Some people end up working in the food industry by accident, but for most, there is probably a pivotal moment: a particular meal out or a great success in the kitchen that changed everything, for ever.
The moment that changed the course of my life took place in a curry house on London’s Brick Lane at the age of 18. I’d just left home for university, and hadn’t realised quite how much I’d miss my mother’s cooking. In my quest for spice, I dragged my friends out to eat and was shocked when they asked me, the only Indian at the table, what to order: rogan josh, korma or jalfrezi?
It was then I realised that if my friends thought this was real Indian food, then perhaps many others did, too. I wanted to show them the fresh, predominantly vegetarian food I’d grown up eating, but there was only one problem: I didn’t know how to cook it.
I rang my mother and asked her to send me recipes. “But darling, I’ve never written anything down. If you want to learn, you have to come and watch me. That’s how I learned to cook, and your grandma and all the women in our family.”
The next morning, I was on the train home to Lincolnshire, and the first thing I learned was a simple aubergine curry. I hovered over my mother, begging her to use level teaspoons, not heaped, and documented each stage. She gently laughed at me. “Learn to cook with your eyes,” she said. “Taste every ingredient before it goes into the pan, while it’s cooking and afterwards – that way, you’ll learn how they behave and you can use your judgment.” That remains the best advice she’s ever given me.
Today’s dish is a simpler version of that aubergine curry. It’s the one my mother and I cook when we want something quick. It has no onions or ginger to peel and fry (saving much time), and uses only chilli and turmeric for spice, rather than the usual ground cumin and coriander. For extra depth and flavour, you could add all those ingredients; but sometimes, most times, I think simplest is best.
Aubergine, black-eyed bean and dill curry
Aubergines are the subject of hot debate, ranging from “To salt or not to salt?” to “Do they soak up too much oil?” Here are my thoughts: there is no need to salt aubergines unless they have lots of seeds, which most of those in the UK don’t (and which are what can make them bitter). And use as much oil as you please: once the aubergines are done cooking, they’ll release the oil back into the pan and it can be removed. Dill adds a fresh grassiness to this curry, but if you’re not fond of it, add it little by little, or leave it out altogether. Serves four.
4 tbsp rapeseed oil
5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
4 big vine tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 400g tinned tomatoes)
1 ¼ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
(or regular mild chilli powder)
¾ tsp turmeric
1⅓ tsp salt (or to taste)
900g aubergines (about 3), cut in half lengthwise and then into 1cm semi-circles
400g tin black-eyed beans, drained 40g fresh dill, finely chopped
Heat the oil in a frying pan on a medium flame and, when hot, add the garlic and let it sizzle for a couple of minutes, until it turns pale gold. Add the tomatoes (take care, because they might spit) and cook for 15 minutes, until creamy, then add the chilli, turmeric and salt. Cook for a couple of minutes more, then gently fold in the aubergine slices and pop a lid on the pan.
Cook for 20 minutes, stirring every five minutes, until the aubergines are soft and collapsing, then stir in the beans and cook for two to three minutes more, until the beans are hot. Finally, stir in the dill.
Serve with steamed basmati rice, chapatis and a non-dairy yoghurt of your choice.