Thursday, May 13, 2010

Random Spicy Encounters & My Very Own Garam Masala

Garam Masala: A little bit of homemade magic.

When we first got to London three and a half years ago, we were bombarded by quite a few new sights, sounds, and sensations. Some good (initially countable on one hand), some bad (I won't go there), and some just plain different (that's the fun part).

Just one of the big differences between London and New York (where we'd just moved from) is the immigrant populations and ensuing ethnic influences (cultural, culinary, religious) that are reflected in the city. While New York has its fair share of delicious Indian restaurants (
Tabla or Curry Leaf are just two good ones), it has nothing even distantly approaching the realm of Indian and Pakistani choices that London does, not even in Jackson Heights or Lex & 30th.

But even in London and its notorious world of Anglo-South Asian pleasures, like in all things, you get the good, the bad and the ugly: the good presumably being decently priced and ridiculously delicious Indian food, the bad being the expensive crap-"curry," and the ugly being the suspiciously greasy kebab shops selling roadkill-
doner and chicken tikka (they don't all, but just sayin'...).

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Random (and rather spicy) Encounters with Masala.

I had a lot of learning to do, having only dipped the equivalent of a pinky toe in the deep waters of Indian-deliciousness while in New York. One of my first revelations after seeing the word "Masala" plastered on every other Indian restaurants name, was what that word meant:
"spice." And when I started hearing the phrase "garam masala" thrown around on cooking shows, my ears perked up but I never knew why.

cardamom & black pepper:
just two ingredients in a good mix

Three Officially Random Encounters with Masala
my life is random, what can I say?

1. My first year in London, I was informed by a nice Indian man at a food trade show that Masala meant "spice" as he handed me a small sample of his freezeable-microwaveable-chicken-tikka-masala. He then also (and erroneously) "informed" me that all chilli peppers originated in India. Surprisingly (or not) when he got a feisty (slightly indignant) Mexican retort about said supposed origin of chilli peppers, he was no longer so generous with the samples and I gruffly made my way to the next stall.

Lucky for me, that was not my only random encounter with Indian spices and their origins.

2. Secondly, while pregnant and bored, I randomly wandered into a giant store in Tooting called
Deepak Food & Wine. Deepak is a supermarket / wholesale Asian spice and food heaven (haven?). It is the only place I have ever seen 25kg bags of rice, lentils and every conceivable bean you can think of. They offer small sachets or 2kg bags of spices, herbs, or spice mixes. You can find any type of curry paste, curry powder, and even buy a lifetime supply of takeaway containers and forks if you really want to.

Besides wandering around taking a million pictures on my cell phone, I also saw and examined a bag of "garam masala" whole spice mix for the first time while in this store. I didn't buy it. But I did pick it up - and stared for a very long time.

3. One night while trawling the internet for a good recipe involving primarily cauliflower and ground beef (long story, hadn't been to the supermarket in forever, yadda yadda) I randomly happened to find
this blog. "Food for Thought" was an easily readable food blog written about Indian cuisine and the culture surrounding it.

Sadly, its owner had abandoned it long before I came across it, but not only did I find a wonderful recipe for
Keema Gobhi* - a pakistani recipe for cauliflower and ground beef - it opened my eyes to what Garam Masala - that secret spicy treasure of Indian cooking - really was, and how to make it myself. And make it myself I did.

*This recipe does not include ground beef, but this one does - and I combined the two for an excellent result.

* * *

So, no longer a "masala" virgin, and the proud owner of a varied and delicious international spice cabinet - with many of the thanks going to making Indian / Asian food at home over the past three years - I can now feel pretty confident in writing my own two-cents about the Indian / Pakistani food scene here in London. In the name of England's unofficial national food (curry, that is), here's a post on some of my favorite Indian/Pakistani dishes and places to get them here in Londontown.

