My Shayona

It wasn’t until recently that I started to feel the desire to travel to India.

I blame Rick Stein for this. Now, all I want to do is explore the backwaters of Kerala aboard a locally-owned houseboat.

Indian food is a totally different story – my interest in Indian food is not new. I could eat Indian food every single day; luckily, you can’t walk more than 100 meters in this city without stumbling across a half decent curry house. You don’t need to go anywhere near Brick Lane – some of my local favourites include Elephant in Brixton Village and Maharani on Clapham High Street – Tooting is also awash with choices for Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food, such as Lahore Karahi and Mirch Masala. I swear, it’s a wonder that I haven’t morphed into a giant piece of naan bread by this point.

Like this one:

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So clearly, grabbing a bhuna on my way home from work wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, would it?

BAPS Shri Swamimarayan Hindu Mandir, or Neasden Temple, is one of the largest Hindu temples outside India, and has also being credited as being the largest ever concrete pour in the UK, at 4500 tonnes.

The first BAPS mandir opened in the early 1970s, in a converted  church in North London. As its congregation grew, the temple moved to a disused warehouse in Brent in 1982 and in 1995 opened its doors in its current incarnation – an amazing piece of architecture designed and constructed entirely according to ancient Vedic texts. Using no steel whatsoever, the temple is made from 2828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2000 tonnes of Italian marble, originally shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1526 scultors. I read this on Wikipedia – it’s true.

And, the temple has a restaurant.

So one chilly Saturday afternoon, Duncan and I hopped on the train towards Stonebridge to check it out.

“Wow, it’s far!” Duncan exclaimed, upon boarding the Northern line and examining the map.

“Oh, yes, it is,” I confirmed. “And, it’s vegetarian.” And he thought I was being mysterious that morning – not, just withholding information.

But the experience is worth the schlep  – a visit to the temple itself is pretty awe-inspiring, and despite its rather bleak and incongruous surroundings, it is a beautiful building to visit, whatever your religion. Entry is free – after going through an almost airport-like security check, I might add (glad I wore my funny socks) – and staff members are quick to make you feel welcome. You aren’t allowed to take photos, but I won’t be fast forgetting the intricacy of the marble carvings or the legend of the…something. I guess I couldn’t process the stories over the rumble of my HUNGRY STOMACH.

Shayona serves only pure vegetarian, sattvic food – food which is light and easy to digest, brings clarity and perception and “has the potential to unfold love and compassion in the individual.” Vegetables considered to be “pungent” such as garlic and onion, are excluded – that’s no wonder. I don’t generally see much potential for love after eating a massive hunk of onion bread lathered with creamy garlic dip. Tastes good though.

In the practice of alternative medicine in India, food is grouped into three categories: sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic – foods in the modes of of goodness, passion and ignorance. According to this tradition, onions and garlic are classified as rajasic and tamasic, thus increasing passion and ignorance. Looking at my diet, this actually explains a lot.

We didn’t know about this no onion, no garlic caveat when we set off, and wouldn’t have been any the wiser if we hadn’t have read a Time Out review posted on the window on our way out. The menu is pretty extensive and includes a range of dishes that I’d never heard of before, all of which sounded appealing and smelled even more tempting. To start, we opted for the punjabi samosa chaat – samosa served with potato, chickpeas, yogurt and tamarind sauce – and an order of crispy potato bhajia served with chutney. Top tip – if there’s only two of you, you don’t need all of this. The portions were hefty and I was glad I had insisted that neither of us eat anything else all morning. (“But I’m hungry,” says Duncan. “I don’t care,” says Jo.”)

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Following this, we selected a paneer tikka masala and a lentil curry, accompanied by rice and (not garlic) naan bread. Truthfully, onion and garlic aside, this was probably one of the best vegetarian meals I’d ever had, aside from that one time in Hong Kong where I ate lemon-dusted tempeh at a restaurant called “Vegetarian Restaurant” and El Piano in York, which dishes out some of the most amazing vegan/gluten-free/organic food ever.

