An Introduction to Lockdown Dhaba…
My mum sent me off to uni with a rolling pin and a bag of wholemeal flour. ‘Learn to make chappatis!’ She said, ‘It’s really cheap and easy, and this bag of flour will last you ages!’
It did last, probably a few years before I chucked it out! Funnily enough I didn’t spend my time at uni making bread. I was in East London, and Gurd and I (who I’d started dating a few years earlier at school) dipped our toe into the curries of Brick Lane, and we also sought out a few Indian restaurants in Brighton, where Gurd was working at the time. We struggled to find Indian food that matched up to that which we had eaten in dingy pubs in Wolverhampton, and I started to experiment a bit more in the kitchen.
I volunteered in Rajasthan for a few months after uni, it’s a desert state, hot and dry, with beautifully painted villages and towns appearing out of nowhere in the dusty heat. This is when I first experienced Indian Indian food. We’d eat samosas fresh from the fryer, dark and bubbly pastry with smooth spicy mashed potato and fresh peas, always with a steamy cup of milky sweet chai. If you’ve never eaten spicy food with tea, I urge you to try it. The heat of the tea somehow exaggerates the spices in the food and there is really no better thing after a tiring day in the hot sun.
I worked in an orphanage for a while and they gave us chai which had been simmered with black peppercorns, it caught in the back of your throat, a comforting warmth. I’ve tried to replicate that chai at home but I think you had to be there.
We’ve continued to explore India’s food over the years. There’s a chain restaurant called Saravana Bhavan in Delhi, you can find it all over the world (There’s one in London). It’s like a canteen with amazing dosas (massive crispy pancakes stuffed with spicy potato filling). We ate momo’s (Tibetan steamed dumplings) in Dharamshala, the foothills of the Himalayas and home to the Dalai Lama in exile, sampled Awadhi ‘dum’ cooking (steaming for a long time over an open fire) in Lucknow.
In south India, Udupi is the birthplace of dosa’s, we ate dosa here so big we had to spread out over a few tables. However the stand out food we had came from a small trolley at the side of the road, in the baking sun, selling pani puri. Pani puri is the epitome of the creativity of indian food to me. It’s a small very thin puffed fried ball, a bit like a poppadom but spherical. A pani puri stall has these puffed shells, some potato filling, and a big vat of brown water. The server popped a hole in the ball, pushed some potato in with his finger, and then dipped the whole thing in the spicy brown water. It sounds and looks pretty strange, but the taste is out of this world! It’s crispy, crunchy, warm, cold, tangy and sweet all in one tiny mouthful.
Mumbai, with its incomprehensible mass of people, tangles of electrical wires, striking lack of pavement and of course, cows, has incredible street food. Chaat, a starter, appetizer or sharing platter consisting of a main component such as samosa, or potato cakes (aloo tikki) sprinkled with sev, (gram flour sticks) chutneys, (sour tamarind, spicy sweet coconut, cool refreshing mint and coriander yogurt) pomegranate seeds and fresh salad. It just hits your taste buds, salt, sweet, sour, so delicious. Another famous Mumbai dish is vada pav. It’s a deep fried spiced potato patty, coated in gram flour, served in a bread bun, the inside toasted in butter. The chutneys make it, sweet tangy tamarind and hot spicy dry coconut. We ate it topped with sugared fiery green chilies. We’d already eaten lunch but ate two of these at the roadside as we just couldn’t leave it behind!
We’ve been developing recipes and planning food based ventures for many years, inspired by our travels and love for India. Finally lockdown life has given us the space to realise the dream and share some of our food with you.