Tag Archive for: India

A boon in life to have always been well fed. The same goes for my extended family. Far too many are not so lucky. It has been on my mind a lot of late as, at my stove, I enjoy the privilege of cooking for pleasure, not for hard-pressed subsistence. I’ve just prepared a herb-fragrant keema pau of minced mutton with a kachumber salad. It’s a favourite recipe from the ravishing Dishoom: From Bombay With Love cookbook, celebrating the Irani cafes of Old Mumbai and promoting the nine-strong Dishoom UK restaurant brand.

This huge success story is the creation of cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, whom I first met on a press trip to their London bases in advance of their branching out to Manchester in late 2018. It proved to be more than just the usual junket.

What struck me in their establishments was their mastery of authentic style alongside an accessible menu that still felt a refreshing antidote to curry house cliché. Also, thanks to a kind invitation to a family gathering in the presence of Shamil’s mother Rekha, I began to understand the ethical undertow to all they do. It was most evident in their determination to run their restaurants without barriers of prejudice. 

Their website offers a mission statement: ”We get Muslims and non-Muslims to celebrate Eid, and Hindus and non-Hindus to celebrate Diwali. We tie Knots of Protection on each other. We bring people from all cultures and all walks of life together in our restaurants, and we feed millions of children.”

That last commitment sounds staggering, but it is true. So far, they have donated the cost of 20 MILLION meals for charities – supporting in the UK Magic Breakfast, dedicated to providing meals so children don’t go hungry before school starts, and in their Indian homeland the The Akshaya Patra Foundation. This is a behemoth of an operation that has so far served up a staggering 3.5 BILLION free school meals. That’s healthy hot nourishment to 2.2 million children in 20,000 schools daily, dished in tiffin boxes out from 68 mega kitchens across the sub-continent. This remarkable video shows how they do it, mass producing sambar and rice for southern states, dal and roti for northern. 

Since 2020, separate from the Dishoom tie-in, Akshaya’s remit has also covered meals to children and vulnerable groups in North London The reason? 800,000 children in the capital alone are at risk from food poverty, while across the UK 1.7 million children of low income families are not eligible for free school meals. The figures I’m quoting are from Akshaya Patra’s own annual report, but I have no reason to doubt they are true. This is Marcus Rashford territory.

Their London hub is based, with unconscious irony, on Imperial Way, Watford, but a new pilot venture also takes in Nottingham, providing a hot meal for after school clubs. These are aimed at youngsters who have no surface at home where they can do homework and, possibly, parents with no educational confidence.

The importance of food charities for education

‘Akshaya’ means limitless and ‘Patra’ means a bowl of food. The guiding principle in India is to encourage kids to continue in education rather than forced to go to work too young or even beg. Across the sub-continent at least 35 million children aged 6-14 years do not attend school. And for those who do lack of nutrition seriously hinders their attention in class.

Let Ashkata UK Ceo Daniel Adams explain: “When hunger is a barrier to education it also becomes a barrier to social mobility. A child that is not fed can become a teenager that did not learn and an adult that stays in poverty. We care deeply about breaking down these barriers. It’s a social justice issue with long term benefits. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.

“Dishoom are an extremely generous corporate patron who help power our programme. We make natural bedfellows through a love of for and nutrition with shared Indian roots. We are so grateful to them.”

Stalwart campaigner Jamie Oliver is on the case, too: “I truly believe that if every child had access to good, nutritious food, they would concentrate better in school, giving them a far greater chance at a better education, which in turn helps create a much stronger future generation. Akshaya Patra  is an incredible organisation, and their dedication, passion to make this happen is inspiring.” 

Dishoom’s pact with them came into being at Ramadan 2015. The Muslims have a name for it: Zakat. It’s a form of obligatory charity that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions. The literal meaning of the word is ‘to cleanse’; the belief is that paying Zakat purifies, increases and blesses the remainder of their wealth. The Thakrar family fortune originally sprung from their Tilda rice empire. For their Zakat Dishoom chose Akshaya and Magic Breakfast. At the Hindu Diwali the same year they made this joint partnership permanent.

For every meal (or home meal kit) Dishoom serves, they donate a meal to a child who would otherwise go hungry. More recently in Manchester they have also contributed handsomely to Eat Well, the restaurant and chef collective that delivers up to 1,000 meals a week to support people sidelined by poverty. 

