FOOD & DRINK: Feast for the other fireworks' festival

Divali, the Hindu festival of light, begins tomorrow. Indians throughout Britain will be celebrating with fireworks, present-giving - and large and lavish meals

TOMORROW, Indians in Britain celebrate Divali, their festival of light. It is a Hindu ceremony every bit as as significant as Christmas in the Christian calendar and in similar fashion observed by many who are not Hindus, an excuse for feasting and fun.

The festival opens tomorrow night with the important triumph of Good over Bad, the destruction of the Divali demon. Thanks are given to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, in a Vedic ceremony which hasn't changed for 5,000 years. This opens the way to several days of fireworks and feasting, and especially present-giving. Most of the presents are edible, taking the form of sweets made of almonds, peanuts, pistachio nuts and cashew nuts, flavoured with spices, sweetened or dipped in preparations of concentrated milk or coconut.

The coconut has special religious significance. In many families a coconut will be decorated and mounted on a pedestal as an object of veneration. Coconuts are broken to cast out the demons, and the grated flesh is used in the making of special Divali sweets such as bursi (coconut and molasses boiled to the the consistency of fudge) and neuras (samosas filled with a sweet filling of spiced coconut).

Most of these confections are the result of laborious and patient effort. Milk, for example, is reduced to a sticky paste by simmering in flat pans slowly for hours to evaporate most of the liquid, condensing the lactose, or milk sugars.

For sheer length of preparation time the festive rice biscuit, aharsi, really does take the biscuit. Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian cookery writer and actress, writes about this little Divali morsel that vanishes in the mouth. From start to finish it takes some 10 days to make.

First you must soak the rice for several days, changing the water each day. When the rice starts to give off little bubbles, the sign of fermentation, it must be strained. The rice is completely dried out, then pounded into flour.

This is but the start of the operation. The rice flour is then mixed with raw sugar, made into a ball with a little oil, sealed in a tin and left another five days. This paste is patted into thin rounds, pressed into poppy seeds, laid on to leaves and baked.

In the home, families will enjoy huge feasts, with the emphasis on vegetarian dishes, but especially on extra-sweet dishes. Restaurants, too, will present Divali menus. But do not expect to be overwhelmed. There may be 15,000 or more Indian, Pakistani and Bengali restaurants and takeaways in the UK, but 95 per cent of them are Muslim and they do not observe the festival.

The couple who run Leela's in Newcastle, the North East's most praised Indian restaurant, are Christian. Yet in honour of their Hindu customers and for all the others who enjoy fine food, they are putting on a Divali menu, a vegetarian one in keeping with the religious strictures. That's no problem for Paul and Leela Kuriakose, since much of India's best vegetarian cooking originates from their native Kerala, in the south of India. This should not be surprising since the world's spicy trail starts there, the source of the best quality cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, peppercorns, and hot and sweet chillies.

As owners (and also the cooks), Paul and Leela have the best of all worlds. They are bound by no religious laws preventing them from cooking fish and meat, including pork which is taboo on most of the subcontinent. Their biggest challenge, rather, is confounding expectations of "curries". Certainly the Geordie idea of Indian cooking is hot, hotter and hottest and when I was there one Bengali restaurant in Newcastle was offering a free meal to the person who could eat the hottest chilli curry. Leela says it isn't an image of Indian food they'd wish to convey: "We use a little chilli but heat is not the essence of Kerala cooking."

Few restaurateurs will be likely to understand the family spirit of Divali better than Paul and Leela. Until five years ago that's what they were, family cooks who never aspired to do more than prepare a dinner party for friends.

Paul and Leela came to Britain 35 years ago, starting down the National Health Service ladder as nurses, and working their way up to senior executive positions. They had children. And grandchildren. And then in 1990 they said, "Let's open a restaurant." Leela presented a business plan of such staggering competence to their bank manager that a loan was immediately forthcoming.

