FOOD & DRINK; Cook who spiced up a superstore

She adds spices in an apparently mystic fashion
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The Independent Culture
Mridula Baljekar hated Tesco's curries. So she changed them.

Michael Bateman learns her secrets, including real vindaloo

IF YOU bought a ready-made dish from a supermarket which was truly horrible, would you: 1) complain to the manager and ask for your money back; 2) scrape the contents of your plate into the bin, observing, "Well, what can you expect from factory cooking anyway?" or 3) write to the company, detailing what was wrong with its product and explaining how to do better?

Most people would probably take the second course, an indignant minority taking the first. Mridula Baljekar, however, took the third option.

The curried meals she had bought from Tesco weren't at all up to scratch. In fact, she wrote, she found it impossible to believe that an Indian cook had ever had anything to do with their manufacture. "I felt that if these dishes weren't right for the Indian community, then who were they right for? There was simply no understanding of the use of spicing. And the spices themselves were of poor quality."

She mentioned her qualifications for making such a judgement: she taught Indian cookery at Tante Marie, the prestigious cookery school in Surrey, and was the author of a book of Indian recipes.

Instead of passing her letter on to an operative skilled in the mollifying arts of customer relations, Tesco wrote back at once: "You are absolutely right. We don't think much of these dishes either. Would you like to come and see us?"

"I was very surprised," says Mrs Baljekar. But she happily agreed. Tesco explained it had come into the ready-made meal business late: Marks & Spencer pioneered this multi-million growth area; J Sainsbury was next to go for it, so Tesco decided to look for a suitable contractor. The banana and tropical fruit giant, Geest, which was diversifying at that time, successfully bid for the Tesco contract, opening a new factory at Spalding in Lincolnshire and starting to make a wide range of dishes.

So a meeting was arranged. Mrs B caused something of a stir when she arrived, and it wasn't only due to her appearance, flamboyantly wrapped in peacock-bright sari and shawls of patterned silks. On her tour of inspection at Geest, she quickly pointed out that everything in the making of its curries was wrong.

Her most scathing comments were reserved for the open plastic packs of ground spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, fenugreek, fennel seed, turmeric. She smelt them. "They are stale. You can't cook with these." They had been supplied by one of the world's leading spice producers, said Tesco with embarrassment. "They'll have to go," said Mrs B.

She said enough to convince the company it needed her help. Soon she had introduced a new line of fresh spices, and at once the dishes started to taste better. But for a while she remained doubtful that you could reproduce home cooking on an industrial scale, cooking in large stainless steel containers called brats. She noticed, too, that none of the "cooks" was Indian. How on earth would they know whether or not they were getting the right results?

Working alongside the factory team, she began to advise how recipes could be modified. You don't throw the spices in all together, she explained patiently. Each spice has to be cooked in a certain order for a specific time. She produced an elaborate time-chart; for example, ground coriander should be stirred in hot oil for about two minutes to develop its flavour, but ground fenugreek is cooked for only about 20 seconds, because it is delicate and can burn. Ginger, garlic and green chillies are also introduced to the cooking process in a tried-and-tested way, or the recipes don't work.

Soon the Tesco dishes were greatly improved, but they still weren't quite right, she felt. She finally rounded on the "cook", a former lorry driver who'd been engaged through the local employment office. "You're not following the instructions exactly - you're still not adding the spices in the right order." He was, not surprisingly, defensive. "What difference does it make?"

Aha. Mrs B suggested they both make up two recipes in separate brats, and others could judge their efforts at a blind tasting. So they did, the ex-lorry driver chucking in the spices all at once, Mrs B following some apparently mystic pattern passed down by her mother and her grandmother. Well, of course, she made her point. And now Mrs B's mysterious recipes and the frying time for each and every spice have taken on the weight of Holy Writ.

We might never have known about the contribution of Mrs B if the Independent on Sunday hadn't organised a blind tasting of supermarket curry dishes. A panel including a large number of Asian students chose the Tesco curries as easily the best in all but one category. One panel member, Namita Panjabi, who runs Chutney Mary restaurant in Chelsea, said they were the only curries in which the spices had been properly "cooked out". Many of the others had a fierce burning taste which lingered in the mouth for hours after eating them.

Well, last month Tesco reported its best trading figures, so it must be doing some things right. And curry was obviously one of them. Mrs B is still actively engaged in keeping Tesco in front, and she has just introduced a new range of balti dishes.

