The colourful Hindu festival of Holi heralds the start of spring and the celebrations include some delicious festive snacks. Top chef Vivek Singh shares his favourite recipes with Chris Arnot
Gordon Brown hasn’t been spotted dining at the Cinnamon Club in London since he moved from No 11 to No 10 Nor has his former neighbour, Cherie Blair. But the Indian restaurant – situated in the Old Westminster Library building and otherwise known as the Westminster Canteen – still counts a fair number of New Labour powerbrokers among its clientele.
Coffee is being downed and bills settled as the smartly besuited lunchtime crowd starts to drift back to offices or, in some cases, green leather benches. Not typical samplers of finger-lickin’ street snacks, you might think. Yet for much of this month, the restaurant will be feeding all its customers a variety of festival foods sold by stallholders on the busy pavements of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to mark the festival of Holi. The Hindu celebration, which started yesterday, signifies the coming of spring and lasts for a fortnight.
In India, Holi is celebrated with gusto at private parties or in public squares Long-time friends or perfect strangers can find themselves sprayed with coloured dye and doused in water Or worse. “Motor oil and cow dung were thrown about where I was brought up in a mining village in west Bengal,” recalls Vivek Singh, head chef at the Cinnamon Club. While the grease, dung and dyes have been relegated to memory, he has never forgotten the flavours of the accompanying seasonal snacks.
His father, a mining engineer, was the most prosperous figure in the community and Holi celebrations tended to be centred on the family’s large bungalow at the edge of the village. If he closes his eyes, Singh, 36, can still taste the pakoras, kachoris, samosas and bhajis served then. The sweets and drinks, too “There was a cooling drink called thandai,” he says, “made from a paste of almonds, peppers, fennel and honey, mixed with milk and a magic ingredient called bhang, which comes from the same plant family as marijuana There wasn’t much alcohol in the 70s, but thandai slowly gave guests a mild high.”
He has adapted the drink (minus the bhang) and turned it into a sorbet to be served mid-way through his Holi menu. It comes after the appetisers, themselves adaptations from home and the snacks that, in his young adulthood, he munched on the streets between shifts in hotel kitchens. “Those are the flavours and textures that put Indian food on a pedestal,” he says. “Street vendors are the specialists in a scene that’s becoming depressingly uniform back home. Each stallholder will concentrate on doing one item to the best of his ability while restaurants and hotels are trying to be all things to all men. They are offering a sort of pan-Indian cuisine, which means that you are offered similar dishes in Kerala to those in Rajasthan.”
While this growing uniformity is spreading across the subcontinent, he maintains, discerning UK foodies are actually seeking regional authenticity.
On his nights off, Singh might eat French or Italian food in central London or head for Wembley to sample Gujerati vegetarian fare, Tooting or Stoke Newington for south Indian dishes, Southall for something meatily Punjabi or venture out to Reading’s Clay Oven tandoori restaurant.
But unlike some top Asian chefs, Singh doesn’t sneer at the predominantly Bangladeshi pioneers who established curry-house culture in the UK. “They made it up as they went along, reinventing dishes for the British palate,” he says.”It wasn’t representative of what was going on at home, but it was close enough to keep the links between Britain and India alive. “Then, in the 80s, Udit Sarkhel came over [from the Taj Hotel, Mumbai, to the Bombay Brasserie in London] saying, ‘I’ll show you what true Indian food is.’ Now this country is more experimental and accepting of new influences and variations than the restaurants in India.”
Singh followed in the footsteps of Sarkhel and other top chefs eight years ago. The Cinnamon Club’s founder, Iqbal Wahhab, lured him away from the Rajvilas in Jaipur, voted as one of the most luxurious hotels in the world by Tatler magazine. For Singh it was an opportunity to shake off the shackles of a cuisine he sees as becoming a prisoner of its own traditions. He enjoys exploring the fusion of eastern food with western presentation – “using the same flavour palates to paint a new picture,” as he puts it.
So it comes as no surprise to discover that the appetisers are small but perfectly formed recreations of street snacks. A potato fritter sits on a squiggle of Kasundi mustard from Bengal. A kachori filled with spiced peas and raisins (see recipe) and a moong tikki share a bed of raita infused with smoked paprika and sprinkled with tamarind. “Any street vendor would drizzle it with yoghurt and tamarind,” says Singh. “We have to refine things to make them more presentable and daintier. You would have texture fatigue if you had the sort of portions that stallholders give you.”
Singh’s vegetarian Holi option is a tiny pastry, shaped like a miniature Cornish pasty, stuffed with semolina, dried fruit, cardamom and sesame seeds. It’s called a gujia and sits atop a fudgy concoction of slow-cooked grated carrot mixed with raisins, sugar and ghee. Next to it there is a cone-shaped portion of buffalo-milk ice cream, or kulfi, that complements it perfectly. “In India you would have the kulfi on a stick, like an ice lolly,” Singh says, before heading back to the kitchen to prepare for another evening at the “canteen” where east meets Westminster.
· The Cinnamon Club’s Holi menu runs till March 22.
Green pea and raisin kachori (serves 10)
For the casing
2oz of plain flour
Pinch of salt
Knead to form a smooth, soft dough. Cover with clingfilm or wet cloth and set aside.
For the filling
1 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
Pinch of asafoetida
½in piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 green chilli finely chopped
100g frozen peas, crushed coarsely in a food processor
1 tbsp raisins
1 tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 litre oil for frying, such as corn or vegetable
Heat the ghee in a pan, add the asafoetida and stir to release the flavour for five to 10 seconds. Add the ginger and chilli and stir for 30 seconds. Add the peas and stir for 60 seconds. Sprinkle in the raisins, salt and sugar, and mix. Remove from heat and, once cooled, divide the mixture into 10-12 portions.
Divide the casing dough into 10-12 pieces and shape into smooth balls. Take one ball at a time and make an indentation to create a cavity. Stuff the cavity with the filling mix and carefully seal over into a ball again. When done, carefully deep fry them in oil on low heat for six to eight minutes or until crisp and golden. Remove and drain, keep warm. Serve cut in half to show the green filling inside.
Cumin cooler – Jal Jeera (serves 10)
1 small bunch of fresh mint leaves, washed
2 tsp cumin seeds, roasted and crushed
2 tsp fennel seeds, roasted and crushed
Juice of two lemons
1 tsp ground black pepper
Place the mint in the water and chill for 30 minutes. Remove the mint and put 10-15 small leaves aside for garnish. Muddle the remaining leaves into a fine paste and place back into the water. Pass the liquid through a sieve to remove any coarse bits and add the rest of the ingredients. Check for seasoning to achieve a strong and intense flavour from the mint, cumin, salt and sugar.
Take 10 chilled shot glasses and fill up to a third of each with crushed ice, then pour over the cooler and garnish with mint leaves. Serve immediately.