The Good Food Guide embraced them at once, praising the caring quality of their home cooking. The Theatre Royal crowd up the road poured in. Derek Nimmo gave them the thumbs-up; Maureen Lipmann became an immediate fan. Ian McKellen cadged a jar of Leela's lime pickle (see recipe below) and a few months later an American actor arrived asking for a jar, saying: "I've heard so much about it in California." An early admirer was Madhur Jaffrey, in town to act in the Tyne-Tees serial Firm Friends. She wrote in the visitor's book: "A never-to-be-forgotten evening."

"She praised my samosas," said Leela. "I bake them instead of frying to keep down the oil content. She asked me how I made them. I said, 'You write the books, and I'll do the cooking.'"

When Leela and Paul arrived in Newcastle they were among perhaps a few hundred Indians. Now they are among 50,000 or 60,000, most of them business and professional people, doctors, accountants, businessmen, fabric importers, storekeepers.

"There wasn't a single Indian restaurant in Newcastle in 1960," says Paul. "So I remember taking Leela to the nearest one, in Ocean Road, South Shields, 10 miles away." (South Shields is a former shipbuilding town posing as a seaside resort.) There are now 12 Indian restaurants in Ocean Road alone, and many more in town.

Paul and Leela have prepared a mouthwatering feast for Divali this year. They are starting with masala dosa, the crispy pancake of rice flour with a spicy stuffing, with sambar sauce (like a thin vegetable stew with chillies) and coconut chutney; followed by vegetable biriani, aubergines stuffed with vegetables and nuts, and marinated vegetables. There will be rich desserts, including a Kerala special called payasam, which is roasted vermicelli, cooked in coconut milk, with cashew nuts and sultanas.

I have chosen two of their recipes which are the favourites among both Indian and non-Indian customers alike: king prawns pappas and Kerala lamb, dishes that Leela won't be serving as part of the festivities but are popular all year round. Here, too, is Leela's pilau rice and her famous lime pickle.

The recipes below are given as Paul and Leela cook them, but if you cannot find every single ingredient, please don't be put off. You can vary them, or leave them out, or attempt substitutes. For example, Paul and Leela use "fish" tamarind, which is a special kind of tamarind that has been smoked, but you can use lime or lemon juice instead as a souring agent. It is not a matter for despair if you can't buy curry leaves; the sauce will still be fine. The most important thing is to use fresh spices: buying them in small quantities so they don't stale, grinding you own where possible.

The marinade is an important function in Kerala cooking, and there are few dishes in which fish or meat, and sometimes vegetables, aren't soaked in a spicy mixture before cooking. Marinating both softens and flavours the food.

LEELA'S WORLD-FAMOUS LIME PICKLE

Makes about three or four jars

900g/2lbs fresh green limes

600ml/1 pint water

salt to taste

60g/2oz mustard seeds

15g/12oz fenugreek seed, crushed

15g/12oz whole cumin seed

30g/1oz finely chopped garlic

15g/12oz finely chopped ginger

20 curry leaves

30g/1oz crushed dry red chillies

30g/1oz paprika powder

15g/12oz unrefined brown sugar

125ml/4fl oz malt vinegar

175ml/6fl oz vegetable oil

Boil the water in a large pan and add the salt and whole limes. Simmer until soft and the limes change colour.

Leave to cool, reserving the water. Remove the limes and slice them into small pieces, reserving the juice.

In another pan, heat the oil, add the mustard seeds and cook until they pop. Add the fenugreek, cumin, garlic and curry leaves, and cook without burning.

Off the heat, stir in the crushed chilli and paprika powder and mix well.

Add the limes, the juice and reserved water and mix thoroughly.

Finally, add the sugar and vinegar. Check the flavour, adding more salt if required.

Pour into sterilised jars, and seal.

If the mixture is too concentrated, thin it too the desired consistency with a mixture of vinegar and boiled water.

Note: do not use cold water from the tap.

KING PRAWN PAPPAS

Serves 4

20 king prawns, raw, shelled, except for tail

For the marinade:

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon chilli powder

1 tablespoon paprika powder

1 tablespoon ginger powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons lemon juice

150ml/5fl oz water

salt to taste

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 teaspoon fresh garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped

2 green chillies, finely chopped

10 curry leaves

3 fish tamarind, medium size

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 small green mango, skinned and diced

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon chilli powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon fenugreek powder

2 tablespoons paprika powder

60g/2oz coconut cream

600ml/1 pint water

salt to taste

For the garnish:

1 teaspoon mustard seed

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon dried onions

6 curry leaves

Mix all ingredients for the marinade to a creamy consistency and coat the prawns. Leave the marinated prawns in the refrigerator for about two hours.