My Top 7 Places To Grab a "Good Curry"
and oh-so-much-more than just that...
in London, of course

onion, ginger, garlic & bay

7. Brick Lane

If you come to London you should see
Brick Lane. It's an East End establishment: an ethnic, primarily Bangladeshi street, where street signs are written in Arabic and ethnic food shops and cool food & doodad markets abound. Amazingly, where Brick Lane meets Whitechapel Street is where one of the first murders attributed to the infamous Jack the Ripper took place. There's Brick Lane Market, but you're also a hop-skip-and-jump away from Spitalfields, which is really cool.

Sadly, the major part of Brick Lane is now made up of mediocre (if not bad) Indian restaurants. There are about a million of them and they all have "the best deal" and "the best review" posted on their windows and doors, and the stereotypical haggling doormen calling after you to go with them. We were overwhelmed and chose one at semi-random after doing a quick google search on Matt's blackberry. The food was pretty decent - and shockingly cheap by London standards! - but nothing to write mom (or the blogosphere) about.

One other cool thing to do on Brick Lane is to check out a little
Masala Chai stand that opens in part of the street-food-market on the weekends. They make fresh Masala Chai which is fun to see and delicious to drink. It is not, however for the faint-hearted: they are very generous with the cardamom. You have been warned.

6. Masala Zone
When we first moved to London we lived in the only barely charming and really-quite-boring Earl's Court. The high street featured some decent eateries, among them a place called Masala Zone. The name itself kind of put me off, plus the restaurant - though not unappealing aesthetically speaking - has all the makings of a chain. Crisp, clean modern decor and a menu that reads like a "how to order Indian food" catalogue. In their own words:
"...our restaurants serve real indian food and cuisines, in contemporary yet exotic Indian popular art settings..."
That said, I really like Masala Zone. It is owned by the same people who did Chutney Mary (see below) and is meant to be affordable and authentic - both of which it is. It is also, incidentally, pretty darn good on flavor. The fact that they offer " thali" style eating also makes tasting lots of different things and eating the way Indians presumably do much easier than just ordering a la carte. This is worth a stop if you're short on cash and looking to try several things at once.

MASALA ZONE (Earl's Court)

147 Earls Court Road

London Sw5 9RQ

5. Cinnamon Club

Ah the Cinnamon Club. It's the "good Indian restaurant" in London that everyone has heard of and wants to go to. It's not exactly a well-kept secret, nor does it want to be. It's popular with everyone from the artsy-marketing-sales" crowd to the financiers, and with a beautiful setting like the historic Old Westminster Library (floor to shockingly-high-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls and all), it's not surprising everyone likes it.

I went there for a dinner for someone's birthday in a private dining room and loved every bit of it. But the tandoori prawns are what stuck out then and stick out in my mind now. Unbelievably delicious, tender, juicy tandoori prawns served with a wedge of lemon and some saffron-laced rice. It's worth going just to taste those. But save it for a special occasion because those 3 prawns will probably cost you an arm, and the amazing wine you order to go with them will definitely take your leg.


The Old Westminster Library
30-32 Great Smith Street

London SW1P 3BU

4. Lahore Kebab House

Two words: Lamb-chops.

I've already gone on at length about this place, so please go back and read my
British "Local Color" at its Best: Lahore Kebab House post if you want to know more. No survey of London's Anglo-Indian/Pakistani scene is complete without giving them a mention. But if you don't believe me, check out celebrity-esque Indian chef Anjum's opinion. And don't forget to BYOB! : )


2-10 Umberston Street
London E1 1PY

3. Chutney Mary

What an odd name for an Indian restaurant, right? I thought it was kind of a joke when I first saw it, but then I realized that it's on King's Road in the heart of beautiful (and beautifully expensive) Chelsea, and in a very large building on King's Road at that, which meant that either whoever was bank-rolling the place was loaded with plenty of money to waste, or the place is
really good.

Luckily, the latter is true. Chutney Mary is probably the most aesthetically pleasing (to my taste) restaurant in terms of decor that I have mentioned here. And the food matches up. It's all very chic, very Indian, and very colorfully delicious. I had a great 5-course tasting menu dinner there with Matt one night. It was the kind of meal where I got more excited after every single course and started to wonder how on earth the next course could possibly top the previous (but it always did).
I loved it.

