Hot stuff for cold days
PUBLISHED: 12:56 11 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:56 11 November 2014
As the weather turns decidedly cooler, Charlotte Smith-Jarvis delves into the warm world of spices, and talks to local cook Mena Boughey, who's a dab-hand at getting the most out of them
Mena Boughey comes from a long line of proud Indian cooks.
Growing up immersed in the hubbub of a busy kitchen, the air thick and fragrant with the unmistakable aromas of masalas, gravies and roasting spices, the cook has an ingrained talent for combining flavours. Through her company Mena’s Indian Banquet, she not only provides a catering and dinner party service, but also operates market stalls, selling her popular spice packs and Indian snacks.
Mena regularly runs workshops at Upstairs at the Market in Lavenham (www.suffolkmarketevents.co.uk), sharing her knowledge and advice with audiences keen to spice up their own Suffolk dishes. You can catch her next April – but if you can’t wait until then, here are Mena’s top tips for achieving authentic Indian flavours in your own kitchen.
Mena, how did you fall in love with cooking?
I’m from a very traditional Punjabi Indian family and we are strict vegetarians. I was very lucky as a child as my mother is a fantastic cook, learning from her mother.
My father is also very knowledgeable and a keen cook. I can remember as a child, whenever there was a party, a wedding or any celebration my father would be nominated as head chef. The cooking was done in huge pans – and I mean huge! The spoons used to stir the curries were the size of paddles you’d use on rowing boats.
It was quite amazing. He could tell just by the smell and colour whether to add more chilli, paprika, salt. It’s not accepted in Indian culture for the person preparing the dish to taste from the pan, so you use your other senses.
As children, we were expected to help on these occasions and I used to be given tasks like rolling pastry for samosas, peeling onions or filling samosas, with all the mums singing traditional party songs and grandparents, aunts and uncles all around. Cooking was a real family time. When I was 13 my mother decided she wanted me to learn how to cook a four or five course Punjabi meal. They taught me how to cook with spices and blend spices. I was always taught to cook by sight not taste and to smell if there was sufficient salt in a dish.
How is Punjabi cooking different from that eaten in a typical Indian restaurant in this country?
Punjab is in northern India near Amritsar, the Golden Temple. There’s a huge difference between north and south in Indian food. In the south there’s a lot of fish, meat cooked in tamarind, the food is spicier and coconut is also used. The food in the north is traditionally vegetarian and pulses, okra and dairy products play a big role. The roti (chapatti) which is cooked on a tawa, is the main bread eaten.
The most common comment I get about my food is how different it is, how aromatic it is, and how subtle the flavours are. There’s always chilli in my food, but it won’t be the first thing to reach your senses. You taste the spices and herbs first. In restaurants curries are named according to their strength. Phal is hot and chicken tikka is meant to be mild. In traditional Punjabi cooking you can have any curry at the strength to suit your tastebuds, and curries aren’t named according to heat.
Should we be grinding whole spices ourselves?
I think it’s what suits you really in this day and age, when we all have hectic lifestyles. Ready blends are quick and easy, but you won’t get the results you would if you purchase fresh spices and blend them, which is why, after much demand, I put together my own freshly ground spice pack range a couple of years ago.
My parents live in this country for six months a year and six months in India, so I get a lot of my spices brought back for me from India, freshly picked by my mother and dried in the sun, then ground down and vacuum packed the day before they depart for home. The smell and colour from these spices is mind blowing.
The problem with off-the-shelf spices, is that you purchase packs or jars, use a small amount and then they sit there for months on end. Then when you go to use them again the essence, the life, the richness of the spice has gone.
What’s the secret of a good curry?
The essence of a really good curry is cooking the spices in the correct order. If you throw them in all at once you have spices like turmeric, which is very bitter, and cinnamon, which is sweet but earthy, and chilli, which if not cooked properly will give a tart taste to the dish. If you haven’t given them the chance to release their own personalities, colours and flavours they will all fight each other.
Don’t put your spices into hot oil or ghee. Your onions need to be translucent before adding more and more spices and it is best, in my opinion, to cook a curry the night before and leave it to serve the next day when the taste will be so much deeper.
What’s your favourite thing to eat?
I’m a great fan of Punjabi tikiya, which are not found in restaurants or supermarkets here. They are a very tasty spiced potato, which is mixed and marinated with herbs, such as marjoram, and mashed together into neat potato cakes, dusted with cumin, tossed in gram flour and cooked. It makes my mouth water thinking about them!
Indian street food is growing in popularity – is there an easy snack people can make at home?
Street food in India – there’s nothing like it. The wonderful thing for me, wherever I sell my food, is when I get a person visiting here from India who tries it and says it takes them straight back home.
Pakoras are quick. Peel one medium onion and one medium potato, cut both in half and slice thinly. Add chilli to taste, a teaspoon each of cumin, coriander seeds, fenugreek, a dessertspoon of garam masala and mix well. Then add a tablespoon of chopped fresh tomato and around four to five tablespoons of gram flour, a handful of chopped fresh coriander and mix, adding more gram flour if it’s too runny, or a little water if it’s too stiff. Add salt to taste and spoon tablespoons of the mixture into hot oil, frying until golden brown.
Find out about Mena’s spice packs, catering and events at www.menasindianbanquet.webplus.net