Cooking a Simple Curry

The simplest curry I’ve ever eaten was during a camel safari near Jaisalmer. Made over a fire of twigs and branches, the plates were cleaned by scouring with sand afterwards. And it tasted pretty good. But what is the simplest curry I can cook?

When you’re a terrible cook, people like to give you cookbooks as presents. It’s as if the right combination of words are going to make up for lack of experience. A lot of these presents were potentially deadly – given the disasters I’ve produced, why give me a book whose recipes involve cooking things in pans of deep oil? It’s one thing to produce an inedible meal with a cooking disaster, quite another to need skin grafts.

Student cookbooks are the lowest form of cookbook. These are aimed at people who have never cooked. The ones I have date back to the days when students arrived at university with a new set of pans from Woolworths. They are aimed at people who have no idea what they are doing, and would rather be in a bar. The only simpler recipes you’ll find for a curry are ready meal instructions. They are almost a joke – unless you know very little about cooking, in which case they’re a lifeline.

I won’t name the cookbook I’m using, but the edition I’ve got comes from 1997. Its recipe for ‘Vegetable Curry’ fills me with suspicion for its simplicity as well as its enthusiasm for fruit. The ingredients include a huge amount of coconut, something I’m not a huge fan of, and the introduction suggests the use of “slices of banana and apple as a tasty side dish“. There’s a whole post to be written sometime about the English and Australian obsession for linking fruit and curry.

The recipe uses potato, onion, cauliflower and carrot as the vegetables. The curry-ness is provided by a tablespoon of curry powder at the start. While the ingredients are all ones you might find in a takeaway curry, I think they’d need a little more excitement to make something of them. This is basically a stew with a sprinkle of curry flavour.

More than anything, this dish is reminiscent of the one I was served at ‘Slices of Balti’ a few months back. It tastes a little better, because I’m capable of not cooking vegetables until all texture is destroyed. But it’s still bland. This is what vegetarianism used to be like, when the mockery of meat-eaters was a little more justified. Look at this picture, to get an idea of how joyless this recipe turned out to be:

Taking this photo, I realised that it’s more difficult than I thought to take decent photos of food at home. I guess the lighting in restaurants is better for this. I know I did a half decent job, solely because some of the photos I took are much, much worse:

That’s the simplest curry recipe I can find on my bookshelves. It’s interesting to compare to what I’d normally make: I can do much better.

What’s the best curry house in Brighton?

Picking the best curry house in Brighton is not easy. It’s also more difficult for me after a couple of restaurants closed.

Two favourite places recently vanished from Preston Street. The Bombay, down at the sea end, used to be my go-to place for a straightforward British curry. Nothing flash, but a decent, consistent meal – consistency being one of the big problems with curry houses. More recently, the Nishat Tandoori closed for renovations (or relocation, according to the website). I’m hoping this is indeed the case, and it’s not one of those situations where shut ‘temporarily’ and never re-open.

The Nishat was great because the regular curry menu was combined with various Goan options. They did a good Xacuti and an excellent Goan-style vindaloo. Instead of assaulting you with chilli, it was done in the vinegary Goan style. They also had the regular dishes you’d expect from a British curry house. It was always fun mixing Goan- and British-style curry dishes.

The Curry Leaf Cafe gets a lot of respect, but that is on probation after managing to serve a hunk of lamb in my vegetable Thali. They did offer a free tea and coffee to apologise, but that isn’t much use when you’re on a lunch break and don’t have time to linger anyhow. I’m sure I’ll go back, but it’s taking me a while to feel comfortable about the idea.

Some of those who know me are probably wondering why I’m not listing Planet India as my favourite curry house. I love Planet India. It has by far the best menu I’ve ever read, with a brief commentary on each of the dishes – a simple touch that always made me feel at home.

But I don’t consider Planet India a curry house, as it aims to provide more ‘authentic’ Indian dishes than the British-Indian places usually offer. It’s a great place for a treat, but not what I’m after for a standard takeaway curry.

