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Potatoes with fenugreek & lovage; onion & lovage bhajis on the side

Ah, lovage. Blessed with the kind of name which conjures up images of old-fashioned English cottage gardens, nestled next to lavender, it was a herb I’d heard of but until last year I’d not cooked with, until Deanna Thomas gifted me with a generous bunch from her garden. You rarely see it for sale so it’s a herb best used from home-grown if you can manage to source it from a friend, or nurture your own. By all accounts it grows voraciously, so if you do have a patch, you may wonder how to use it up.

When I did start to use it, I was initially thrown by how to play to its strengths. I was delighted and confused in equal measure by its curious ‘curry meets celery’ characteristics… a robust savoury flavour, and it holds its shape and body better than parsley, but I couldn’t find many recipes which excited me. Last year I made an experiemental lovage pesto, served with grilled sardines and lemon juice, but the rest of my stash went into the stockpot and I never felt I’d taken full advantage of its full potential.

This year I was determined to make the most of lovage’s late spring delights, and thought it might work well with some south Asian flavours. A quick look online referenced ajwain seeds in Indian cooking, but despite common misperception these aren’t the same as lovage seeds. Despite not finding a great deal of precedent, I didn’t think I could go far wrong, so on a wet midweek evening last week I got busy in the kitchen for an hour, making a hearty veggie meal for myself and a mate who’d dropped round. Few things counter the soggy evening blues better than grinding your own spices and making something with a touch of spice.

The fenugreek & potato dish has become a firm favourite over the last six months, fuelled by a discovery of fresh fenugreek (alternatively labelled ‘methi’). As mentioned before, I’ve been inspired by Anirudh Arora’ recipes in ‘Food of the Grand Trunk Road‘ and one recipe which leapt out was Aloo Methi Ka Saag. It’s quick and easy compared to many of the recipes in the book, and it’s healthy and good for veggie guests.

I’ve always loved saag aloo, but was really intrigued by the inclusion of fresh methi in this take of a simple classic. Fresh fenugreek has small ovoid leaves and a mild aroma, and can be found in many asian groceries. However it seems to wilt incredibly quickly, even if kept in the fridge in water, so I’ve found it’s best to make this on the day of purchase if possible. You can wash and freeze the leaves: though it seems to tone the flavour down at least it’s a good fallback if you fancy a quick fenugreek hit.

However – and I’ll try to be delicate here – I’ve discovered that fenugreek does have a peculiar ‘characteristic’ which means you’re likely to be reminded of it for a day or two after consumption. Somewhat like the effect asparagus has on some people, the malodorous qualities are longer-lasting and tend to permeate from a variety of regions. It seems this is a common side-effect, and is known on mother and baby forums as fenugreek seeds are used for stimulating milk supply. Not sure I make the connection with maple syrup though…

Finally, I’ve had my cockles warmed by the hitherto unknown delights of panch phoran – a Bengali five spice mix – thanks to Rice & Pickle’s mango pickle recipe she posted a few months ago. Days after reading her recipe, while the name was still fresh in my mind, I stumbled across a pack of this mix in Unicorn, and have been adding it to dishes ever since. As it contains fenugreek seeds it has a particular affinity to fresh methi, and has proven itself to be another reliable addition to the larder shelves.

Over the years I’ve tried a few different recipes for onion bhajis, but have found this from Daxa Dashani on the BBC website is reliably reproducible. However I tend to increase the amount of onion in the recipe, using a couple of decent sized onions to add more bulk. I also dry roast and then grind the panch phoran, adding it to the mix before letting the batter rest. Instead of the spinach in the recipe you can substitute this for other greens: earlier this spring I used wild garlic, and here I used lovage leaves, chopped roughly. This recipe makes around a dozen bhajis, depending how generous you are with the mix. Make sure you drain the bhajis well after cooking, sitting them on kitchen paper or napkins to remove any excess cooking oil.

The final dishes were great (and disappeared in no time between two hungry lads): the lovage gave an extra savoury depth to the bhajis, but was less obvious in the aloo methi. I used a scotch bonnet chilli in the aloo methi, but cautiously removed it before serving. As I’d used smoked paprika rather than chilli the spice flavour was more muted than when I’ve made this previously, so I served it with some hot sauce on the side. A breezy fresh salsa or a fiery lime pickle would be an even better choice.

Best served with some raita, a chutney (which I overlooked on this occasion…doh!) and a glass of good Indian Pale Ale. Fast, fresh and healthy!

