First shoots from the chilli plants

I planted twenty chilli seeds, following my friend Rosanna’s instructions, and so far only one has germinated. I’ve given up on the others and planted another batch in the hope that some others will join my successful seedling.

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I’ve not grown a plant from seed, except at school – cress on blotting paper in primary, a bean for GCSE. Watching the plant emerge from such has tiny seed has been thrilling. I am so excited that it’s a struggle not to give it a name, because that would be silly. And, while it’s a shame that the other plants haven’t appeared, this one success has given me a little confidence.

Repotting proved harder than expected, and I worried that I would injure the plant. It survived the move and is thriving. I love checking on it for new signs of progress, seeing the signs of each new sprouting leaf:

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I’m now well into onto the second stage of Rosanna’s instructions:

  1. When the shoots are an inch tall remove the clingfilm. Keep the compost most but not wet.
  2. When the seedlings are two inches tall, re-pot into a window box or 9” round pot. Water well and put somewhere nice and sunny. A south-facing windowsill is perfect.
  3. Keep the soil moist but not wet and feed once a week with Baby Bio or similar. Chillies also love tomato food if you have any.

I’ve bought some baby bio and a watering can (the latter from the pound shop’s Charlie Dimmock range, naturally) and will do my best to see this plant to adulthood. I’m going away for a week soon, so there will be strict instructions for my house-sitter. I’m starting to feel very affectionate about this plant. But I am not going to give it a name.

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Korma Vindaloo

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Post-hike curry with Katharine, Romi and Kaylee

I like to tease kormas. I’m not a fan – they’re too sweet for my liking, and seem a little bland to my palette. Consequently, I’d not had one for a long time.

I’ve recently been going hiking with my friends Romi and Katharine. We like to order a curry in the evenings, trying out  restaurants and takeaways along the route. Romi is as much of a fan of spice as I am, so we’ll order the hottest dishes on the menu.

On our most recent trip, the local curry house didn’t have many vegetable options, and wouldn’t make a vegetable vindaloo specially. So we asked for a vegetable madras, spiced up to vindaloo strength. They managed this and did a pretty good job. It had the fire of a vindaloo, but the taste of a madras.

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The next night, we decided to order curry again. This time, we decided to ask for something foolish. Could we have a vindaloo-strength Jalfrezi? Yes we could. Could we have a vindaloo-strength korma? Yes we could.

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The korma vindaloo tasted as ridiculous as you might expect. The creaminess was in conflict with the spice – but for a korma it was pretty good. Although I’m not sure the curry house should really have indulged our experiment.

An obscure Indian-inspired cuisine

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The street leading to Cochin synagogue

We’ve recently had some Israeli visitors at work. This has led to some discussions of kosher food and where to find it in Brighton. It turns out that this town has no kosher restaurants. Yesterday this led to a rambling conversations that ended up somewhere surprising.

One of our guests said that Hove was, at least, better than India for kosher food. We ended up talking about Jewish communities there. It turns out that most of the Jewish population of Cochin moved to Israel in the 1960s, and they have their own cuisine that fuses Indian and Jewish food. It’s quite an obscure type of cookery – the community is about 7000 strong, and there are no restaurants, apart from a private dining option – and only a couple of cookbooks.

Jewish people are said to have emigrated to India as early as early as the time of King Solomon, around 587 BCE; the earliest records date back to 70CE and synagogues are known to have been built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Other Jewish groups moved there in the fifteenth century in response to persecution in Europe. The community in Cochin avoided the horrors of the Goan inquisition, with Cochin being under Dutch control rather than Portuguese. Following Indian independence and the founding of Israel, most Jewish people left, although the synagogue in Cochin has a small but declining congregation.

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I’ve never been rained on as hard as we were in Cochin

One group that moved to Israel settled in the area of Mesilat Zion, near to where one of my colleagues lives. A short distance from Tel Aviv, the moshav (co-operative agricultural community) was founded in 1950 and later taken over by a community from Cochin. The current population here is about 1200 people.

