Gracious me! Goodness

No grease, no gloop, no gunk - the recipes in Atul Kochhar's new book don't look like the fare on offer at your local Indian. Then your local probably doesn't have a Michelin star. Simon Beckett explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Atul Kochhar came to the UK in 1994, it was with a very definite mission in mind. "I'd never travelled outside India, and I wanted to know more about the world. I thought the best way would be to find jobs abroad." He chuckles. "I never knew I'd get stuck here, but it's worked out fine."

When Atul Kochhar came to the UK in 1994, it was with a very definite mission in mind. "I'd never travelled outside India, and I wanted to know more about the world. I thought the best way would be to find jobs abroad." He chuckles. "I never knew I'd get stuck here, but it's worked out fine."

Fine is something of an understatement from the former head chef of Tamarind restaurant in London, which under his direction became one of only two Indian restaurants in the world to win a Michelin star. He's continued to impress with his own restaurant, Benares, which opened in Mayfair last year. "Yes, it's going fine," he repeats, deprecatingly. Born in Jamshedpur in eastern India to a north Indian family, Kochhar's early * training took place at home. His father worked in the catering business, and seeing his son's interest in cooking sent him for training in hotel management. Kochhar followed that initial stint with a further three years at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management: "It's like training at the Roux brothers. It's very intense," he says.

He stayed with the group until coming to Tamarind. While that may have curtailed his travel plans, it brought the bonus of a Michelin star in 2001. An accomplishment for any chef, for one specialising in the traditionally overlooked field of Indian cuisine it was even more so. "People started looking up to Indian restaurants. It became on the same level as any other European restaurant, and that was quite an achievement," Kochhar admits.

While Tamarind focused on food from the north of India, in his own restaurant Kochhar has been free to include dishes from other regions. Until he opened Benares, Kochhar continued to return to India several times a year, visiting different areas to learn their styles of cooking. One thing that people don't realise, he says, is just how diverse the country is.

Kochhar's new book, Indian Essence, reflects this, drawing on everything from the meat-based Moghul food of the north to the vegetarian cuisine of Tamil Nadu. The recipes here show the ease with which such modern Indian food can be cooked at home. Deccan fish curry, for example, is made with red mullet as an alternative to the murrel fish used in Andrha Pradesh. The semolina pudding is a reworking of a humble dessert popular in the south; while the stir-fry uses greens we can get hold of in the UK. "In Tamil Nadu, arrakeerai and sirukeerai are the two greens stir-fried in this way, but the result is equally good with plain spinach."

He's also keen to dispel the misconception that Indian food is unhealthy. "People think we only cook with ghee. There are parts of India where people like fatty food but there are parts where they like food lean." He is astonished that people don't realise Indian food can be healthy. "But," he laughs, "I take some relief looking at French food which is also full of cream and fat."

Stir-fried spinach

500g/1lb 2oz spinach leaves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon split black gram
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 dried red chillies
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 tablespoons fresh, grated coconut

Wash the spinach, drain well and shred the leaves; set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok or kadhai and sauté the mustard seeds and black gram with the garlic and whole red chillies until they crackle. Add the onion and sauté until translucent.

Add the spinach and season with salt.
Cook on a low heat for a few minutes until
the spinach is just wilted and any liquid has evaporated. Sprinkle with coconut to serve.

Deccan fish curry

4 small red mullet, about 300g/10oz each, scaled and cleaned
2 teaspoons ginger-garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
3 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
20 curry leaves
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 medium onions, finely sliced
4 green chillies, finely sliced
Chopped coriander leaves to garnish

Slice the fish crossways, through the bone, to give steaks about 4cm (11/2in) wide; discard the heads if you wish. Mix the ginger-garlic paste, salt, chilli and turmeric. Rub into the fish and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, soak the tamarind pulp in 200ml (7fl oz) warm water for 20 minutes. Strain through a sieve.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry 10 curry leaves until crisp; remove and set aside. Add the cumin and mustard seeds to the pan, and fry until the onions are golden brown.

Add the fish and chillies, and fry lightly until the chillies have softened, turning once. Add the tamarind liquid and simmer gently for five minutes until the fish is cooked. Sprinkle with curry leaves and coriander and accompany with Indian bread or steamed rice.

Semolina pudding

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 cashew nuts
2 tablespoons raisins
80g/21/2oz unsalted butter
250g/9oz semolina
200g/7oz caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon green cardamom powder
pinch of saffron threads, infused in 2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons grated coconut, toasted
1 plum, cut into thin slices

For the shrikhand

100g/31/2oz thick Greek yoghurt
15g/1/2oz caster sugar
Tiny pinch of saffron threads, infused in a teaspoon of warm milk
Tiny pinch of green cardamom powder

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, wok or kadhai and fry the cashew nuts and raisins for two to three minutes until the nuts are coloured and the raisins plump up. Remove and drain on kitchen paper; set aside. Drain off the oil.

Heat the butter in the pan and fry the semolina for about 15 minutes until golden brown in colour. Slowly add 300ml (10fl oz) hot water, stirring constantly. Add the sugar, cardamom powder and saffron. Cook gently over a low heat for five minutes to blend the flavours. Stir in the coconut, cashew nuts and raisins, then remove from the heat.

Spread the mixture evenly in a greased shallow tin to a 2-3cm (1in) depth and allow to cool, then chill for one hour or until set. Cut into triangles or diamond-shaped pieces.

For the shrikhand, put the yoghurt in the middle of a muslin cloth, draw up the corners, tie together and suspend over a bowl in a cool place for two hours to drain. Tip the drained yoghurt into a bowl, add the sugar, saffron and cardamom and whisk lightly. Refrigerate for one hour.

Place a spoonful on each semolina slice along with a plum slice.

'Indian Essence', is published by Quadrille on 21 May, priced £18.99. To order your copy at the special price of £16.99 (including p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897