Shallow-fry the prawns in a frying pan on a medium heat until they are golden brown.

In a large pan, heat the vegetable oil and fry the onions until they are golden brown. Add garlic, green chillies and curry leaves.

Add the fish tamarind, tomato paste and green mango. Turn the heat down.

Add the turmeric, chilli, coriander, cumin, fenugreek and paprika powder. Take care that the mixture does not burn.

Add the water, coconut cream and salt. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the pan-fried prawns.

In a small pan, heat the oil for the garnish.

Add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop turn down the heat and add curry leaves and dried onions. When the onions turn a golden colour, pour into the sauce.

Serve on a hot plate decorated with a slice of lemon and a few coriander leaves.

KERALA LAMB

Serves 4

4 lamb steaks (off the bone), 175g/6oz each

For the marinade:

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon chilli powder

1 tablespoon paprika powder

1 teaspoon ginger powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt to taste

150ml/5fl oz water

6 tablespoons vegetable oil to fry steaks

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion

1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped

1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped

10 curry leaves

4 tablespoons coconut powder

2 tablespoons ground almond

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon chilli powder

2 tablespoons paprika powder

1 tablespoon coriander powder

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon garam masala

12 teaspoon black pepper powder

1 tablespoon beef or lamb stock

60g/2oz coconut cream

60g/2oz fresh single cream

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

750ml/114 pints water

For the garnish:

1 teaspoon mustard seed

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon poppy seed

6 curry leaves

1 tablespoon dried onions

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

a few thin slices fried onions

10 fried cashew nuts

a few fresh coriander leaves

Mix all the ingredients for the marinade to a creamy consistency and coat both sides of the lamb steaks. Leave in the fridge for an hour.

In a frying pan, over a medium heat, shallow-fry both sides of the steaks until they are a golden brown.

In a large pan heat the vegetable oil and fry the onions until they are golden brown, then add garlic, ginger and curry leaves.

Add the coconut powder and the ground almond and fry until they are a light golden brown. Turn the heat down. Add the turmeric, chilli, paprika, coriander, cumin, black pepper and garam masala powder and stir continuously for one minute, taking care not to burn.

Add water, stir and mix. Increase the heat and let the mixture boil.

Add the stock and coconut cream and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the single cream and simmer for a further minute. Add the white wine vinegar.

Remove from heat and blend the mixture with a hand blender.

Add the pan-fried lamb steaks and simmer for another 10 minutes or so until the gravy acquires a creamy consistency.

In a small pan, heat the oil for the garnish.

Add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, turn the heat down and add the cumin seeds, poppy seeds, curry leaves and dried onions. When the onion starts to turn golden, remove from the heat and pour over the lamb. Decorate with fried onions, fried cashew nuts and fresh coriander leaves, and serve hot.

PILAU RICE

Serves 4

450g/llb basmati rice

4 one-inch sticks of cinnamon

4 bay leaves

8 cloves

6 cardamom

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

salt to taste

1 small onion, chopped

4 tablespoons sweetcorn

4 tablespoons peas

4 tablespoons sliced carrots

1 red pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

4 tablespoons grated celeriac

600ml/1 pint water

Soak the basmati rice for 10 minutes, then wash thoroughly and drain.

In a non-stick pan, heat the vegetable oil. Add cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom and black pepper and fry for 30 seconds.

Add the chopped onion and fry for one minute. Add salt to taste.

Add sweetcorn, peas, carrots, red pepper and celeriac and fry for two minutes. Add the basmati rice and slowly stir until the rice becomes translucent - a few minutes.

Add water and let it boil. Cover with a lid, turn the heat down and simmer. Before all the water is absorbed, stir the rice once with a fork.

Remove from the heat when the rice is cooked and all the water is absorbed (this will take about 15 minutes). Serve hot. !

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