Curry courier

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When my first instalment of Samarkand sachets arrived, I didn't need to be told that these spices had been freshly ground, the fragrance was intoxicating, perfuming everything they touched

Photographs by Matthew Donoldson

Judging from the expansive selection of curryphernalia available in supermarkets, there are plenty of people willing to take the time to cook a curry at home. But the quality of a commercially produced curry powder can't be expected to be any better than a tub of ready ground black pepper and I have yet to come across a curry paste in which I have complete confidence.

You could always make your own. But this entails drawing up a shopping list, which goes on, and on, starting with spices like cumin, cayenne and turmeric, ending with black cardamom. Having used a fraction of each, the rest will clutter up your cupboards until once again the urge for a curry comes upon you. By which time most of them will be stale.

Samar Mazoor, a Pakistani, resident in Bromley, is a superb cook with a mean line in curries. Married to a banker, she does a great deal of entertaining. On finding that English friends would leave saying "we've never tasted food like this, how can we cook it?" she found herself making up sachets of spice for them, together with foolproof instructions for the recipe. Thus the seed of the business she began four months ago was planted.

"Asian families don't use curry powder," she tells me, "and I have never seen a curry paste in Pakistan. Spices are ground and mixed freshly for each meal." She makes her spice blends to order, stamping them with a use-by date of two months, but customers should receive them within two or three days. This freshness is a hallmark.

You can request the strength in terms of heat, from mild through to extra hot on the order form. When the first request for a blow-your-head-off curry came through, Samar was fazed. She has now come to accept the leaning of the English palate towards Madras.

Samar Mazoor was born and brought up in Lahore. She arrived a stranger in England aged 20, via an arranged marriage. In a foreign country with no friends and no experience of cooking, she was thrown in at the deep- end every weekend when hoards of her husband's bachelor friends would descend, expecting to be fed.

It was something she began to look forward to: "you get a lot of appreciation from bachelors, but the first time I tried to skin a chicken it took me four hours." Through corresponding with her mother she gradually acquired the traditional cooking skills of her background that had been passed down from her grandmother.

Samar's cooking bears similarities to the North Indian food of the Punjab, which is what we usually associate with "Indian" restaurants, and many of her dishes have a familiar ring to them: chicken korma, tarka dal, potato bhaji and the like. But she is every bit as purist as you would expect a French housewife to be, and when I inquire about baltis she replies: "Baltis? Balti means bucket, and we don't cook in buckets. Metal or any other kind".

It is not every day that you can smell your post as it tumbles through the letterbox, but such was the case the morning that my first instalment of Samarkand sachets arrived. I didn't need to be told that these spices had been freshly ground, the fragrance was intoxicating, perfuming everything they touched.

I will happily endorse Samar's claim to the simplicity of these recipes. I have now worked my way through the potato bhaji in a tomato-based sauce, which threw out a heady mix of freshly ground cumin, turmeric and nigella seeds. A whole chicken, marinaded with root ginger, lemon juice, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and bay, then wrapped in foil and roasted, was unforgettable.

The actual range of spices within her cooking is comparatively narrow; the difference in effect is achieved through the point at which they are added, and their quantities. While watching her blending, I was surprised that she had not written down the formula for each dish. It is here that experience and instinct come into play: in altering the amount of cayenne and paprika to suit a customer's taste in heat, she may then have to adjust the other spices to balance it.

I found the quality of her blending outstanding, and I would readily dish up the results at a buffet, where this type of food comes into its own, especially since it improves overnight. I already know the fate of any left-over turkey this year: it will receive a dignified ending as Samarkand cooked turkey in mushroom sauce.

Samarkand, PO Box 55, Bromley BR2 9XE; 24-hour helpline 0181-460 4194. pounds 2.00 per sachet including recipe and postage and packing (or three for pounds 5.00)

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