A number of Cochini Jews also settled in Nevatim, which has recently switched from agriculture to promoting tourism. As part of this, Matamey Cochin is a group that hosts Cochini meals in their homes. An article in Tablet magazine ( Jews From Cochin Bring their Unique Indian Cuisine to Israeli Diners) described the food:

“Our food isn’t like the Indian food you know,” explained Miriam Elias… “We use different spices. We stick to a few basic ones and don’t mix them up like the Indians do.” Not only does their cuisine differ from Indian food from other areas, it differs from Hindu cooking in Cochin, too. First of all, it is kosher and devoid of dairy products (the closest you get is coconut milk), and some dishes are strictly Jewish and don’t exist in the local Hindu menu at all. Many of the dishes serve a certain purpose and are aligned with holidays and specific dates. For instance, the Cochin papadam (which differs from the kind of papadum you get in Indian restaurants) is eaten before the Tisha B’Av fast and is served with various kinds of curry. “When we say ‘curry’ we mean something completely different than what you know as curry,” clarified Bat Zion Elias. “Curry for us isn’t a spice mixture or a hot dish. Our curries are a variety of cold salads made out of cooked vegetables, like tomatoes, onions, or eggplants, sort of like matbucha…”

The Cochini food includes a lot of coconut dishes, which is useful because this can substitue for milk in kosher dishes. There is also an interesting approach to cooking onions:

“…We brown large quantities of onions, and then cook vegetables or whatever it is we are cooking in the onion juice, instead of cooking in water. A lot of our dishes are cooked this way, and it gives them a very distinct and special flavor.”

There are only two books devoted to this type of cooking, along with recipes in a few other books. I’ve ordered a book called Spice and Kosher, a book on the cuisine of Cochin Jews. I’m looking forward to experimenting with this. Eti Gilad’s The Cochini Cuisine looks to have been privately printed and doesn’t turn up on Amazon. My copy of Spice and Kosher arrives tomorrow. I can’t wait to explore something of this new cuisine.

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Cochin’s fishing nets are one of its famous sights

Growing my own chillis

I’d been meaning to grow chillis from seed, but never got around to it. In the past I’ve been terrible at keeping plants and they always died. Some people have green fingers, I have black fingers. When my friend Rosanna offered seeds from her successful homegrown chilli plants, I had no excuses and said I’d take some.

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The tiny seeds (so crunchy) arrived wrapped in clingfilm. Looking at them it seemed amazing that anything would every grow from them.

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Rosanna sent me instructions via Facebook. The first few stages seemed simple enough:

  1. Take a chilli seed, plant it in shallow compost (about one to two inches deep – a takeaway container, an old margarine tub or yoghurt pot is ideal), at a depth of about a quarter of an inch.
  2. You don’t need any special sort of compost – anything will do.
  3. Plant one per yogurt pot or 2-3 per takeaway container. Plant twice as many as you think you’ll need: not all seeds will germinate.
  4. Water well so the soil is damp but not sopping wet. Cover the container with clingfilm and leave somewhere warm in semi-shade (i.e. out of direct sunlight) for a week or two until they sprout. Depending on the time of year this will take between one and four weeks.

I went out to buy compost and plant-pots. It turns out, you can get a lot of cheap gardening things from the pound shop, whose range is endorsed by gardening celebrity Charlie Dimmock. I put twenty seeds out, which is apparently a lot, then waited to see what would happen.

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Only one chilli plant has actually emerged from the soil since I planted them three weeks ago. The others have been sent to the airing cupboard to see if that encourages them to start sprouting. Even though my success rate so far is a mere 5%, that first plant feels like a victory.

The Fate of the British Curry House

I’m currently halfway through Bee Wilson’s excellent book, First Bite, which is about how we learn to eat, mixing historical research with personal stories. I was delighted when the Guardian published her article Who Killed the Great British Curry House.

The piece covers some of the same issues raised in the Vindaloo Stories show about the decline in curry house customers and skilled staff. These problems are now so severe that two or three curry houses are closing each week. Wilson quotes the Bangladeshi Caterers’ Association warning that “as many as a third of Britain’s curry houses – around 4,000 in total – will close over the next couple of years.”

Staffing has been a problem for some time, with restaurant owner’s children leaving the business and immigration restrictions preventing trained chefs from overseas working in the UK. Initiatives such as the curry colleges have failed to have any impact. These ongoing problems have been made worse by the post-referendum economy, which is causing both rents and prices to rise. Wilson describes one owner who is making a loss on many meals, but nervous of putting the price up. For many people, curry is a cheap evening out. One chef, Kobir Ahmed, explains how “there were Cambridge curry houses that had not put up their prices in 20 years because they were scared of losing customers”.

Maybe the curry house is just not needed in the today’s Britain in the same way as it used to be. As Wilson points out, there are far more options for eating out than there were. I also think the curry house is suffering from a change in British socialising. More liberal  licensing laws mean that pubs are open later, so there is less drive to the post-pub curry. More pubs are now offering decent food too – indeed, Wetherspoon’s, with its Thursday Curry Club, is the country’s biggest curry chain.

