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Thursday, 9 March 2017

Steamy nights on the Maharajah Express ... in Loughborough

Indian restaurant owner Mohammed Khaled has a passion for railways. So much so that on his last visit to his family’s home in Bangladesh he travelled from Dhaka to Chittagong by train. This wasn’t a conventional train journey though, he decided to do it Indian style sitting on the top of the carriage. “It was something I always wanted to do,” he explains. How on earth did he get up there? “It was easy – everyone reaches over and pulls you up,” he says. “The worst part was branches from the tree that kept hitting the carriage as we travelled along. Luckily, everyone up there realised I was from the UK and protected me!”

Having ridden the Indian railway (albeit inside the carriage), I can identify with Khaled’s desire to travel on the roof, experiencing the sense of freedom and romance afforded to those of us who don’t need to do so from necessity.

The mighty Indian railway is held close to the hearts of Indians and British alike. In India where more than three million people travel thousands of miles every day, the railway network is vital to connect such a vast country. Back in the UK however where trains are less important, Khaled has found another outlet to feed his love of railways: The Maharaja Express.

Named after the famous Maharajas’ Express, the world’s leading luxury and most expensive train that travels through India on tours of splendour and opulence, the new version chugs from Loughborough (no less worthy a location) to Leicester. During the course of the journey it takes in the splendours of Quorn and Woodhouse and the Edwardian Rothley Station, also passing beautiful countryside, picturesque reservoirs, quarries, bemused sheep, and the imposing premises of Joseph Ellis and Sons, Coke, Corn and Cake Merchants.

Khaled, who runs Salim’s Indian restaurant in Loughborough has been bringing Eastern Flavour to the Great Central Railway since 2009. The concept was created when the director of Great Central Railway visited Khaled’s restaurant and showed him some pictures of the train. At that time the service had on-board dining but served only traditional British food. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if people could have a curry on the train,” said Khaled. “I knew there was the train called the Maharjas’ Express in India with five-star dining so I thought, why not do a Maharaja Express in Loughborough?” He advertised online and in the railway office, and had a special sign board made to put on the front of the train, and, hey presto … the Maharaja Express on the Great Central Railway was born.

Now, a trip on the train, complete with a five-course dining experience, runs twice a year and Khaled tells me that tickets sell at least six months in advance.

Fortunately, he had two tickets left for us. Our arrival at the ticket office at Loughborough Central Station had connotations of platform 9 and ¾ where Harry Potter and his friends departed on the Hogwarts Express. However, rather than being transported to a school for wizards, we entered a time capsule which transported us back to a bygone age.

The Great Central Railway – a name that conjures up dreams of travel, new places and far destinations -  is Britain’s only double track mainline heritage railway with eight miles of working track. It was once part of the line from north to south, ending up at London’s Marylebone Station. Now, run entirely by volunteers, four stations have so far been restored to their former splendour: Loughborough Central, Quorn and Woodhouse, Rothley, and Leicester North.

The departure point at Loughborough is a fine example of a 1950s station complete with wooden panelled booking office, a glass, metal and wood canopy, shop, buffet, coal fires in the waiting room. There’s even an emporium selling bric-a-brac.

In the bar which could have doubled as the set for Brief Encounter, we were served drinks feeling as if we had stepped back in time to the glory days of the railway.

The star of the show, the engine puffed into sight, hissing steam, with all the movement, bustle and flurry that accompany the arrival of a royal guest. Railway buffs and travellers rushed to the front to inspect the mighty locomotive, resplendent with its Maharaja Express livery. Gaping into the hallowed cab we were invited up to meet the men of the moment, the driver and fireman. As we braved the tremendous heat from the fire which extended far into the footplate they told us a bit more about the train. It travels every weekend, day and night and selected dates during the week and is manned by volunteers numbering 40 firemen and 40 engineers, plus many support workers.

Back to the train we boarded the opulent Pullman style dining carriages with the smell of steam mingling with aromas of spices and freshly cooked curries accompanied by Indian music. The royal blue, padded seats were far more luxurious than those found on any modern express train. Tables were laid with immaculate white table cloths with Villeroy and Bosch cutlery, illuminated by the soft glow of Edwardian table lamps. Rosewood surrounds were complete with service buttons. Curtained windows with sliding tops brought back childhood memories of how you had to slam the windows shut whenever a train entered a tunnel to avoid a sudden onslaught of soot. Happy days!  

Smartly turned out staff brought us out poppadoms with an assortment of chutneys, lime pickles and fresh tasting raitas. Then, with a blast of the whistle we were off, chugging past suburbs of Loughborough, past factories, and into the countryside with distant views of Charnwood Forest.

Starters arrived: a trio of crispy onion bhaji, vegetable samosa and aloo pakora and were soon despatched. Khaled arrived on the scene, chatting to diners, many of whom had been on the trip several times. Khaled told us about his very first experience of catering on the Maharaja Express in 2009. “It was a crazy night!” he remembered. “We had booked three coaches of 42 people which meant that we had to serve 126 customers. The kitchen was different then with hardly any space and not designed for producing Indian food which created some problems. Unfortunately, by the time we got to serve the last coach we had to skimp on the portions as we had underestimated the amount of ingredients required. Needless to say, there was no way we could nip out to the supermarket to get more. Still, everyone had a great time but ever since then we make sure we only do two coaches!”

With five back-of-house staff working away in the kitchen carriage, there were seven at front-of-house, some of whom were employed by the railway itself. Service was remarkably efficient. Khaled told us that his restaurant in Loughborough was also busy so with some of the staff on the train, it’s a logistical nightmare, but well worth the effort. “People love the experience. In fact, our fame has spread and we now have visitors coming from Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and all over the world.”

On this night, there were no worries about skimping on portions. Our main courses arrived. From a choice of four menu options, the Lamb Rogan Josh was very tasty and tender topped with chilli, lemon and coriander, and the Butter Chicken had just the right level of sweetness, all served with a perfect mound of pilau rice and vegetables. Outside the night darkened. Past Quorn and Woodhouse station we crossed Swithland Reservoir. Some of the best views on the journey were sadly lost at night, but during the day, the train pauses on the viaduct for passengers to take in the spectacular scenery across the reservoir towards Brazil Island, a popular location for birdwatching.

Leaving Leicester North Station, the train picked up speed for the return journey,
rattling along through embankment and cuttings, before stopping at Rothley where passengers were able to stretch their legs on the gas-lit platform. Indian desserts were served on the way back, with authentic Chocolate barfi flavoured with coconut and cardamom, and deliciously sweet, freshly fried, bright orange Jalebis. Coffee and tea with mints provided a night cap with a good selection of wines and spirits along the way. And just in case you were wondering … “These are the nicest train toilets I have ever seen,” reported my companion, who having recently returned from Cambodia was perhaps a little starry eyed. And indeed, they were.

The Maharaja Express at The Great Central Railway in association with Salim’s Restaurant in Loughborough runs on selected dates throughout the year. To book your tickets call 01509 632323

Mohammed Khaled in his restaurant Salim's in Loughborough

Monday, 13 February 2017

Unusual spices in curry: Asafoetida

Germans call Asafoetida Teufelsdreck, which means devil’s dung, because of its extremely pungent, sulphurous smell. Its aroma and flavour can be a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but when the spice is added to hot ghee, sizzling in the pan, the oniony musky aroma is evocative of aromatic Indian cooking and Indian restaurants everywhere. In fact, just a small pinch of asafoetida will enhance the taste of any fish or vegetable dish and it’s used extensively in curries, pickles, and daals.

There are two main varieties of Asafoetida: Hing Kabuli Sufaid (milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (red asafoetida). The spice is a resinous gum which is obtained from the stem and roots of certain species of giant fennel tree which, in India, are grown in Kashmir and some parts of the Punjab. A greyish milky resin is collected, then dried in the sun. As the resin dries, it hardens and becomes amber in colour, darkening to red and eventually brown.

Asafoetida is most widely used in powdered or granulated form or is sometimes sold in lumps that need to be crushed. It’s usually best kept in airtight containers to avoid the strong odour infiltrating the room or cupboard.

The spice adds depth and texture to dishes, especially if used with aromatics like cumin, chillies, ginger and garlic. Best flavours are obtained by adding the asafoetida into the hot ghee, allowing it to incorporate for about 15 seconds before putting in the other spices. Once cooked the spice has a roasted garlic aroma and truffle-like flavour.

Asafoetida appears mainly in South and West Indian dishes. It’s an important ingredient in Indian vegetarian cooking, often used in dishes of the Brahmin and Jain castes where onions and garlic are forbidden.