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Unfortunately – or fortunately – for us, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and the better part of our main course was left when the waiter came to clear our plates – we were pretty full up after polishing off that giant plate of potato fritters. We brought the rest home, let our stomachs rest for a few hours, and then turned on The Voice (yes I watch it, it’s Tom Jones, don’t hate) and got back on it, the hour and then some journey home long forgotten. Now that’s my idea of a good Saturday night.

The verdict – I can get great Indian food a lot closer to my house, but my visit to Shayona was part of a unique and culture-filled day. At £40 for what was effectively two large meals, I’d say it was a steal and I’d go back again, perhaps with an out-of-town guest – but perhaps, next time, in the car.

Need to know:

Shayona Restaurant

54-62 Meadow Garth

London NW10 8HD

02089653365

Nearest tube: Either Stonebridge Park or Neasden

http://www.shayonarestaurants.com

Opening hours : Monday to Friday, 11:30-10:00, Saturday and Sunday, 11:00-10:00

Spinach daal with paneer

Another week, not another restaurant. I’m beginning to realise how hard this project is going to be! Life really gets in the way sometimes, doesn’t it?

It’s not entirely true that I didn’t go to any restaurants this week – Duncan took me to Tom’s Kitchen at Somerset House for my birthday, which was lush. And we had some really wonderful food at a wedding at the Barbican on Saturday night – Barbican starts with B, so that kind of counts. The bride was Cypriot (C) and the groom was half Chinese (also C) and half Welsh (W) – otherwise known as Chelsh – so if you think about it really hard then it’s almost like I’m doing my homework in advance.

I thought I’d try another daal recipe while you’re waiting for me to get my act together.

Spinach daal with paneer – adapted from BBC Good Food‘s 101 30-minute meals.

Paneer is a type of cheese commonly used in South Asian cooking. It’s an unsalted white cheese that is most commonly served deep fried, either with peas in a creamy tomato sauce (mattar paneer) or with spinach (palak paneer). It can be purchased in most major supermarkets – I find the Savera brand paneer the easiest to cook with; I got mine at Tescos. Tescos also sells cubed, frozen paneer but I don’t think this tastes as nice. Maybe I just don’t like to make things easy on myself.

BBC Good Food thinks halloumi is a good substitute for paneer but I would probably disagree. Halloumi is salty. Mmm. Salt.

Paneer, much like halloumi, is a love/hate cheese. I love it. It tastes great marinated in tandoori sauce and grilled on the barbecue. I also love lentil, hence the below!

Ingredients:

9 oz/250 g red lentils, rinsed

t tbsp sunflower oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

knob of ginger, grated

3 tsp garam masala

1/2 can reduced fat coconut milk

200 g paneer, cubed

100 g spinach

asafoetida

chili powder

cumin

coriander

cardamom

Directions

Boil lentils for 8-10 minutes; set aside.

In a wok or pan, stir fry ginger, garlic and garam masala, and any other spices you choose for a minute or two. Add coconut milk (1/2 can is probably generous – start slow) and lentils and simmer for five minutes. Add spinach, cook until wilted and remove from heat.

At this point, taste test and add whatever other spices suit your palette. I think some tomato paste might also have been a good add. Maybe also a little bit of curry paste.

Disclaimer: If you are going to follow this recipe directly from the book/website, it might be bland. I added tons more spices/mango chutney than the original called for and I still didn’t find it had enough depth.

Somewhere in there, heat your grill and cook paneer for five minutes on each side, or until browned. I used a frying pan, because my grill doesn’t work. If you’re going to do it this way, pay attention. Nobody likes burned cheese.

Add the cooked paneer to the lentil and spinach mixture, and serve with rice or naan. I served mine with paratha, because it’s a fun word to say.

English: Aloo Paratha

The verdict: The paratha was awesome. I also bought a frozen pack of these at Tescos and put them in the frying pan and they turned into hot fluffy dough. It was like magic.  The recipe was not the best – you don’t need coconut milk to make a great daal, and I found this a little bit creamy, but hey, some people like cream! British people, for instance, put cream on everything.

