The other day, I visited Drummond Street, near Euston station. I had not been there in years. Here, in small family grocers, you can find everything you need to make your own Indian dishes. The proprietors of these places are helpful, too, and interested and excited that you want to have a go at doing their cookery. Not quite the same reception as in some of the Chinese supermarkets in Soho.
In truth, though, the real reason I was in Euston was that I had a sudden desperate need for samosas. And it was to the Diwana Bhel-Poori House that I was drawn. It was here, as I remembered, where you could find the finest samosas in London. I used to roll up to their branch in Westbourne Grove in west London (now, sadly, closed) and demand a take-away brown paper bag of nine - they are sold in threes like dim sum - together with a couple of pots of the essential rusty-red tamarind sauce (a sort of Asian ketchup) for dipping.
Samosas are, without doubt, one of the finest snacks: so neatly made, so nicely triangular, so delicious beyond belief to eat. Many years ago, I gave a party in my flat, and simply served proper (with lime) gin and tonics, beers and hundreds of Diwana samosas. The only trouble was that by 9 o'clock they were all devoured.
The pastry for samosas is staggeringly simple to make, being a mixture of flour, water, salt and oil. Its texture is particularly pleasing, being both light and puffy once cooked - quite different from a Chinese spring roll wrapper. The following recipe comes from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery, her first (I think) recipe book, which accompanied the television series (BBC, 1982). A rerun of this would be a wonderful treat and a refreshing antidote to some of the other rubbish we are now inundated with.
Madhur Jaffrey's vegetable samosas, makes 16
To roast the coriander and cumin seeds, heat together gently in a dry frying pan until they start to pop and jump and smell aromatic, then grind together in a mortar or in an electric coffee mill.
for the pastry:
225g plain flour
12 tsp salt
4 tbsp vegetable oil, plus a bit more
4 tbsp water
for the stuffing:
750g potatoes, boiled in their jackets and allowed to cool
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
175g shelled peas (Madhur Jaffrey suggests frozen as an alternative, but I would prefer marrow fat peas)
1 tbsp finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 hot green chilli, finely chopped (remove the seeds if you are nervous)
3 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
3 tbsp water
112 tsp salt - or to taste
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp ground roasted cumin seeds
14 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp lemon juice
vegetable oil for deep frying
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Slowly add about 4 tablespoons of
water - or a tiny bit more -and gather the dough into a stiff ball.
Turn the ball out on to a clean work surface. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes or until it is smooth. Make a ball, rub it with about a quarter of a teaspoon of oil, and slip it into a plastic bag. Set aside for 30 minutes or longer.
Now make the stuffing. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 0.5cm dice. Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan. When hot, put in the onions. Stir and fry them until they start to brown at the edges. Add the peas, ginger, chilli, fresh coriander, and 3 tablespoons of water. Cover, lower the heat and simmer until the (fresh) peas are cooked. Stir every now and then and add a little more water if the mixture seems to be drying out.
Add the diced potatoes, salt, coriander, garam masala, roasted cumin, cayenne and lemon juice. Stir to mix. Cook on low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring gently as you do so. Check balance of salt and lemon juice, as you may want more of both. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.
Knead the dough once more and divide into 8 balls. Keep 7 covered while you work with the eighth. Roll this ball out into an 18cm round. Cut in half with a sharp knife. Pick up one half and form a cone, making a 0.5 cm overlapping seam. Glue this together with a little water. Fill the cone with about 212 tablespoons of the potato mixture. Close the top of the cone by sticking the open edges together with a little more water. Press the top seam down with the prongs of a fork or flute it with your fingers. Make 15 more samosas.
Heat about 4-5cm of oil in a deep frying pan (or use a deep fryer or chip pan) and set over a medium flame. When the oil seems hot enough (approx 185C/360F), put in 4-5 samosas at a time, taking care not to overcrowd the pan (this can bring the temperature down and allow the pastry to absorb too much oil). Fry gently, turning the samosas frequently until they are crisp and golden. Drain on to kitchen paper and serve hot. A good instant dip can be made by mixing together plain yoghurt, lots of chopped mint, some green chilli, a pinch of sugar and salt, and a squeeze of lime juice.
