I have said it before and I will say it again; I love my job.
A couple of days ago I received an email from She Who Probably Should Be Obeyed asking if I would like to attend a Vegetarian Indian Cookery Presentation at the Prashad Restaurant in that most exotic of locations, Drighlington. I must admit that I was a bit late coming to the party as far as Indian food is concerned and it was not until I started working in Bradford in 1978 that I discovered its delights. My, how times change! At that time, and for many years thereafter, the vast majority of ‘Indian’ restaurants were run by people from one small area of Pakistan and the food Anglicised to cater for our more sensitive palate, unless you had just necked a gallon of lager and wanted a vindaloo with extra chillies to assert your masculinity.
As a result the same dishes appeared on every menu which, when you think of it, is a bit daft. If someone suggests French food it can mean anything from the dairy and cider based dishes in Normandy and Brittany, through the smoked meats and sausages of Alsace to the seafood and olive oil used on the Mediterranean coast. Now, look at a map of France and compare it with one of the Indian sub-continent and you will find that the latter is over five times larger than the former. There are also twenty-two different languages spoken in India compared with three in France, if you count Basque and Catalan, so why do we always assume that the only Indian food is Chicken Tikka Masala, an English concoction anyway.
Prashad specialises in the cuisine of the Gujarat Region of Western India whose food is vegetarian and bears as much resemblance to Lamb Dhansak as a Cornish Pasty does to Pease Pudding. Even Gujarat is split into four regions, each of which brings its own influence to the state’s cuisine. All right, I am rambling on a bit now so let me get back to the main event.
The day began at 9.30 when, after being welcomed by the owner, Bobby Patel, we were asked if we had any dietary requirements etc., given a brief history of the enterprise and an outline of the day to come. The business was started by Bobby’s father as a shop/deli in Bradford and when he took over he changed it to a restaurant and moved it to its present location. This was not done on a whim, and before the change both Bobby and his wife, Minal, decided to research the restaurant trade, spending some time being mentored by Gordon Ramsey. The result is that they now have one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the country, being the only two-star AA Indian Restaurant in Yorkshire and being awarded a Bib Gourmand in 2014. Fortunately, Chef Ramsey’s colourful turn of phrase has not been passed on to Mrs Patel.
We were then led into the kitchen, where we were introduced to Minal who explained that the objective of the day was not to turn us into chefs or even take us through the preparation of the dishes on the menu, but to show us the basics of Gujarati vegetarian food and how the different spices were blended in order to provide flavour and complement one another. The first dish was, unsurprisingly, the starter, a concoction of ingredients blitzed into a paste, which was like hummus with a kick, and passed to us to spread on spinach leaves which we then had to roll like a fine Havana cigar, or in my case, an old stogie, which were then shallow fried. Despite my input they were absolutely delicious.
To avoid repeating myself several times over, you can take it as read that everything was superb. Rather than go through the ingredients and processes involved as, should you decide to indulge in the experience, the dishes in each demonstration will be different in order to take advantage of seasonal produce, I will just say that we had a cauliflower and pea dish, an aubergine and potato ensemble, a daal, a rice, puri and finished with a dessert made from carrot and milk served with nutmeg and raisin ice cream. There was also a masterclass in chutney and raita making. Everything, including the ice cream, is made from scratch using fresh ingredients and all produced on the premises except for the garam masala, which is blended in house and then sent to a mill in Leicester to be rolled to the correct consistency.
The number of attendees at each demonstration is limited to eight which is a perfect number and my fellow diners were one of the most pleasant sets of people you could wish to meet. The thing that struck me though was that seven out of the eight people present were men.
Whilst we were enjoying the fruits of Minal’s labours we were regaled with stories about the family and the ethos of the business by Bobby, who was born to work in the hospitality industry, being both informative and very amusing. In the kitchen the banter between husband and wife was also hilarious, making for a great double act. Obviously they are very happy together. Speaking of the ethos of both the business and the Patels, the one word which springs to mind is integrity, an ingredient in short supply in the recipe of life. Even though the enterprise has grown several fold over the past few years, they are still loyal to the same small suppliers rather than shopping around for better prices. There is also the integrity towards the food and customers. I was most impressed.
I was also touched and amused by Bobby’s account as to how he persuaded his wife to leave her family in Gujarat to come to Yorkshire and utilise her cookery skills in the restaurant. She is one determined lady and not content to be an ‘also ran’, so she asked him how she would know that their restaurant and her cooking would be recognised as being the best. Bobby said that he made the greatest mistake of his life by telling her that the best chefs are awarded a Michelin star, at which point she agreed to join him, but he has let the genie out of the bottle in that Minal’s sole aim is now to gain that accolade and she will not rest until she has succeeded. I’m not betting against her. To that end there are plans afoot to open a second restaurant dedicated to fine dining, although the details have not yet been finalised. Bobby said that they don’t want to dilute their organisation by opening a chain, but are happy just to keep the Drighlington restaurant and operate the new venture. See what I mean about integrity.
The proceedings came to a close at just after two o’clock when we were presented with a book on vegetarian cooking written by Kaushy Patel who is Bobby’s mother. We were also given the aprons we had been provided with on arrival and a box full of take-away containers of the food we had made throughout the day. Needless to say, I was not the most popular passenger on the bus home but an exercise in double bagging seemed to constrain the aroma of the goodies. The big problem I am faced with now is that, though still full, I am aware that my fridge is filled with some of the best Indian food I have tasted in a very long time, but I am sure that I can exercise enough self-control to resist the urge to go into the kitchen for a nibble. Second thoughts…..
The Prashad Indian Cookery Demonstrations cost £130 and include the apron, book and take-away. Check their website for dates and availability.
Photographs by Stan Graham