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Spicing it up

Categories: News and previews

Roopa Gulati on adding a touch of Indian warmth and spice to the Christmas table

I catered for 18 Christmas dinners in New Delhi. It was my home for close to two decades. It was there that I recreated a corner of my Cumbrian culinary heritage. Over the years, I came to embrace local ingredients and dishes and made them as much a part of seasonal celebrations as the snowy scenes on the Christmas cards I received.

The dried fruit for my cakes came from Afghanistan and Kashmir—I’d spend two days washing, drying and sunning the fruit on our flat roof, hoping that I’d removed every little pebble in the process. I’ve just made my 44th Christmas cake for the family, and now in London, the cake, mince pies, and plum pudding are stalwarts of our Christmas table, but so too are my much-loved Indian-spiced snacks.

Almost every community has its take on a meatball. The recipe I’ll be demonstrating is my mum’s, and she would usually simmer her lamb koftas in an onion, tomato and ginger sauce—but they’re just as good made with kid goat meat from Gourmet Goat. For Christmas, I like to transform them into a stylish cocktail snack, fit for a Maharaja’s table. Because time is in short supply, I’ll make a big batch in the first week of December and store them, uncooked, in the freezer until unexpected guests drop by.

Flecked with coriander and seasoned with cinnamon and garam masala from Spice Mountain, these mini meatballs are lightly fried and cloaked in a sticky tamarind and chilli glaze. Fry them ahead and warm them through with the glaze before serving.

Star billing
Pakoras and cranberry chutney, followed by mince pies, also have star billing on my festive table. I’ll be ringing the changes with my pakoras this year with some juicy, plump seafood. Pakoras are made with vegetables, too—potatoes, cauliflower florets and even split green chillies, if you are brave enough to give them a go.

Although cranberries aren’t grown in India, their tartness lends themselves to Bengali sweet-sour flavours. They’ll be simmered into sweetly spiced chutney, sharpened with orange and Bengali five-spice mix, known as panch phoran and available from Spice Mountain.

Savoury pancakes come in all guises and like koftas, almost every country has a signature recipe. I grew up with drop scones and as much as I enjoy demolishing a stack of sweet ones slathered with butter, I need no persuading to indulge in the savoury variety. The recipe in my cookery demonstration uses mashed potato seasoned with toasted cumin, chillies, dill and shop-bought or homemade paneer.

These pancakes make a splendid accompaniment to soup and are a lifesaver when made in advance and stored in the freezer. I’ve given them a seasonal makeover, with lashings of smoked red chilli butter. The smoking process, a centuries-old technique from Lucknow, is simple—and I’ll be showing you how easy it is to smoke ingredients, without assembling your own smokery, in my demo.

Auspicious connotations
Ghee has auspicious connotations because of its purity. It’s essentially clarified butter with the milk solids removed, and is renowned for lending richness to dishes. Indian sweet sellers will often advertise their offering with the slogan “made with pure ghee” as proof of quality. Hook and Son make outstanding ghee, which tastes just like that made in Punjabi kitchens.

Perhaps the most famous of Indian sweets made for festive occasions is halwa. This popular pudding can be made with a variety of ground grains, pulses and vegetables, although semolina or chapati flour is most favoured. Fried in ghee, the ground grain releases an almost caramel-like aroma and turns golden, before cardamom-spiced syrup is added and the halwa is simmered with dried fruit until thickened. Best served hot on a bitterly cold day, halwa is central heating for the soul.   

Join Roopa for tips, tastings and recipes on Thursday 7th December in the Market Hall, 12:30—2pm