Potatoes with fenugreek and lovage
(based on a recipe by Anirudh Arora)

  • 3 bunches of fenugreek
  • 1 handful lovage leaves
  • 30ml vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon panch phoran
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika or chilli powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 green chillies or 1 scotch bonnet, sliced into lengths
  • 1″/2.5cm length of fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
  • 8-10 new potatoes, sliced… or several larger potatoes roughly diced
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • a decent squirt of tomato purée
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
  • Coriander leaves to garnish
Remove the methi leaves, then wash well and chop. Dry with kitchen paper and leave to one side.
Heat half the oil in a wok and add half the cumin seeds until they snap, crackle and pop. Add the methi leaves and stir until they start to wilt down, then remove and set aside to cool.
Add the rest of the oil and heat, adding the rest of the cumin seeds. Once they start to crackle, chuck in the ginger and chillies and sauté well for a minute. Add the coriander, salt, turmeric and chilli/paprika, stir and cook down for a couple of minutes, then add the spuds. I tend to turn the heat right down and cover the wok, letting everything cook through slowly for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are just starting to give.
Stir through the tomato purée and cook for a further few minutes, then add the freshly squeezed lemon juice and the garam masala. Finish with a garnish of chopped coriander leaves, and enjoy.

Game for a curry? Tandoori pheasant & squirrel

Finished plate of tandoori pheasant

As I’ve said before, although I’ve grown to appreciate great south Asian food, it’s not something I have a load of experience with. However I’ve been recently fired up by experiences at The Spice Club, some great reading on various blogs, and the burgeoning movement in authentic gourmet Indian and Pakistani food in the UK.

In addition, a present last Christmas – the cookbook ‘Food of the Grand Trunk Road‘ by Anirudh Arora and Hardeep Singh Kohli – has provided a load of inspiration, and the chance to try my hand at some of the recipes. Which are all excellent, but more time-consuming than I’m used to. The book’s also prompted me to extensively update my store cupboard as a result, so I’m now discovering the joys of sourcing exotic ingredients and grinding fresh spices more regularly.

Grilled tandoori pheasant pieces in shallow dish, beside book

I was given a pheasant during last year’s game season… after a few days hanging and prepping it got placed in the freezer and I forgot all about it until having a bit of a clear-out last month. Wanting to try something a bit different to the usual roast, I mulled over something Middle Eastern or Indian-influenced. Perhaps something at the back of my mind was thinking about the long-distant Anglo-Indian themes… curry, kedgeree and grand homes; hunting parties and polo; gin & tonics and cool glasses of IPA. Anyway, a quick flick through the aforementioned book, and I came across a recipe for Teetari, or Tandoori Guinea Fowl. That sounded pretty fine, and after checking the recipe I had the time to marinade the meat properly and make a proper meal of it.

Mind you, I didn’t think it’d be so good. As I found out, tandoori and game are pretty much perfect partners, especially if you marinade the meat properly so it tenderises the lean, sinewy flesh. Truly sublime. A word to the wise though… this marinade recipe is pretty punchy, so if you don’t like hot food, you may want to tone down the amount of chillies a wee bit.

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Delights and tea lights: twice the fun at The Spice Club

As the candles fade after this year’s Diwali, it’s a good time to shine a bright light on The Spice Club in Manchester, one of the best open secrets in the North West’s food landscape. It’s Manchester’s longest running secret supper club, and comes with a sterling reputation. A fortnight ago my regular dining partner and I made it down to the first of two pop-up events in the city centre’s Spinningfields: the second was held this weekend past, and part of me wishes I could’ve been there two weeks running to enjoy the superlative authentic flavours again.

We didn’t have many reference points for Indian cuisine when growing up in Northern Ireland during the 80s. Sure, the family got the occasional takeaway; I had a few good meals round at south Asian friends’ houses; and I remember some home sessions where we made meals with Sharwoods’ finest pre-packed ingredients. Apart from that, our dad’s biryani became a running family joke, largely because it was never served with any sauce so was dry as straw (we think he was missing one half of the recipe and never realised). At the time south Asian food just wasn’t as ubiquitous in Belfast as it was in most English towns, so my first experience of the wider world of Indian food was when I moved to the northwest of England to study.

Diwali candles at The Spice Club, Manchester pop-up restaurant

Hanging out with a couple of beery lads from the Midlands, for whom curry competed with a full Sunday roast when it came to the best choice for a shared house meal, I quickly learned about key ingredient and basic techniques. I got in the habit of easting out at cheap and cheerful curry houses, and when I moved to Manchester (home of the infamous Curry Mile in Rusholme, as well as some great little joints in the Northern Quarter) my education broadened further. I’ve eaten out a lot over the years in Manchester, but two restaurants really made an impression on me for a range of dishes which they offered up; Gaylord, and the sadly-missed Shimla Pinks. Both contradicted the usual restaurant fare by serving fresh dishes with incredibly distinctive flavours. This was the kind of Indian cooking which I could really connect with, but I was more likely to get it cooked by knowledgable friends than when I ate out. Garishly bright sauces, suspiciously-similar looking curries, oil slicks spreading across balti dishes, sickly-sweet dessert options… I knew there was more to Indian food than this, but even in a city with so many choices for eating, it was surprisingly uncommon to find oneself tasting fresh ingredients in the way one would take for granted with, say, Thai food. Surely something was wrong here?

