With National Curry Week set to warm our way into winter from October 10, Kate Whiting heads to the home of Tamarind chef Hari Ghotra, for a masterclass in simple Indian cooking
"Indian cooking is not about chucking in the chilli and seeing how hot you can get it, it's about the layering of flavours," says Hari Ghotra as she stirs the mouthwatering deep red masala sauce for her Thari Wala Chicken.
Into her cast-iron pot, we've added onions and garlic that have been cooked until they're a dark golden brown ("Onions are so important for that depth of flavour," she says), a tin of plum tomatoes ("Not chopped, because the gravy's better"), ginger, salt, turmeric, coriander stalks and, of course, chilli.
A self-taught home cook and soon-to-be executive chef at the Soho sister restaurant of Mayfair's Michelin-starred Tamarind, Ghotra is passionate about Indian food and is on a mission to enable everyone to cook a curry from scratch for themselves.
"It's healthy, wholesome, really flavoursome and you can cook it at home quite easily," she says, when we sit down to a sumptuous feast of samosas, aloo gobi (potato cauliflower vegetable curry), cumin rice, the chicken curry and red lentil dhal (Ghotra's hangover cure, "It brings me back to life").
I'm amazed that, having never chopped a chilli in my life, I now feel more confident around them and understand a lot more about Indian ingredients - particularly spices and how to use them - than I've ever done. I've also become quite nifty at folding samosas!
Ghotra, who lives in Redhill, Surrey, with her husband Jeremy and children, Neyha, 11, and Jai, 9, started out teaching Indian cooking classes at evenings and weekends when she went back to work part-time after having kids.
"I had two small children and a tiny kitchen, so I taught people in their homes, where they felt more comfortable. They'd be quite sheepish at the beginning, but the feeling I'd get when I left them was just amazing: 'Oh my God, I can do this in my own home, with my own saucepans!' They were so inspired and happy."
The 40-year-old is a shining example of how hard work and tenacity can make your dreams come true. Her parents came to Britain in the Sixties and for them, it was "never an option that food would be a career" for their daughter.
"My dad worked as a bus driver. For him, he was sending his children to university and they were going to get an education and good jobs. Food was just what you did at home. Why would you want to go out and cook if you have to do that at home anyway? Especially if you're a woman. My dad would never have wanted his daughter in that male environment."
She studied biology and worked as a microbiologist for Unilever, then took a degree in marketing and worked for Tesco, until her husband, seeing how much she enjoyed teaching her cookery classes, bought her the Hari Ghotra domain name, designed a logo and had business cards made for her one Christmas. Her website (www.harighotra.co.uk), full of recipes and videos of Ghotra revealing how to make them, soon caught the attention of the Tamarind Collection and she's spent the last 18 months training at the Mayfair restaurant under chef Peter Joseph.
She's leading the way for female Indian chefs: "It's a male-dominated environment. I haven't had any bad experiences, they're so respectful, but a lot of women in Indian culture are expected to run the home. Maybe more British Asian women will be going into that industry now, because it's more accepted."
Ghotra learned to love cooking and Indian food by "following my mum around the kitchen" at their home in Wolverhampton: "Food for my parents was very important, because it would have been another thing that they left behind, they tried desperately to hold onto their culture and roots. I come from a very working class family, so it's very basic food, authentically cooked, the way my mum had been taught by my grandma.
"It instilled a real love of ingredients in me - mum would always make me go to the garden to pick mint in the rain, or I'd make the dough for the rotis. I absolutely hated it, but every day we had to do that and my mum would make about 30 to 40 chapatis that everyone would sit and eat."
She remembers the neighbours being rude about her mum's pungent cooking.
"Every now and again, she'd get people knocking on the door saying, 'You're making the street smell, it's disgusting!' It was horrible, so she'd feel really bad. And then, a few years later, one of those ladies came to see my mum and said, 'Can you teach my daughter how to make a curry please?' So she felt very good about that."
Her kids were weaned on plain rice and lentils, as well as the usual veggie purees, and her daughter can now make all her favourite curries by herself.
And Ghotra's an advocate for home-cooked Indian food being "one of the healthiest meals you can have".
"You have your carbs, rice or roti, lentils, a veg dish, a meat or fish dish and some form of yogurt or salad or chutney, so there's a lot of freshness in there and they represent all of those key food groups. It's not about loading up your plate, it's about having little portions of each. I'm really anti fad foods, it drives me insane. Just control the volume and cut out rubbish."
HARI GHOTRA'S MUST-HAVE SPICES
:: Cumin seeds: "I always buy my spices whole and grind them as and when I need them, so get a pestle and mortar. It doesn't have to be a big expensive one. If you have them out on the side, you can also crush up your ginger and garlic, so you don't have to spend ages chopping."
:: Turmeric: "It's a must with Indian food, it's not just for colour, it does have added flavour as well. It gives a gentle, musty aromatic."
:: Chilli powder: "Kashmiri chilli powder is my powder of choice. It's a mild chilli, with a beautiful colour. It's not just about heat."
