Few men have done more to besmirch the reputation of Indian cuisine than Keith Talent. The boorish anti-hero of Martin Amis's novel London Fields is a singularly unpleasant character fond of petty crime, pornography, darts and, above all else, throat-strippingly spicy food. No waiter at his local Indian could satisfy his hunger for heat – any who dared bring anything milder than a super-charged phaal (the hottest curry around) would be abused while steam poured from Talent's scarlet ears.
Ever since the first British curry house opened its doors (the country now has an estimated 9,000 Indian restaurants) Indian food has become synonymous, in many minds, with the macho pursuit of tongue-bothering spice and fattening takeaway blowouts washed down with gallons of beer. Of course, there is another side to Indian food, and in recent years a small but determined group of cooks have sought to break through the stereotype.
Monisha Bharadwaj is one of Britain's top Indian cooks and an award-winning writer. Her latest book, Healthy Indian in Minutes, is mouth-watering collection of dishes that Keith Talent would no sooner enjoy than he might a plate of fresh sashimi. Anyone for a beetroot and onion salad with fennel?
"The majority of British takeaways do not offer the best example of good Indian cooking," Bharadwaj says. "But you have to think about what they are. When they first opened, curry houses were catering to people who were used to eating heavy food with all its gravy, cream and stodginess. Takeaways offered something similar but with added spice."
But Bharadwaj says there is a growing demand for something different. I meet her in Hounslow, where she moved from her native Mumbai 22 years ago. As well as writing she now runs a cookery school in her kitchen. "More and more people want to cook home-cooked Indian food that's fresh and healthy," she says. "They know that it is something different but they don't know what it is because you can't get it in restaurants." Bharadwaj's courses are proving a hit with everyone from housewives and husbands short of inspiration to top chefs looking to expand their repertoires.
I'm a lazy cook – a clueless 20-something with previous when it comes to crimes against Indian cuisine. After spending four months in the Himalayan foothills "broadening my horizons" I returned, aged 19, determined to lay on a feast for my family. But I couldn't find paneer for my mutter paneer, the classic curry of peas and cubes of cheese. What, I wondered scanning the cheese aisle, would make an adequate substitute? Yeah, mozzarella – that'll do it. It didn't – the table soon became a disaster area of stringy cheese.
Perhaps Bharadwaj can knock me into shape. We're going to cook and, crucially, eat three dishes from her new book. But before we get stuck in, it's time to learn a few basics. I learn how to chop an onion (keep the root intact as you go) and how to fry them in a karahi, the Indian answer to a wok (it's thicker and has no handle, which makes it easier to store; we use a sturdy pair of tongs called a chimta to handle the pan while cooking). "Don't keep stirring them," Bharadwaj says, "spread them over the bottom of the pan and when you see the first sign of browning, stir them once and let them finish".
Bharadwaj is particular in the kitchen but that's just how she learned to cook. Indian home cooking is governed by rules, some of them common sense but others more complex and founded on the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda. First recorded more than 5,000 years ago, the world's oldest known system of medicine casts the kitchen as an apothecary in which herbs have healing powers.
"Ayurveda says things we all know but often don't practise," Bharadwaj says. "Only eat when you're hungry; sit down and eat calmly and not while you're watching television or reading; eat with the seasons and with the weather – warming foods when it's cold and lighter foods in the summer." Bharadwaj talks about the body's "digestive fire". "We want to keep it going almost like a real fire," she says. "If you're hungry you want to feed it but also give it the right kinds of fuel. If you have a pile of carbohydrate-heavy stodge, you will put out the fire straight away, like throwing a huge lump of coal on a barbecue. You want the barbecue to sizzle and cool down to embers, giving it just enough fuel to nourish it and keep it going."
And Ayurvedic cooking is by definition healthy. Once the onions are chopped, we throw them into barely a tablespoon of sunflower oil. It's all the grease we'll add – no curries swimming in fat for us. The chicken goes in next to create what will become a wonderfully simple murgh soweta, or chicken with sweet corn. Once the meat is sealed we add the spices. Bharadwaj reaches across the sideboard for her beautifully colourful enamelled spice tin. For many would-be Indian cooks the world of spice seems difficult to navigate, but Bharadwaj says it's simpler than you might think. "Indian shops are full of colourful spices and it's easy to believe that everyone should have a great store of them, but I tend to use about seven spices for most of my cooking – turmeric powder, chilli powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, cumin seeds, black mustard seeds and garam masala."