This brings me, in a roundabout way, back to The Spice Club. I’d met Monica Sawhney, the prime force behind Manchester’s first secret supper club, at a couple of events early this year. Her obvious ability to combine advocacy and enthusiasm for quality Indian food was apparent… and infectious… so I was determined to check out The Spice Club when I could. Over the next couple of months I heard more glowing first-hand reports, which cranked up the anticipation, but I always seemed to have something already in the diary. As a result, when I decided to go to the South Indian food special at the beginning of July, my dining companion was most miffed,as she already had plans and couldn’t make it. I smacked my lips with anticipation and signed myself up anyway, keen to check out some Keralan cuisine. After booking through their website and receiving a confirmation email, the next stage was getting a text messgae on the day, revealing the location. As I was going alone I decided to drive – public transport from the depths of the Pennines to the balmy suburbs of north Manchester is a convoluted option – so I was one of the few sets of guests who didn’t BYO.

After a drive over th’hills on a beautiful summer’s evening I arrived at what was very obviously a family home: perfectly appointed but with an atmosphere which thankfully said relaxed dinner party, not mini-restaurant. This vibe, plus the warm and friendly greetings from Monica and her mum Anita at the door, was a perfect statement of intentions. Escorted to my place, I joined a dozen or so other people at one of two large tables. Chatting around before food was served, the diners seemed to come from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of food interest. There’s alway a good frisson at a supper club: a range of dining companions, united by a common interest and shared anticipation of what’s to come. The buzz around the table grew over glasses of fruit juice, before Monica came out to welcome us and introduce the meal. The Spice Club’s manifesto is to let their guests experience and enjoy fantastic, authentic home-made Indian food, and to be as open and welcoming as possible. Including, rather bravely I thought, inviting anyone who wanted to pop into the kitchen to see behind the scenes.

Our first course was Masala Dosa, a wonderfully light dosa (a thin pancake), rolled into a cone and filled with delicately spiced potato. This was wonderful in its own right, but was taken to another level by the wondrous coconut chutney on the side. On a warm summer’s evening this was such a perfectly cool, soothing and fresh condiment, and I made sure to take advantage of it. Not that the food that night needed a cool touch to temper savage spices: if you’re looking to carry out any random acts of chilli masochism, this isn’t the venue for you, it’s all about balancing the distinct fresh flavours of the spices and ingredients in harmony.

After this, our plates were cleared away, and a series of entrées made their way onto the table. Each plate had an individual bowl for the sambar, and plenty of space for the accompaniments. Glancing at my menu, I couldn’t help think the next course had a touch of the Julian & Sandy‘s about it – “ooh, did you vada those steamy idlis down the sambar?” but that says as much about my humour as my relative ignorance of south Indian food…

Idli at Spice Club Manchester

I’d never had idli before: delightfully cute steamed rice and lentil cakes; nor vada, light crispy rice and lentil fritters, delicately spiced and perfect for scooping up sauce. Or beer snacking, I’d warrant. There was a toor dal sambar, piquant and fresh with spiced onion, garlic and ginger; and Pau Bhaji, a selection of veg in a rich tomato-y masala. Little vegetable bhajiis and plenty of chapattis completed this main course.

The presentation is uniformly excellent too… each serving is delicately detailed without being overly fussy. However they obvious know their audience: neatly plated dishes empty quickly but a succession of refills, top-ups and temptations ensure that no-one leaves the table hungry in any way. There’s a touch of that Scots-Irish “Ahh, go on and eat up, you’re at yer Grannys” about the smiling countenances which pleasantly persuade you to have just one more thing…

Curious about the dishes we’d enjoyed, I took up Monica’s opening offer and went for a nosey in the kitchen. Anita was more than happy to show off the ingredients, talk about exactly how to cook them, and how much they all enjoyed hosting Spice Club. All in a kitchen which looked spotless… you get the impression this operation hums and ticks like a well-oiled machine (and that’d be olive oil, not ghee as you might expect… Spice Club aren’t afraid to update traditional elements with healthier alternatives… so no worries about unhealthy greasy curries).

Thankfully after the generosity of the previous courses, dessert was light and fresh – a strawberry and mango sorbet – just right for a warm summer’s eve to cleanse the palate. Then we were offered cardamon tea or a coffee (I went for the cardamon tea) and a selection of cake and biscuits. Despite feeling a little like one of those cartoon characters, when my eyes should’ve registered ‘Full’ signs, I still managed to enjoy more of the biccies than good sense would allow. They’re naan kithai, a kind of cardamom-y shortbread, and boy, they’re seriously good, which I why I’ve linked straight to Monica’s recipe for them.

