quality of the ingredients and strengths of cask-conditioned versions. The desire for standardisation, combined with the rise of lager served in the same manner as keg bitters, made commercial sense to do away with everything else.

The way big brewers downgraded cask-conditioned ales eventually led a fightback. Lovers of real ale recognised the undoubted value of their favourite tipple and, in 1971, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded. From small beginnings, do mighty acorns grow. What started out as a small pressure group snowballed and now almost every pub in Britain worth its salt sells at least one cask-conditioned ale.

Now, many fine real ales are brewed in a legion of small independent breweries across the UK. The major brewers effectively accounted themselves out of business, and the one or two that still exist mostly brew just lager. There are some sad stories. Whitbread, who began brewing in 1742, stopped producing beer in 2001, and is now in the cut-price hotel and pizza business. Young’s, whose Ram Brewery at Wandsworth was claimed to be Britain’s oldest continuous brewing centre is now just a pub company. Property company Minerva plc, who now own the brewery site have built a microbrewery in the old lab so as to keep up the claim of the “oldest British brewery”.

There are now estimated to be 800 breweries in the UK, most of which are small, independently-owned microbreweries. That’s more than twice as many as existed when CAMRA was formed.

Several long-established regional breweries have survived repeated rounds of corporate pass the parcel. The best of these include Charles Wells (now called Wells & Young’s, of Bedford, 1876); Fuller’s Brewery (Grifin Brewery at Chiswick in London, 1845); Timothy Taylor, (Keighley, 1858); and Hall & Woodhouse, (Badger Brewery at Blandford St. Mary in Dorset, 1777). Long may these and all the others continue producing unique British ales we can be proud of.

Anyone who thinks that lager is better for Britain that real ale should watch this video from the regional news on BBC North:

I’ve just been watching Seasick Steve on a Sunday morning cookery programme on BBC Two television called Something For The Weekend. In it he sang a song, drank a cocktail and grated cheese into a bowl in order to make it look like he was making a key lime pie. The presenters oo-ed and aw-ed his every word, particularly astounded at his admission that he’d never had cocktails before –  aside from harvey wallbangers and martinis, of course. These are the lengths it seems you have to go to in order to “make it big” in the modern age.

It could be said that Seasick Steve got off lightly compared to those fame-addicted minor celebs encouraged to eat whole chillis on Big Brother and live grubs and kangaroo penises for I’m An Idiot Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!. Once you’ve answered and re-answered spurious questions about being arrested for vagrancy and hopping freight cars on the Paul O’Grady Show and Richard & Judy, pretending to make a key lime pie must be small potatoes.

Let me say right here and now that Seasick Steve is a wonderful artist and, by all accounts, a very fine fellow. In no way do I want to take anything away from him. His rise from itinerant labourer and sometime musician to headlining at London’s Royal Albert Hall was fairly rapid (only 40 years), utterly deserved and the stuff of fairytales. In an interview in March 2006 for Blues In London he admitted that his main goals were cash and fame: “I’m motivated by money! I wanna be one of the stars! Man you know I aint got that much.” Can’t blame him for that… at least he has the talent to go with it.

If you don’t know Seasick Steve from Seasick Stephen Hawking, here’s his life in 156 words: At the age of 14, Steve Wold left the family home in Oakland, California, hopping freights across the USA, his only constant companion a battered, customised guitar. He’d been taught a few chords by Delta bluesman KC Douglas, who worked in his grandfather’s auto-shop. After spending part of the Flower Power era in San Francisco, Steve hopped a cheap flight to Paris and travelled through France and the UK, before being drawn back to the States. When he wasn’t picking fruit or digging potatoes, he’d busk and play the odd support slot. By the 1990s, he was married, settled down, raising five children, playing with bluesman RL Burnside and producing albums for the likes of US indie-rockers Modest Mouse. A decade ago, he and his Norwegian wife relocated to Norway, where he made a solo album in their kitchen. It landed on the desk of London DJ Joe Cushley, and the rest is history. Or very nearly.

Appearances on Hootenanny and Later With Jools Holland secured Steve’s status as the hobo we all could love. The nearest we’ll get to Woody Guthrie and with fewer rough edges. A new agent trounced on to the scene and Steve and was plucked out of the clubs and the independently-run music festivals that had fuelled his career thus far and propelled into the big-time, playing the Royal Albert Hall and similarly large concert venues. Exclusive contracts were signed with a big time music corporation for exclusive festival appearances at Latitude and Glastonbury 2008.

Many of us would rather see Seasick Steve in a sweaty club that a fully-seated municipal theatre smelling of faux-marigolds and popcorn, but that’s the way it goes. That’s his choice – or at least the choice of his manager, agent and their financial advisers. You lose the atmosphere in the bigger venues but the money’s better and the seats are clean.