With Nishat gone, I have a few go-to places. There’s the Raj Pavilion or the Shahi, which I know from when I used to live that side of town. My nearest restaurant if the Ashoka, which is pretty good. But right now, I don’t have a strong favourite. So what is the best curry house in Brighton?



The Horrors of the Beach Planner

My day job involves managing projects across several countries, and this means fiendishly complicated documents. Booking a trip to Goa for later this year seemed like the perfect way to unwind. But, reading the Lonely Planet guide to Goa, I encountered a document more disturbing than the schedules I’ve been reading:

Goa is famous for its attitude of susegad. This is said to be a national mood of laid-back, easy-going hospitality and tolerance, which apparently comes from the Portuguese word sossegado, meaning silence. The idea of susegad might well be linked to colonialist ideas of Goa, it’s still something used to sell the state to tourists, even as deserted beaches become bustling resorts.

Goa promises miles of relaxing beaches. but the idea of a Beach Planner just makes me nervous. For a start, there’s that introduction talking about how that Goa’s “tropical island” feel means “it’s easy to forget that you’re in India“. I’m not sure why this should be something that improves your holiday.

The section then goes on to categorise the beaches.I booked to stay in Mandrem (Relaxing with a Good Book) last year, when I meant to book a place in Arambol (Backpackers and Budget Travellers). It worked out OK, as Mandrem seemed to suit me better than Arambol would (although I was robbed on the price of the hotel room).

The categories for the beaches sound OK: Water Sports; Family Fun; Partying and Drinking; Yoga and Spirituality (including both Mandrem and Arambol); Five Star Treatment; Nature; and Beach Huts (Mandrem, again).

But there’s something aggressively organised about this planner. I imagine it being reduced to a diagram, a series of intersecting circles, which must be navigated to get your holiday right. Apparently “the decision shouldn’t be made on just the aesthetics of sand and sea: it’s about choosing the beach community that suits your style of travel and sense of place.” This is very much the sort of decision I booked a holiday to get away from.

The book is firm on the importance of the right place: “Locating the perfect beach is the secret to making the most of your stay“. Getting the wrong beach will ruin the everything. The choice of beach feels like destiny, as great a challenge as if I was forced to choose my own star sign.

But two things reassure me – the first is that the LP has not bothered to classify every beach, missing out, for example, quiet Querim. I hiked through here on the way to Fort Tiracol, a tiny fort on the very Northern edge of Goa. It was small and peaceful and empty, although much of the beach was too steep for easy swimming.

And, secondly, the Beach Planner itself ends on a reassuring note: “Goa is small enough that you can jump on a scooter or in a taxi and explore.” You don’t have to stay anywhere you don’t want to. So I’m thinking of getting a taxi to the very south of the island, and working my way up. There are other ways to find beaches than a Beach Planner.

The Joys of the Lonely Planet

To reach Pushkar, in Rajastan, you first take the train to Ajmer; while Pushkar does have a station, very few services stop there. From Ajmer, it’s a half hour journey, through a pass between two low mountains. Pushkar is on a small plain surrounded by mountains, and lies around a square holy lake. It is famed as few places where Brahma is worshipped and draws in both pilgrims and travellers. The main street is full of souvenir stalls and even a didgeridoo shop, for those hippies wanting to appropriate two cultures at the same time.

My first time in Pushkar was a day trip – I stayed in Ajmer instead, exploring the sights there. I popped into Pushkar for a few hours; the lake was dry and too many people were hassling me, so I headed back fairly soon. My second trip, I stayed a few days in the Lakeview hotel, which had been recommended by my friend Vicky. The hotel’s more expensive rooms overlooked the lakes, and didn’t have bathrooms, due to their proximity to the religious area. I settled for a room on the street side. I spent many happy hours in the roof restaurant, watching the ceremonies on the lake.

