There is a lady called Nisha Katona who has fast become one of my heroes. Not just as a food hero, but as a hero in general. Her food is stunning, and her attitude to business, people and life…well, it’s safe to say that I admire her greatly.
She posted something on Instagram recently that made me tear up a bit.
I knew what she meant, and felt it myself in my younger years, that my kitchen was much more strong smelling than other British ones I visited but it still made me sad that people should still feel that inadvertent yet ingrained shame about the smells of their own culture’s food. This is a screenshot from Nisha’s Instagram feed; she owns a string of Mowgli restaurants that have taken the Indian food scene by storm, and rightly so. People love her food, proper home cooking, her family recipes, the real street food, out there for all to see and taste and smell. But even with all that success, all the love for her food, even she gets that knee jerk wince.
You see, Fenugreek is that herb, that smell. I think it’s what people in this country classified as ‘the curry smell’. Fenugreek is a clinger. The loud, vivacious friend that you really love having around, because it’s not a party without them, but who never takes the hint that now might be the time when you really want to go to bed. They just…stay. Not in the way as such, but just…there.
It has been a bit of a bone of contention for many. Its very nature is to cling, to envelope the kitchen, the house and the curtains with its scent. It simply wants to be in everything, to be everywhere that you are.
My friends at school often apologised for ‘smelling Indian’. When I went to some houses, they actively winced when the door opened.
Nisha, and her cuisine, and her Maa of course, are beauties in my eyes. The cuisine always has been, for as far back as I can remember, going to school as I did with people of all Indian creeds and colours. And yes, I do remember a friend apologising for the smell of her house, but little did she know how exciting I found it, how tantalising. I’ve never forgotten her downcast, awkward face as she said it, or the huge, white-toothed smile almost splitting her face in two when I said I didn’t care because I wanted to eat what she cooked, find out all about it, and learn how to do it myself.
I know how hard it is to be one of the only brown kids, and to have your lunch peered at and gawked at, but now thank god, I care not a jot. I have berated many a person for calling out ‘Yuk’ on another person’s food, and will never hesitate to do so again. I’ve had my fill of people who call houmous ‘tile grout’, and who wrinkle their noses at stuffed vine leaves or feta. The same goes the other way too. Fie on those who dismiss English food as all bland, or all brownbeige. Just because you are not used to it, doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you try it and don’t like it, fine! But don’t dismiss it out of hand if you’ve never even tasted it.
Nisha and others have brought delicious Indian home cooking out of the kitchen and into the mainstream, where it should take its rightful place, and for that I love and admire them wholeheartedly.
This is a dish that I cooked the day after I read Nisha’s post. I think I was feeling rather defiant. Call it a tribute. A very tasty tribute.
Fenugreek Fried Chicken
5 chicken thighs, skin on
3 tbs gram flour
2 tbs coarse semolina
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp salt
1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
Oil for frying
Put 2cm of vegetable oil into a deep, straight-sided pan with a lid and heat until very hot: a cube of bread should brown almost immediately (about 170C).
Mix the flours and spices together in a plastic bag, then pop the chicken pieces in.
Roll them around in the spiced flours until thoroughly coated.
Put the chicken in one layer in the pan (you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of the pan) and cover. Turn the heat right down and simmer for 6 minutes, then turn the chicken pieces over, cover again and cook for another 6 minutes. Prepare a rack to drain the chicken.
Uncover, turn the heat up again, and fry the chicken until it's a deep golden colour on all sides. Transfer to the rack and blot with kitchen paper. Allow to cool slightly before serving. It does stay crispy for quite a while, but it’s much nicer when still hot and juicy.