We Grill – Anjula Devi


Anjula Devi runs an Indian cookery school at Hampton Court in Surrey. Concentrating on traditional Indian food, she holds seminars for the foodservice industry to educate chefs and brands how to cook Indian food. She also appears regularly at other cookery schools including Leiths School of Food and Wine and the Angela Gray Cookery School. Her debut book Spice of Life is out in 2017.

Where did your love of food come from?

Food was just a way of life for us. Growing up in Southall, West London we never ate processed foods; everything was made from scratch by my dad – the culinary genius. Our neighbours initially disliked spicy food, but dad won over their palates – and friendship – with his delicious curries. Dad sourced all his ingredients from our back garden or the local greengrocer. He was amazed and intrigued by all the produce on offer – he’d never seen celeriac or broccoli before! By the age of 10 I was his right hand man in the kitchen. I still use the pestle and mortar he gave me for my tenth birthday.

Tell us about your book…

Dad just wanted everyone to taste his food. He wrote down a lot of the recipes which he and I created, and I promised him that one day I’d get it published – I’m just sorry he isn’t around to see it. The book is about how Dad and I loved cooking and experimenting with spices, honing in on and fine tuning recipes which had too many spices and overpowering flavours. Dad came over here in 1963 and loved how he continuously came across British produce he’d never seen before. That’s how he created delicious dishes like chicken and plum curry and rhubarb and potato – they shouldn’t work but they do!

Is traditional Indian food healthy?

Yes! Unfortunately the Indian food we see being served in many restaurants is not as healthy as it could be. The Indian diet is filled with vegetables, lentils and pulses and little meat. If you visited an Indian household you’d see little or no cream, and we often use jaggery which is unrefined sugar cane. Chapattis are the staple in most Indian households and naan bread is rarely eaten. When cooked properly, Indian food is very good for you, thanks to the vegetables and spices. For example, turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and is a very strong antioxidant.

What advice would you give to a non-Indian chef who wants to put curry on their menu?

That they can, in time, produce a traditional, healthy curry in less than 30 minutes. The most important thing is to balance your spices and how you cook your onions. For a lamb or chicken curry you have to cook the onions down to the point of being caramelised and dark in colour; this gives the curry the richness it requires. For a fish curry you cook the onions quickly, and only let them brown slightly. In some cases you can replace onions with leeks. You can also make great Indian dishes without onions, by using a spice called asafoetida (a tree resin). When plunged into hot oil, it gives a dish the taste of onions and garlic. Before you create a dish, taste each spice so you can
understand what each spice delivers. For example, brown mustard seeds contain a little heat and cumin has a hint of salt. There are not as many rules as you would think in Indian cooking, but creating the correct balance of spices is crucial. Experiment and don’t be afraid!

What’s a good menu suggestion?

Punjabi lamb chops using the spices fennel, fenugreek leaves, brown mustard seeds, cumin and nigella seeds. Then add a little garlic, ginger, fresh green chillies, mint leaves, fresh coriander and some raw papaya skin as a tenderiser. Remember that the papaya does not start to tenderise the meat until it connects with heat. Serve with crispy bombay potatoes and kachumber salad – a vegetable salad using tomato, onion, cucumber and cabbage seasoned with a zingy, tangy, slightly hot chaat masala.

What fresh herbs should every curry have? 

It is not just about coriander, we use other herbs such as dill, mint, fenugreek, curry leave and tulsi (ocimum sanctum), which is often referred to as ‘holy basil’ and often used in cooking for it’s medicinal properties. Curry leaves are one of my favourites as they add real depth to fish curries and are great for tempering lentil dishes. Try adding dill to a potato dish as an alternative to coriander leaves.

Can you BBQ Indian food?

Indian food is great to put on a BBQ. It is worth investing in a tandoor – especially for pubs that want to offer al fresco dining in the warmer months – because it cooks food quickly with little fuss. Chicken marinated overnight is a good one, lamb kebabs marinated in Indian pickling spices like fennel, nigella seeds, cumin, brown mustard seeds and fenugreek leaves, mixed vegetables marinated in kiwi and a pinch of asafoetida or a big pot of well-flavoured lentils. The options are endless!

Why do you think authentic Indian food isn’t being served?

I think some chefs are nervous that the British and European palate won’t like it and fall into creating what they think the UK clientele would like to eat, rather than what they were taught to make. I’d like to see all chefs make Indian food as it should be, they would be pleasantly surprised how well it is received – especially today, when health and diet are at the top of most people’s priorities. If a chef puts maa choliyan di dal, cooked long and slow without butter and cream on their menu they’d be amazed how many people would enjoy it. Indian food is a true labour of love. Like anything in life, the more effort you put in, the better the result will be.

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