Bombay bites: Mark Hix delights in Indian ‘tapas’

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Indian 'tapas' is tasty and packed with possibilities. And sourcing exactly the right ingredients is half the fun...

I've been wanting to write about Indian snacks for a while now. I've moved to a new place in Soho which is close to Imli, an Indian "tapas" restaurant. I feel slightly uncomfortable with the word tapas when it comes to Indian food – the dishes are more like snacks or "nasta", which means breakfast snacks.

There's a lot of scope for Indian snacks, so I set off to visit one of my favourite Asian food shops, Taj Stores in East London's Brick Lane, for a bit of inspiration.

One dish I had in my head was an Indian version of the fantastic stuffed bitter melon which I regularly eat at Mr Kong in Chinatown. In Taj, I was confronted with several types of bitter melon, so I put one of each in my basket for good measure.

Baby aubergine with prawn and green mango

Serves 4-6

You normally only find these little finger-shaped aubergines in Asian supermarkets and specialist greengrocers. If you are struggling to find them, you can do slices or half slices from a normal aubergine. Green, under-ripe mangoes can be found in Asian supermarkets and actually often in normal supermarkets in the form of rock-hard mangoes that are nowhere near being edible.

6 baby finger aubergines
12 medium to large, raw seawater prawns, heads removed and peeled (reserve for the stock)
1tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
1 red chilli, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
A small piece of root ginger, scraped and finely grated
1tsp black mustard seeds
1tsp ground cumin
2tbsp chopped coriander
1 small green mango, peeled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Put the prawn shells in a pan, cover with water and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan and simmer until it's reduced by half.

Meanwhile, place the aubergines on a baking tray and cook in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until soft. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Cut the prawns into 3-4 pieces. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan, season the prawns and fry quickly on a high heat for a minute, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side.

Lower the heat and fry the onion, chilli, garlic, ginger, black mustard and cumin seeds for a couple of minutes; then add the stock and simmer for a few minutes.

Dice the mango flesh into small 1cm cubes and add to the sauce with the prawns and coriander, turn the heat up and cook for a minute or two until the liquid has evaporated. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, cut the aubergines in half lengthways and mash up the flesh a bit in the skin with the back of a teaspoon.

To serve, just spoon the prawn mixture into the aubergines.

Stuffed bitter melon

Serves 4-5

So after choosing my prickly bitter in Taj Stores, I took a trip to Chinatown for a bit more shopping and stumbled across yet another fancy, wrapped bitter melon. Now I was really confused, so I headed to Mr Kong and ordered my favourite dish. The manager spotted my bitter melon sticking out of my carrier bag while taking my order and told me that was the wrong one as it wasn't bitter enough! Luckily, I had three options and my first choice in the Taj was the purist's bitter melon.

You will find bitter melon in most Asian supermarkets and, as I discovered, go for the most prickly one – not the fancy wrapped version.

1 bitter melon
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
A few sprigs of coriander

For the stuffing

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small green chilli, finely chopped
3 medium shallots, peeled, halved and finely chopped
A small piece of root ginger weighing about 30g, scraped and finely grated
2tsp ground cumin
tsp ground coriander
200g minced lamb or mutton
1tbsp chopped coriander

To make the stuffing: heat a little vegetable oil in a pan and gently cook the garlic, chilli, shallots and root ginger for a couple of minutes to soften. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool a little, then mix in the rest of the stuffing ingredients and season.

Cut the bitter melon into 1cm-thick slices on the slight angle. With a small, sharp knife, carefully cut out the seeds from the centre of each slice, ensuring you keep the slices intact as much as possible.

Spoon the filling firmly into the centre of each slice and smooth over with the back of a spoon or knife. Heat the rest of the vegetable oil in a heavy or non-stick frying pan and fry the bitter melon for 1-2 minutes on each side, nicely colouring them. Pour enough water into the pan to cover the bitter melon, add a couple of good pinches of salt, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 4-5 minutes, then drain in a colander.

Serve immediately, scattered with the coriander leaves.

Curried quail's eggs with wild garlic

Serves 4-6

Curried eggs are a great dish if you want to spice up your Sunday brunch or breakfast a bit. Miniaturising a curried egg dish with quail's eggs will be a great addition to a little Indian-influenced snack selection, with or without basmati rice.

12 quail's eggs, boiled for 2-2 minutes, cooled in cold water and carefully peeled
A few wild garlic leaves
A few sprigs of coriander, chopped

For the sauce

A good knob of butter or ghee
4 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A small piece of root ginger, peeled and finely grated or chopped
1 small red chilli, sliced
¼tsp ground turmeric
1tsp ground cumin
tsp cumin seeds
1tsp curry powder
tsp fennel seeds
tsp fenugreek seeds
A few curry leaves
A pinch of saffron threads
100ml stock (¼ of a good-quality cube will do, dissolved in that amount of hot water)
100ml double cream (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and gently cook the shallots, garlic, ginger and chilli without colouring. Add all of the spices and cook for another minute to release their flavours. Add the stock, bring to the boil and allow it to reduce by half. Pour in the cream and simmer until reduced by half. Coarsely blend half of the sauce in a liquidiser – or with a stick blender – until smooth and put it in a clean pan. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

To serve, roughly chop through the wild garlic leaves and add to the sauce with the quail's eggs and heat through for a minute or so. Transfer to a serving dish and scatter over the coriander leaves.

Pani puri with dahl

Serves 4-6

You can buy these pani puris or gol gappas – puffed crispy bread – in most Indian supermarkets and they are perfect for filling with all sorts of mixtures, from curries to chutneys. You do tend to get rather a lot in the box they come in, so you'll just have to snack on the rest.

12 or so pani puris
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small green chilli, trimmed and finely chopped
1tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
tsp ground cumin
tsp cumin seeds
tsp fenugreek seeds
tsp ground turmeric
tsp black mustard seeds
600ml vegetable stock
100g split yellow lentils (dahl)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli in the ghee for a couple of minutes, until soft, then add all the spices and continue cooking for a couple more minutes.

Next, add the vegetable stock and split yellow lentils to the pan and season. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked.

To serve, push a hole in to the centre of each pani puri with your finger and spoon in the dahl.

Brick Lane Curry Village Festival, 8-15 May

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