Spice Club - cake and naan kithai

Many things made the evening special, but more than anything else I took away the impression that this was something which Monica and her family really loved to do: bringing together people for an insight into great regional home-cooking, with wonderfully warm hospitality. Which, I may say, they did with ease. My better half was even more jealous after she’d heard about the evening, so when we heard The Spice Club was branching out to a pop-up restaurant in central Manchester for two weekends, she quickly determined we’d go. I needed little persuasion…

Looking over the Diwali pop-up restaurant by The Spice Club, Spinningfields, Manchester

After wandering around the shiny glass canyons in Manchester’s gauche new quarter, getting slightly confused by the multiplicity of RBS banks (which threw us, based on the directions we had) we found a corner unit, twinkling with hundreds of candles to set the mood for Diwali. The location was a unit which I believe had been a sandwich bar (the decals on the windows still advertised wraps and salads). As before, the table decorations were beautiful, and they’d managed to inject some homely personality into the space. I popped open one of the bottles of the ever-delightful Meantime IPA which we brought along (a big, strong, fruity, hoppy beer which is absolutely perfect for a spicy meal) and we talked to our dining companions. It turned out to be a small world – I was sitting next to a lady I’d last met at the Spice Club during the summer – so obviously we’d both rated it highly enough to plan a return visit, this time with our partners.

Aloo Tikka Chaat - Spice Club, Manchester

After Monica came out of the kitchen and introduced the evening, we were presented with a lovely appetiser: Aloo Tikka Chaat. A dinky potato patty, topped with chutney, yoghurt and a tangy sweet tamarind sauce, together with chickpeas and tomato. Small, but perfectly formed, this set the pace for the rest of the evening with its fresh flavours and perky presentation. Really good. It was only after I’d left the July Spice Club I’d realised the whole evening was vegetarian. This time our entrées had a more meaty bent, but as with so much good Indian cuisine, veg and pulses played a critical role. Roasted chicken Masala was a million miles from its namesake in most restaurants, being melting succulent and thrilling warming; the Shahi Keema Mattar paired the classic minced lamb with peas and spices perfectly. The dal, made from moong and channa, and lobia (black-eyed beans) was as good as anything I’ve ever had before, and the Gajjar ka Raita, a carrot raita added a dash of sweet coolness. How come I’ve never had a carrot raita before… it’s genius!

Entrées at Spice Club pop-up restaurant, Manchester

However the real revelation of the night for me was the Paneer Bhindi. I’ve had okra (aka the slightly creepily-named ladies fingers) before, but was not impressed by its somewhat slimy texture. Likewise, though I’ve had paneer in dishes before, when I’ve tried to cook with it at home, it’s left me thinking it’s like a blander cheese cousin of tofu. That’s aching bland. So I was tentative in trying out the paneer bhindi when it appeared, but I had seconds, and even thirds (yes, that policy of death by kindness and generosity was in full effect again, with all the diners plied with multiple helpings of everything from chapattis and rice to main dishes). When I confided that I really didn’t like okra beforehand, I given the tip that it’s often best to overcook it to reduce the mouthfeel which I’d been so unenamoured by. I’m going to be following their recipe for Paneer-stuffed Okra soon…

Kheer - dessert at the Spice Club, Manchester

In between courses, despite there being more diners than usual, service was swift and good-natured, and we even had time to take tips and advice from Anita and Monica as they talked to everyone. We needed a little time to let the main course settle, so easy conversation and good banter was in order. Dessert was Kheer, a sort of grown-up rice pudding, with enough sweetness to lift it without being cloying, and just enough bite to the rice to elevate it above a mousse or blancmange-like consistency. All with a glowing hint of cardamom and a drizzle of mango. Lush.

Cardamom tea was then served alongside those cracking Naan Kithai again, and a slice of the Diwali cake which I think Monica mentioned had been brought along by one of the guests. We also each had a barfi, which again confounded my expectations by being much less sickly-sweet than the versions I’ve had before in sweet houses. The whole evening was a delight: wonderful food, of course, but also a great atmosphere.

This is very much a family affair: Monica fronting the whole operation, with full culinary direction from mum Anita, assistance from brother AJ and dad Jee, and close support from Vik. They’re so obviously proud of their culinary heritage, and determined to reclaim that food background from the identikit coloured curries most of us have been all-too-familiar with.

Monica from The Spice Club

The Spice Club run a series of events every month: having experienced two I’d have no hesitation in urging you to sign up for one of their forthcoming nights. The location might be a mystery, but the authentic tastes, and true deliciousness is guaranteed!