Indian Summer: recreating Black Dahl and Saag Aloo

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Ready to be scooped up with bread. SOOOO satisfying.

I miss so many things about London. I miss the sound of the rain on the ceiling of the British Museum Courtyard. I miss how the Tube smells (yup, it’s a thing). I miss people calling you Love in shops. 

And I miss – oh GOD, I miss – the Indian food. 

In the UK, we have a really strong connection with the Indian subcontinent based on our heritage and history of export, import and immigration to and from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Naturally, I of course recognise that this wasn’t a fecking optional extra for the poor occupants of these countries. Our shared history rests on the horrors of Colonialism and the evils of the East India Company and naturally is really, really sordid. I mean, I was educated with this idea of Britain’s relationship with India beginning with nice missionaries and tradesmen running around in saris and generally enjoying life with the help of the friendly inhabitants and eating mulligatawny and wearing pyjamas and no one but NO ONE mentioned the rape and slaughter and subjugation because honestly we gave them cricket and surely that was compensation enough? 

Anyway, I digress. While there had always been a movement to and from India since the seventeenth century, from the end of the First World War the motherland found itself welcoming slews of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants in glorious waves of colour, bringing their magical foodstuffs with them. Famously, the first curry house was opened on George Street in 1810, known as the Hindoostanee Curry House. But curry had been popular in the UK for decades prior, with versions appearing in the famous Form of Curie cookbook and in Hannah Glasse’s famous cookbook in 1747. But the arrival of actual Indians in serious numbers caused a huge boom in the number of restaurants serving fantastically authentic curries. 

Now I’m no snob about this. I enjoy the joys of Tayyab’s spicy lamb chops and the tasty Anglo-Indian delights of Dishoom* as much as I fancy a bright-orange CTM** from the local corner restaurant. I love thick pillowy naans drenched in garlic butter and fluffy rotis as much as a lovely charred chapati. It’s all good. 

So it’s painful that in Germany the curries can be so disappointing. I’m not so sure what the issue is – colleagues and contacts will point to the unfortunate propensity to stick sugar and fruit into the curry and the fact that Germans aren’t so fond of the scharf burn of a properly spicy curry. Moreover, the fact that quite a lot of meat is sold off the bone means that you don’t always get the proper richness of a curry cooked with meaty, melty connective tissue disappearing into the thick sauce. 

So I’m forced to return to the kitchen and get properly good at Indian food, a blessing and a curse because while I love learning new things, I do sometimes find I’m not so great at learning a new cuisine from scratch. I mean, I can knock up a quick biryani but honestly I’m a bit in love with a bit of Patak’s innit.

So I hurriedly tore into the giant pile of cookbooks currently occupying the corner of our study to find my old copy of Anjum Anand’s Indian Food Made Easy which I remember buying in a fit of Self Improvement nearly 10 years ago. Anjum is known as the Nigella of Indian Cooking which I often think is rather unfair – she has a very approachable and everyday style which is really meant for any level, rather than Nigella’s often painfully middle class RAH food (you know what I mean – she‘ll be all THIS IS EVERYDAY FOOD then will tell you to buy little Italian sausages from the local deli as if everyone lives a stone‘s throw from Lina Stores in Soho). If you’re having a duvet day, Anjum‘s old shows can be found online really easily and they’re very soothing to watch.  

Armes with my newly-rediscovered recipes, I set to work. In my head was a main meal of Dahl Makhani (creamy black lentils, my absolute favourite dish at Dishoom), accompanied by something spicy and quick made from a packet of rahm-spinach I had found hiding in the freezer. While they’re vegetarian, they’re filling and satisfying recipes which definitely hit the spot – spicy, satisfying and “authentically inauthentic” for this British palate. 

I should note that I adapted the HELL out of these as I was unsure on some of the quantities stated in the recipes (180g of tomato paste is ridiculous) and/or I was working with substitutions and/or slightly different ingredients – try as I might, I haven’t yet found a place which sells paneer in Hamburg (SOB!). 