Bharadwaj says all spices have the power to heal. Turmeric makes a good antiseptic and cumin aids digestion. For the chicken dish we add turmeric, chilli and garam masala. As soon as they hit the karahi the kitchen fills with aromas that leave no doubt that this is going to be an exceptionally good meal. But before we lay the table it's time to tackle another dish you'd never find at your local curry house. A khichadi, Bharadwaj tells me, combines rice, mung dal and carrots and is not unlike a risotto. It's where kedgeree, the haddock, rice and egg concoction favoured by Victorian colonialists, has its origins. It takes just minutes to prepare.
While that's simmering away Bharadwaj sticks an aubergine straight on the hob to roast it, mashing the smoky flesh and combining it with red onions and tomatoes fried in spices. Stirred in with some yoghurt it makes a terrific dip or, for our purposes, the perfect accompaniment to our rice and chicken dishes. It barely feels as if we've broken into a sweat, my onion tears notwithstanding, but there is now a plate of food in front of me. Take a forkful of even good-quality Indian takeaway and the potency of the spices and the heat of the oil explode in the mouth. But this is an altogether different feeling. The aubergines are delicately smoky with a delayed kick and the chicken tastes mainly of chicken. Best of all, there are none of those post-curry guilt pangs that accompany all the grease. Bharadwaj's food doesn't so much assault the senses as caress and comfort them. "That's Indian food," she says.
Healthy Indian in Minutes by Monisha Bharadwaj (Kyle Cathie, £14.99). Cookingwithmonisha.com
The real deal: Monisha Bharadwaj's recipes
Rice, carrot and lentil stew (Gajar Ki Khichadi)
A "Khichadi" is a mix of rice and split mung dal, cooked until creamy – not unlike a risotto. Khichadis are easy to digest and so are always included in a cleansing Ayurvedic diet. I dislike biting into whole spices, so I put them into a tea infuser in the cooking pot. After cooking, I simply take out the infuser and discard the spices. If you don't have a tea infuser, just tie the spices in a scrap of clean cloth.
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
teaspoon cumin seeds
300g white basmati rice, washed and drained
4 tablespoons split mung dal, washed and drained
2 small carrots, washed and roughly grated
5 cloves, 10 peppercorns and 1 bay leaf, all put in a tea infuser
teaspoon tumeric powder
salt, to taste
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 35 minutes
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan and fry the cumin seeds over a medium heat until they start to darken.
2. Add the rice, mung dal, carrots, spices and water. Sprinkle in the tumeric and salt and bring to the boil, stirring all the time.
3. Turn the heat right down, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 25 minutes, or until the rice is creamy and cooked. Remove the lid and add more water, if necessary, to ensure the rice is very moist. Lift the spices out and serve with natural yoghurt and hot lime or mango pickle.
Chicken with sweetcorn (Murgh Soweta)
This recipe is bursting with the flavour of tomatoes, both fresh and concentrated. Tomatoes are said to lower the risk of many kinds of cancer. They are also rich in the antioxidant vitamin C and can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ginger-garlic paste
600g skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2.5cm cubes
150g sweetcorn, fresh or frozen
teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
teaspoon turmeric powder
225g ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tomato puree
salt, to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves, to garnish
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 30 minutes
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based, non-stick saucepan and fry the onions over a high heat until soft – about 5 minutes. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 1 minute.
2. Add the chicken and stir-fry for 5 minutes to seal the meat.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through – about 15 minutes. You may need to add a little water to prevent the curry from drying up.
4. Garnish with fresh coriander.
Aubergine salad with red onion and tomatoes (Dahi Baingan Bharta)
This simple but tasty salad can be served with a variety of meat or vegetarian curries. It also makes a wonderful dip for barbecues – I like to grill the aubergine, wrapped in foil, on the hot coals. If you are making the salad in advance, avoid adding the yoghurt until the last minute or it will dry out.
1 large aubergine
1 tablespoon sunflower oil, plus extra for brushing
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 medium green chilli, finely chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
salt, to taste
150ml natural, low-fat yoghurt
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 25 minutes
1. Brush the aubergine with oil and place it under a hot grill to roast. Turn from time to time until the skin is scorched and the flesh is soft.
2. Cool the aubergine slightly, and then peel off the skin – it should come off easily.
3. Place the aubergine flesh in a bowl and mash with a fork.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small, heavy-based saucepan and add the onion. Fry over a medium heat until soft, and then add the chilli, tomatoes and coriander leaves. Season with salt and cook until the tomatoes are soft and mushy.
5. Allow the mixture to cool, and then combine it with the mashed aubergine and yoghurt. Serve at once.