Dishoom, Manchester Hall, 32 Bridge St, Manchester M3 3BT. 0161 537 3737. To donate to Akshaya Patra visit this link.

All the images are courtesy of Akshaya Patra, except for the two for Dishoom.

Pineapple as pubic enemy number one? We all know how divisive it is as the Hawaiian Pizza topping alongside its sidekick, ham. Not just Neapolitan diehards rail against this perversion of the One True Pizza. This version was created in Canada 60 years ago by a Greek immigrant called Sam Panopoulos (the ‘Hawaiian’ comes from the canned brand he used). Yet it’s not being ousted from our supermarket chill cabinets any time soon.

Similarly ‘old school’ curry house menus still feature Dhansaks given a sweet kick by the addition of pineapple chunks to the chicken/lamb and lentil template devised by its creators, the Parsis. As with our lager lout Anglicisation of Vindaloo, that subtle Goan vinegar and garlic driven pork dish, into the tonsil-cauterising ‘hottest curry on the menu’, so too our Indian restaurant ‘soft option’ Dhansak’ is a culturally appropriated travesty.

Give them their due, most Indian cookbooks omit the pineapple, but rarely put the dish in its Zoroastrians-in-exile context. Parsi – From Persia to Bombay: Recipes and Tales from the Ancient Culture (Bloomsbury, £26) does. All the more surprisingly, its author works at the heart of a very British culinary stronghold. Farokh Talati’s day job is as head chef at Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine in London’s Spitalfields.

One Parsi recipe that definitely straddles that restaurant’s ‘nose-to-tail’ ethos and Farokh’s heritage is Masoor Ma Jeebh (lamb’s tongue, masoor dal and spinach) It’s definitely on my kitchen bucket list. Less so a little chicken gizzard number, another nod to authenticity. 

I was drawn to his new book because I envisaged it as a companion piece to Dishoom: From Bombay With Love, one of the most glorious cookbooks on my shelves – inspired by the Irani (Parsee) cafes of Mumbai. I was eager for a bit of back story. The Dishoom tome is a celebration of a much-loved London (and Manchester) brand via an evocative homage to its creator’s home city, but its recipe roster strays across the Sub-continent.

Equally personal, Parsi, is more specific, offering historical context from the introduction onwards… “Around the seventh century, during the Arab conquest of Persia, a small group of Zoroastrians fled persecution by sailing from what is now known as Iran and found themselves on the shores of India. The community that originally settled in Sanjan became known as the Parsis because of their Persian heritage, and throughout the centuries they spread across India”.

Bombay (Mumbai) was for many the final port of call. The newcomers assiduously learned English to become indispensable to their imperial masters, but the Indian assimilation started in Sanjan a few miles inland from the Gujarat, coast. Regard it as a landing stage for a resourceful, adaptable religious group, who brought with them the remarkable flavours of their homeland – dried fruits, nuts, saffron, and rice. In Gujarat they learned to fuse these with Indian spices and extended their cooking range to include fish.

The result many Parsi dishes are balanced between sweet, sour, savoury and salty. Traditionally that balance was achieved with the use of brewed cane sugar juice, affectionately nicknamed ‘Parsi vinegar’ and jaggery (reduced cane sugar). Native coconut  fitted into the scheme of things, but maybe canned pineapple was a sweetener too far.

Which bring us back to Dhansak, which is the quintessential Parsi dish. In Farokh’s recipe – sourced, like so many, from his family – the meat is mutton, brined first, and on the bone. Four types of lentils are slow cooked with vegetables, squashes, spices, onion, ginger, and garlic for a long time until the mutton is tender. It is then served with caramelised onion rice and jaggery.

What sets it apart from your Rogan Josh or your Dopiaza is the effort needed to make the Dhansak Masala – involving 15 spices and counting. Farokh’s dishes generally require a beyond fast fix degree of attention. No bad thing. The lockdown was a boon for this busy professional chef in perfecting dishes for the book.

He recalls: “Even though it started a couple of years before the pandemic, the majority of the book really got going during lockdown. I got very bored in the first two weeks, so every Wednesday, I’d go into St John, when it was closed. I’d type up a three-course Parsi meal, cook it that day, and finish and hand-deliver it to the locals on Thursday. That helped me refine the recipes and get feedback.”