“I need a curry” Black Lentil Dahl and “Sort of” Saag Aloo

Feeds 6-8 or two with plenty of leftovers! 

For the Dahl 

240g whole black lentils (Urid Dahl), washed and soaked for 3-5 hours – I found this at a local Asian supermarket

1 litre water

10g garlic, peeled 

15g fresh ginger, peeled

100g tomato purée

1 tsp red chilli powder 

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 green chilli, sliced into rings with the seeds left in

Salt, to taste

30g butter

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

50ml cream (I used Schlag Sahne which has a fat content of about 30%)

1 tsp Garam Masala

Coriander to garnish if liked 

Dahl cooking method

  1. Drain the lentils and discard the soaking water, making sure you pick out any still-shrivelled or nasty-looking lentils. They’ll have puffed up well and will be a dark greenish brown rather than pure black. Put into a pot with the fresh water and bring to the boil, and then simmer away for about an hour or until tender. When I say tender, I mean that when you take a bean and cool it in some water before trying it, you can easily eat it, and it’s nicely soft with no hint of crunch – but not mushy. When done, take off the heat but DONT drain. 
  2. Meanwhile, make a paste of the ginger and half the garlic – my favourite method is to squish them in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt. With the rest of the ginger, shred it up finely and leave to one side with the onion. 
  3. When the lentils are ready, add the tomato purée, chilli powder, paprika, about a pinch of salt and the ginger-garlic paste and stir in well. Pop on the heat, drop in your sliced green chilli and cook for another 30 min or so to let the flavour of the tomato paste soften. If you need to add a bit of sugar (around a tablespoon), don’t be afraid to, some pastes can be a bit acidic. Make sure you stir the pan well every 5 min or so, and don’t be afraid to top up with water if it’s getting too thick. You don’t want your lentils sticking to the bottom! 
  4. When it’s nearly done, take your butter and melt in a pan over a medium heat, dropping in the onion and ginger and frying until well coloured – you’re looking for tawny gold like a sexy lion. Tip into your lentils with the cream and stir in well. Check your seasoning – the taste should be tomatoey, rich and spicy, a bit like a curried Hellmann’s tomato soup but nice, if you know what I mean. 

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    This stuff is so magical. It‘s basically restorative. I can eat it on toast with eggs,

For the Saag Aloo

1 package rahm-Spinat (chopped spinach with cream), defrosted***

3 tbsp veg oil

2 onions, peeled and relatively finely chopped

1 tsp powdered cumin 

15g ginger, peeled and finely sliced into shreds

1.5 tbsp chopped garlic (about 2-3 cloves)

1 green chilli, left whole, pricked a bit 

1 tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp turmeric 

2 tsp garam masala

3 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into smallish chunks

6-8 mushrooms, thickly sliced 

Salt, to taste 

  1. Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan or pot, then add the onion and fry over a medium heat until soft and golden, about 6 minutes. 
  2. Add the cumin, garlic and ginger and cook for a minute, then add the rest of the powdered spices and stir around for another minute or until fragrant. 
  3. Add the spinach, chilli, potato and mushrooms and simmer for around 20 min or until the potatoes are cooked. 
  4. Add a touch more garam masala (around 1/2 tsp) and a pinch of salt to taste. It should taste thick and creamy with a nice kick from the spices. 
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So delicious it should be a crime. I should note that you can switch this up with paneer, tofu, sweet potato, cauliflower – you name it. It‘s also easily VEGANISED using an almond-based rahmspinat pack or by using plain chopped spinach with some almond milk added at the end

Serve both curries with thick fluffy naan or steamed white basmati rice. 

*small and enjoyable fact from a mate of mine. The Dishoom chain of restaurants is named after the sound in Bollywood movies and comics made as something exciting like an explosion or a punch happens. So the translation would be “KAPOW” or “KABOOM”! 

**If you don’t know that this means Chicken Tikka Masala we can’t be friends. 

***Full disclosure: I always forget to defrost my spinach in time. I end up leaving it long enough for the edges to go squishy and get it out of the package then drop it into the pan and wait for it to melt. Does no harm. 

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