Time had been hard for the hotel’s proprietors on that first trip as they had not been listed in the most recent Lonely Planet Guide. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with the place, it seemed cheap enough too, so it was probably just bad luck. The problem is that travellers will always work their way through the guidebook first. Tripadvisor might be challenging the supremacy of the Lonely Planet’s reviews now, but the Lonely Planet still directs a large number of visitors. It’s reviews are better too – Lonely Planet reviewers give an objective review. Tripadvisor is full of vendettas, angry screeds and people with unrealistic expectations.

For restaurants, bars and hotels around the world, endorsement from the Lonely Planet can be incredibly valuable. If a place gets a particularly good write-up, another might open nearby with a similar name, in the hope of catching some of its trade. The encouragement of the Lonely Planet brings in yet more tourists who like the comfort of good guesthouses and restaurants. I’m one of them.

The Lonely Planet soon begins to look less lonely. One can buy didgeridoos in Pushkar, and every town has restaurants selling banana pancakes or Oreo shakes. On the street a short distance from the Lakeview Hotel is an excellent falafel stand, and the ‘Out of the Blue’ restaurant sells excellent pizzas.

(Out of the Blue also sells a special lassi. My father once tried to order this for dessert, thinking he would treat himself. I’m very grateful to the waiter who, after asking three times if he was sure, explained that the lassi was special as it contained bhang, a very strong form of marijuana. My Dad opted for a fruit lassi instead.)

The Lonely Planet has created new bottlenecks in India, just as the overland hippie trail led to traveller hangouts like Delhi’s Indian Coffee House being popular. And hanging out with other visitors can be fun. It was another traveller who told me I had to visit Orchha, which was much more interesting than its short write-up in the Lonely Planet suggested.

But, at the same time, you don’t want to spend all of your time with people you would avoid back home. William Sutcliffe discussed this in his novel about India, Are You Experienced. While the book suffers a little from being a product of the laddish 1990s, it contains some astute observations about India. In Manali, the narrator meets a load of public schoolboys, who are thrilled at bumping into each other by chance. He points out that there are only a few places in India where they are likely to go. India might be massive, but tourist India is a much smaller place. I’ve chatted with people in Agra, then bumped into them a few days later in Jaipur.

There are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary. For these, a guidebook is invaluable.

But escaping the trail can be fun. I would never have gone to India without the reassurance of reading a guidebook beforehand. But my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by travellers; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. I stayed three nights in an empty luxury hotel near Dausa that had regular power-cuts. And I’d have sometimes done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available, rather than go with places made complacent or more expensive by guidebook listings. Nowadays, I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it. And, just like the first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap suggested, the best advice comes from other travellers.

For my next trip, I’m wondering if I should just leave all guidebooks behind.

Why bother making my own food

Yesterday I cat-sat for the friend who is looking after my chilli plant. The thing is massive now, dominating her dining room table. And, on one of the branches, is a single red chilli. Just one chilli on one branch, that is. But it looks pretty tasty and is probably ready for harvesting soon.

Given that I can buy a bottle of Encona for a pound, the effort to grow this single Scotch Bonnet pepper seems ludicrous. And there have been all the costs – buying plant pots and compost and baby bio so I can dote on the plant with special food. This is a lot of effort for a single chilli.

This leads me to think that the farmers growing the chillis for Encona sauce are a lot better at it than me. If that was my job, the world would have just a single spoonful of Encona each year. Based on this performance, growing my own food is unlikely to be cost-effective.

Michael Pollan repeats a similar argument about cooking near the start of his book Cooked. He quotes an op-ed by the couple who write the Zagat’s guides, where they suggest “people would be better off staying an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and letting bargain restaurants do what they do best.” Pollan sees this argument as simple division of labour, the cooks using their talents while the rest of us focus on our own skills.

Of course, Pollan spends the rest of his book explaining why we should learn to cook, but that basic argument still seems persuasive. And it is worth questioning the narrative, promoted much of the media and spearheaded by Jamie Oliver, that true freedom lies in learning how to cook dishes from scratch.

A couple of reviews have picked out a passage from Johnathan Meades’ new book, the Plagiarist in the Kitchen, where he questions the fetish for home-cooked food, “Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits?