Top tip: Don’t drink with this one. As much as I’d like to make Hannah Hart proud, there are too many bits and pieces to do at the same time to drunk kitchen* it and not light anything on fire.

*This is now a verb.

Stay tuned for a real project post soon – it may just feature a parrot.

I love lentil

No meals out for me this week – September is a busy month, laden with birthday celebrations, weddings, road trips, and karaoke nights out. Hence not enough time or financial resources to devote to the eating, at least not alphabetically.

The following is a list of my favourite people born in September:

Me

Sheree Gouldson

Georgia Brooks

Megan Feeney

Sarah Pearson

Emma Dougan

Sydney Freeston – who is not actually born in September, but in August, which is close, and I like her a lot too.

I can’t stop thinking about Bangladesh. I was very excited about that one, and feel a bit let down. Post-Brick Lane, I’ve done a bit more research (thank you, Wikipedia) and have come up with some thoughts about Bengali cuisine:

1) Beef. Eaten in Bangladesh, but not in the Hindu communities of India. An obvious disparity – someone should have told me this, when I asked.

2) Courses. In Bangladesh, they have them, whereas in other Asian countries food is served all at once. Traditional sequences are followed, which vary from region to region and between celebrations and day-to-day meals.

3) Dessert. Not really a focal point of an Indian meal – but in Bangladesh, sweets, or mishti,  are a critical aspect of food culture. Heather and I saw a number of sweet shops on our Shoreditch excursion – but they looked sugary enough to make our teeth fall out, so we passed. I don’t have a dentist in this country.

As in India, daal is one of the most common dishes served and is usually the most substantial course of the meal.

I love lentils. Props to anyone who got the Anchorman reference in the title of this blog post.

TWSS.

I love lamp

The things you can do with lentils are limitless. Spag bol with red lentils? Shepherd’s pie with puy? Mmm, mmm, mmm. My favourite lentils are yellow split, I think. Or moong daal. Ohhh, the choices! Even my dad likes lentils. He might not know they’re lentils, but he likes ’em.

Last night, with a hankering for South Asian food, I decided to try making my own daal, using a simple recipe from my friend Mel’s Indian-themed food blog. I wanted to use chana daal, because they are oh-so-hearty, but am on a “use-what-food-I-have-in-my-cupboard-before-my-boyfriend-feeds-it-to-the-birds” rampage, so I used red lentils instead, which Mel recommended. Channa daal takes a very long time to cook – and it was a school night.

It was easier than I thought! And definitely something I’ll do again, and again, and again.

The best thing about a daal like this is that you can really use anything you want/have lying around, and it will work.

Directions

First, check out Mel’s blog – because really, I ripped this recipe off from her.

Crush up all of your spices in a mortal and pestle – I used coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and hot curry powder – with ginger and garlic and oil.

Indians/Bangladeshis cook with ghee – much like pork lard, it tastes good. When I make a curry, I usually use a mix of oil and butter, and I feel better about myself. Not by much, but still.

Heat up the oil and/or butter  in a wok with some mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and whatever other seeds you want. Well, to a point. Really. Mel uses fennel but I didn’t have this in the house.

When they start to pop, add some onion and some chillies. Add your paste, your lentils, some water – I took a cue from Mel and used steeped black tea instead of plain water, or at least I hope it was black tea, because I don’t know much about tea…PG Tips?? – and a generous dollop of tomato paste, and melange. Bring to a boil, and simmer until soft.

I also added some asafoetida, and some mango chutney. Some being the operative word here – translated, means, well, a lot. I love chutney. It’s a whole course, in Bangladesh.

Serve with rice and naan.

Or on top of a pork chop. If you’re manly enough. (Ignore the dirty plate – this was a second helping!)

The verdict: The red lentils were perfect. I don’t know what I was worried about. Could have used salt, but otherwise a real delight. Daal, chutney, pork chop – I think I can check Bangladesh off my list now.

