Writing

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.

Comedy is subjective. So is writing. I’ve just come across a 45-minute video I felt I had to share. It skirts around both subjects and comes up with some savoury little insights. The video will not please everybody – the comments below it are testament to that – but anyone who shares my vague interest in the psychology of comedy will find it fascinating.

Like him or love him, Stewart Lee is a man who knows his allium from his Elba.

The talk begins slowly and in a slightly rambling, self-conscious manner. Stick with it and your patience will be rewarded. Writer, comedian and (dare I say it?) intellectual Stewart Lee gives a very interesting talk to Oxford University students about his comedy and the writing of it. It’s a reprise of a talk he gave on a writers’ day in February at the University that wasn’t recorded first time around. The recording is straightforward and low-tech, with some gooey fades.

Lee is entirely open and reveals much about his stand-up technique. There’s a fantastic sequence in which he opens up the box and explains how he puts together a stand up show: character, mood and how the “flip” comes about at the end. I’ll never be a comedian, I’ll never be much of a writer, but I can admire the technique.

Charles Dickens’ characters fall into two main categories: the memorable and the totally unforgettable. I can think of no other author who has created fictional characters the equal of vivid Victorians such as (in no particular order): The Artful Dodger, Smike, Joe Gargery, Fagin, Scrooge, Wilkins Micawber, Sam Weller, Daniel Quilp, Mr Dick, Bill Sykes, Magwitch, Frederick Dorrit, Mr Merdle, Mrs Gamp, and, of course, all the title characters. And that’s just from memory, if I had a crib-sheet in front of me, the list would run to dozens, if not hundreds, of names.

I was halfway through a post about Racism in Football (hopefully following not too far behind…) when I spotted a reminder that today (February 7th) is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth. How could I possibly let that pass? I have been enchanted by his work ever since I first watched those atmospheric black and white Sunday teatime adaptations on the BBC, back in the monochrome 1960s. Although I’ve nothing against full colour broadcasting, there is something about black & white telly that sprinkles even more magic dust over Dickens’ characters and storylines. The same goes for those hugely atmospheric David Lean film adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist of the 1940s. For some reason we didn’t touch Dickens for our school exams – no shortage of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though – and I had to discover Dickens’ writing because I wanted to, not because I had to.

For the past couple of months, the British media has been on Dickens overload. Every celebrity from Armando Iannucci and Sue Perkins to Mariella Frostrup and Aled Jones have offered up their praise and opinions on the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. There’s a genuine risk of over-kill and a sad realisation that in a year’s time there’ll probably be no Dickens at all.

That’s the way media people think. No one has ever given me a realistic explanation as to why newspapers, magazines, radio and TV don’t “do” something unless they have an event to “hang it on”. I’d find Charles Dicken just as interesting 199-and-a-half years after his birth as exactly 200, but maybe I’m odd.

There’s a theory that suggests that Charles Dickens’ characters and brilliant – if occasionally over-convoluted – plots were so well-crafted because he had to write them in instalments. The theory falls down when you realise that many other authors wrote to the same constraints and (sadly, perhaps) their work has grown ivy and perished over the years. I think we just have to admit that Dickens’s survived is because they were so extraordinary to start with. Take this extract from Little Dorrit:

An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.

‘Nothing changed,’ said the traveller, stopping to look round. ‘Dark and miserable as ever. A light in my mother’s window, which seems never to have been extinguished since I came home twice a year from school, and dragged my box over this pavement. Well, well, well!’

He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

There’s no room here to offer a Charles Dickens biography, but enough space not to ignore the basic facts.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire on February 7th, 1812. It was a memorable year all round: poet Robert Browning and the architect Augustus Pugin shared the same birth-year; the metric system was first adopted in France; Napoleon invaded Russia (later commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture); and Britain went to war with the United States. By the time of his death, 58 years, four months and two days later, Dickens had written 15-and-a-half novels, 6 novellas and numerous shorter pieces.

The biggest selling of all his novels is A Tale of Two Cities. Don’t ask me why. The book with the most adaptations is A Christmas Carol, possible because Christmas does come around once every year…

The BBC’s Big Read survey of Britain’s favourite novels, undertaken in 2003, contained five from Dickens in the Top 100. They were: Great Expectations (17), David Copperfield (34), A Christmas Carol (47), A Tale of Two Cities (63) and Bleak House (79). Dickens and Terry Pratchett shared the distinction of having the most works in the first 100. (I wonder if that would be repeated in even 20 years from now.) For me, the big surprises were that Bleak House did so well (a clear two years before the ground-breaking BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance), and that Oliver Twist did so badly – only managing to scrape in at number 182.

You would have thought that with all the adaptations, in particular Lionel Bart’s spirited musical would have propelled Oliver Twist into the top 150 at the very least. It’s not as if the storyline – including the memorable line: “Please sir, I want some more!” – isn’t well known or that Charles Dickens’ characters in Oliver Twist are not up to standard. My theory is that we prefer our Dickens a little darker… preferably in black and white.

Never mind the old cliché that says ‘there’s a novel inside everyone’. It might well be true, but the tricky part is getting it out and on to paper.

After 23 years trying, I think I’ve finally discovered the secrets of writing a novel the easy way.

I’ve served time as publisher, reviewer and writer and I’ve met a few authors in my time, ranging from Stephen King, Ian Rankin and Ken Follett to Ken Bruen, Terry Pratchett and Minette Walters. Although you can never lump everyone into the same pigeon-hole, generally speaking people who write books, especially novels, are ‘different’. There’s something about them that sets writers apart from the rest of society.

For a start, they have to be single-minded. Working out a story, inventing characters and putting it all down on paper (all right, probably a computer screen, but don’t pick hairs) is a very daunting process. Most novels range in length from 50,000 to 150,000 words: a lot of writing, with plenty of opportunities along the way to think ‘the hell with this!’ and run off and watch reruns of the High Chaparral.

Veteran American mystery writer Joe Gores quotes the advice given to him when he asked a Notre Dame professor how to become a writer: ‘It’s very easy to be a writer. Go to a big city and get a little room with a table and a chair in it. Put your typewriter on the table and your backside on the chair. Start writing. When you stand up ten years later, you’ll be a writer.’ Today we can substitute ‘computer’ for ‘typewriter’ (have you ever tried to get ribbons for those things?) and we have to conquer the urge to edit whilst we write, but essentially nothing fundamental has changed.

To be productive, writers need to have a strong belief in their own talent and a confidence that what they are writing is ‘good enough’. As a former publisher who had to wade through piles of submissions, I can vouch that very often this confidence is very often misguided. Having said that, several terrible writers I rejected (no names) went on to have great success with other publishers. So the question to ask yourself is ‘good enough for what?’. And frankly, that depends on what your goals are.

If you’re attempting literary fiction and you suffer from lack of self-confidence, then you’re probably a masochist who should think about switching to self-flagellation: it’ll be immensely less painful in the long run. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to write a thriller, a romance, historical mystery or similar genre novel, keep at it. As another old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Writing is a craft that can be learned and the way to learn is to work at it. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just get writing. There’s nothing you write that can’t be edited and improved on later.

I can confess that I suffer from a severe lack of confidence in my writing. At the moment I am reading The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, a brilliantly multi-textured work of fiction by any standard and I can’t help comparing Burke’s flowing prose to my own miserable efforts. Which is silly. A guy I know who teaches writing at university suggests that would-be novelists keep a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to hand. It sold millions and zillions of copies, but let’s be honest, Dan Brown is no William Shakespeare, nor I suspect would he want to be.

So that’s how you write a novel. You simply sit down and write. There is no easy way unless you are the type of self-obsessed, doggedly persistent person that will make a natural author. For the rest of us, I can recommend a very helpful eBook: Mark Timlin’s Write A Novel in 60 Days That Will Sell. It covers practically everything you need to know to conquer writers’ block, as well as plenty of other unique writing tips. I know because I helped write it. It’s the best. Honest.