The Angry Chef spends often attacks the guilt people are made to feel about food. While he is often attacked as an industry shill, he points out that people are too overworked and stressed to be making every meal from scratch – and being educated about ‘processed’ food, enables sensible choices to be made.

I’ve blundered along for about 20 years now, feeling guilty about the mix of home-cooked meals, fast food and tinned food in my diet. I’m still alive, so I guess I’m doing that OK. I still want to learn how to cook better, but the issue is more complicated than books on healthy eating make it sound. Cooking has to fit into a busy life, and seem worth the effort.

That said, I am looking forward to eating my single chilli soon. There’s not enough to make sauce, so I will eat it raw. But I will save the seeds for next year.

Lonely Planet

In 1972, Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled overland through Asia, all the way from England to Australia, arriving with just 27 cents in their pockets. On returning to England, people kept asking for the details of their journey, so much so that the Wheelers decided to make a guidebook. In 1973 they worked at their kitchen table to write, type and staple ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’. (A free editions is available on Kindle) They needed a company name, so took Lonely Planet from a song called ‘Space Captain’ by Matthew Moore – although later learned that the actual lyric was ‘Lovely Planet’.

The guide book was evangelical about the idea of making the overland journey, explaining that for the price of an airline ticket between England and Australia, one could travel overland for two or three months. Only a few guides were being written at the time and 1500 copies of their guidebook sold in the first week, launching an empire. Another, more complete guide followed, establishing the reputation of the company.

The first Lonely Planet guide took 94 pages to explain the months of travelling through Asia – still finding time to discuss each country’s history and offer a quirky guide to the religions that would be encountered. It explained how to navigate embassies, how to receive post on the way, and some of the organised tours that were available – although you could make the journey alone if you were brave. It even listed countries where you could sell blood if you ran out of money (“Price for Blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke”). The guidebook has a ramshackle charm, with just enough information to work with: “The most useful source of extra info will be your fellow travellers. People coming from the opposite direction will have all the latest on the hassles coming for you.

This first guidebook describes a very different experience for travellers. It suggests signing ‘passing-through’ books at embassies, to leave a trail in case one disappears. It advises carrying a good set of clothes for embassies and borders, even going as far as to recommend haircuts or ‘short-hair wigs’ for getting into Singapore without hassle. That book also has a troubling sense of ethics; talking about the Iranian carpet industry it says that “Strict child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry, so buy now while children are still exploited!”

At this point there were too few travellers to have much effect on Indian food, and Wheeler is disparaging about it. “Can be miserable. India is where you lose weight on this trip.” The Wheelers claim that street stalls and cafés might be unsanitary; the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place is described as ‘Delhi’s freak bottleneck’; The best food is said to be found on the railway stations. While the book is dismissive of Indian food, it does better than Pakistan’s, which is dismissed in three curt words – “As for India”.

Over the years, the Lonely Planet went from a scrappy publication, giving you just enough information to survive, to something comprehensive and authoritative. The latest editions of the guide to India are around 1200 pages, compared to the 94 which covered the whole route from England to Australia. The Lonely Planet is in the strange position of being by far the most successful tourist guide company in the world, worth $77 million in 2014, while also being denigrated for its effects on the world. Even the first guide was aware of the effect of travellers, complaining that “the charm of Bali shows every indication of being rapidlty eroded by tourists”.

For someone like myself, who is not a natural traveller, the Lonely Planet guides have proved invaluable. They gave me the confidence to explore places I would not have gone to otherwise. At times, they’ve mislead me in entertaining ways – some of the city maps have little value beyond showing you that there are locations within a city and they are in different places. But, while there is much debate over the problems caused by guidebooks, in my life own they have been a power of good.

More on politics and curry

I assumed I’d said everything I could about curry and politics following recent posts on May, Cameron and Brexit. But, according to Chris Parkinson, there is much more to say. Chris is something of an expert on politicians and food, maintaining a Facebook page on the Eating Habits of Politicians. He sent me a barrage of links:.