:: Garam masala: "The iconic spice blend that you've got to have. You can buy it ready made, but they use coriander seeds instead of cumin as their base spice, because they're cheaper. So you want one that when you smell it, you get the aromatics coming off it. On my blog, there's my garam masala blend - make your own in minutes."
Try some Hari's recipes for yourself and discover more at www.harighotra.co.uk.
:: THARI WALA CHICKEN
8 pieces of chicken (4 legs cut into thighs and drumsticks)
For the masala:
2tbsp of oil
2 onions, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
400g plum tomatoes
1 heaped tbsp of ginger, grated
Handful of coriander stalks, finely chopped
1 chilli, finely chopped
1tsp of garam masala
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped
Skin the chicken, removing any excess fat. (If you would rather cook the meat off the bone, use trimmed chunks of thigh meat and cook for 15 - 20 minutes).
Heat oil in a pan and add the onion and garlic. Fry on a high heat for a few minutes then reduce the heat and cook gently for about 20 minutes until they turn a lovely dark golden brown. If they stick to the bottom of the pan, add a dash of hot water as and when required.
Once browned, reduce the heat and add the tomatoes, ginger, salt, turmeric, coriander stalks and chilli.
Let the onions and tomatoes melt together creating a thick aromatic masala paste. This will take five to 10 minutes so be patient! Once the paste is shiny and thick, add the chicken pieces and stir to coat.
Turn the heat up and fry the chicken for five minutes.
Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and put the lid on the pan. Leave to cook for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and the meat is starting to fall away from the bone.
Once cooked, add enough boiling water to just cover the chicken and cook for another few minutes, then remove from the heat.
Stir in the garam masala, throw in the coriander and serve.
:: JEERA CHAUL (Cumin Rice)
1tsp cumin seeds
1 small onion, finely sliced
200g Basmati rice
50g frozen peas
500ml cold water
Wash the rice until the water runs clear. I do this by covering the rice with water and running my hand through it, pouring the starchy water away then refilling with cold water and repeating until the water runs clear. Strain in a sieve and leave.
In a wide based pan, heat the oil, add the onions and fry until translucent.
Add the whole cumin seeds. When they sizzle and become fragrant, stir in the frozen peas
Add the washed rice, stir to coat with the oil then pour in 500ml of water (twice the amount of water to rice).
Bring the water to a vigorous rolling boil, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and place the lid on the pan.
Leave to cook for 12 minutes; do not remove the lid - be patient!
After 12 minutes, remove from the heat and take the lid off. Leave to sit for a couple of minutes. All the water will be absorbed and the rice will be light and fluffy.
Gently fork through the rice (never dive straight in) and serve.
:: MASOOR DI DHAL (Red Lentil Dhal)
For the lentils:
200g red lentils, washed
900ml water (approx.)
1tsp of salt
For the masala:
1tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
1tsp of cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1tsp ginger, grated
1 chilli, finely chopped
1tsp fenugreek leaves
1tsp of garam masala
1 or 2 whole chillies
Handful of coriander, chopped
Place the lentils in a pan with the salt, cover with the water and bring to the boil.
Remove the froth, reduce the heat and put the lid on the pan - leave to simmer for 10 minutes. Check the lentils are cooked by squeezing them between your fingers. Once soft, remove from the heat.
In a frying pan, heat the ghee or oil. Using a fork, pierce the whole chillies and add to the pan with a bay leaf and the cumin seeds.
When the seeds sizzle, remove the chilli and set to one side for your garnish.
Add the onion and garlic and fry until lightly browned. Reduce the heat and add the tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek and the chopped chilli. Gently let the ingredients cook down for about 10 minutes to make a thick masala paste.
Add a ladle full of the lentils (dhal) to the masala paste in the frying pan and stir together, then empty all the contents back into the pan with the lentils and stir. It should have the consistency of a thick soup but if it's too thick, just add a little boiling water and remove from the heat. If you prefer it thicker, just leave it on the heat to reduce until you get the consistency you want.
Check the seasoning and add a little salt if required. Stir in the garam masala, coriander and top with the whole chillies to serve.
THREE OF THE BEST... Indian ingredients
:: Coriander bunch, 85p for 150g, Tesco
A real must-have for Indian cooking, coriander doesn't cost the earth, but adds a lemony flavour to dishes and makes a great garnish too.
:: Dhal Curry Kit, £3.50, shopify.harighotra.co.uk
The perfect introduction to cooking this Indian staple, Tamarind chef Hari Ghotra's dhal kit includes bay leaves, cumin seeds, dried fenugreek leaves, dried Kashmiri red chillies, garam masala, turmeric and of course, red lentils. Quick and easy to make, it's a delicious way to warm autumn evenings.
:: Holy Cow Kashmir Rogan Josh Curry Sauce, £1.99 for 250g, Holland and Barrett
We can't all be saints and cook from scratch every time, so if you're going to cheat, do it well. This caramelised onion, tomato, cardamom and clove sauce is free from artificial colours, preservatives, flavours and gluten. Cook with lamb, or pre-boiled chickpeas for a tasty veggie alternative.