Historically it has been used in medicines as a remedy for asthma and bronchitis and to treat impotency, mood swings and depression. In India, women sometimes eat it after childbirth mixed with ghee and rice to prevent the baby from getting colic. Added health benefits are that it can be used to enhance digestion and reduce flatulence.

Souvlaki with Pita Bread

 Recipes from alternative-athens.com


Serves: 3 - 4 persons

  • 1 kg of chicken or pork cut in cubes with 2.5cm sides
  • 6 Pita breads
  • Juice of 4 lemons
  • Salt, pepper and oregano for seasoning
  • Some fresh onion rings
  • Slices of fresh tomato
  • 6 wooden skewers
  • Tzaziki (see recipe here below)
  • Olive oil


1. Pass the pork meat cubes through the wooden skewers, salt and pepper them.
2. Cook over a barbecue fire, on a skillet or under an oven grill.
3. In the meantime, spread some oil on the pitas and place them under the oven grill, browning slightly each side, but not drying them.
4. When the meat is done, dip the skewers in a tall glass containing the lemon juice
5. Hold a pita bread in one hand and empty the meat cubes in it, by removing the skewer.
6. Sprinkle with oregano and salt, add tzaziki, some onion rings and tomato slices and then roll the pita and fold it with a piece of baking sheet. Your souvlaki is ready!

Greek pita bread


  • 2 tea spoons dried yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 1/3 - 1 1/2 cup of warm water
  • 500 gr. Flour
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil


1) Mix the yeast with the sugar and ½ of the cup of water. Let it rest for 5 min. It will start to rise.
2) Mix the flour with the salt. Make a hole in the centre and pour in the oil, the other ½ cup of warm water and the yeast.
3) Knead, adding as much water as it is needed in order to have a soft, pliable and non sticky dough.
4) Place the dough in a well greased pan and turn it so it is greased from all sides. Cover the pan with film and wait for 1 ½ h in order to rise.
5) Press and shape the dough in order to have small pita breads of 15cm diameter and 1cm thickness. Coat with olive oil and leave them to rest.
6) Make parallel shapes
7) Bake at 230οC for 5-7 minutes, they should not be totally baked. When they are at room temperature, put them in plastic bags and in the freezer.
8) When needed, defreeze and coat with olive oil, both sides. Fry or grill and sprinkle with salt and oregano.


(Yoghurt dip)


Serves: 4 servings 

  • 1 kilo strained yoghurt (10% fat)
  • 1 cucumber, unpeeled
  • 4 garlic cloves (more gives a stronger taste)
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 cup finely chopped dill
  • ½ cup finely chopped spearmint
  • salt


1. Grate the cucumber, salt it and let it drain for 15 minutes.
2. Squeeze the cucumber until all its water is removed.
3. Grate the garlic and mix it (beat it) with salt until it becomes creamy.
4. Put the yoghurt into a bowl and add the cucumber, the vinegar, the garlic, the oil, the dill and the spearmint.
5. Whiz the contents until all the ingredients are well mixed.

6. Serve cold.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Epic Greek Food

It was a rainy day in Athens (yes, believe it or not … it happens!). So, we went on an odyssey through the city's streets and alleys with Alternative Athens tours sampling all the foods that make Greek cuisine epic …

Greece is in the middle of an economic crisis, but it doesn’t feel that way – in Athens the restaurants and bars are packed to the gunnels and not just with tourists. It’s the Greek way of responding to austerity explained our taxi driver, Michail. “If a Greek person only has 10 euros left, he’d rather go out and spend it in a coffee shop or restaurant than sit at home being miserable.” As Euripides said: “When a man’s stomach is full it makes no difference if he is rich or poor.”

In Greece, food is an important part of the culture, inextricably linked to family and celebration of life. Rooted in mythology, tradition and religion, the Greek diet is also healthy, associated with longevity, reduction of heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, allergies, lack of birth defects and numerous other health benefits.

So, how do you eat like a Greek? Tanya Fiore, our guide from Alternative Athens Tours, met us in Thissio close to the centre of the city to show us how. A fluent English speaker having studied at Brighton University, she was young, enthusiastic, charming and … very wet! We huddled together under our umbrella (formerly known as the sunshade) and splashed off through the puddles.

