I have a masochistic penchant for spicy food. I love it when my eyes are streaming with tears or when the heat in my mouth becomes so unbearable that only a gulp of ice cold beer will extinguish it. In other words, spicy food is my form of a legal high.
When I was in Thailand a few years back, waiters gathered in amazement as I dolloped extra dried chillies onto my curry – a Farang who can take the heat? I was instantly made a legend.
It therefore comes as no surprise that my all-time favourite cuisine is Indian, and this love affair of mine began back when I was living in the UK. The Brits’ obsession with curry is well-known, and Indian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the country; I was no exception to this rule, always opting for a ‘beer and curry’ whenever the option was there.
My favourite dish back then was the chicken jalfrezi I used to buy from a now long-closed Indian restaurant that was just a five-minute walk away from my house. I wasn’t too clued up on the ins and outs of the cuisine, but I did eat enough jalfrezis in my time to know when one was good or not, with the level of spiciness being one of the main determining factors.
I went to study at the University of Leicester in 2011. Leicester has one of the largest Indian populations in the UK, so the city is teeming with brilliant Indian restaurants. It was here that I discovered the delights that are Indian sweets; there was gulab jamun in all its syrupy magnificence, rose flavoured kulfi, and, of course, ras malai. This is when my eyes really began to open up to the overwhelming amount of variety that Indian food offers.
It was also while I was in Leicester that I fell in love with Indian culture; during Diwali I would take a walk up Belgrave Road to enjoy the lights and stare admiringly at brightly coloured saris through the shop windows. Some of my closest friends were British Indians, so I became very familiar with many of the customs and traditions. When I looked at photos of Indian weddings, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the colours – reds, yellows, golds, pinks and a lot of sparkle, and used to wish that Cypriot weddings were as vibrantly coloured.
“Please hurry up and get married,” I exclaimed to my friend Jaimini. “I want to wear a sari!”
One of my flatmates used to go home to London once a month to visit his family, and his mum would pack all sorts of goodies for him to bring back. It was then that I first tasted homemade onion bhajis, and was introduced to snacks such as sev mamra and Bombay mix.
As someone who has always enjoyed learning how to cook new dishes, I was excited to learn that my housemate had been taught by his mum how to make dal and chicken curry one weekend. I remember watching him in pure fascination as he heated a pan of oil and threw in a handful of cumin. The room quickly became thick full of the aroma, and as he then continued to also add onion and a variety of colourful spices, my level of intrigue grew deeper and deeper. I believe it was there and then that the deal was sealed; I was transfixed by Indian cuisine and wanted to learn more.
When I arrived in Dubai, I set out on a mission to find my new favourite Indian restaurant, and it was then that I realised that for the previous years I had been consuming bastardised versions of curry. I discovered that there was such a thing known as British curries – that is, ones that have been adapted in the UK for British palates, and are unheard of in India. Yes, vindaloo and chicken tikka masala as we know them back home are British inventions, and you’re very unlikely to find them outside of the country besides from maybe in a pub.
So what started out as a quest to find the best British curry turned in to an education of what Indian cuisine actually is. I remember one of my first Dubai experiences was trying a thali at a vegetarian restaurant in Bur Dubai. Served in small bowls that are placed on a steel round tray, typical thali dishes include dal, vegetables, rice, roti, yoghurt, chutney and pickles. This was unlike anything I had ever tried before, and as I watched other diners enjoying their meals with their hands, I realised just how ignorant I had been all these years about this wondrous cuisine.
While I was working as a journalist for Gulf News, many of my colleagues were Indian. Once I shared my penchant for Indian cuisine with them, they were all enthusiastically recommending restaurants that I could check out. They also went as far as suggesting individual dishes, and they’d then await my feedback on each one. I remember trying the wonder that is paneer for the first time; perfectly spongy and full of flavour, I wondered how I had managed 27 years on this planet without ever having tried it.
It was during these early years in Dubai that I also came to know that going for a ‘beer and a curry’ was very much a British thing, as my Indian friends would look on inquisitively as I downed a gulp of Stella after a mouthful of murgh masala, and my German friends would mock me for what is, according to them, a bizarre culinary combination.
A twist to the tale
Little did I know back then that one day I’d meet and fall in love with an Indian. With Ankit in my life, I’ve taken my love for the cuisine to a whole other level. During our early dates, we’d frequently visit Gazebo, our favourite Indian restaurant in Dubai. Having him with me opened me up to a whole new world of food opportunities, as he’d recommend new things for me to try.
It was with Ankit that I first tried the delight that is known as masala chai – an aromatic cup of tea that’s made by adding various spices such as green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves and ginger, as well as milk. The best cups of this are generally sold in various unassuming cafeterias in Dubai, where workers usually congregate after a long day of working on construction sites. Since I discovered this way of drinking a brew, I have stuck my nose up at what I now regard as the highly flavourless cup of tea I’m used to from back home.
It was also Ankit who introduced me to chaat – a term which loosely incorporates all Indian street food. My tastebuds were never to be the same again after I tried the different varieties. I believe that the first dish I ate was vada pav – a potato fritter served inside of a bread bun with chutney, which goes down perfectly well on a winter’s day alongside a cup of the aforementioned masala chai.
And vada pav is just the beginning of the story. There’s pani puri – hollow deep fried crispy bread shells (puri) that you then fill with different flavoured waters (pani) such as tamarind chutney or chaat masala, and eat in one bite. Another favourite is bhelpuri, which is made from puffed rice, vegetables and tamarind sauce. With every one of these dishes that I try, I find it more and more staggering how one country could have given us so many delights; is it even humanly possible to try every Indian dish that there is?
Meet the parents
I had the pleasure of meeting Ankit’s family earlier this year. The moment that they arrived, his mum began to unpack a case that appeared to be solely dedicated to various food items that had been brought from India. The first thing to make it onto the kitchen counter was what I was to discover to be a staple cooking apparatus – the pressure cooker. I had heard Ankit lament about the usefulness of this item, but I couldn’t even picture what it looked like, let alone know how to operate one.
Other goodies to make their way out of the bag included spices so bright in colour that I wondered how I could buy them from the supermarket ever again, aged basmati rice, chickpeas and lentils.
Then there was a dessert that made all other desserts seem, well, rather crap.
Homemade gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa). Orange in colour and porridge-like in consistency, the halwa is incredibly sweet, which isn’t surprising given how much sugar goes into it. Other ingredients include carrots, milk, cardamon powder. Simply put, it’s magic in a bowl.
“This is amazing,” I grinned away as Ankit’s mum smiled on.
Bonding over a pressure cooker
Before the family arrived, I was incredibly nervous about meeting them. Despite the fact that Ankit constantly assured me that they’d love me, and I knew deep down that it would go well, I couldn’t help but worry about the potential cultural differences or language barriers.
It turns out, however, that cooking and food has no language, and thus my relationship with Ankit’s mum blossomed over a pressure cooker. Before they arrived we had Skyped and I had expressed my interest in learning how to cook proper Indian food. I saw her face light up as I talked about my love of spicy food and my knowledge of various obscure dishes.
Thus, during the ten days that they were with us, I observed the magic that was being created in the kitchen with the most humble of ingredients. I was fascinated by how even the slightest alterations in what spices were being used would lead to a completely different flavour, and furiously made notes to ensure I’d be able to somehow replicate her mastery.
I also watched in amazement at how easily she would roll freshly made dough into perfectly round chapatis. My attempts at doing the same resulted in what can only be described as amorphous slabs of bread. So if you’re looking for egg-shaped chapatis, I’m your woman.
Over the course of ten days, I learnt how to make various dal (lentils) dishes, chana masala (chickpea curry), aloo ghobi (cauliflower and potatoes), matar paneer (paneer and peas) and rajma (kidney beans). For those ten days, we ate only Indian, and a typical day’s menu consisted of parathas stuffed with potato with a chutney in the morning (there’s nothing more glorious than this with a cup of masala chai first thing in the day), dal for lunch, and a dish such as matar paneer for dinner.
Ankit’s family were also rather impressed by my spice-handling abilities, and I bragged endlessly about how I could out-spice their son, much to their amusement. The only issue I encountered during the 10 days was my apparent sensitivity to eating ghee. As someone of a Mediterranean disposition who is more accustomed to cooking with olive oil, the heaviness of ghee didn’t agree with me, so by the end of it I was guiltily longing for nothing more than a salad.
And thus I began to utilise the new skills I had learnt on a regular basis; the pressure cooker has become a staple cooking utensil for me, and I have now mastered a number of dishes including chana masala. And I’m particularly proud to say that Ankit gave me the ultimate of compliments when he told me that my lovingly made dal tastes exactly like the one his grandma used to make.
Never-ending food trail
You would think that after more than a decade of discovering the wonders of Indian cuisine that my education would be almost complete, however, I still encounter so many dishes that I’ve never heard of. Most recently a close friend of Ankit’s sent me a picture of an unidentified desert.
“Show this to bhai and ask him if he knows what it is,” came the WhatsApp message.
Turns out, my sweet-toothed boyfriend knew exactly what it was as it was his favourite dessert, ghevar. This disc-shaped dish looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and is made from oil, flour and sugar syrup. Soon enough, with thoughts of ghevar filling his head, Ankit and I set out on a mission to find some in Dubai. Luckily, Bikanervala are currently selling it, and I found myself introduced to yet another vice-worthy sugary treat.
I feel, though, despite the fact I have yet to cover even a fraction of what is considered as Indian food, my decade-long love affair and education has been great training for what will be the ultimate test – a trip to India. In October, Ankit and I will be visiting for Diwali, and I cannot wait to further delve into the intricacies of the cuisine. I want to try chaat from actual street side food stalls. I want to shop for fresh produce and spices with Ankit’s mum at the markets and come home and put my new found skills to good use. I want to learn more about why certain spices seem to work so well together. I want to learn about the stories behind the food; how come northern food differs so much from that in the west, east and south, for example.
And most importantly of all, I’m looking forward to entertaining all the locals by eating a pile full of chillies without flinching.
Five Of My Favourite Indian DishesTry these if you get the chance
Matar paneer: Paneer (Indian cottage cheese) with peas cooked in a tomato-based gravy. Spices include turmeric, chilli and coriander. I had never tried paneer until I moved to Dubai, and I simply love how the fresh stuff absorbs so much flavour.
Chana masala: Chickpeas in a tomato-based gravy.
Ras malai: The daddy of all desserts, ras malai is paneer soaked in a rich saffron-flavoured creamy milk. I could drink the milk everyday for the rest of my life if only it weren’t so full of sugar!
Pani puri: A street food dish, pani puri consists of crispy deep fried bread that are round and hollow, which are then filled with flavoured waters such as tamarind chutney, chaat masala and chilli.
Palak (spinach) chicken curry: I recently tried this dish at Ankit’s friend’s house. Delicious and a great variation on chicken curry.