6. Northern India

I think Indian food is a shining example of what can be achieved with ingenuity and appropriate use of spices. So much of the cooking involves turning cheap ingredients into taste sensations, which I think is why it’s become so internationally popular. It’s easy to make lobster and caviar taste amazing, it’s harder to work miracles with lentils (at least, in my opinion). Indian food has so much variety and international fame, in fact, that I’ve split it into two regions: North and South. Most of the familiar dishes from Westernised Indian restaurants are from Northern India. There are a lot of curries, many of which contain meat, eaten with bread, and a lot of cows and therefore dairy components like yoghurt and cheese. The North has a lot of influences from Pakistan and the Middle East, so you’re likely to find elements of historic fusion in their food. The South in general is a lot more vegetarian food, with less dairy and a lot more rice, fish, coconut and pulses in soups and stews.

Malai kofta curry with naan and salad

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A dear friend of mine grew up in a family with a Sri Lankan chef who specialised in varieties of Indian food, and this meal was always a favourite in their house. She has since perfected the recipe, and generously bequeathed it to me. The first time she made it for me, it was a revolutionary experience. I always loved Indian food, but had only ever had the creamy, rich curries from Westernised restaurants in Australia, which is purportedly not exactly “the real deal”. This, on the other hand, was a subtle, sweet and aromatic balance of fresh flavours and textures, unlike anything I had ever tried. The sauce (which could be eaten by itself with a spoon, it’s that tasty), has a base of finely chopped caramelised onions and carrots, tomato, coconut milk, and many spices including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, garam masala, ground coriander, chilli, garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric, cumin, star anise etc. The balance between all of these is hard to reach, but if you get it right, no single one is overpowering, and you just have a delicious symphony. The balls on top are home-made spiced ricotta, crumbed and deep fried. It’s surprisingly simple to make ricotta, all you do is boil milk, then add acid (lemon juice or white vinegar) slowly, stirring, until it’s curdled. Then you just sieve the curds through a cloth, and you have ricotta. I find a specially-bought pillowcase works well to strain it through, and not, as my boyfriend insists on telling dinner guests, his pillowcase that hasn’t been washed in a month. I’ve also tried muslin cloths and tea towels, but the cheese gets stuck to it much more and everything is harder to do. The home-made ricotta is much much nicer than store-bought, which always seems to be weirdly watery. The ricotta is spiced subtly with pistachio nuts, cardamom, pepper, chilli and a dozen other spices, and is a wonderful complement to the sauce. I served this at a dinner I had for my parents’ 27th wedding anniversary, with a salad of mixed greens, tomato and apple, as well as fresh home made naan bread. The naan was shockingly easy to make and successful. Really, I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleasantly surprised. I just made the dough, fried it quickly in a skillet and then brushed some ghee on top, and it looked and tasted better than in restaurants. It’s definitely worth the effort to make your own.

Lamb rogan josh, cauliflower and currant korma, salad and papadums

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Wikipedia reliably informs me that “rogan” means ghee, and “josh” means stew, so rogan josh just means stewed in ghee. Ghee is clarified butter, which is used a lot in North Indian cooking as a frying oil, as well as a flavourant. Rogan josh arises from Kashmir, in Northern India, and usually contains aromatic spices and is a red colour from chillies. Korma is also from North India, and usually uses spices like coriander, onion, turmeric and cumin combined with yoghurt to make a creamy curry. The cauliflower currant version is a recipe from a friend that is a bit nontraditional, but very delicious – the currants add a nice sweetness. Papadums are usually made from gram flour, which is ground chickpeas, which are made very thin and then fried. I must confess, I bought packet papadums and microwaved them. They just turn out so perfect that way, and I don’t have to bother about all of the oil of frying (you know how I hate to deep-fry). I usually try to not buy packaged food unless I have a good reason, but I consider this reason sufficiently good. I added the hibiscus in the shot because they were flowering in our garden at the time, and it made me think of the Hindu goddess Kali, who is often pictured with a red hibiscus.

Vegetarian and beef samosas with mango chutney and raita


I took these to a going-away party for a good friend of mine who was moving away from Brisbane, and they were definitely a hit. Yet again we encounter the meat-filled pastry, curiously pervasive throughout time and space. Samosas can be fried or baked, and I selected baked. I made the dough for half and used frozen puff pastry for the other half (to compare). I thought the homemade was better, but only just. The vegetarian ones had potatoes, cauliflower, peas, coriander, lemon, and a bunch of Indian spices. The meat ones were similar but with beef and peas. There was a lovely Indian girl at the party who said they tasted like home, but I think she was just being very polite. It was nice though.

Chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and saffron rice

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OK, OK, I know chicken tikka masala is probably not actually from India. Many (including the irrefutable QI) say that it actually originated in Glasgow in the 70s, after Indian spices were introduced to Great Britain. Wikipedia still says the origin is “disputed” however, and my boyfriend insisted that I cook it, so here we are. It’s usually tomato-based, with coconut cream and mild, sweet spices. Saag paneer basically has saag, which is a spinach-based curry, and paneer, which is cheese. I made the paneer, it’s pretty easy, you just follow the same steps as ricotta, but then at the end press it between two heavy objects so that it becomes a solid block. After that you just cut it up and lightly fry it. The cheese and spinach go really well together, especially with a squeeze of lemon on top.