Tales from an Ital­ian kitchen

The Guardian - Feast - - News - Rachel Roddy

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.

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