First stop was on Agiou Filippou, where we sampled a vital part of Hellenic culture: Greek coffee.  The rustic taverna was one of a few of older establishments in Athens where the drink was still prepared and served in the traditional manner. Greek coffee is the same as Turkish coffee, though it’s not advisable to make that observation in Greece as the name was changed after the Turks invaded Cyprus back in 1974. It’s a brew of pure caffeine, so thick and sweet you could stand a spoon in it, and is considered the fundamental start to the day.  Made, as we witnessed, in a careful and loving manner, the freshly ground coffee beans are gently heated over coals in a long-handled, small copper pot called a briqi. The resulting brew, which comes in varying degrees of strength and sweetness, has a foamy top, and is best sipped very slowly.

It’s common to see the older men sitting outside cafes, playing board games and whiling away the morning with a Greek coffee. Apparently younger Greeks prefer the variety of espressos, cappuccinos, mochaccinos and (delicious) iced fredos on offer in trendy bars and urban coffee shops. Certainly, authentic Greek coffee is an acquired taste. After a silty demitasse of the stuff, my tongue was slightly furry - but on the plus side, I was wide awake. 

Tania told us there was a longstanding tradition amongst older folk to read the grounds left at the bottom of the cup and she could remember her own grandmother twisting the cup three times in a clockwise direction to glean what the future had in store.

For us, the future was a visit to the bakery in Pittaki, a once prosperous street become derelict, now re-vitalised with cool, urban graffiti and an eclectic array of lights, chandeliers and lanterns donated by the people of Athens, that dangled from overhead wires. Belying its hole-in-the-wall façade, the bakery provided freshly baked fare for most of the city’s restaurants and shops including the ubiquitous bread snack we had come to sample – Koulouria. Sold by food vendors everywhere, Koulouria is shaped in a ring. Its outside is covered in crunchy, toasted sesame seeds and the centre is soft and slightly chewy. As Tania explained, Kolouria’s importance as a snack is due to the Greeks’ rather idiosyncratic eating pattern. Because they eat so late, dining at 9pm or later, many people wake up still feeling full, hence on the way to work they may grab a Koulouria or pastry to tide them over till lunch at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, after which they may have a

tapas-like snack or dessert, after which they start all over again. At lunch, they tend to eat things that are baked, such as moussaka or Stifado whereas in the evening, it’s more likely they will eat food that is prepared there and then.

We discovered that there is nothing Greeks like better than a pie or pastry (it’s a miracle how they remain so slim, maybe because they also eat a lot of fruit and drink copious amounts of water). Our next destination was the famed Meliortos, a contemporary bakery, café and dessert shop. Here, we sampled some of Greece’s most famous products
including the famous Tiropita or cheese pie made with three different types of cheese wrapped in filo pastry. We tasted an exquisite Elixir jasmine flavoured vinegar you could down by the spoonful; Taxini tahini paste made from toasted sesame seeds; local honey produced from species of thyme, and the Greek equivalent of Turkish delight (presumably also re-named). A new one on us was the Mastic, an aromatic resin found only on the island of Chios, used in Greek breads, desserts and, interestingly, to make chewing gum (which explains the origin of the word ‘masticate’). Top marks went to the velvety Pamako extra virgin olive
oil, the base of most Greek dishes.  Although Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil in the world, Greeks are not so good at marketing and exporting the product as European rivals, Italy and Spain. In current economic times, you can’t help thinking this is a shame. And if, like me, you’ve ever wondered if it’s worth paying more for the extra virgin version, listen up. Extra virgin oil is made without the use of any artificial processes, with the oil pressed from only the olive fruit itself. As it’s not treated with chemicals, it not only tastes better, it also retains more natural vitamins and minerals.

At Thessaloniki at Psiri, a bakery, come coffee shop, come bar in the heart of edgy Iroon Square, we discovered the queen of the Greek desserts - the 
Bougatsa, a filo pastry with a sweet cream custard centre. We watched in awe as a chef rolled out and tossed pastry around as if he was changing feather-light sheets on a bed. Coffee shops like Thessaloniki are relatively new, Tania told us, as for a man to pay money for cakes back in the day when the women’s place was in the kitchen, was tantamount to admitting his wife was a bad cook – probably the worst insult any lady (or husband) could get.  