I was giving out leaflets outside the Royal Albert Hall the night Steve played there. The people who were emerging from taxis weren’t the type I would regularly see at the 100 Club, where I promote most of my blues-tinged shows. In fact, most had never heard of the place. I’ll also bet that the majority of the City workers and Notting Hillbillies who seemed to make up Steve’s Albert Hall audience had never heard of Woody Guthrie. After all, Woody never got to appear on Later With Jools Holland and be accorded the attendant honour of the loveable tinkler jamming along to “This Land Is Your Land”. Pity. I can see the freshly-repainted slogan, “This Machine Kills Pub Pianists”.

If you’re wondering how the key lime pie turned out, sorry, I can’t help you. I was so embarrassed for Steve that I was forced to wipe the recording then and there. I hear they’ve got Chuck Berry on next week, preparing individual black forest gateaux.

UPDATE (21/01/09):

Since I posted this, Seasick Steve has just been nominated for a Brit Award. He’s competing with Neil Diamond for the Meals On Wheels Award for Best International Artist or somefink.

I’ve also learned that the female presenter of Something For The Weekend was former Spice Girl Emma Bunting. And I just thought she was just an unknown incompetent who’d slept with the producer.

Rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed in the world today. Or slightly more if you eat at the Wong Kei restaurant in London’s Soho, where servings are particularly generous.

A long time ago, before even the Sex Pistols were a glint in someone’s eye, I was taught to cook “Indian” vegetarian food by a Pakistani chef called Mr Murzer. He was a friendly man from a family of great chefs and a strict teacher. One of his many rules was that I must only ever cook with genuine basmati rice. Grown in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, its grains are long and slender and the flavours and aromas it releases when correctly cooked are unmistakable. The name “basmati” comes from a mixture of the Hindi and Sanskrit words for “fragrance” and “perfume”.

I have not seen Mr Murzer for over thirty years and, as he must have been in his mid-to late-fifties back then, I assume he’ll be dead by now, or at the very least, incapable of boxing my ears as hard as he used to whenever I made stupid mistakes, such as not tempering my spices properly or letting the yoghurt curdle. On that understanding, I can reveal that in the subsequent years I have been known to occasionally summon up the odd risotto with arborio or carnaroli rice, but generally speaking it’s been basmati all the way for me.

The first thing to be sure of is that the rice you buy is really basmati. The high cost of producing and ageing genuine basmati grains makes it lucrative for unscrupulous fellows to repackage any old long grain rubbish as the “prince of rices”. Those garish packets you sometimes find in Indian supermarkets at half the price of everything else is unlikely to be the genuine article. Although this is not something I ever apply to other products, the only sure way your rice is really basmati is to buy a recognised brand, such as Tilda, Veetee or TRS.

Basmati rice comes in two forms – white and brown–  and each requires a simple but entirely different cooking process. In both cases you will need a fairly small pan with a tight-fitting lid. You’ll find that anally-retentive types will almost certainly employ a special rice pan. Mine holds two pints and comes with two small metal handles instead of a single long plastic one. This is so you can stick it in the oven without melting the handle and stinking out the neighbourhood.

White basmati is milled an polished, and and is what is served as “plain boiled rice” in most Indian restaurants. You’ll need a handy measure. I use a plastic half-pint beaker and know that dry rice almost up to the top will provide four generous portions. You simply measure out the amount of dry rice you need, wash it in a sieve under running water to get rid of all the powered starch, then add it to the rice pan together with one-and-a-half times the amount (by volume) of fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil, add a pinch of salt, stir quickly, slam on the lid and turn down the heat to its lowest.

After exactly eight minutes, remove your pan from the heat and leave to stand. The longer you leave it, the fluffier the rice will be. Try and manage fifteen minutes; if it’s going to be more, stick your unopened pan inside a very low oven. Do not be tempted to take off the lid before you are ready to serve. In Indian restaurants, they make the rice at lunchtime in huge pans (one for plain; another with food colourings, oil and spices for pillau rice), leaving it in a barely warm oven all afternoon to let the grains separate and the flavours intensify.

Brown rice contains the whole grain and needs 25 minutes to cook. You don’t have to wash it, but you can if you like. Simply plonk a cupful of rice and enough boiling water to cover it plus a centimetre or so, into the same pan and boil rapidly for fifteen minutes. During that time you may have to filter off the “scum” (that’s the dark brown powered starch) or top up with hot water from the kettle, as needed. At the end of fifteen minutes you need to set your timer for another ten. You’ll ideally have water a tiny way above the grains, if not, add more from the kettle or boil rapidly until what’s in there has evaporated to the correct level. Add a pinch of salt, stir once and plonk on the lid, simmering on the lowest heat for whatever remains of the ten minutes. Leave to stand for at least ten minutes.

After a while, the amounts of water, rice and salt you use will become second nature and you’ll rarely have to do anything other than plonk on the lid and turn down the heat. At the end of your resting period you will have perfect Basmati rice.

If not, Mr Murzer will come and box your ears.