When the manager of his local north London curry house called in to ask if his curries were improving his speeches, Miliband laughed and said he thought they definitely were, before admitting that he doesn’t like his takeaways very spicy. “David Cameron takes his extra spicy,” the interviewer told him, to which Miliband replied sardonically that clearly that’s because Cameron “is a really tough guy”.

  • I knew that I’d left out Robin Cook’s chicken tikka masala speech. But that probably deserves a post all of its own.
  • An article in the Independent from 2008 uses the headline The Great Balti Bailout and discusses how “The biggest deal in British financial history was stitched together by a Treasury team working into the early hours fuelled by takeaway curries“. The food came from Gandhi’s in Kennington, which has some impressive customer comments, including two former Prime Ministers.
  • Chris went on to add: “Possibly my favourite curry in recent political history is Alastair Darlings £600 takeaway on the brink of the financial crisis, an evening that culminated in Sarah Brown mistaking him for one of her children and sending him to bed.” I’m now trying to track down a source for that story.

I assume this covers most of the stories about politicians and curry – or, at least, the ones from recent years. But I suspect there are more to be uncovered. As a related item, here is an excruciating video of an interview with Zac Goldsmith, who ran a horrendous campaign in the 2016 London Mayoral election. In this footage, he claims to love Bollywood, but is awkwardly reluctant to name any films or stars.

The worst Indian meal I ever had

Yesterday I posted about the worst curry I’ve had in the UK, and I mentioned the Mulai Kofta incident. I realised afterwards that I’d not told the story on this blog.

On my first trip to India I travelled to Khajuraho, a few hundred miles from Delhi. The town is famous for its erotic temple carvings, which draw travellers from around the world. Tourist businesses had grown up there but, when I visited, the town was quiet, shops and restaurants almost empty. There were so few visitors that touts would follow for hours, almost one per tourist. The tourists had begun to visit on coach tours, which didn’t stop long. The passengers would eat in resorts outside Khajuarho. It’s a lovely town, but you can do the main attractions in a couple of hours.

On that first, nervous trip to India I tended to follow the Lonely Planet closely and took their recommendation of a place for dinner one evening. “Nothing flash about this place with plastic chairs, but the food’s good – the mulai kofta (mashed potato balls with onion, spices and curry sauce) particularly so”. It sounded perfect. I took a seat on the roof, ordered the mulai kofta, and drank a beer. I was the only person in the restaurant but was prepared to risk it for a good meal.

Kofta is found across the middle east and Asia, and would have come to the Madhya Pradesh district when it was under Mughal rule in the early 16th century. The name of the dish translates literally as cream dumplings. As far as eating Mulai Kofta went, this was the place to do it.

The dish was terrible. The rice was weirdly crunchy, the dumplings bland and unappetising. I think the regular chef was off, and the food was reheated from the day before. As I ate a little of the sauce, I wrote up the day’s adventures in my notebook, and the waiter became convinced I must be working for a guidebook. I’m polite to a fault, and didn’t want to embarrass the man for the disastrous meal, and pretended it was all fine, having assured the man I had no connection to the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Years later, I was hiking in Essex with my friend Katharine and we ate at a Southend restaurant called Papadum. This place also looked a little odd, brightly lit, but the menu was interesting. It didn’t have familiar British curry dishes like chicken tikka masala or vindaloo. When Katharine ordered, she was firmly told that she should not have extra chilli with her butter chicken. I figured I would try the mulai kofta.

And it was perfect. The dumplings were soft and gingery, the sauce spicy and warm. We chatted with the owner afterwards, and he told us about his enthusiasm for proper Indian dishes, how he wanted to educate his customers away from Anglo-Indian curries. They were doing a great job, and the Essex mulai Kofta easily beat the one from India.

There’s a real irony there. The Khajuraho version of the dish should have been authentic, but the Essex version was much better. I’m all for authenticity in food, but edibility is the most important thing.

Slices of Balti

One of my favourite things about visiting a new place is trying their local curry house. Part of the fun is that it’s a gamble. The photo below was taken on a recent curry expedition with Rosy Carrick. It isn’t great quality, but it’s better than the food was.

