Throughout September, October, November and December, four chefs each take over the Demonstration Kitchen for one month, giving us the opportunity to explore their specialisms in greater depth than ever before. First up is Roopa Gulati on regional Indian cuisine. Clare Finney swings by the Cookhouse for a sneak preview of what Roopa has in store
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Regula Ysewijn
Difficult though it is to fathom, now that we’re in Borough Market’s Cookhouse watching her scatter spices and slice onions with an expert hand, but when she was a young girl, Roopa Gulati never wanted to cook Indian food. “Mum does samosas and biryanis all the time. It’s boring,” she thought, as she enrolled herself onto the Euro-centric Cordon Bleu.
She dreamed of baking: the soft Victoria sponges or fluffy butterfly cakes like those which flew out of her neighbour’s kitchen every Saturday in her Cumbrian hometown—not attacking the chapatti dough.
Only when she reached India, ready to take on the kitchens of hotel chains, did Roopa realise just how much there was to Indian cooking and what she had missed by not hanging out more in her own kitchen and watching her mum.
Value as a woman
Learning by the book was impossible: “In India, for many women, your value as a home cook historically lay in the quality of your cooking. Using a book was looked down upon”—as much in home as in the hotel restaurant, she explains.
Besides, until recently, very little has been actually written down. Her mum did her best, scribbling recipes down in a notebook and posting it to her, but in the end, it was by following chefs around the kitchen that she finally learnt—hence her month-long residency at Borough Market’s demo kitchen this September.
Not only is eating authentic Indian food more popular than ever before, but cooking it is too, despite—or perhaps because of—its technical complexities. Each Thursday lunchtime this September, Roopa Gulati will tick both these boxes by showcasing techniques and dishes from some of the country’s most interesting regions, and providing samples at the end.
She’s come to the Cookhouse to give us a sneak preview of the series by teaching samosas—the delicate Gujarati-style snacks rather than the plump Punjabi ones—and already I and my ‘classmates’ are beginning to appreciate the difference between reading a recipe for Indian food and being shown it: which oil to use, knowing which colour chilli to use (green, in this case, “for astringency”) and the merits of grinding your own cumin from whole seeds are just a few of the tips Roopa divulges, before the mushrooms, chilli and onion filling is even cooked through.
“Fry the mix until browned off and don’t wash mushrooms first. They leach like sponges,” she advises, reaching for her pot of homemade garam masala. As she adds it to the pan, she reels off the recipe for that and for her fresh, pale paneer. “It’s so easy. You can buy paneer, but there is no comparison. It tastes and feels like rubber.”
If you must buy it, she adds, immerse it in boiling water until it is soft and creamy again. She crumbles her own, perfect cheese into the now tantalisingly fragrant mixture, and gives it a stir. “Food isn’t just about flavour. It is about memory and nostalgia, and I am so pleased when I can tap into that.”
Her love of samosas, she says, came not from her Punjabi mother, but from a friend in India whose pilot brother one day brought this batch of small, delicately aromatic samosas from Gujarat back home to Delhi, where she lived at the time.
She’s made them ever since: “They are so easy,” she exclaims “and I’ve deliberately kept them that way here, with this recipe.” She might make her own paneer, but when it comes to the pastry, shop-bought samosa strips are both high quality and readily available.
“I grew up in rural Cumbria. Indian ingredients were non-existent. We’d come to London once a year and fill the car boot,” she recalls. Now you’ll find Indian shops and their samosa strips in most urban areas—and if you can’t, use spring roll pastry or filo and brush the sheets with butter.
Fly into a blender
We reach the folding part: Roopa’s taking charge of the mint relish, though it’s a simple enough recipe and we’re given it afterwards. Mint, lemon, garlic, cumin, a bit of salt, raw mango (“though a bramley apple works just well”) fly into a blender with splash of water “to help it on its way”.
Relish blitzed, she turns back to the folding class. Though she’s given clear instructions (“down for the first triangle, up for the second until you get a cone you can fill, then seal it”) some of us—well, me—are struggling somewhat. Roopa is reassuring: “I have to be honest, it took me ages to get the knack of it, but it is simple. You just have to turn your brain off and think ‘triangles’,” she grins. Duly repeating her, I seize another two sheets of pastry and have another go.
The pile builds quickly. By the time I’ve finished my third samosa, Roopa’s already deep frying the others. “180C is the temperature. Take care not to overcrowd them and keep the temperature steady, particularly if you’re cooking from frozen. Too hot, it burns.” They fry within minutes. As Roopa carefully lifts them out, the excitement is palpable. “Oh look! It’s your one!” someone shouts to me at the emergence of one slightly wonky, though still triangular, golden parcel. It is.
Dazzling green relish
I reach for it, dipping it in the dazzling green relish as I go, and take a steaming mouthful. Crunchy and creamy textures meld with the tangy, bright flavours, earthy mushroom and warm spice tripping over each other, and I seize one of Roopa’s recipe cards, taking careful note of all her September demo kitchen appearances. I will most definitely be trying this at home.
Join Roopa for tips, tastings and recipes on every Thursday in September in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm. For more information, click here.