It's the type of place that makes you feel special and exclusive and in-the-know when you go there. The reception is completely separate and curtained from the restaurant. And the fact that a large portion of the whole establishment is underground and therefore dark and uber-ly swanky with mirror-lined walls doesn't hurt either.
It wasn't cheap, but for the quality of food and experience combo, it's definitely worth it.


535 Kings Road

London SW10 0SZ

2. Rasoi

I have never been to Rasoi, but my better-half has, and I trust him almost blindly (with some noteable acceptions) with regards to food. He raved about this place almost as much as he raved about Lahore (see above), but in a different Michelin-star-induced kind of way (until he realized he'd gotten food-poisoning from something he ate there, at which point he recanted and swore off Mango-lassis for life).

There's so much that seems cool about this place to me, though: it's on a private, mostly residential street, in a private-looking house in the middle of the most exclusive neighborhood (or one of them) in Chelsea. A couple of blocks from Sloane Square, Rasoi is actually just 3 or 4 doors down from my posh private dentist's office, which says a lot because that is hands-down the nicest dentist's office I've ever been to in my life.

The way Matt described it (in his good moments) was Indian food cooked and served with French technique and style. To some that may take away some of the authentic charm of Indian, but for others, it is a worthwhile culinary experience. It's like the Cinnamon Club on steroids. If I had more time, I'd probably have to make Matt swear off his blacklisting and take me there.


10 Lincoln Street, Chelsea
, SW3 2TS

1. Ma Goa

As a Londoner, you start to accumulate "locals" whether you want to or not. The mother of all "locals" is your, well, "local" which in British-English means "your local pub." You often hear people say things like "Let's go the local and have a pint" or "it's not a bad local" in reference to this phenomenon. Everybody's got one, from the Prime Minister to the random American-expat living in Putney.

In addition to the pub, you also have your local "takeout" which can refer to any number of restaurants which are "good" and deliver in your area - generally Chinese, Pizza, or Kebabs in the UK (in all fairness, while you do get
some good food here in the UK, Chinese is not one of them, so I have resisted partaking in this localness).

But the second most common and important "local" that everybody's got in the pantheon of localities is the great local Indian restaurant. Matt and I are no exception. It took us a while to agree on one, and to this day I think maybe I'm slightly more partial to this place than Matt, but no matter what he pretends, once the food is in front of him and he gets a whiff he admits it every time - Ma Goa is freaking

This restaurant is family-run and owned by a southern Indian (Goan, to be exact) family and based on the mother's home cooking - hence the "ma" in the name. Their takeaway menu is littered with references to "Ma" and what her favorite dishes are. There is even a picture of her and her son on the website (I eat that stuff up, as you can tell).

Besides doing good, hot, freshly-made takeaway - unlike many other Indian places that delivery, Ma Goa is not a nasty, greasy hole-in-the-wall with a miniature kitchen, a payment counter and a delivery man, helmet-always-on sitting inside on a dirty couch. Ma Goa is a tastefully decorated, immaculately clean restaurant with two spacious (by London standards) dining rooms and a friendly staff.

My favorite dishes - and the ones I think they do especially well - are:

Saag Paneer:
My favorite Indian veggie dish - Creamed spinach with homemade Indian cheese - there's just a hint of heat, dill and cumin in this, and I think it's superlative compared to the many other versions I've tried.

Gallina Konkan Style:
I order this almost every time I eat there. It's a spicey-sour curry sauce with tender chunks of chicken. It's the kind of dish that, after I've eaten all the chicken, I pour the rest of the remaining sauce either a) on the left-over rice or b) directly into my mouth and devour it.