We forged onwards, through more colourful streets, towards the famous food quarter of Athens, pausing at Miran, a charcuterie with a frontage festooned with dangling sausages and hams. Greeks love cured meats and cheeses and inside we found out why. A wooden platter of delights awaited with Armenian Soutzouki made of air-dried veal meat; Pastourma from veal or camel meat; strong-tasting bull meat products from the Kerkini region; dolmades and local cheese, all washed down with a cheek pulsating,  honey-flavoured raki.

A couple of doors further down the spice shop beckoned. Resembling an old apothecary, every spice and herb imaginable was stashed away in glass fronted drawers so the rich colours could be seen. Spiky chilli and garlic bulbs cascaded down walls. Dried herbs hung in bundles over the counter crammed with an assortment of bottles and packets. Herbs grow abundantly in Greece but the most loved is oregano, widely used in meat dishes, sauces, soups and salads. Thyme is another favourite for flavouring meats and honey. Spicy food is not so common,
although black pepper is used extensively.  However, paprika and saffron are popular and Allspice gives meats and desserts an exotic flavour. Cumin is also added to spicy meatballs called soutzoukakia whilst sweet cloves and cinnamon flavour many desserts.

Through the alleys of Varvakios, we proceeded to the central market known as the “belly of
Athens” the Dimitoki Agora. 

Bordered by Ahinas and Sofokleous Streets, the covered meat market surrounds the fish stalls with fruit and vegetables across the street. The atmosphere was chaotic and lively. Above the din, merchants called out their prices, voices echoing, meat cleavers chopping. Single traders from villages perched on boxes selling herbs or garlic amidst rows of stalls packed with cheeses, olives, spices and sweets. Meat counters displayed a horrific selection of animal parts: pigs’ feet, calf’s heads, brains and intestines, with carcases hanging above. In the fish market, vendors were selling all manner of seafood from the Aegean and Mediterranean, with others imported from as far as China, Portugal and North Africa. As the floor was awash with fishy substances, we congratulated ourselves on not wearing sandals. We tried the olives, so many different types, so plentiful. The black and burnished Kalamata, cracked ones from Peloponnese, rose pink olives like grapes, bright green Halkidikis, shrivelled varieties that resembled raisins, and nutty olives from the Island of Thassos recommended as an accompaniment to a glass of ouzo.

Most restaurants in Athens source ingredients daily from the Agora which explains why the food always tastes so fresh.  You can pick out your fish and have it cooked there and then in the basic restaurants in the market. These establishments are also famous for their soup made from the foot of a cow, popular with late night visitors as a reputed hangover cure, while the Patsa, a broth made from the intestines of a pig, is said to aid conditions of indigestion, bad blood or overindulgence. We took note for later.

Fruit is an important part of the Greek diet. At the end of a meal it is customary for restaurants to serve a complimentary plate of fresh orange, pears or grapes rather than a pudding (which is usually enjoyed at a separate time of the day). The end of the fruit and vegetable market led to the beginning of Athens’ China Town, and the Indian and Pakistani neighbourhoods of the city where The Royal Curry House on Omonia Square served a multi-cultural mix of dishes from Indian, Bangladesh, Pakistani, Chinese, Arabic and Thai cuisines. It was tempting but we had to stick to our remit of ‘eating like a Greek’.

As no food had passed our lips in at least 15 minutes, we stopped for an energy boost at
Krinos on Aiolou Street 87. Established in 1923, Krinos is the oldest shop of its kind in Athens and specialises in Loukoumades; a sweet pastry from fried dough, like a doughnut, served hot and crispy on the outside and fluffily doughy on the inside. Combined with cinnamon, honey, hot chocolate nuts or cheese, they were mouth-meltingly delicious.

In fact, they were so delicious that the grand finale of our trip was in danger of being overshadowed. At Plateaia Agias Eirinis in a place Tania said remained unchanged since she was a little girl, we ended our epic Greek food Odyssey. At Kostas, a ramshackle, father-and-son run kebab shop, hardly discernible under its camouflage of billboards and posters, people lined up to enter one at a time to order the best souvlakis in town. Greece’s favourite fast food, these souvlakis were as far removed from t he congealed British kebab of dubious provenance as a Bockwurst from a battered sausage. It was hard work forcing down the warm homemade pitta bread bulging with fresh tomatoes, oregano sprinkled salad and succulent grilled pork, smothered in Kostas’s special rich tomato sauce … but we did it!

