Shahwar Sadeque isn't planning to invite everyone round to her place, but she is offering to bring her home cooking round to yours - or at least deliver it. With two life-long friends, she has set up The Three Begums' Kitchen to cater for dinner parties, with three menus - Muglai, house speciality, and vegetarian - of dishes each cook has refined over years of cooking for family and friends.
Mrs Sadeque is Bangladeshi, like 90 per cent of those who run Indian restaurants in this country. Unlike most of them, however, she is not from the poorer Sylhet region but from a professional family in Dhaka, where women were not expected to cook - although her mother did.
Even so, this former physics teacher admits her catering scheme has raised eyebrows among friends: "It's unusual for an articulate Asian woman to do this; some people would think it beneath themselves." Especially, perhaps, someone who is also a former member of the Commission for Racial Equality and governor of the BBC, and who is currently a governor of Kingston University, member of the Metropolitan Police Committee, and half-a-dozen other public bodies.
The two more reticent begums, Reba Hore and Akhtari Al-Mahmood, also originate from Bengal, and both work in adult education in east London. Over the years, the three have shared recipes, but still defer to each others' strengths. "I'm not terribly good with doughy things," says Mrs Sadeque, who is more confident cooking meat. She has watched her friends make luchi (the Bengali name for puri) often enough, though, to know that the wholewheat dough should be rolled into a perfect circle before frying to make a hollow puff. Mrs Hore, a Hindu, specialises in vegetable dishes such as aloor dum (potatoes with onions), dimer rosha (egg curry) and pumpkin bhaja. One thing the three don't share is politics - Mrs Sadeque is an active member of the Conservative Party.
All three live on the south side of London, near enough to the Asian shops in Tooting to guarantee the essential ingredients. Some, such as gur - date molasses collected from the tree first thing in the morning then boiled until it is solid - they will have hoarded in their freezers at home. Gur is preferred to sugar-cane molasses for making paesh, a rice pudding with molasses. Green pawpaw for tenderising the meat (beef or lamb) for hari kebab - similar to a sheek but cooked in a pan not over coals - can also be stir-fried with mustard seeds. Mooli cooked with small prawns is a homely dish, typical of the Bangladeshi practise of combining fish and vegetables. Shahwar Sadeque's galda chingri uses massive king prawns and green chillis. "Whatever you do, don't eat them," she warns, although the Begums' food is never gratuitously hot.
The chicken korma, quite unlike that found in restaurants, has almost no sauce, just what is produced by the yogurt and juices and very finely grated onion which must, she says, "be browned beautifully". "My mother always judges a cook by her korma," she says reverentially
Garam masala is the spice base for most dishes, and each cook's mix varies. Mrs Sadeque's has cloves, pepper, cinnamon and cardamom seeds but no cumin. She also uses kewra water, made from orchids, in both the korma and her rice. "These are the little touches that make what we do different," she justifiably claims.
Where the Begums break with tradition is in using vegetable oil and Flora instead of the more traditional ghee. "My mother says: `You're ruining my recipes.'" But sometimes even authenticity can be improved
The Three Begums' Kitchen can be contacted on 0181-661 9304Reuse content