I was impressed by the Manchester deli just opened by Lily’s, long time champions of Indian vegetarian food in Ashton-under-Lyne. When I first ate at the original mothership, named after the Sachdev family matriarch, it was very much a case of teeming thalis on formica top tables. Very much a cafe. The new generation have upped the style offering (check out the Ashton HQ murals) without compromising the food quality. Not that I’m ever likely to acquire a taste for any of their mega-sticky mainstay sweets.
In its gleaming new Henry Street outlet offering takeaway and store cupboard staples (but alas no fresh veg or herbs) there are ranks of these technicolor treats above a counter of samosas, pakoras, bhajis and other savoury snacks that are more to my taste.
So I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of Gujarati samosas on a flying visit, but my focus was elsewhere. I’m well stocked with every variety of Indian spice, but it is a while since the Anardana jar has been refreshed. OK, not a phrase you hear everyday; let’s just call me a sub-continental completist.
I scanned the alphabetically arranged spice shelves in vain but no anardana in sight. What is this elusive culinary enhancement? It is basically dried pomegranate seeds ground into a powder to serve as an intense acidifying agent in dishes, especially those from the Punjab. The seeds and pulp are separated from the rind of the fruit and shrivelled in the sun for up to a fortnight, turning reddish brown. According to the great Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, the best example comes from the wild pomegranate known as daru, which grows in the lower Himalayas.
I eventually sourced my anardana replenishment in the foothills of Levenshulme at the Noor supermarket, which stocks two rival brands. You could, of course, substitute Iranian pomegranate molasses, popularised by Yotam Ottolenghi, for the same effect.
Rival souring agents vary according to region. Kerala ha th pumpkin-based cambodge, while the Konkan area flavours its dal with kokum, but anardana’s main rival is Amchoor, which provides a sourer, resinous oomph to curries, chutneys and especially chaats. The base here is green, unripe, out-of-season mangoes, again sun-dried. then pulverised, with the advantage of adding no extra moisture to dishes. Like papaya, it can be used to tenderise meat. It is packed with potassium, magnesium, calcium and assorted vitamins. Whatever, use it sparingly.
Which brings us to a third ‘A’ that to me is a prime sensory component of Indian cooking but can overwhelm a dish – Asafoetida. The ‘foetid’ gives the game away about this gum extracted from a pungent variety of giant fennel. John O’Connell in his essential The Book of Spice describes it as smelling like “pickled eggs covered in manure”. The French call it merde du diable (devil’s dung). And yet… in its powdered form temper a dish with what the Indians call ‘hing’ and all that rankness dissolves. It recreates the aromas of onion and garlic, staples deemed impure by certain Hindu castes, so it is the perfect substitute. No Indian pickle is the same without it. Amazingly until recently India imported the entirety of its hing from colder climate countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. Now there’s an initiative to ‘grow their own’, according to a Guardian report.
According to O’Connell, there are strong Ayurvedic medical claims for asafoetida as both sedative and stimulant. A further plus is its ability to suppress flatulence. That’s the calling card too for Ajwain (or ajowan). It’s the prime constituent of Omum Water, the Sub-continent’s version of gripe water, once given to babies for colic, and has a range of antiseptic properties. I’m quietly addicted to it in spice mixtures, especially for dusting chaats (above, the moreish Bundobust version. Known familiarly as the bishop’s weed, it’s an obvious cousin to fennel, cumin and caraway. https://bundobust.com
In the Noor Stores along Levenshulme’s global main drag ajwain was there in the spice section, neighboured by three varieties of anardana. Back of the net! And irresistible giant fresh pomegranates were also on sale for a pittance. The benefits (and excitement) of buying ethnic.
My favourite chaat recipe – Meera Sodha’s New Potato + Chickpea
75g pitted dates; 3tsp tamarind paste; salt; 2tbsp Greek yoghurt; 600g baby new potatoes; 2tbsp unsalted butter; 1tsp cumin seeds, roughly ground; ½tsp ground black pepper; 1tsp ground ginger; 1 green finger chilli, finely chopped; 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed; 1 large banana shallot, finely diced; juice of 1 lemon; large handful of coriander, chopped; handful of thin sev (fried chickpea noodles).
Prepare the date and tamarind chutney first. Blend the dates together with the tamarind paste and a pinch of salt and 100ml of water, then leave to one side.
Mix the yogurt with a couple of tablespoons of water until you can drizzle it using a spoon, then leave to one side. Wash and boil the potatoes for 15 minutes, until they are tender and a knife can slip through them easily. Drain, tip out onto a plate, and crush them slightly with a fork or the bottom of a sturdy cup.
Put the butter into a wide-bottomed frying pan over a medium heat. When melted, add the ground cumin seeds, black pepper, ginger, chilli, and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Stir, then add the potatoes. Leave the potatoes to crisp and char for around 5 minutes, to heat through. Toss together and throw in the chickpeas, shallots, and lemon juice. Then add the date and tamarind chutney. Stir to mix and take off the heat.
Serve warm in individual plates or bowls with a couple of dollops of yogurt, a scattering of coriander and sev. (I sprinkle over a couple of teaspoons of chaat masala spice mix. You can make your own (amchoor, coriander, cumin, black pepper, kala namak, cinnamon, ginger). I bought a packet from Lily’s.
From Fresh India by Meera Sodha (Fig Tree, £20)