During lockdown everyone has found a different way to stay sane and keep busy. If you’re a writer like me there really has been no excuse to not get on with it. Except I’ve found that quite hard. House unusually full and busy, no ‘quiet’ moment in the day, nowhere to escape to like the local café for a change of scenery. No, lockdown has not been easy, but I have taken solace in the time I have found myself in the kitchen preparing meals like a restaurant with a loyal but small cliental. Trying not to cook the same dish in a week, being creative with ingredients, remember the pasta/tinned tomatoes/egg shortages of the early weeks?
Well cookery books have come into their own. I’m fortunate to own quite a few (I do write about food, so I think it’s allowed). There are many roads to go down but one less travelled is Indian. I think this is because it can be notoriously difficult to get the balance right, we’ve all been out for a great Indian meal and tried to recreate it at home only to produce lacklustre results. Well, all is not lost. I discovered the marvellous Easy Indian Cookbook by Manju Malhi. Manju has been cooking from knee-high in her mother’s kitchen and spent part of her childhood in India. She has honed her expertise from years of developing recipes creating her own Brit-Indi style and has worked in some fantastic professional kitchens along the way. She’s no stranger to TV either and has a BBC cooking series coming later this year and teaches her culinary skills online via zoom.
What makes Manju’s book so pertinent is that Indian food is so flavoursome, spicy and interesting, it’s perfect for now. Another little secret I’ll let you into is that while the shelves of beans and pasta were a tumbleweed of retail the spice shelves were still packed with goodies. Spices can liven up the dreariest foods, in her book Manju makes it so easy to do just that.
Firstly, I must point out that Manju is faithful to flavour and tradition, she just has a knack of making it easier and quicker to get there. The book has over 70 recipes to keep you busy in this month of Sundays. Demystifying techniques this superb book enables the reader to immerse themselves in the world of Indian cuisine. The photography is great too, it’s clear and precise, showing you what the food should look like not what a wonderful Aga there is in the background.
The best way to review any cookbook is to try a recipe or two. I was taken with the simplicity of Chicken Breasts Marinated in Pickling Spices. Trust me the title is longer than the process. It’s a dish from northern India and uses many of the whole spices traditionally used to make pickles. The use of mustard oil will give a rich depth but it’s not essential so vegetable oil will do just as well. To make meal for four you’ll need the following:
4 tbsp sunflower oil
4 dried red chillies
½ tsp brown mustard seeds
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ nigella seeds
2 onions chopped
5cm piece of root ginger, peeled and grated
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp turmeric
500g boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped into bite-sized pieces
250ml or 1 cup of natural yoghurt, whisked
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over a medium-high heat. Add the chillies and the mustard, fenugreek, cumin, nigella and fennel seeds and fry, stirring constantly, for 20 seconds or until the seeds splutter. Watch carefully so they do not burn.
- Tip in the onions and fry, stirring, for 6-8 minutes until they are golden brown. Stir in the ginger, garlic and turmeric.
- Add the chicken pieces and continue frying for a further 8-10 minutes until the chicken colours on the outside. Bring 185ml water to the boil while the chicken cooks.
- Stir in the yoghurt, followed by the boiling water. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and leave the mixture to simmer for 5 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Check by cutting a piece of chicken in half – the juices should run clear.
Sprinkle over the lemon juice and simmer for a further 2 minutes, or until droplets of oil appear on the surface. Serve hot.
This will take only 10 minutes to prepare and 25-30 to cook. It’s delicious served with rice, making a fabulous meal. There are plenty of other simple tasty dishes like buttery spinach and potatoes or spiced rice that would match this perfectly.
The other great thing about this book is that Manju has taken all the hard work out of menu planning. There’s a section at the end of the book (presumably when you’ve worked your way through the dishes) that shows you what will work with what. No bad thing, as it’s easy to overload a table with rich food, she provides the balance. And that’s what is book is all about, balance, a must for any Indian novice and expert alike. I really enjoyed getting stuck into this book because it lacks any pretension or mystique, it’s all about the food, just as it should be.
For more information about Manji Malhi please visit: www.manjumalhi.com
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass