Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Kastoori Puris

Manoj Thanki's legendary flavour bombs shall henceforth be known as 'Kastooris'.
I have been noshtalgic lately for Kastoori, SW17's legendary Indian vegetarian restaurant, run by the Thanki family. According to Manoj Thanki, 'from 13th February 1987 up until 23rd November 2010, Kastoori was my life and breath,' but then his lease expired. Loyal customers were bereft. I would have been more upset at the time, myself, had I not been leaving for India, but now that I am back and have been through big changes, I'm sad to find the familiar old frontage absent from Upper Tooting Road.

Noshtalgia, as scholars of Proust will recollect, is a taste memory associated with a particular time & place. In the case of the dahi puris that were the signature starter at Kastoori, multiple occasions. After first turning on to Kastoori's 'famous taste bomb', on subsequent visits I habitually ordered two plates as we were seated: one just for me; t'other to share while perusing the menu.


A puri is an unleavened bread, most commonly served on the sub-continent for breakfast, that is deep-fried and puffs up in the process. Pani puris are smaller and made crisp with semolina in the dough. Crack a hole in its shell and pack the puri with a variety of textures and spicy flavours. Pop the whole thing in your mouth, but before you do, dunk it swiftly in the pani water so that the puri collapses rather than crunches on the tongue.

Stuffing puris at the puri party!
The basic puri filling is usually chick peas and potatoes, diced or mashed and spiced, of course. Highly spiced. As Tarla Dalal says, 'after a round of spicy pani puris, eating dahi puris is the perfect way to soothe your palate. Dahi puris are a favourite with children as well as with adults who cannot handle the fiery pani puri. What makes a dahi puri truly divine is obviously the humble curds which are made daily in every Indian household.'

The creamy dahi - yoghurt - contrasted with the sour-sweet tamarind, combined with the collapsing crunch of the puri, are the flavours and textures that compose my taste memory of Kastoori puris. I resolved to recreate them. Kastoori may be gone, but Dadu's, the supermarket next door to its old premises on Upper Tooting Road, goes on and it purveys all one needs to manufacture one's own imitation Kastoori puris. Given a few more clues, like.

There's this old article from The Grauniad:  'Manoj Thanki is fixing me one of his celebrated dahi puris. In one hand he holds a round, crunchy case about the size of a golf ball, like a giant Rice Krispie with a hole in the top. With the fastidiousness of a scientist mixing volatile chemicals in a test tube, he spoons in precise measures of tamarind sauce, dates, jagaree, nuts and yoghurt before carefully passing it to me. "What they would do [in India] is dip it in a pani, which means water," he explains, "then put the whole thing in the mouth, and it just collapses with the taste."
Not only does it taste delicious, it makes my head spin mildly.
"Yes," he says, matter-of-factly. "Some people have described it as the taste bomb."'

OK, Manoj, mate. We get that you are a molecular alchemist who manufactures beguiling taste bombs. What we need to know, in order to replicate those exquisite explosions on the palate, is their secret ingredients: 'tamarind sauce, dates, jagaree, nuts,' but in what proportions? And does he really mean, 'nuts'? My taste memory does not include nuts.

In the recipes I've scoped out online - Sharmi's is a keeper - the added crunch usually comes from sev, deep-fried gram vermicelli, which is a popular savoury snack, or chaat. Sev comes in various gauges, the finest being 'nylon'. It is not, however, mentioned among Kastoori's ingredients, although Manoj does include PUFFED RICE, aka mamra, which really are like anaemic Rice Krispies.

Dates & tamarind, kharjur & imli, are the basic constituents of a sweet'n'sour chutney that is an essential component of many varieties of chaat. The addition of jagaree - unrefined sugar, more usually known as, 'jaggery' - makes it sweeter. This is no doubt what the Kastoori menu described as SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE, but what exactly is PANI SAUCE?

Sharma's puri shack at Chowpatty Beach, Dec. 2010
As Manoj did not quite explain to The Guardian guy, at Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai, customers stand around the puri vendor - on the left, Mr Sharma - who moistens the laden puri by dipping it in the flavoured pani water that's in the bucket in front of him before passing the fizzing taste bomb to the next lucky customer. Note his hygienic disposable glove. Of course the pani water itself is liable to be teeming, but I went for it and suffered no severe gastrointestinal repercussions.

Manoj has modified this pani water for more refined restaurant service, but gives no clue as to what he puts in it. I went to Dadu's with the vague plan of asking the lady behind the till, but swiftly found a packet of Pani Puri Masala that mixes a teaspoon to a cup. I had a harder time locating Chaat Masala, but was directed to Achar Masala: 'chilli powder, salt, fenugreek, sesame seed oil, dry mango powder, mustard & asafoetida'. It is the properly vivid red.

A box of 40 puris cost £3.99 and I spent about another twenty quid at Dadu's. Natco do a tamarind & date sauce, but it's a bit sweet; I preferred the 'home made style' chutney by Sagar, who don't have a web site and whose business address reads like it's a house in Edgware. I was glad to discover Mitchell's green chilli sauce, apparently a Pakistani insitution since 1933, which I preferred over the other jar of green chilli wot I got.

In the absence of freshly home made curds, I bought Greek yoghurt from the Turkish shop, Oli's, where I also got coriander and a couple of Nicola potatoes. My chick peas had been soaked overnight, natch., and very slowly simmered as I carefully skimmed the fart froth, eliminating flatulence. If I was Indian, I would've spiced them as they cooked. Kastoori refers to DICED POTATOES, but I mashed mine, using a ricer and mixing in a teaspoon of haldi & jeera - turmeric & cumin.

As its name suggests, the dahi is the crucial ingredient of dahi puri. Of course, the yoghurt has to be fresh and chilled, but most importantly, it must be neither too thick or too thin, so that it pours into and fills the puri without making it too soggy . Kastoori puris are TOPPED WITH YOGHURT SAUCE, not with yoghurt. Some recipes suggest adding sugar to the yoghurt and beating it with a fork to make it sweeter and lighter. I simply used fresh'n'creamy Greek yog. and diluted it a little with filtered water. Next time, I'll try lemon juice. 
Puri station with pani water bottom left.
I set up a puri-stuffing station in my kitchen and experimented with various combinations in different proportions, tasting until I got close to my memory. Then I took everything up to the roof, where my neighbours were celebrating a birthday in the evening sunshine, and set myself up in a corner, stuffing puris until and inviting revellers to dunk 'em in the pani. It was fun and the puris went down well, even if they were not quite as gob-smacking as I remember Kastoori's.

I'll definitely be having more puri parties this Summer, but am hoping that Manoj Thanki will revive Kastoori, if only for one night, to cater for his fans who congregate at a 'Bring Back Kastoori' Facebook page and are actively seeking a venue. Join us!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Daily Dal Too: My Makhani

I've made Dal Makhani since the days of Pullens Soup Kitchen but my current Makhani recipe - an actual recipe, derived from KO Rassoi with reference to Manjula - is designed to fit my  baby-sized 1.5 litre Hawkins Classic aluminium pressure cooker and serves 2. Or me, twice. As with all dal, it's even better the second time. 
pop this little lot into your pressure cooker, missus.
110g urad (black gram lentils)
50g dry weight kidney beans  
- both must be soaked in cold water overnight.

In the bottom of the pressure cooker pan, over low heat:
* melt a dollop of ghee, or nub of butter
* add a thumb-sized nubbin of grated ginger
* and some roasted garlic, crushed,
* dana 'n' jeera (cumin & coriander)
* plus, I add a teaspoonful of my chilli jam, but you might use hari mirch,
chopped green chillis.

Mix the spices together in the butter, amalgamating the flavours before adding the soaked, strained beans and covering them with 450ml hot water, with an added pinch of baking powder. That's baking powder, which is baking soda mixed 1:2 with cream of tartar. A raising agent commonly used in cake baking, this powder is said to help the beans cook evenly and to eliminate flatulence for fart-free dal.

Before shutting the pressure cooker lid, I add a good dollop of tatlı biber salçası, sweet pepper paste, but you might use tomato puree, and one large roasted tomato, blended, or two tablespoons of shop-bought pasata or tomato 'n' chilli pasta sauce. 

Lock down the lid, turn up the heat and wait for the steam to release in a vicious hiss before dialling down the heat and cooking on for twenty minutes or so, allowing the steam to escape three more times.

After 15-20 mins, turn off the heat and leave it to cool while you nip out to score from the nan man.
What are you saying, there's no nan shop on your manor? 
OK, I understand and sorry it is that I am feeling for you, my under-privileged friend, but down in old East Lane - where Charlie Chaplin was born, nearly a Century before the tandoori arrived - a couple of taciturn brothers turn out x4 nan breads  for only one of your English pounds. 
Nip down the nan shop, by bicycle or skateboard, going the back way down Browning Street and through Nursery Row Park - shop is next to The Masons Arms - and back in 13 minutes flat. I might turn the griddle on before I go so it's hot when I get back, to crisp the breads. 

Gingerly, I release what steam remains and open the pressure cooker, stirring my dal makhani with a wooden spoon. Transfer it to be a saucepan, maybe add a splash of water if it's looking a bit thick, and finish the dal with cream, creme fraiche, or Greek yoghurt.

Get in!

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Camberwell Falafel Sadwich (sic)

Scene of the sadwich (sic)
I am glad to return to a routine of swimming regularly at the refurbished Camberwell Pool in Artichoke Place, which means that I have thoroughly renewed my acquaintance with sarf London's premier falafel purveyor, 'Falafel', the pertinently-named Lebanese fast food counter at 27 Camberwell Church Street.

Words can barely express my love for this place and its falafel sadwich (sic), which costs only three quid and goes down especially well with a cup of carrot juice, spiked with ginger, costing  another pound, for the perfect après swim snack. You would find me there every other day, soon after 4pm, but I am trying to reduce my sadwich (sic) ration to no more than two per week.

The Camberwell Falafel is easily the best of its breed on this side of the river - unless you know better? - but for my money it's every bit as good as the fabled falafel wrap of Ranoush, the juice bars of the mighty Maroush empire (which includes Beirut Express). Maroush has run the West End falafel trade for decades, Maoz notwithstanding.

I briefly ran a falafel stand myself, not too long ago, at the Pullens Yards Open Studios event in the Summer of 2010. I persuaded mi amigo, Carlo, to scoop chick pea paste into balls and deep-fry them in the fryer I inherited from Shaun Thomson, R.I.P. I deep fried my falafel in memorium Shaun. If I recall correctly, wily Carlo firmed up & filled out the chickpea paste we made with polenta.

We offered five golf-ball sized falafels, freshly fried, plus humus, crisp shredded white cabbage salad, with a judicious squirt of the crucial garlicky tahini sauce that is what everyone really loves about a McFalafel, all in a pitta pocket, for £4. Additionally, I ran a masticating juicer, churning out whole watermelon and strawberry juice for a further £2. Or a fiver for the combo. Which proved popular. 

Believe it or not, one snarky neighbour complained about our prices, compared to Ranoush, but he didn't recognise my business benchmark, which was Falafel King.  The King - or Shlomo, as the grumpy cabbage patch king of Portobello Dale is also known - serves his pitta pockets, judiciously-stuffed as above, for a fiver. And he gives good pickles. It is, however, more of a meal in a pitta - similar to the one Gaby Elyahou, the godfather of London felafel, has been proposing at Gaby's Deli on Charing Cross Road since 1965 - than a simple sadwich (sic).

The Camberwell Falafel sadwich (sic) does not purport to be dinner, but is more substantial than the Maroush model. It all begins with the falafel its good self and here the eponymous stars of the shop are displayed on a platter under the glass counter upon which you are advised not to lean. They are plump and perfectly-formed (as if pressed into shape by some contraption designed for the purpose) and have been deep-fried in back, beforehand, to be warmed in a microwave before getting wrapped into the sadwich (sic).

 Camberwell's happiest after-swimming snack.
You get three falafels, crushed, and wrapped up with chopped lettuce and onion, creamy humus/tahini, optional chilli + garlic sauce (never say no to more gravy!) rolled into a flat bread, then put into a sandwich press. Mario, on gets it bang on in his recommendation of adding a scoop of aubergine salad, 50p extra, into your standard £3 falafel wrap and washing it down with a cup of fresh carrot juice with a tinge of ginger, £1. That's £4.50 for the combo. I give 'em a fiver and feel like a prince.

And, Mario, m8, you don't need to be hungover for Falafel. It is right around the corner from the leisure centre & swimming pool, where the men's changing room has been closed for months. So we are obliged to use the family facilities, which invariably means the place is flooded with squealing eight year-olds in school uniform when one arrives and shouty mums with scads of snot-nosed tiny tots when one goes to leave.

This may not be the place to vent my feelings about Southwark's Fusion leisure facilities, but I stand as much chance of being heard here than if I complained through the official channels. I mean, how do you break a changing room? Well, obviously, you first must spend millions of quid on 'refurbishing' it.

Falafel on UrbanspoonConsider:  Shlomo, the Falafel King, advertises his product as bursting with happy energy, yet he rarely smiles. Falafel's overhead menu describes their product as a 'sadwich' and yet I have never left there not smiling. And I go there all the time. One day, that typo is going to be corrected and that will be the day this place puts its prices up, but I will forever delight in Falafel.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Daily Dal 101 - Toorism

Oily Toor dal - a.k.a. yellow pigeon peas (not yellow split peas) - is the pulse used in South India to make soupy sambar. Sia@MoonSpice tells a romanticised version of the tale of Udupi Sambar, declaring, 'for a foodie like me, Udupi is paradise. 

pau bhaji, sorta
I have been there - it's an overnight trip into Karnataka from South Goa on the train - and am sad to report that Udupi is foodie paradise well and truly lost. Or, maybe, the culture of Indian towns that make no appeal to foreigners doesn't easily reveal itself. Udupi is a tourist town, but the visitors are overwhelmingly Hindu pilgrims coming to worship at the Krishna Temple, where the cuisine that made Udupi famous was developed.
I picked up a copy of Udupi Cuisine by U.B.Rajalakshmi and dipping into it is like glimpsing a parallel world in which food is prepared by high caste priests as an act of worship, in accordance with Ayurvedic precepts, with different dishes prepared in different seasons, designed to prevent the diseases that are prevalent during, say, monsoon times. 

Ginger is OK, but onions and garlic cannot be offered to Krishna in case they make him angry or randy. They may be added later, as tarka, but are absent from the basic toor dal recipe, in which asafoetida is used for flavour used instead. So pungent that Germans call it Teufelsdreck – devil's dung - cooking this peculiar powder transforms its taste into something a bit like leek. Asafoetida is a digestive aid that is anti-flatulent and anti-microbial, with a range of medicinal applications.

If asafoetida gives this dal its distinctive flavour, its yellow colour comes from haldi, a root related to ginger. Turmeric aka haldi, is the distinctive yellowy orange powder that characterises Indian cooking with its peppery flavour and mustardy smell. It has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties;  turmeric paste may still be used in India as an antiseptic in open wounds.

The third vital spice in the mix that goes into this toor dal is kalonji. Erroneously called, 'onion seed', nigella sativa is apparently used in folk (herbal) medicine all over the world for the treatment and prevention of a number of diseases and conditions that include asthma, diarrhoea and dyslipidaemia! The seeds/oil have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, antimicrobial and antineoplastic properties while the oil decreases blood pressure and increases respiration. Verily, these tiny seeds are a pharmacological cornucopia!

In Manjula's Toor demo video, she calls kalonji, 'black mustard seeds' and refers to asafoetida as 'hing'. Manjula is pretty enthusiastic about salt, which I am not, and includes chilli powder as well as asafoetida whereas, in terms of flavour, I would prescribe one or t'other. As Manjula makes a couple of versions of toor dal, so too do I: one has asafoetida in its base and is finished with chopped coriander; the other has chilli and may be served with soothing yoghurt.

Most pertinently, Manjula uses a pressure cooker, which is the indispensable bit of kit for cooking dal of all types. Boiling one's dal in a saucepan takes a lot longer and it never quite seems to achieve the requisite creamy texture. If you haven't got a PC but have read this far then I am sorry to have dragged you down this cul de sac. I should have said something upfront. Or, you could just get one. Go on, it's the 21st century internet: have a pressure cooker delivered tomorrow. You won't regret it.

I use the smallest classic Hawkins, 1.5 litre, which is a handy size for a single person and easy to operate by a person with a single hand. Pressure cooking is always going to be an adventure, because you can't see what's going on, and it is somewhat dramatic when the valve emits a burst of steam, to the dog's alarm. He takes up a position by the front door when the pressure cooker starts hissing in the kitchen, primed to supervise the inevitable evacuation, when that demonic contraption goes critical.

Do not overfill your pressure cooker - you want it about a third empty - and remember to fully release the pressure before trying to open it and you can't go far wrong. After one or two experiments, you'll evolve your own basic dal. Here's mine:

A cup of oily toor dal, washed & drained. When I say, 'cup', I mean the coffee cup I use as a measure, which is 220ml. Use your own cup! When I say, 'washed', I mean soaked for at least half an hour in several changes of water.

under pressure
chilli spice mix
In the pressure cooker, over low heat, put:

* a dessert spoon of ghee, or nub of butter of similar size
* dessert spoon of grated fresh ginger
* bare (i.e.: flat) teaspoon of asafoetida/hing
* teaspoon of haldi/turmeric
* teaspoon of kalonji/nigella seeds

Mix the spices in the melting butter, add the dal, and cover with three cups of water. Seal the lid of the pressure cooker and turn up the heat. When the valve on the pressure cooker releases steam in a sudden hiss and the dog runs out of the room, reduce the heat to a minimum and continue cooking for another quarter of an hour or so, at least three steamings.

Turn the heat off under the cooker, but the contents will keep cooking under pressure. As this happens, you can make a tarka of fried onion , garlic, & spices to give it more oomph, or chop fresh coriander to stir into the finished dal for a more fragrant taste.

What I tend to do these days is leave the sealed PC while I nip out for nan or chapatis from the tandoor in East Street and finish it off upon my return ten minutes later.  You might cook rice, or serve your dal with a bread roll, like the pau bhaji in Goa.

When you feel the moment is right, release the pressure and open the lid of your cooker. If not quite cooked enough, return to the heat; if the cooked dal is too thick, add a drop of water. Boomshankah!