This post was first published as a guest post on Maunika Gowardhan's Cookinacurry blog back in June.
You know how people sometimes talk about second generation immigrants as slightly lost souls - neither entirely comfortable in the land from whence their parents came nor completely integrated into the land of their birth?
Well, that's not me.
I was born in London in the early seventies to two doctors who emigrated from India a few years before I was born. My sister came along 3 years (and five minutes) later. Throughout our childhood, we were brought up to have a strong connection to our relatives in India – indeed we visited them every few years, which we loved. But we were also brought up as British kids, free to take onboard our local culture, without the stricter cultural and behavioural strictures that many other second generation children were, in my admittedly subjective opinion, shackled with.
That applied to food too – mum regularly cooked Indian food but she also taught herself Italian, French, Chinese and, of course, British dishes from cookery books and by trial and error. We probably had Indian food once or twice a week, if that. And we travelled a lot too, in our holidays, to wonderfully exotic places and mum would often bring home a recipe or two such as peanut soup from South America, something she still makes today.
What all this boils down to is that, whilst we'd often help mum in the kitchen, we never really learned to cook Indian food in any meaningful way – we didn't pick up the techniques, the instinctive use of spices and wide repertoire of dishes that we might have resulted from a more traditional upbringing.
(Of course, I think my parents got it absolutely right – I feel a pride in my extra cultural heritage, I am very happy in my brown skin, I will always cherish my links with India. But I am first and foremost British).
When I went to university, I soon realised I could more readily cook a roast beef dinner than a keema curry and turned to mum for help when I needed an Indian fix, phoning for recipes and snatches of advice during term time or bending her ear during trips home. A few years later, my sister and I both implored mum to write down all our best-loved of her Indian recipes in a more organised manner, so that we might stand a chance of perfecting our family favourites.
Mum started laboriously writing recipes onto index cards, two copies of each, of course. It was slow work. Not long afterwards, an Indian cousin of ours who'd moved from India to Europe asked if he might have a copy, so he too could recreate the tastes of home. At which point, the idea of a website came up. Mum's brother pointed out that a website would allow all the family in India (plus some in America too) to contribute to the recipe collection, not to mention benefit from it too.
That was how Mamta's Kitchen came to be born, back in 2001. Since then, it's become so much more than its original intention – a family cookbook on the web. It's become a resource visited and valued by cooks from all around the world and mum, my husband Pete and I (who run it together) love the positive vibe of the whole thing.
Just like many of our non-Indian visitors, the first place I turn to when I need an Indian recipe is the website!
Recently, I was invited to attend a fantastically fun event – FoodUrchin's imu for which he buried an entire lamb in what looked like a grave in his back garden, along with lots of very hot rocks and things on fire. It's a Hawaiian tradition the idea for which he found in a book.
All the guests were tasked with bringing something for the table. With all that meat cooking away slowly in the earth, I decided to bring something vegetarian, opting for this simple paneer malai recipe.
I'd never made it before and, even when it came out of the oven, at FoodUrchin's house, I worried that it would be too bland to stand up against the robust flavours of the wonderful baba ghanoush, parmesan biscuits, salads, sauces, freshly made breads and dips that others had created. But, to my delight and relief, it went down very well indeed – I had many requests for the recipe.
Here it is as my mum makes it:
Mamta's Kitchen Paneer Malai
350 grams paneer
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 heaped tablespoon ginger root, freshly ground or finely grated
1 tablespoon garlic, freshly ground or finely grated or crushed
1.5 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons full fat cream cheese
3 tablespoons full fat sour cream or thick yoghurt
2 teaspoons corn flour (not maze flour)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon sweet paprika powder for colour
3 red or green fresh chillies, finely chopped (red chillies look nicer)
1 tablespoon. coriander leaves, finely chopped
A few strands of saffron, soaked in 1 tablespoon of warm water
1 teaspoon garam masala
Notes: I used shop-bought paneer. You can make your own, which will be a little more crumbly, following this recipe. I used full fat sour cream. I didn't have any fresh chillies or paprika so I used some very hot red chilli powder instead. I omitted the saffron completely.
- Cut Paneer into roughly 2 inch/5cm pieces.
- Place vinegar in a bowl and add salt, ginger and garlic. Mix.
- Add Paneer cubes, mix and marinate for 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 200˚C.
- Make a paste of the cream cheese, sour cream, egg, chillies, coriander, saffron, paprika and corn flour. (Mix this by hand rather than using a food processor, as a processor will reduce it to a thin runny liquid).
- Lift Paneer cubes pieces from the first marinade, leaving the liquid behind (but taking some of the ginger and garlic solids, if you like). Add them to 2nd marinade and gently turn to coat well. Allow to stand for an hour (or longer).
- Line a tray with aluminium foil and cook for 10-20 minute, turning once or twice, to ensure even cooking.
- They are ready when the marinade has formed a firm crust on the paneer cubes and they have started to take on a little colour at the edges.
- If you do not have a grill or oven, you can stir-fry them in a heated wok in 2 tablespoons oil.
Mum would usually serve these cubes on a bed of lettuce with some lemon wedges, but in this case, they were eaten straight from the oven dish, in very short order!