I was inspired to have a go at making tomato curry after eating one at
the wonderful Kastoori Indian vegetarian restaurant in Tooting, south London. I was drawn to it simply because I had never eaten a tomato curry before. It was fantastically good, creamy yet oily and refreshingly
sharp and fragrant. I hasten to add that the following version is a humble
effort to reproduce the dish, and, I suspect, is possibly nothing at all to do with the way the Thanki family put theirs together. However, I think it has turned out quite tasty.
Tomato curry, serves 4
50g fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 large hot green chilli, chopped (remove seeds if you like)
1 tsp ground, roasted cumin (see previous recipe)
6-7 curry leaves (optional)
10 tomatoes, halved horizontally and cored
75g creamed coconut dissolved in 5-6 tbsp boiling water
squeeze of lime juice, to taste
freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed shallow pot or frying pan. Add the garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin, cardamoms, and curry leaves if you have some. Allow the spices to stew gently in the butter before laying the tomatoes upon them, skin side down. Lightly salt their surfaces and spoon over the coconut cream. Loosely cover and set upon an extremely low light (use one of those heat diffuser pads if you can).
Much of the juice from the tomatoes will flow out and form a "sauce", helped along by the creamed coconut. When this is coming along nicely, baste the tomatoes with the sauce so that the coconut becomes amalgamated into the whole. When the dish is ready - about 30 minutes - the tomatoes should have kept their shape and the sauce will be slightly separated but creamy in parts (if it seems too dry, simply add a little water).
Squeeze the lime juice over and grind on the pepper. Best served at room temperature as a first course, or, perhaps, to accompany some devilled chicken.
A sloppy soothing dal is one of my very favourite things to eat. I can eat bowls and bowls of it, comforting the soul and filling the tummy with a warm glow. There is also something very, very satisfying about making a pot of food that is so absurdly cheap - a matter of pence. Once again, the following recipe is an amalgam of favourite memories from eating good Indian vegetarian specialities. The can of coconut milk is a touch controversial, but it works superbly here, giving the finished dish a lovely creamy and rich texture.
Spinach, coconut and lentil dal, serves 4
200g split red lentils
400ml coconut milk
250g onions, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
112 tsp whole cumin seeds, roasted
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds, roasted
2 tsp ground turmeric
12 tsp chilli powder
3-4 thick slices of fresh ginger, unpeeled
450g fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
250g fresh leaf spinach, washed, trimmed and roughly chopped (the prepared bags from supermarkets are ideal here)
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
juice of one large lime
1 tbsp freshly chopped coriander
2 tbsp freshly chopped mint
1 tsp salt
Fry the onions in 50g of the butter
until pale golden. Add half of the
sliced garlic and the whole spices and continue to cook gently for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the turmeric and chilli powder until well blended, and cook for a couple of minutes. Tip in the lentils and add the water, together with the coconut milk, ginger, tomatoes and spinach.
Bring up to a simmer, add the pepper and cook very gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30-40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender and have all but dissolved into the liquid.
Remove the pan from the heat. Melt the remaining butter in a small pan. When it starts to froth, throw in the rest of the sliced garlic and stir around vigorously until it starts to take on a little colour, and the butter starts to smell nutty.
Immediately tip on to the lentils and stir in (there will be spluttering, so watch out). Add the lime juice, the coriander, mint and salt to taste. Cover with a lid and leave to mellow for 10 minutes before serving, remembering to remove the slices of ginger. Eat with hot and fresh flat bread, such as naan or, failing that, pitta
Diwana Bhel Poori House, 121 Drummond Street, London NW1 (0171-387 5556); Kastoori Restaurant, 188 Upper Tooting Road,
London SW17 (0181-767 7027)
Photograph by Jason Lowe