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the hottest thing on the menu?

September 6, 2011

this would be a gorgeous photo of teh food at the Vegetarian food Studio. However, said food is so gorgeous, it tends not to stay put long enough to be photographed...


I’ve wanted to blog on the vague topic of “Indian Food” for a while now, but deciding exactly where to go with it isn’t so easy. The problem is that it is such a vague topic. I mean – I’m guessing when I say “Indian” you’re probably already salivating, thinking of your favourite meal. But it’s anyone’s guess what you’re dreaming:


A big bucket of balti and a bottle of Cobra lager in the cheap and friendly place down the road? A posh dopiaza and elegantly fragrant rice somewhere much more middle class? The “real” Indian food you ate whilst travelling that you insist to anyone who’ll listen is “nothing like the stuff they serve here in the UK”? The somehow slightly colonial turkey curry your Gran used to throw together on Boxing Day? The recipe you got from an Indian friend that took three hours to make and trashed your kitchen, but tasted so great you wished you invited people round to share it?


With Indian food, not only are you looking at a tremendous variety of dishes. You’re also looking at a variety of different cultural and culinary backgrounds within India itself, not to mention the spin put on those dishes by Indian families and restaurant owners who moved to Britain during the 19th and 20th Centuries, and the British people themselves (who duly developed an obsession with “currying” everything – mainly to disguise the fact that whatever it was, without the spices, was actually a bit gross, tasteless, and possibly rotting. I would not suggest being guided by this principle unless you feel the need to add some severe food poisoning to your life).


The list of regional cuisines in Wikipedia’s Indian Food article is so long it makes me feel like a complete philistine. I’ve never even heard of most of that stuff, let alone eaten it. Christ – what am I doing writing a food blog? I clearly know bugger all about it.


But I do know that a lot of the best food I’ve eaten comes under that vague category “Indian”. It may not be traditional, or authentic, but it seems to fit that category better than any other. If it’s served in a restaurant that describes itself as “Indian” then I consider that a bit of a giveaway. And the stuff I cook at home that bears some relation to the stuff I eat out at those places, therefore also counts.


I’m told that Indian food can also be dry, and quite mild – but in my mind it’s still usually something spicy, chilli-based, swimming in a nice thick sauce, served with lots of rice and ideally some kind of Indian bread.


I’m not a big naan fan (they fill me up too much and I can’t eat the good stuff, but I do love chapattis and dosas (For the uninitiated, a dosa is a bit like a massive crisp salty pancake, which you can have either plain or filled with various savoury mush).


I find Indian food a good bet when I eat out. For a start, compared to other restaurants of similar quality, it’s usually pretty cheap. One of my pet hates about eating out is that I often end up paying through the nose for something I could probably have made just as well for myself at home (pizza restaurants often fall into this category – seriously, who pays £15 to eat a pizza that’s usually no better quality than the ones you can pick up for £2 from the freezer section at Lidl?). Even the tiniest, naffest looking Indians usually have half decent chefs at their disposal, as well as lots of specialist cooking equipment, and a spice rack that wouldn’t fit through my front door – so it is pretty rare for me to leave an Indian restaurant feeling like I’ve been ripped off. Also, if you’re vegetarian, you usually find yourself with as much choice as the committed carnivores. I’m told it’s actually a myth that most Indians are vegetarian, or that meat being added to curry is a “Western” thing – but nevertheless, a lot of the dishes served lend themselves very well to being vegetarian (and much of it will also be vegan by default – provided it’s cooked in oil rather than ghee). I know plenty of omnivores who say when it comes to Indian food they are happy to go veggy in order to sample things like the huge variety of dhals and the way different beans and pulses are used in traditional dishes.


When it comes to cooking at home, Indian can also be a good bet. Perhaps harking back to the British Boxing Day Curry attitude – if you can come up with a nice balance of spices (or buy a decent ready made curry paste), you can just throw whatever is in your store cupboard into a pan, add the spice and see what happens. With this approach, it’s surprisingly difficult to produce anything truly disgusting. Unless you overdo the chillies (in which case, coconut milk is your friend), homemade curry will generally be edible.


Indian-at-home, can generally be as quick and simple, or as elaborate as you want. There is a school of thought that slow, prolonged cooking allows flavours to develop and produces a tastier end result, and in my experience there is some truth in this. But it is possible to make a curry in less than half an hour that tastes fine – and if you stick it in Tupperware in the fridge it will taste even better heated up the next day.


I have two rough go-to curry recipes – they do change every time I make them, depending on what veg I have in the fridge, whether I’m in the mood for hot and tangy, or mild and creamy – and so on, but the basic principles are the same. The first is a sort of quick’n’dirty curry – simple enough to make between work and kung fu class on a weeknight but tasty and filling. The other is a fancier one, that I tend to only do when I have a bit more time – this one is based on a number of recipes I got from a couple of different Indian cookbooks and ended up mixing my favourite elements of each into my own interpretation. Therefore I can’t claim that it is in anyway authentic, but it is at least rooted in traditional Indian cooking principles as I understand them.


If you’ve never done Indian at home before, I’d recommend picking up a couple of Indian cookbooks, if only to learn about some of the ingredients available and how to prepare them. I was clueless about okra, for example, before I read up on how to soak them in vinegar water to stop them turning slimy and bitter. Also I learned from Indian cookbooks which pulses need to be soaked overnight, and which (most lentils) can be used straight from the packet. Also, it can make a difference to the flavour of a dish, not just which spices you use, but at what point during the cooking you add them (some benefit from being fried in the oil with the onions at the start of your cooking, others – especially fresh spices – will have their flavour killed by this treatment and need to go in just before serving). So get down to the library and start learning basically. If Wikipedia is anything to go by, I really need to do the same myself. But in the meantime, here are a couple of things that work for me….