Me, Rosy and her daughter were visiting a tiny English town. The place had two respected Thai restaurants and one of the best pizza restaurants in the country – but I insisted that we check out the local curry house. I’m going to call it Slices of Balti, which is not its real name but is almost its real name (*).

The restaurant was pretty much empty, but that means nothing. I’ve been to empty restaurants that were great. With my parents one night, I was turned away from Brighton’s Chilli Pickle when it was empty, and I hear the food there is pretty good. So, faced by an empty small-town curry house, I insisted we go in. I mean, Balti is one of Britain’s national dishes. I was even going to forgo my usual vindaloo to try the dish boasted about in the restaurant’s name.

We gave our orders to the waiter, who spent most of the meal hiding in the back of the restaurant, playing with his phone. I like to think he was searching for jobs in better restaurants. Two sad flies dragged themselves through our table’s airspace.

When the pappadums arrived, Rosy complained to use that they tasted of burnt oil. I didn’t think they tasted that bad, but Rosy’s daughter did. She didn’t say anything though, focusing instead on stopping her mum’s commentary being overheard by the waiter.

Soon, the main course arrived. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve ever eaten. Almost worse than the Malai Kofta I had in Khajuraho. It didn’t taste much of curry, being more of an English vegetable stew with a little curry powder. Sad potatoes, cauliflower and carrot floated in an anaemic sauce.

Thing is, every restaurant can have its bad days. I’ve had very good curry houses serve meat in my vegetarian dishes – hundreds of other people have had amazing experiences there, including me. Maybe this place was usually much better. But there was a flop-sweat feeling to this place, that melancholy of failing restaurants.

As we left the restaurant, a couple of other people came in. I wondered if we should warn them to save themselves, to turn around and head for one of the Thai places. But then, if I was going to save anyone, it should be the waiters, who’d be trapped there all night. We should clear the kitchen, take everyone to the pub, and get so drunk we ended the night singing.

We left quietly and disappeared into the night. But I wonder if I should reach out, make a call and ask Slices of Balti if everything is OK?

(*) That is totally not my joke, but was stolen from Shit Theatre. Sorry.

David Cameron’s Curry Curse

It turns out that Teresa May is not the only Conservative leader to have jinxed a curry house. While researching the ongoing problems between British curry restauranteurs and the leave campaign, I learned that David Cameron has also brought bad luck.

There are strong links between the British Curry industry and politicians. This has a formal committee in theBritish Curry Catering Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group. The industry has strong lobbying groups, and politicians are eager to woo them – as you’d expect for an industry worth about £4½ billion). And, back in 2006, as leader of the opposition, Cameron used curry as part of his “unprecedented bid to woo the ethnic vote“.

When asked his favourite restaurant, Cameron said “You cannot beat a curry at The Khas Tandoori in Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Green, or curried goat from one of the street vendors during the Notting Hill Carnival.”

Back in the day. Gordon Brown professed a love of pop band the Arctic Monkeys, but was unable to give the name of any of their songs. An Evening Standard investigation of Cameron’s favourite curry house found a similar deception:

David Cameron may name The Khas Tandoori Restaurant as his favourite ethnic eaterie — but the owners seemed a little bemused. When manager Jomshed Miah was asked if he knows who David Cameron is he replied ‘Yes, of course’. But when asked whether Mr Cameron has ever dined in his restaurant, Mr Miah paused before replying: ‘I don’t think so. I have not seen him in here — maybe he orders take-aways.’

A big fan of Indian food, David Cameron has stated “I like a pretty hot curry.” The night of the 2010 election, which saw him elected Prime Minister, Cameron was eating in the Shaan Restaurant in Witney, Oxfordshire. In October 2013,the Shaan was raided and three men arrested for working illegally.

This is similar to what happened to the Innovation restaurant in Maidenhead, which was opened by Theresa May. If I was running an Indian restaurant, I’d be nervous about any endorsement by a Conservative Leader.