This surprised me. Some time ago, when she and I toured the factory together, she had said she didn't know what balti cooking was. Nor was she alone in this. Talking about her new television series on Indian food, the actress and cooking guru Madhur Jaffrey admitted her own ignorance of any such style. "In Hindi, balti means a bucket," she said. "Are they cooking the curries in a bucket? No. I should really like to know where the idea came from."

Well, Mrs Jaffrey lives in New York, and can be excused for failing to notice the mushrooming of cheap and cheerful balti restaurants in and around Birmingham, producing unsophisticated one-pot cooking.

"I was ignorant," confesses Mrs B with a smile. But you have to consider the size of the Indian subcontinent. There are 14 languages, about the same as in Western Europe, each representing a food culture.The answer was simple, in the event. Balti cooking comes from Baltistan, where else? It's a teeny province of northern Pakistan, buried in a triangle hedged in by the three highest mountain ranges in the world, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the Himalayas.

"They also call their cooking pan a balti," says Mrs B. "It is exactly the same pan I used at home in Assam, in the eastern foothills of the Himalayas where I was brought up, except that we call it a karahi." It is a two-handled metal pan, like a wok with a flattened base. Mrs B has been asked to write a balti cookbook.

But the cooking of neither Baltistan nor Assam is the subject of her latest book. Drawing on the background of her father-in-law, who was born in Goa, she has written A Taste of Goa (Merehurst £7.99), a timely book, since Goa is to 1990s package holidaymakers what Benidorm was in the 1960s. At least, says Mrs B, there's some excellent eating there, a harmonious mix of Christian and Hindu, Portuguese and Indian.

So here is her recipe for the most Goan of dishes: the deeply misunderstood vindaloo. Not the stomach-churning chilli stew eaten when you are tipped out of the pub at closing time, but a delicious dish of pork and potatoes. It is hot, of course, with vinegar intensifying the heat of chillies. The chilli pepper was not always the soul of Indian cooking, and in fact it was in south India that it was first introduced by Spanish and Portuguese traders - it being one of the discoveries Columbus brought from the New World.

The name "vindaloo" is partly from vin for vinegar; but although "aloo" sounds like the Hindi for potatoes, Goans insist it is derived from the Portuguese for garlic, ajo.

PORK VINDALOO

Serves 4

625g/114lb boned leg or shoulder of pork

4 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 large onion, around 250g/8oz, finely chopped

5cm/2in piece cassia bark or cinnamon stick, halved

14-12 teaspoon chilli powder

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon tomato pure

250ml/8fl oz warm water

250g/8oz potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm/1in cubes

112 teaspoons salt or to taste

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

4 whole fresh green chillies

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves

For the marinade:

150ml/5fl oz cider vinegar

2 long, slim dried red chillies, chopped

30g/1oz fresh root ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

30g/1oz garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

For the spice mix:

4 whole green cardamom pods

4 whole cloves

12 a whole nutmeg, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

12 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 bay leaves, cut into pieces

To make the marinade: put the vinegar in a blender or food processor, add the red chillies, ginger and garlic, and blend until smooth. Or pound them with a pestle and mortar and mix with the vinegar. Add the ground turmeric to the blended ingredients.

Trim excess fat from meat. Cut into 2.5cm/1in cubes and put in a container. Add marinade, stir and mix thoroughly. Cover the container and leave for 4-6 hours or overnight in the fridge. Remove 30 minutes before cooking.

To make the spice mix: grind the eight spices together.

Heat the oil over medium heat and fry the onions and cassia or cinnamon until the onions are soft but not brown. Add the ground spices and fry for 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon water and fry for a further minute. Repeat this last process twice more.

Lift out the marinated meat with a slotted spoon and add it to the pan. Reserve any remaining marinade. Adjust the heat to high and fry for 5- 6 minutes, stirring continuously.

Add the chilli powder, paprika, tomato pure and the reserved marinade. Mix well. Add the warm water, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 45-50 minutes.

Add potatoes, salt and sugar. Bring to the boil again, re-cover and simmer for 15-20mins or until potatoes are tender. Add fresh chillies and coriander leaves and simmer uncovered for 3-4 minutes.

For wines to go with Indian food, see Grapevine on page 55

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