Though we love curries, few of us will have eaten the real deal

WILLIAM Thackeray, the 19th-century satirist and author of one of the finest English novels of all time, was once moved to write a poem about curry – a food he would have known from childhood, having been born in Kolkata in 1811.

• Afia Sultana, left, and Shafa Ahmed, right, create a curry in minutes using minimal equipment. Picture: Jane Barlow

Curry (published in 1846) unfortunately adds little to the literary oeuvre, despite being touchingly sincere in its praise for the dish whose preparation he describes: "Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares/ And chops it nicely into little squares."

Hide Ad

Thankfully, Thackeray returned to the day job – completing his masterpiece, Vanity Fair, two years later – and left it to his contemporary Mrs Beeton to demystify Indian cuisine for Britain's reading public.

You'll find no written instructions for curry-making, rhyming or otherwise, in the kitchen at Saleem Ahmed's house. This I know because I've been invited by the owner of Voujon, one of Edinburgh's most popular Indian restaurants, to join him and some of his family members at home for lunch.

"None of the family recipes are ever written down," Saleem explains, "they're passed on from mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law." And when he says "passed on" he means taught by example at the kitchen stove, which is exactly what's happening here today. Saleem's sister, Shafa, and his sister-in-law, Afia, have come to his stylish house in the west of Edinburgh to show me what and how they cook for their relatives and friends at home. I'm going to see how different their home-cooking is from the Indian food served at Voujon in Newington and at most other South Asian restaurants in the UK, where it is usually cooked by male chefs and adapted to suit British palates.

If you think I'm being incredibly indulged here, let me explain this is something that's also going to take place at Voujon for the benefit of customers later this month. Anyone who wants to see dishes such as chicken kurma, shatkora ghost (mixing meat and a lime-like Bangladeshi fruit), macher tenga (a tangy fish curry) and the vegetable dish milawat bhaji cooked as they are at home, by the women of the family instead of male chefs, who are being given the day off, can come along to do just that – and sit down to a fixed-menu dinner of authentic cooking.

My perception of cooking authentic Indian food at home is that it's all going to be terribly complex, time-consuming and expensive, owing to the numerous spices required – and that it will create havoc in my kitchen, with every pot, pan and bowl called into action, resulting in a washing-up pile that's likely to make me weep. This prevailing attitude, along with the irresistible, exotic flavours, is what has made Indian restaurants, from the fine-dining variety to the tiniest takeaway, enormously popular in Britain for decades.

In a survey published by Mintel last year, 71 per cent of Britons chose Indian food as their favourite ethnic cuisine when dining out. But our reluctance to try making it ourselves may now be on the wane: when it comes to cooking ethnic dishes at home, Mintel reports, Indian food is far and away the most popular – and we're not talking ready-meals. Recession is one obvious factor, but a huge increase in travel to the subcontinent has also sparked our interest.

Hide Ad

His customers' familiarity with authentic South Asian food is what inspired Saleem, who has owned Voujon for the past five years, to launch his "home-cooking" events in the restaurant, he says, as we sit down to a pre-demonstration lunch at the kitchen table.

"Most of my regulars have been to India, and know that what they eat here is different," he says. What those customers know is about to become evident to me. The chicken kurma (or korma) placed in front of me is not chunks of breast meat in a saffron-coloured, mildly spiced sauce, but tender drumsticks lightly coated in a pistachio-green gravy. It's utterly delicious, the meat falling away from the bone, its flavour complemented by the delicate coating made with bay leaf, cinnamon and cardamom. We eat plain, boiled white rice with each of the curry dishes. Chapatis and naan bread come from Pakistani cuisine, not Indian, Saleem explains – and in his view to eat a curry with anything more strongly flavoured only detracts from the spices used in the meat, fish or vegetable dishes.

Hide Ad

His married sister Shafa sometimes cooks two or three curries a day – which she manages to do as well as raising three sons and working as a learning assistant at a nearby school. "If you like cooking, you find time to do it," she shrugs. "I love entertaining at home." It is a feature of Indian families that the women cook at home, even if their husbands are chefs in restaurants. The cooking styles are very gender-specific, I'm told, and the women are more experimental with spices. "Creating new recipes is my hobby," Shafa says. At the table, we've sampled some more pre-prepared curries: lamb chop curry, served with a spicy tomato and chilli sauce to add heat; a dish of curried vegetables (potato and oori) whose wonderful rich flavour belies its simplicity; and finally a fish curry, traditionally served last at a meal because it is easier to digest on top of the chicken, lamb and vegetables.

My gaze drifts over to the island counter in the centre of this immaculate, cream-coloured kitchen whose surfaces are remarkably uncluttered. When are they going to start doing all the prep, I wonder, as Shafa and Afia drift about, placing only two small plates beside the stove: one contains some finely sliced onions, the other two tidy little heaps of grated garlic and ginger root. There is just one medium-sized saucepan on the gas hob.

"We're ready to start," says Saleem. Really? But where are all the… aah, the spices. Five glass jars containing powders ranging in tone from saffron yellow to burnt sienna are placed on the counter, along with a tiny pot containing dried pieces of cinnamon, cardamom pods and bay leaf. Afia begins, pouring vegetable oil into the saucepan and adding the onion, garlic and ginger to sizzle and soften. As soon as the bay leaf, cardamom and cinnamon are added, the kitchen fills with a fabulous aroma. Salt (a lot) and a spoon each of the five different spices – cumin, coriander, chilli powder, curry powder and turmeric – go in next.

To this, the pieces of fresh lamb chop are added, browned, then doused in a small amount of cold water and left to simmer, the saucepan lid firmly in place. And that's it – in 30 to 45 minutes, Afia says, it'll be ready. I confess to Shafa that I feel a bit of a twit being so intimidated by the prospect of curry – it's incredibly simple. "Oh, I felt the same way the first time I baked a sponge cake," she admits, "there seemed to be so many ingredients to be weighed. Once you've got it all mixed up in a bowl and then you pour it into the tin, you realise how uncomplicated it is."

I feel encouraged by this – I could make a sponge cake without a recipe by the time I was eight years old.

There's another confession: "I've been cooking every day for 17 years, ever since I got married," Shafa says, "but I still can't tell the difference between the powdered cumin and coriander." She up-ends the plain glass jars and shows me how she has discreetly labelled them both on the bottom. She's looking forward to taking over Voujon with her female relatives for one night. she says, and kicking out all the men. "It will be tidier than it's ever been," she laughs, and having witnessed the efficient way in which she and Afia cook, I'm sure she's right.

"It won't be silent, though," deadpans Saleem.

Hide Ad

I ask Saleem if he thinks his home-cooking event will inspire his customers to start making curries at home once they see how easy it can be. "I hope not," he laughs, "or we'll have no business left."

That's not likely to happen. Saleem may be a generous man, but I'm sure there are some kitchen secrets that will never be revealed.

Hide Ad

• Voujon Home Cooked event on Wednesday 26 May at the restaurant at 107 Newington Road, EH9. Call 0131-667 5046 for details.

Lamb chop curry


2 tablespoons vegetable oil, or as needed

2-3 onions, finely sliced

salt to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground curry powder (if desired)

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

3 bay leaves

4/5 cardamon pods

3 cloves fresh garlic (grated)

1 piece of grated fresh ginger

10-12 lamb chops – depending on size

cup of water


Add the oil to a large pan over medium to high heat.

Add the onions, spices, garlic and ginger.

Stir well and add salt to taste.

Add the meat, brown it, and mix well.

Add a cup of water and stir.

Turn down heat to a gentle simmer, put the lid on and simmer for 20-30 mins.

Keep stirring occasionally and add slightly more water if needed.