India, (it’s religions, languages and literature, art and, of course, food) is a subject extremely close to my heart. Living in Leicester, I have a lot of Indian friends and they have given me the title of Honorary Indian, because they say I am the only white British person they know who knows what a Kachori is, let alone able to make them on a regular basis. When he was younger my Uncle went travelling, and felt so at home in India that he made it his home for a long time. My husband’s childhood (and now our spare bedroom) was full of Marvel comics and the Beano; whereas, although I had a completely average British childhood in some respects, I probably grew up knowing a great deal more about India, and all that it encompasses, than him or any of my classmates. Besides the likes of Madhur Jaffrey and those who experienced the British Raj, my Nan was probably one of the only people of her generation that could confidently knock up an authentic Indian meal in eighties England too. My Uncle used to send huge parcels home to her, full of miniature models of Hindu deities and beautiful, aromatic and unusual spices like Amchoor (Amacūra – अमचूर – I know few are likely to be able to read Hindi, but it is so beautiful that I just have to put it in), Hing/Asafoetida (Hīṅga – हींग) and Kalonji (कालोंजी), that smelt so wonderful that you would know they were in there even before you unwrapped the parcel. That never dampened the desire to delve in though. What I most looked forward to though is that when he visited he would give me books of Rangoli (रंगोली ) templates (that I loved using as colouring books), as well as Hindi comic books telling the stories of the Hindu deities (my favourite of which was always the one that explains how Ganesha (गणेशा), the sweet-toothed Lord of success, education, knowledge, wisdom and health, and destroyer of evils, obstacles, vanity, selfishness and pride, came by his elephantine head).
As I’ve grown up my Uncle’s stories, photographs and souvenirs, as well as the experiences I’ve had as a result of his choice to live in India for a while, have had a huge impact on my life. I don’t just love Indian food, I love everything I know about the ancient Bhārata (भारत); I studied modules on Indian Art and wrote a dissertation on it whilst at university, I tried learning Hindi (I would have carried on, but it’s tricky when you don’t have anyone to converse with) and, although I’m not religious, if I had to pick just one religion to follow then, because Hinduism doesn’t discriminate between people from different religions, it would almost undoubtedly be Hinduism. I also love the fact that, as a subject, India and it’s religions, is so vast that I don’t think I will ever get to the end of my learning about it. I don’t actually practice Hinduism, but living in Leicester means that visiting the temple and joining Holy day celebrations such as Hōlī (होली), Vaisākhī (वैसाखी), Navarātri (नवरात्रि) and, of course, Divālī (दिवाली), are easier than in the average English town. I remember the first time I went to Leicester’s Diwali celebrations: I was 19, having just moved to Leicester for university, and I was a bit nervous because I wasn’t sure if non-hindus would be as welcome as my Uncle had assured me they would be. However, the minute I walked onto the Golden Mile (an area of Leicester full of predominantly Indian shops, banks and community centres etc.) I was whisked into the celebrations full of smiling faces, everyone greeting me with ‘Happy Diwali’ (Khuśa Dīvālī – खुश दीवाली) even though I don’t look at all Indian and being offered the chance to buy all sorts from ḍōsās (डोसा) to sāṛīs (साड़ी) to bronze statues of Lakṣmī (लक्ष्मी) who the festival of lights is in honour of. Now, the hustle, bustle and happiness of Hindu celebrations in Leicester, not to mention the celebratory food, are something that I look forward to, but I certainly don’t need them as an excuse to whip up an Indian feast.
A couple of weekends ago was one such example. I have a friend who I haven’t been able to see much of recently, so rather than trying to catch up over coffee and cake after work during the week, Ben and I invited her and her husband for dinner at the weekend; for curry night. As most Indian cookbooks will tell you (I have a lot of them, so I know) a “traditional Indian meal – whether eaten in the north, south, east or west – follows a very different pattern from that of Europe … There are no starters, the meal is not served in courses, and desserts are not necessarily served at the end”* (I wish I’d known that all the times I tried to get my mum to let me have pudding first, I now use it when my husband sniggers at me when he sees a bowl of ice cream while I’m waiting for dinner to cook). Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure my friends would be quite so sweet-toothed and glutinous as me, so I served Indian food in the Western way. The menu was:
Maṭar Kachoori (मटर कचौड़ी)
These are little balls of dough, filled with lightly spiced peas, and fried until golden brown
(I always make too many so my husband and I can take them for lunch the next day)
Murg Sheora-Natwara (मुर्ग शेओरा-नटवारा)
This Rajasthani dish translates as Chieftain’s Chicken; it is quite spicy, but not so much so that it strips your tastebuds!
Saag aloo (साग और आलू)
Pulāva cāvala (पुलाव चावल) – Pilau rice
Nāna rōṭī (नान रोटी) – Naan bread
Takasāla dahī (टकसाल दही) – Mint yoghurt
Masālēdāra āma kī caṭanī (मसालेदार आम की चटनी) – Spicy mango chutney
Barfi (बर्फ़ी) from Ajays Sweet Mart on Narborough Road
Barfi is an Indian sweet made from condensed milk and sugar, and flavoured with, coconut, dried fruits or nuts such as pistachios and cashews. The name Barfi is derived from the Hindi word for snow: Barpha (बर्फ़ा), because it is served cold and looks like it.
Besides our two year old son Harry taking a bit too long to get to bed before they arrived (he obviously knew he was missing out on something good; at least the evening, he had the saag aloo for his tea too as it’s one of his favourites), our evening was lovely; it was great catching up, and the food was fantastic. I had spent all day cooking; but it was absolutely worth it because, not only had the flavours had time to mingle, it meant I was able to chat rather than just cook, and I didn’t have too much washing up left to do either (always a bonus for this doesn’t-have-room-for-a-dishwasher gal)!
If I have any Hindi speaking readers then I’d love to know if what I have written makes sense? I have no idea if the translations are correct or not; I got them all off the internet.
*Pushpesh Pant, India Cookbook