I’VE been thinking a lot about India of late.
Not only have we been hosting several charming guests, all hoteliers and journalists, from Mumbai and Aurangabad but a fortnight ago I helped my Dad celebrate his birthday with a fantastic meal at Atul Kochhar’s fabulous London restaurant, Benares.
It’s a great place to eat; Michelin-starred modern Indian cuisine, impeccably presented, charmingly served. I had a wonderful piece of roe deer with pumpkin rice that was utterly magnificent.
India’s an amazing country, and I’d dearly love to go, if nothing else than to experience the wonderful cuisine, which varies so much from province to province.
In the west, Gujarati cooking is mainly vegetarian, with sweet and salty flavours predominating, and Parsi cooking makes great use of lentils; the Dhansak originates here.
In the north, Awadhi and Kashmiri cuisine is dominant, with meat playing a large role, especially lamb and mutton. This is the home of the Rogan Josh.
In the mainly Sikh region of Punjab, a little further south, we find many of the classics, such as the Tandoori dishes and the majestic biryanis.
As we travel east, Bengali cuisine takes over, with its love of fish and pulses, cooked with a little more delicacy than elsewhere. In the deep south of the country, Keralan cuisine reflects the abundance of coconuts, and it’s here we find delicious sweet spicy sauces, sharply flavoured with lime and tamarind. And of course, there are countless regional micro-cuisines peculiar to particular towns and districts. It’s as varied a cuisine as any in the world, when you look beneath the stereotypes, and utterly mouth-watering.
In my student days I worked for Oddbins wine merchants in Brighton, and one of our work treats was the amazing Sunday buffet at a local restaurant called The Black Chapati. It was run by a brilliant self-taught cook, Steve Funnell, who loved regional Indian cookery.
Every year, he would disappear for a month or so, during which time he cycled around a region of India learning the recipes and tips, and when he came back, the menu would be full of new, exciting flavours.
It was my first exposure to ‘real’ Indian food, as opposed to the ubiquitous take-away dishes, which, although deeply satisfying when required, are a million miles away from the real deal.
We’re talking about toasting spices and herbs, marinating in yoghurt, slowly simmering vast quantities of onions and garlic. Good Indian cuisine takes time and effort and is for the passionate and patient cook.
Having said that, this recipe, influenced by my recent experiences, is as simple as I don’t know what.
It’s my take on an Awadhi dish from Lucknow, and is the very essence of street food, to be bought piping hot from a stall and scoffed quickly on the hoof. It will take great restraint not to plough into these as soon as you lift them from the pan.
Basically, these are little mildly-spiced potato cakes. I have tried making them with raw potato, par-boiled potato and mash, and all work well, but the mash seems to be the most hassle-free.
They make a lovely starter, or a light supper dish, but combined with some protein, would make for a lovely dinner dish.
Maybe just let a chicken breast or lamb fillet wallow in some natural yoghurt flavoured with a little toasted Tandoori powder for an hour or so, then grill until sweetly blackened.
Chat Masala powder can be bought at most Indian stores – it’s a piquant mix of spices essential to this recipe.
2 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 tsp chat masala powder
1 large piece of fresh ginger, peeled and very finely minced
1 fresh green chili pepper, finely chopped
3 tbsps fresh coriander
Grapeseed oil for cooking
A knob of butter or ghee
Peel the potatoes and quarter them, then boil in well-salted water until cooked through.
Drain and pass through a mouli or mash by hand and return to the pan.
Cook gently to remove as much moisture as possible.
In a dry pan, gently toast the cumin seeds and chat Masala, and add the ginger and chilli, and remove from the heat.
Finely chop the coriander, and mix into the potato along with the spice mix.
Check your seasoning.
Knead the mixture until the spices and herbs are evenly spread, and then shape small patties of potato, about 6cm in diameter and 2cm thick.
Place on a tray and chill for half an hour.
To cook, simply fry the potato cakes gently in a little grapeseed oil, moving them as little as possible, until golden and crispy.
At the last minute, swirl in a little butter and baste the potato cakes with the golden juices.
Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately.