Tales from an Italian kitchen
Cauliflower with cumin and ginger
A visit to the new Esquilino market inevitably ends with a second breakfast or early lunch at an Indian fast-food canteen called Janta. Not much larger than the lower deck of a bus, it has eight Formica tables, each one home to a springy napkin holder, a big jug of water and two smaller jugs, one of spearmint-green yoghurt sauce, the other dark, sweet tamarind. I’m not sure if it’s the done thing, but I swirl the two into a spiral dip for samosas and pakoras. The menu is a mix of Italian and English: riso (rice), biryani, veg curry, and pollo con curry di spezie indiane, all served on stainless-steel trays. Always busy, but somehow never feeling busy, Janta, like the market nearby, is multicultural: Rangpuri, Italian, English, Bengali and Mandarin all swirl into the 9X Music hits pulsing from the TV.
I love Janta. For its decor – on the one hand pure function, on the other as ornate as the child-sized Ganesh by the till; for its warm, spiced air; and for the friendly waiter. Mostly, I love it because mounds of basmati rice, spiced vegetables, strident lime pickle and cool yoghurt sauce are just what I want to eat when I come out of the market with bundles of coriander, a kilo of semolina and a hand-shaped ginger root.
Back in Testaccio, the three young men who work in the frutta e verdura shop under our flat are also from Bangladesh, as is the sous chef at a favourite trattoria and the five men who sell garlic at the market. This column isn’t the place to discuss the complexities of immigration and migrants – of which I am one, even if a privileged one – but I do know that these men work hard for very little, and that they’re a vital part of the life of Testaccio. As I pick a cauliflower, one of the young men tells me his home village is the greenest place imaginable – and to use both turmeric and cumin when I cook it.
Having set myself on an Italian food path, I rarely cook Indian food at home, but that is changing. This week’s dish of cauliflower, cumin and ginger is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s comforting An Invitation to Indian Cooking – ideal for beginners such as myself.
To start, blend an inch of peeled ginger and a little water to a paste. I fry a sliced onion in olive oil all the time, but rarely add ginger. This is a mistake: it’s pure kitchen aromatherapy, a warm base from which to build. Once the onion and ginger paste have cooked together for a few minutes, add a sliced green chilli, half a teaspoon of chilli powder (or cayenne) and one of turmeric, then stir in a cauliflower broken into small florets. Stir, then add a teaspoon each of ground cumin and garam masala, a tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and 100ml warm water, cover and lower the flame so the cauliflower cooks in its own steam for 20-30 minutes (stir it occasionally), until tender.
Jaffrey suggests eating this dry but deeply flavoursome dish with chapatis, lentils and plain rice, or with pilau and cucumber raita. We had it with buttered basmati, a speedy mix of grated cucumber, thick yoghurt and salt, and a spoonful of Fergus Henderson’s green bean chutney. It was the sort of unstructured, aromatic food and heat that I crave these days, and almost as good as lunch at Janta.