For me, one of the great things about Indian restaurants in Britain is that you can find them everywhere. I’ve been hiking around the country with friends recently and, wherever we go, we can find a curry restaurant. Some have been dire (Stanford-Le-hope, I’m looking at you) others have been amazing. I love the little ways each one stands out from the British curry-house template.

One of my favourite moments in the article was when Wilson described “the soul food of the UK, the bowl of warmth that people turn to when sniffy, sloshed or merely peckish” Curry is a vital part of modern British food, and it’s sad to see it in decline.

PS – Another excellent article from Bee Wilson is It’s time to address the dirty underbelly of “clean eating”.

The Vindaloo Stories Performance

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Last week, on Wednesday 11th, I did the first performance of a show based on Vindaloo Stories. It was lots of fun to put on with a large audience turning out.

Promoting an event in January was hard work, but it was fun. I was interviewed by Melita at Radio Reverb  the night before, and Wednesday started early so that I could appear on Radio Sussex’s breakfast show.

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This was the first time I’ve done a show or event by myself, so I was delighted that it came out so well. Lots of people helped with it – Emily taught me about press releases; David Bramwell, Rosy Carrick and Rachel Blackman gave great feedback; Kaylee did a great job on the tech; and Robin was there on the night for reassurance. Ema at the Marlborough was also a great help throughout.

There should be recordings coming from the radio interviews. In the meantime there was a review posted by the Latest magazine. I also did an interview with Viva Brighton for this show and an upcoming talk on folklore at the Wellesbourne Society. Now to start looking at future venues for the show.

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Vindaloo Stories, Brighton, January 11th

I’ve been working on a spoken-word version of Vindaloo Stories, which will be performed for the first time at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre on January 11th. Tickets are now for sale online and cost £7 + fees.

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This is an expanded version of my Wilderness Festival Talk. I’m referring to it as a spoken-word history as I want to include more personal stories than I could in the earlier version.

The event will look at the history of the vindaloo, why curry houses have similar menus, tourism in India, spicy foods, my own travel misadventures and more. There are also local connections between Brighton and curry’s history, since Sake Dean Mahomed, inventor of the Indian Restaurant, is buried in St. Nicholas’s Church.

Speaking at Wilderness

I’m now home, recovering from a weekend at Wilderness Festival, where I performed as part of the Odditorium tent. We put on a great range of talks, including the eating habits of politicians, body-builders in bondage, Kraftwerk, BDSM relationships with the Archers and Bob Flanagan.

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Photo by @eldevri

I gave two talks, one on Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, and the other on the history of the Vindaloo, an extended version of one I gave at the Catalyst Club earlier this year.

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The best part about speaking in front of an audience is the Q&A afterwards. I had some good recommendations for a curry-house in Twickenham, as well as two in Nottingham, Adnan’s and 4550 Miles from Delhi. I’ll check those out soon. I forgot the name of the Eating out in Delhi blog. Someone asked about the rise of competitive chilli and curry eating. I reckon there is an interesting line of research here – how chilli competitions relate to the traditional eating contests.

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A good thing about giving talks is practising gives you chance to reflect upon the material. I realised this weekend how much of the British Curry’s development is down to people trying to eat familiar food when travelling. Something to think about further.

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Other than the talks, it was a weekend of good weather, relaxing and cocktails. Thanks to David, Andrew, Ernest Magazine and the team for inviting me to speak and looking after everyone. Last year I walked away with the clicker but this year I behaved myself.

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Some material from the talk has been published in an article in the new issue of Ernest magazine, which I will talk about as soon as I get a copy. Meantime, a recording of my talk at Wilderness last year is in episode 31 of the Odditorium Podcast: The Internet Will Destroy Us.

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Welcome to Vindaloo Stories!

At the end of last year, I booked a holiday in Goa. I was looking forward to sun, good food and swimming. Just before I left, Ernest magazine asked if I wanted to write something for their upcoming issue. I’d just read Lizzie Collingham‘s book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers and thought it would be interesting to write about the Goa, curry houses and the history of the vindaloo.

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The article was finished when I returned (and will be published soon). But I kept on researching. In April I spoke about vindaloo at Brighton’s Catalyst Club, and will be speaking in August at the Wilderness Festival. But I’m still finding out interesting things so thought I should start a blog.

Vindaloo stories will be about the vindaloo. About curry in the news. About my (mis)adventures in India. I’ll talk about how the British curry house came to be as it was, and reveal the secrets of delivery drivers.

If you want updates on the latest posts then you can subscribe to my newsletter, where I’ll send out an update every couple of weeks or so; or there’s an RSS feed. You can also find me on twitter. And, if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about curry then leave a comment and let me know.

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