Quick’n’Dirty Curry




Cooking oil

An onion, roughly chopped

A sweet potato, diced

Can of Chick peas (or other canned beans/pulses)

Any other veg you fancy putting in (bell peppers are good.)

A good curry paste (I tend to go for the Patak’s Madras one, which is fairly hot, but can be toned down if you grate in a bit of creamed coconut using a cheese grater.)

Hot water (from the kettle)


–          pour the oil into a wok and heat it up til it starts to sizzle

–          Add the onions, cook for a minute or two before adding the sweet potato and frying for another few minutes, moving it about a bit with a wooden spatula.

–          Add any other veg you are using, bearing in mind hard veg like carrots or potatoes will need to go in first, as it has to cook for longer, and softer veg like peppers or spring onions, can go in later. Things like spinach or tomatoes can go in right at the end as they barely need cooking at all.

–          Once everything looks like it’s starting to brown a bit, add two or three spoonfuls of the curry paste (you’ll figure out the amount you like after you’ve cooked this a few times), stir some more til it’s all mixed in.

–          Add about a mug full of hot water from the kettle and the chickpeas.

–          Let everything simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are soft.

–          Taste. Grate and stir in the creamed coconut if you want to tone down the heat and/or increase the richness of the sauce. Add salt and pepper or lemon juice if you like. Add some leaves of fresh coriander if you have any.

–          Serve with boiled rice.



Dinner Party curry


Cooking oil

An onion, chopped

2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed or chopped

Vegetables of your choice (again I like to use peppers, butternut squash is also good.)

Red split lentils (or other ready-to-use pulses)

About a dessertspoon full of grated ginger

1-2 fresh chillies, chopped up small as you can with seeds removed (unless you like it really hot!)

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

2-3 cloves

Stick of cinnamon

Teaspoon of cardamom seeds (I find this infinitely easier than faffing with the pods, which my boyfriend always complains get stuck in his teeth)

½ teaspoon turmeric

Some ground or flaked almonds

A tin of tomatoes (either chopped, or mush them up yourself)

Either a can of coconut milk or some grated coconut cream (I prefer the latter as it’s easier to control the amounts and store the leftovers)

Lemon juice

Fresh coriander

Chopped spring onion

Hot water from the kettle


–          Heat the oil and fry the onion and garlic until it softens.

–          Add the ginger, chillies, cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. Turn the heat down and cook for five minutes or so, stirring gently (this smells really good!)

–          Add a few spoonfuls of the almonds and stir to coat them in the oil and let them cook a little.

–          If you have any hard vegetables like squash or potatoes, that will need a lot of cooking, add them now and stir fry for a few minutes.

–          Pour in the lentils (a mug and a half full usually does me), and mix them in with the rest of the ingredients.

–          Add the tinned tomatoes. Then refill the empty can with water from the kettle and add that too (as well as measuring a good amount of water, this helps to clear out the tomato dregs from the can without waste.)

–          Bring the mixture to the boil then simmer on medium heat for 10-15 minutes, until the lentils are soft and a bit mushy, then turn down very low.

–          Add the rest of the veg.

–          Add coconut cream/milk to your taste. At this point I also sometimes like to add some more ground almonds (or occasionally some peanut butter), and if it’s not quite hot enough, a bit more chilli.

–          Cook on a low heat for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly

–          Turn off the heat. Add a few good squirts of lemon juice, some fresh coriander and a few chopped spring onions. Stir in. You may also want to add salt and pepper, some natural yoghurt, or a few chopped fresh tomatoes for a bit of a tang.

–          Serve with boiled rice and ideally some Indian bread.



Eating Out Indian in Cardiff


I’ve already mentioned the Vegetarian Food Studio in Grangetown, and the Spice Merchant in the Bay as great Cardiff based Indians, but I suggest you also try:



Similar to the Vegetarian food studio, in that they serve a very cheap Thali (several dishes on one big plate, including breads, rice, curry-type dishes and a sweet). The setting is very, very basic (think tiny greasy spoon), but the food is stunning and quite unusual (and tends to be on the hot side of spicy!), the Indian sweets in particular come highly recommended. One of the big plus sides of Madhav’s is that it is attached (and by attached I mean you can actually walk straight through from the restaurant) to a very well-stocked Indian grocers that sells a lot of the spices and pulses that are more difficult to get in the supermarkets, at very low prices. It’s all vegetarian and they don’t serve booze (there are plenty of pubs in the area if you need an alcohol fix afterwards…)



Slightly more upmarket than Madhav’s but still relatively unpretentious and inexpensive, I was introduced to this by my friend James. They do a good selection of Indian breads (I always enjoy getting something more than the standard doughy naan), but what really sold this to me was the lemon rice – elevates rice from something that you just have as an accompaniment to your curry, to a delicious dish in itself.


The Spice Route


This is an all-you-can-eat Pan-Asian buffet. Normally I find all-you-can-eat buffets can be a bit of a mess – a hodge podge of non-descript cheap to produce stodge – but the Spice Route really is worth a visit. There’s a bit of a kid’s birthday party atmosphere in there, and they really do pack the tables in tight, but they serve the most amazing dhals and curries from lidded cauldrons that actually keep the food hot and fresh. They will also cook a gigantic dosa to order for you, which you can eat with a variety of different pickles. They also sometimes have some interesting Asian desserts (as well as jelly and ice-cream!). If you’re concerned about ingredients, unusually, they are also pretty well-versed on allergies and vegan and gluten free diets; if you let them know when you book they will talk to you about any requirements.




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