This week I was invited to a special Diwali supper club. It was hosted by Luiz of the food blog The London Foodie, and it featured a menu devised by food writer and private chef Maunika Gowardhan. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, falls on October 26 this year, and celebrates the Hindu New Year. As with all good festivals, food is at the heart of Diwali celebrations, often involving elaborate feasts with plenty of sweet things, and incorporating lots of coconut, nutmeg, raisins, cardamom, nuts and sugar.
My experiences of Indian cuisine haven’t been anything very memorable, nor anything remotely approaching authentic. While I do enjoy a Tandoori chicken in our local curry house in Yorkshire, and while I did have a great experience at the Anokaa restaurant in Salisbury when I was there for a weekend (including a wonderful duck and apricot curry and a delicious scallop starter), I’m pretty sure I have never sampled anything that a real Indian would recognise.
Maunika is the author of the food blog Cook in a Curry and is influenced by recipes passed down through her family and their history. She cooks dishes from all the diverse regions of India, adding her own family’s touches. I was told she had been frenetically cooking all day in order to accomplish our feast, and this soon became clear when I saw it: nine separate dishes, not including the raita and chapatis, all totally different and all equally enticing. Rice was at the heart of two of the recipes, to demonstrate its versatility in different kinds of Indian cooking.
Firstly, to accompany an intensely alcoholic orange and cardamom Martini, we had deep fried sundried tomato and mozzarella rice balls, just like Sicilian arancini, Maunika added her own Indian twist by serving them with a delicious fresh mint dipping sauce. The combination was one of crunchy breadcrumbs, soft rice and a gooey piece of mozzarella in the centre.
Next we had paneer haraa tikka, squares of Indian cheese (rather like halloumi in texture, but less salty) marinated in green herbs, garlic and chillies, then grilled. The real star of this dish, though, was a wonderful pineapple and black pepper chutney. It was bursting with zesty, pineapple flavour, intensely sweet yet sharp at the same time. Maunika had apparently made it at home over a month ago.
Next we were invited to help ourselves to a banquet of delights. First there was haraa masala chicken, a green stew of chicken meat, caramelised onions, fresh mint and coriander. There was also lamb yakhni pulao, a pilaff of basmati rice, garlic and ground spices, cooked in lamb stock and butter and containing succulent chunks of lamb. Maunika had made the stock herself from lamb bones earlier.
My favourite dish of the evening was a Keralan fish curry. Maunika pan-fried fillets of sea bass and served them in a pale yellow coconut curry flavoured with fresh curry leaves, ginger and lemon juice. We also had Bainhan ka bharta, a dish of charred aubergines cooked in spices and fresh ginger. This definitely had a kick to it, but you could still detect the unmistakeable deep flavour of roasted aubergine. It was wonderful accompanied with roasted cumin and pomegranate raita, which took the edge off the spices a little.
Pudding consisted of coconut, ginger and basmati rice pancakes with grilled pineapple and maple syrup and Bengali bhapa doi, which tasted like a baked ricotta cheesecake. This was flavoured with cardamom, and served with a wonderful mango coulis.
To try the lamb dish at home, Maunika has provided the recipe:
Yakhni Lamb Pulao:
For the stock and meat:
600g shoulder of lamb on the bone cut in medium sized pieces
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
5 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
Enough water to cover all the meat (about a litre)
For the pulao:
2 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
1 inch cinnamon stick broken in half
5 green cardamom pods
2 medium onions thinly sliced
1 heaped tbsp ginger paste
2 heaped tbsp garlic paste
1 tsp nutmeg powder
350g Tilda Pure Basmati Rice
600ml lamb stock
Salt to taste
Tie up the onion and all the whole spices in muslin securing with a string. Cook it with the meat and water in a stock pot over a hob: bring to the boil and simmer for an hour and 15 minutes. The stock, along with the meat and spices, can be left in the pot overnight which will enhance the flavours.
The following day discard the muslin with its contents, separate the meat from the stock and set aside.
Prepare the rice by soaking for at least 30 minutes and rinsing in a sieve until the water runs clear.
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom pods. Fry them for a minute as they sizzle and release their flavours in the oil. Add the sliced onions. Fry the onions on a medium heat till they soften and are a light golden brown.
Add the ginger and garlic paste and cook through for a couple of minutes. Now add the nutmeg powder stirring well for a few seconds making sure the powder does not burn.
Mix in the cooked lamb and the rice. Season with salt and stir, add the stock and mix well. Cover and cook on a low heat for about 20 minutes or so, until the rice is completely cooked. Turn the heat off and garnish with fresh coriander. Serve warm with mint raita.
Elly McCausland’s Blog: www.nutmegsseven.com