Or can I…

Thanks again to Mel Hadida for the excellent recipe. Bon appetit!

Banga, Galore!

One of my favourite things about London is how much curry I eat. Curry was not something that featured much in my life pre-Singapore, and I didn’t think life could get much better than living above a shop house in the heart of Singapore’s thriving Little India neighbourhood.

And then I moved to London.

My favourite curry house in Singa was without question Gayatri on Racecourse Road, which was, lest you expect anything more from me, also the road I lived on. I stopped by recently, on my way back from New Zealand, and ordered my meal off an iPad. It was confusing, but the food was still top dog.

In London, my go-to is Maharani on Clapham High Street. It is close, delicious, and Pierce Brosnan once dined there.

But that is Indian. We are on the letter B. What gives?

I’m not sure, at this point, what distinguishes Indian cuisine, from Bangladeshi. So last night I headed up to Banglatown, aka Brick Lane, to find out.

English: Street logo sign of Brick Lane in Eng...

Armed with a list of possibilities compiled from extensive Internet research (I read one article on TimeOut) I met my friend Heather by the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. In my two and a half years in London, I’d never been for a curry on Brick Lane. In fact, I’d only been to Shoreditch a handful of times, and not once did I give the curry houses for which the road is so notorious more than a passing glance.

Brick Lane, or Regular Lane, as it should really be called – where are the bricks? – seems to be comprised of a litter of Indian restaurants passing for Bangladeshi curry houses. We walked up and down the street, dodging curry touts, and making a “polite scale” – rating the restaurants according to how annoyed they made us feel. Brick Lane is world famous, not just for its food but also for the competing food vendors who try to lure visitors into their shops with offers they claim can’t be beat.

Technically, touting has been illegal in the borough of Tower Hamlets since 2008, but most of these places seem not to have gotten the memo. There was only one restaurant, Cafe Bangla, that didn’t try their darndest to get us inside – in fact, we asked them what they had on offer that night (20% off all food). We should have gone there. The Mills & Boon-esque murals on the walls inside alone probably would have made my night.

English: The streets of Brick Lane at night in...

We asked a selection of the touters the important question of the night: what is the difference between Indian and Bangladeshi food? The answers varied from “nothing” to something about less coconut milk, and more spices. Not answers which satisfied me, frankly. We met Naz, from the Brick Lane Clipper, who at least put some effort in; he started by telling us that most of the restaurants on Brick Lane serve 90% Indian food, because Indian food is much nicer, and then went out of his way to try to convince me that his family was from Bangladesh, after I told him I was more interested in Bangladeshi cuisine. He was blatantly not from Bangladesh at all, but he seemed up for a good chat.

So we settled on the Clipper – because I hadn’t eaten anything other than a continental breakfast at 8 am at Le Balcon – and because Naz assured me that the cook would sort me out with whatever I wanted. At £12 a head for a starter, a main, rice, naan, and a bottle of wine, we were sold. Wouldn’t you be?

As soon as the wine had been poured and we opened up the menus, I knew we’d made the wrong choice. There was nothing on the menu I’d never seen before. I eat Indian food a lot. Jalfrezi, shish kebab, biryani, dopiaza. It was all the same. I was, at first glance, very disappointed. We were the only ones in the restaurant, but not for long.

I explained to the waiter (there was only one) that I wanted to try the “most Bangladeshi” dishes on the menu; he recommended either the korma, the bhuna or the dhansalak. Humph. We ended up with some samosas and some bhaji to start – served with a weird orange sauce that I thought might be Kraft french dressing but which was in fact mighty tasty – some chicken tikka masala, and chicken bhuna, because I like chicken bhuna, and although this was not the new and exciting experience I had in mind, it was, admittedly, good food, for cheap. The bottle of wine, also, helped.

Lessons learned? 1 ) Not all food is going to be new and exciting. Sometimes, food is just good. 2) Next time, I won’t let myself be sweet talked;  I’ll go with my gut – however empty it might be at the time.

I’ll need to revisit this one later – stay tuned for Bangladesh, round 2!