When I’ve filed this piece I’m beginning preparations to cook my own Dhansak. The mutton is merrily defrosting. All the spices for the Masala are gathered in rank, just awaiting the belated arrival of the black cardamom.

Check: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaf, black peppercorns, dried Kashmiri chillies, green cardamom pods, caraway seeds, cinnamon (or cassia bark), cloves, ground fenugreek, mace blade, grated nutmeg, poppy seeds, saffron, star anise, ground turmeric, mustard seeds, one whole black lime.

That latter element is the cultural giveaway. It is essentially Persian, reminding us how far the Parsis have travelled. I’ll alert you to the success or otherwise of my personal, pineapple-free Dhansak voyage of discovery via social media. Now where in the store cupboard are all those lentils?

Alphonso mangoes are not lookers. Even the most mottled quince would win a beauty contest with them and the furry bloom of an in-season peach is infinitely more Instagrammable. But all is forgiven once you squeeze the exotic, saffron-coloured pulp out of the yellow skin, the ripe smell almost coconutty, a reminder of the South of India, whence they sprung. Think flavours of honey, melon, nectarine and apricot gone up a notch.

They are named after 15th century general Alfonso de Albuquerque, aka ‘Alfonso the Terrible’, conqueror of Goa. The Portuguese invaders brought to India from the New World red chillies, potatoes, maize, and tomatoes. In return the Sub-continent offered up its native mangoes. Apparently Alfonso (below) was very hands-on in creating a firmer, juicer variant of the fruit for export to Europe. Hard grafting, but what a result. 

Today there are several different varieties of Alphonso mangoes, primarily grown along the western coastal strip of Konkan. The acknowledged superstars are hand-harvested in the tiny Natwarlal plantation of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. 

OK, every corner of India offers rivals – Badami, Himsagar, Kesar, Chaunsa, Dasheri – but the spring season mango rush is dominated by the Alphonso. Mumbai and other big cities even hold mango festivals. I hold my own. Alas, the season is as short as their shelf life once they arrive, so once again I sliced open a coulpe and guzzled, the juice dripping into my beard, before organising the rest to make a vat of sorbet (De-stone and extract the flesh from six to eight ripe mangoes, combine with the juice of two limes,100g icing sugar and 100ml double cream. Churn the puree in an ice cream maker for half an hour).

I get my annual fix from London-based Red Rickshaw, who specialise in sourcing hard-to find ingredients, primarily from India but also from across the globe. It’s hard to resist exploring their site, which always yields new fruit. Literally. So that’s how I stumbled upon Buddha’s Fingers (or Buddha’s Hand, main picture). This odd ancestor of our mainstream citrus fruits resembles a large lemon with finger-like segments growing from it. True to its name, it is considered a religious offering in Buddhist temples, typically given as a  New Year’s gift, symbolising good fortune.

It is still hanging in the balance whether I’m prepared to stump up £24.99 for a single specimen of a citrus fruit that seldom contains any tangible fruit, flesh or juice. Will it be worth it just to employ its formidable citrus fragrance for cocktails, candy making or salad dressings?

While I’m ‘hanging on by my finger tips’ to make a decision it’s time to prepare a Mango, Lime and Rum Syllabub, the recipe borrowed from Sunshine On A Plate (Penguin, £30), the gorgeous cookbook from Shelina Permalloo, 2012 Masterchef winner, who runs the Lakaz Maman Mauritian Street Kitchen in Southampton.

Ingredients

4 ginger biscuits, crushed; 300ml double cream; ½ vanilla pod, seeds scraped; 3tbsp unrefined icing sugar; 75ml rum, plus 4tsp; zest and juice of 4 limes; 150ml Alphonso mango puree; 2 Alphonso mangoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm cubes; desiccated coconut and reservd lime zest plus optional mint leaves to decorate.  

Method

Put the ginger biscuits into a large plastic bag and bash vigorously with a rolling pin until you have a bag of crumbs. Using an electric whisk, lightly whip the double cream. Add the vanilla seeds, icing sugar, the 75ml of rum, lime juice and zest, reserving a little for decoration. Keep whisking until it forms light peaks. Add about one third of the mango purée and half the cubed mango and fold through for a marbled effect. T

o assemble the syllabubs, divide the crumbs between four glasses. Sprinkle a teaspoon of rum over each and top with the rest of the mango purée. Spoon the cream over the top. Just before serving, sprinkle with coconut and lime zest. Decorate with the mint leaves, if using.