Achari Murgh Tikka (or Achari Chicken):
I discovered Achari dishes by accident. Again at the aforementioned food tradeshow in 2007 I was given a cooking sachet sample by a different Indian guy. This time it was Achari spices: a type of "bruised" mixture of pickling spices with a unique and pungent flavor. This is not for the faint-hearted as it approximates eating lime-pickle served over chicken, which I, incidentally, think is also very tasty. : ) You can buy packs of Achari spices at Partridges for DIY Indian food.

Tandoori Chicken:
This is Matt's go-to dish. It gets a bad rap by a whole lot of "Indian connoisseur" wannabes because it's basically spiced, marinated grilled chicken, which does not seem exotic or complex enough to those - for lack of a better word - fools. But we know better. We, the superior ones, know that sancta simplicitas est mater-deliciousness. Tandoor ovens are one of Asia's greatest gifts to the world. And when this unique, especially-hot oven is paired with a good marinade, fresh lemon, some rice, naan and salad, you've got a perfect dinner on your hands.


Someone once complained to me that they only went once to eat at Ma Goa and never returned because their coats "smelled like curry" for a week after they left. I guess my answer to that would be, "clearly you don't love Indian food. Do us all a favor: stay home and save the seating space for the rest of us." : )

242-244 Upper Richmond Road

London SW15 6TG

*reservations are recommended for Fri & Sat nights.

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My Very Own Garam Masala
Makes about 6 tbsps

highly aesthetically pleasing: my jar of garam masala

Garam Masala literally means "Hot Spice" from the Hindi words "garam" meaning "hot" and "masala" meaning "spice" or "blend (of spices)." It is found in both powder or paste form, in the latter case being mixed with vinegar, water, or coconut milk. There are as many possible permutations to the mix as there are tastebuds in India. My recipe appears to be based on a more Northwestern Indian take, as it includes black cumin, typical of that region.

Interestingly, Indian cuisine is very precise on when and how Garam Masala is added to a dish. It is often added at the very end - either sprinkled on top in the last minutes of cooking, or even just used as a type of salt or pepper just before serving.

I already had all the spices necessary for homemade Garam Masala when I found a recipe for it on "Food for Thought," so making it was easy. For some who may not keep such an extensive or "exotic" collection at home, it might be easier to buy the pre-ground stuff (doesn't keep for too long) or the whole spice mixes which you can grind as necessary. I tend to use it quite a lot now that I have it on hand for all sorts of Indian and Indian-inspired dishes, so I'm glad I've learned this skill as I can tailor it to my palate.


2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
1 tbsp cardamom pods, crushed and seeds removed (shells thrown away)
1/2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp cloves (either whole or I used already ground for ease)
1 small cinnamon stick (or 1 tbsp ground)
1/2 tsp black cumin seeds
1/2 tsp regular cumin seeds
1/4 nutmeg, ground
2 crushed bay leaves

Mortar & Pestle


Using a mortar and pestle, crush coriander seeds & cardamom first and then add the rest of the ingredients, crushing and smashing until you get a fine powdered mixture. This could take a while so you can also use a small food processor for faster results. : )

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  1. I wish I was a fly on the way for the chilies discussion - I can see where that would get interesting quickly. I love your descriptive list of restaurants, and having stayed in Earl's Court I can imagine your experience there.

    I look forward to trying the garam masala, it sounds delicious and a spice mix like this with fresh spices does something amazing to a dish.

  2. I had the same reservations about Masala Zone, but actually like it. I go to the one in Soho and its great because if you haven't made dinner plans for Fri or Sat night you can still get a table.

    Have you been to Verraswamy? Pretty tasty food though pricey. They make a lot of grand gestures to try to justify that. I think they are part of this Chutney Mary/Masala Zone group...

  3. Anthro: No, i haven't been to Verraswamy...did notice they are the same group as MZ. Interesting... :)

  4. What an interesting and wonderful article about spices you have here, . Anytime i'm in doubt, i will come to this post. It must have taken you some time to put these list together just so you can educate people like me. You see, the long list of spices in a recipe is what have kept me from cooking indian food.
    Buy Indian Groceries Online in UK
    Indian grocery store UK