Our fantastic tour was with Alternative Athens Tours. For further information visit www.alternativeathens.com

Friday, 26 August 2016

Recipe for Prawn Balichow by Chef Asharaf Valappil of Strand Palace Hotel

Authentic home-style Indian food and a touch of fine dining are the speciality of Asharaf Valappil, sous chef at Strand Palace’s Indian restaurant, Daawat.

Asharaf’s cooking is influenced by the rich culinary heritage of Kerala, his homeland in south-western India, otherwise known as the ‘Land of Spices, so his repertoire of dishes explodes with spice and rich flavour.

Also experienced in regional Indian, Asian, Thai and Italian cuisine, Asharaf works alongside Strand Palace’s head chef, Martin Lynch, to recreate dishes from regions including the Indian Malabar coast, Goa, Kashmir, and the Punjab.

Asharaf even offers an exotic version of very English Afternoon Tea or High Chai – a mix of spicy savouries, traditional Indian cakes, or dainty delicacies including good old British scones with a generous dollop of cream. Simply spiffing!

Prawn Balichow Recipe


  • 100ml                         Vegetable oil
  • 800 grams                  Prawns with shells
  • 3                                 Plum tomatoes finely chopped
  • 5 grams                      Turmeric powder
  • 300 grams                  Banana shallots
  • 10 grams                    Ginger garlic paste
  • 1 sprig                        Curry leaves (optional)
  • 3                                 Cloves
  • 1 tsp                           Black mustard seeds
  • 2 small sticks             Cinnamon
  • 3                                 Red chillies (less if you prefer mild)
  • 100ml                         Malt vinegar
  • 20 grams                    Sugar
  • ¼ tsp                          Salt


Spring onion
Chopped coriander


Clean the prawns and remove their shells, then put to one side

Heat a pan and add 25 ml oil, the turmeric powder and prawns. Cook until the prwns are a light golden colour.

Next add the tomato, ginger, garlic paste, cinnamon cloves, red chillies and vinegar  into a bowl and blend.

Heat a heavy based pan with 75 ml oil for tempering, then add the mustard seeds and curry leaves.

Add the chopped shallots and sauté until golden.

Add the paste, cover and cook over a slow flame for 10 minutes until the oil begins to separate from the gravy.

Add the prawns and cook for 6-8 minutes until the prawns are thoroughly cooked, then add the salt and sugar.

Garnish with chopped coriander and finely chopped spring onion.

Serve with steamed rice.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The Best British Chicken Tikka Masala by Chef Azadur Rahman

The Bangladeshi-born executive chef at London’s Red Fort in Soho, Azadur Rahman, has worked in close association with founder Amin Ali, since 1983. In that time he has cooked for hundreds of illustrious people including former prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Steve Jobs, Sir Richard Attenborough and a whole host of visiting Indian stars such as actress Aishwarya Rai and cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. He once even rustled up a takeaway for President of the United States, Barack Obama! Here is Azadur’s recipe for the definitive Chicken Tikka Masala as showcased at the recent Taste of Britain Festival in New Delhi. His inspired take on the ubiquitous fusion dish is probably the best you’ll ever taste.

Recipe for British Chicken Tikka Masala


  • 1 kg boneless chicken (skin removed)
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tsp red chill powder (adjust to suit your taste)
  • 1 cup fresh yoghurt (must not be sour)
  • 2 tsps garam masala
  • 2 tsps coriander powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder
  • 8-10 peppercorns
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • Seeds from 3-4 pods of cardamom
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 8-10 almonds
  • 2 onions chopped
  • 2 tsps garlic paste
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • ½ litre chicken stock
  • 3 tbsps vegetable/canola/sunflower cooking oil
  • 3 tbsps butter
  • Salt to taste
  • Coriander leaves to garnish

    1. Mix the chicken, lime juice, salt and red chilli powder in a owl and allow to marinate for 1 hour
    2. Roast the cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves and almonds till they darken slightly and then grind into a coarse powder
    3. Mix the yoghurt, whole spice powder and all the other spices together and add them to the chicken
    4. Allow to marinate for another hour
    5. Heat the oil in a pan and add the onions. Fry till golden brown and then add the ginger and garlic paste. Fry for a minute
    6. Add only the chicken from the chicken-spice mix and fry till sealed (chicken will turn opaque)
    7. Now add the chicken stock and remaining part of the mix to the chicken
    8. Cook till the chicken is done and the gravy is reduced to half its original volume
    9. Melt the butter and pour it over the chicken
    10. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves
 Serves 6 persons

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Indian YMCA: a taste of India in London

There’s a place in London where you can you find chicken curry, rice and poppadoms for less than £5 … and it’s not in Brick Lane.

London’s best kept secret, The Indian YMCA, is tucked away at the corner of sleepy Fitzroy Square. With faded Georgian residences once owned by artists and statesmen, the peaceful surroundings feel a hundred miles from the seething West End. In fact, the hostel is a five minutes’ walk from Warren Street tube station and Soho is just a stone’s throw to the south.

From the outside, the building is not particularly prepossessing; fifties architecture was never the best, although this one has in fact gained listed status for the design in contrasting brick and stone. But its history is prestigious. The YMCA has been providing a safe haven for Indian students coming to London to study ever since 1920. It is the only one of its kind outside India and was the first mixed hostel in London. Its existence is a shining example of how international bonds of cultural understanding and friendship can be formed which have withstood the test of time.

The YMCA Indian Student Hostel (to give it its full name), was founded by the first Indian National General Secretary of the National Council of YMCAs in India, Mr K T Paul, who was an advocate of Indo-British understanding. Reflecting the YMCA’s overall mission to aid the spiritual, mental and physical welfare of young people “regardless of caste, colour, sex or race”, the non-profit YMCA ISH became an important cultural centre, initiating scholarship programmes and hosting political debates on Indian affairs. Sir Arthur Yapp, who sanctioned the use of the first premises of the YMCA ISH, described it as a “little bit of India in Britain” in which “England may be welcome and may learn.”

In the years leading up to Indian Independence, the hostel (then located in Gower Street), was visited by luminaries and leading figures including India's famous poet, RabindranathTagore, and Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose and even Mahatma Gandhi in 1931.

When Tagore visited he spoke to the students, quoting from his moving poem Sunset of the Century written on the last day of the 19th century, an indictment of nationalism that is still relevant today:

Be not ashamed, My brothers, to stand
Before the Proud and powerful with
Your White Robes of Simpleness.
Let your Crown of Humility, Your Freedom,
Build God’s Throne daily upon the ample
Bareness of your poverty
And knowing what is Huge is not Great, and
Pride is not everlasting.
The IYMCA was bombed in the Second World War but with the help of the University of London and a grant from the War Damages Commission, a foundation stone was laid for the new premises in Fitzroy Square in 1953. The new building was described as a “monument to Indian Independence”. In the same year, the Indian YMCA was visited by the first Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Jawharlal Nehru who gave it his blessing. Since then it has hosted many political and royal visitors including HRH Prince Charles and HRH Princess Alexandra.

On the day of my own visit however, the company was less exalted. On entering the foyer, the only form of life seemed to be the two young men behind the reception desk whose heads were barely visible over the counter.  Two rather more visible marble heads mounted on plinths; those of the founder KT Paul and the former General Secretary, Dr SD Malaiperuman, formed a stern welcoming committee from behind their cordoned off shrine. Overall, there was a feeling of calm and wellbeing in the sunlit entrance that was welcoming and homely.

In the adjoining room, lunch time and dinner, served within a strict time scale, offered a very different scenario. The canteen-like restaurant suddenly fills up with people from all walks of life:  Indian students, business people, Fitzrovians, bewildered visitors, and seasoned regulars, eating, chatting, discussing politics, food, literature, or maybe just last night’s TV, mopping up hearty curries with home-made Indian bread under fluorescent lights.

Cooked fresh by local chefs, the daily menu offers the kind of authentic food found on the Indian subcontinent in roadside cafes, universities, coffee houses or public buildings. Warming meat curries are cooked on the bone with tasty fish curries, freshly rolled chappatis, homely daals, bhajis, and fresh fruit lassi drinks. You just queue up and select what you want before bagging a place at formica communal tables. As in restaurants in India, hands are washed before and after eating in the sinks behind screens. Dishes range from £1.50 to £3.50. Lunch is a la carte whilst the evening meal is a set price buffet.

Short term stays are available from £55 a night, or even £30 if you’re willing to share a dormitory. Long term stays can be arranged for Indian students and trainees who are looking for a taste of home in the UK. Visit the website www.indianymca.org to find out more.

Indian YMCA

41 Fitzroy Square, London, UK W1T 6AQ