Since I last spoke to you, I have been to India on the trip of a life time. I had been there before. I visited Kashmir in 1977, when I spent a memorable week on a houseboat on Dal Lake. This time, I travelled extensively in north-west India calling into tourist spots such as Delhi, Shimla, Agra, Udaipur and Jaipur. This is not a travel column and so I am precluded from dwelling on many of my experiences in this wonderful country. However, I can urge you to go there, if the opportunity comes your way. India is a bewitching place, full of colour and smells and the most charming, smiling, courteous people. It is very different than Europe and yes, signs of extreme poverty confront you there and can be upsetting and yes, hygiene standards are not ours. However, these negative factors should not deter you from following in my footsteps.
I am no longer young and was, I can assure you, no back-packer in India. Indeed, I stayed in upmarket hotels and travelled first class on the wonderful railway system. (Indian Railways, the largest employer in the world, offers travellers the choice of no fewer than seven different classes!) I felt such precautions were necessary if I was to avoid gastro-enteritis, which I did. While I did not often leave the purlieus of my various hotels to eat, I rarely consumed European food. No, it was Indian all the way and usually vegetarian food. Here is a country that has a vegetarian tradition going back thousands of years and is their food good? What culinary delights the Indian cook can conjure up with aubergines, okra, cauliflowers, lentils, potatoes and spinach!
Restaurant menus were always in two sections – vegetarian and non-vegetarian and thereafter the choice of dishes was immense. My sister, who was travelling with me and does not eat meat, was charmed, as well she should have been. India is a Mecca for those who eschew meat. The menus also indicated with an asterisk, dishes that were particularly hot. However, I tried some of these and did not find myself overpowered in any way. Generally, the food in north-west India is not excessively spicy and one need have no worry about gagging on chillies or whatever, which is a well-founded fear in, for example, Thailand.
India was a culinary experience for me in more ways than one. I have been cooking Indian food for years and am a devout follower of Madhur Jaffrey, who is to this cuisine what Darina Allen is to Irish food. I have slavishly followed her recipes, but have always wondered whether they were in fact the real thing. I need not have worried. My trip to India has confirmed that she does indeed capture the authentic flavour of Indian food. I shall now happily continue to be her slave!
Served with most of the meals I ate in India, were little dishes of pickles, chutneys or yoghurt. Some of these were sweet and sour, others were chilli hot. Some were even relatively bland and obviously intended to counter the hot taste of the main dishes. All were delicious and enhanced the flavour of the offerings placed before us. I also serve some condiments with Indian food and here I shall make a confession. I buy my mango pickle. It is a Patak product and is classified “medium”. I have never eaten the “hot” version, and there is one, but believe you me when I tell you that it must be seriously hot. I rest content with its milder brother. While many Patak curry products are available in the main supermarkets, I have to resort to a delicatessen to find this pickle. I also serve raita and a simple, Madhur Jaffrey, home-made chutney, the recipes for which I am now happy to share with you.
1 medium-sized cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
250g plain yoghurt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp grated fresh ginger
paprika to garnish
Place the cucumber and yoghurt in a bowl and mix together. Dry-fry the ground cumin and mustard seeds in a small frying pan over medium heat for one minute, or until fragrant and lightly browned and then add to the yoghurt mixture. Stir in the ginger, season to taste with salt and pepper, and mix together. Garnish with paprika. Serve chilled. As a variation, one can add two tablespoons of chopped mint or coriander to the above. I tend to do this in summer when these herbs are available in the garden. Raita is the perfect culinary foil to hot curries.
Apple, peach and apricot chutney
(Makes about 750ml)
500g cooking apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
110g dried peaches, quartered
110g dried apricots, quartered
6 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed to a pulp
Two 2.5.cm cubes of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
400ml white wine vinegar
385g castor sugar
2 tsp salt
¾ tsp cayenne pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a stainless steel pot and bring to the boil. Turn heat to medium-low and cook, keeping up a fairly vigorous simmer, for about 30 minutes or until you have a thick, jam-like consistency. Stir frequently and turn the heat down slightly when the chutney thickens, as it could stick to the bottom of the pan. Let the chutney cool. It will thicken some more as it cools. Poor into sterilized jars and cover in the usual way. It should keep in a cool cupboard for months. – I have tried this recipe using 220g dried apricots instead of a mixture of apricots and peaches. I have also substituted dried figs for the dried peaches. Both variations of the recipe produced a perfectly satisfactory result.