Flash in the pan

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The boom in Indian food shows no sign of abating. Figures confirm that our passion for Indian food now far surpasses our passion for Chinese, with Indian restaurants outnumbering Chinese by two to one. We eat 2.5 million curries a week. In fact, in London alone there are more Indian restaurants than in Bombay and Delhi combined.

But it's not just the lure of dining out on a freshly prepared curry that's capturing Britain's tastebuds. At supermarkets, too, Indian ready-meals and ingredients are increasingly taking up shelf-space, building on the phenomenon of the 1990s, chicken tikka masala.

And now, just when it seems that the market can expand no further, this week sees the launch of yet another new Indian product, targeted at the home cook: stirfry Indian sauce.

Indian stirfries? Just a minute. What might they be, exactly? Among the dansaks and the kormas, the biryanis and rogan joshes, surely the stirfry is not a dish we are familiar with on Indian menus?

Well, it's true that dishes may not appear on the menu as such, but stirfrying is the essential basis of all Indian cooking, explains Meena Pathak, head of Patak's, the company which is launching the range of four such curry sauces.

"People think of stirfrying as Chinese," she says. "But it is the oldest technique in the Indian kitchen. Almost every dish starts with a stirfry of spices. Then other ingredients are added and they are also stirfried."

And contrary to the general impression that Indian cooking is long and slow (as it certainly is for some meat stews and for lentil soups) many dishes, such as stirfried vegetables or prawns or pieces of chicken, are cooked rapidly. Even the pan used in most Indian kitchens, a kerai, resembles a Chinese wok (in now-familiar Balti cooking the whole meal is prepared in a kerai).

Patak's is, of course, renowned for its range of authentic Indian foods, frozen and ready-made meals, its pappadoms, chapattis and naans, its pickles and chutneys and the more recent spice pastes. The pastes have been so successful that more than 90 per cent of the UK's Indian restaurants actually buy them in, only too eager to have a short-cut to the complex business of preparing, mixing and combining dozens of spices.

Curry mixtures are the soul of Indian cooking. Those of us who enjoy exploring the subtleties of combining and frying freshly-ground whole spices will still turn to such pastes with relief.

The main problem in attempting Indian cooking at home, says Meena, is trying to grasp the complex balance of spicing. The Indian kitchen accommodates some 30 to 35 spices, as varied as cumin and coriander, cardomom and cinnamon, fennel seeds and fenugreek, turmeric and mustard seeds, not to mention chillies and peppercorns.

But it's not simply the variety of spices. Even more complex, she says, is the way each spice can contribute a different flavour, depending upon how it is handled. "Freshly-ground seeds taste different from those which have been heated in a dry pan, when they release the aromas of their oils. And again, whole seeds 'popped' in very hot oil taste different, nutty, slightly bitter."

If it can take an Indian cook a lifetime to master this arcane art, what hope for the rest of us? For Meena, to get the average housewife cooking better dishes at home than the local curry house can produce, would be a massive achievement.

But Meena is nothing if not an achiever. Patak's, which exports to 40 countries, recently received a major export award from the agency Food from Britain and next month she is opening a £12m factory in Wigan.

The Patak's story is truly one of rags to riches. Meena's father-in-law, LG Pathak, was so impoverished when he arrived in the UK in 1956 that he took a job in London's sewers. Nostalgic for the food of his homeland, he began to make samosas, and by 1958 was able to open a shop in north London. His move into the chutney business came entirely by error. Unable to buy authentic Indian chutneys he made his own, selling the surplus to friends. But an order for two barrels of preserved mangoes was misread as 20 and, unable to cancel it, he had to sell a lot of chutney to pay the bill. A business was born.

His son Kirit took over in 1970. In 1976 he married Meena, who was unusual for an Indian of her class. Her father was an army colonel turned businessman and her mother a dentist, but she had chosen the unlikely career of chef, training at the distinguished Bombay Oberoi hotel.

The cultural leap from Bombay to Wigan was huge. What India lost, we gained, for it is the authenticity of Patak's which sets it aside. For example, she personally buys the spices whole in India, to be ground as required in Lancashire.

And she is, as you'd expect, in charge of the research kitchens, originating new products: recipe dishes, curry pastes and now the sauces. A few years ago she set up Patak's Recipe Club, which soon had 8,000 members. This has now been superseded by a website (www. pataks.co.uk) offering recipes.

Meena's Stir Fry Sauces, available in most supermarkets from tomorrow, have been chosen from the four corners of India: from Kerala (a mild coconut and pineapple sauce suitable for prawns and vegetables); from Kashmir, Jalfrezi (red pepper and coconut, to go with chicken, lamb or vegetables); from Rajasthan (a patia, spicy, sweet and sour); and from Bengal (a medium hot sauce with red pepper and tomato sauce).

No recipes are required for the stirfry sauces (read the label). And cooking with curry paste is hardly more demanding (there's a wide range available in superamarkets, most of them mild). Here are two Patak's suggestions which illustrate how easy it is to use them.

Safed aloo tarkari

Fried potatoes in curry sauce

Serves 4

450g/1lb small new potatoes, scrubbed clean

Oil for deep frying

225g/8oz onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

175g/6oz plain yogurt

1 tablespoon curry paste

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, ground

1 tablespoon whole poppy seeds

100ml/31.5oz milk

2 sprigs coriander, chopped

Deep-fry potatoes till done and drain on kitchen paper.

Fry the onions in vegetable oil till soft, then add bay leaves, curry paste, coriander seeds and the yogurt. When blended, add the potatoes and the poppy seeds, cover, and simmer on lowest heat for 20 minutes. Add the milk and cook another five minutes. Garnish with chopped coriander and serve with naan bread.

Spicy Mango Chicken

Serves 4

4 chicken breasts, sliced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 heaped tablespoon mild curry paste

200g/7oz chopped tomatoes (canned are fine)

1 tablespoon mango chutney

Sprig of fresh coriander, chopped

Heat oil in a pan and fry the chicken pieces till lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the onions and cook another two minutes.

Stir in the curry paste, then the tomatoes, adding six tablespoons of water to dilute. Cover with a lid, and simmer on lowest heat for 20 minutes to thoroughly cook and blend flavours. Stir in the mango, garnish with coriander. Serve with boiled rice.