Two Stones and the World's best Indian

This story has its beginnings at the Singapore Sun Festival 2010, when the Wandering Palate in the capacity of wine curator for the festival was onstage with Curtis Stone and Sharon Stone at ‘A Symphony of Stars Brunch’ raising money for Action for AIDS Singapore. Needless to say there was some confusion whether it was two Curtises and a Stone, or two Stones and a Curtis.

That said, it was crystal clear who had megastar status. Moreover the division of fans with the menfolk totally infatuated with Sharon Stone and the womenfolk in almost hysterical adoration for Curtis Stone; meanwhile the Wandering Palate was moving table to table trying to build up a fan-base and plying the guests with the outstanding Sugarloaf Ridge wines, our most generous wine sponsor from Tasmania:

Even if the Wandering Palate managed to upstage the Stones, the harsh reality of nonexistence was encroaching, although I was consoled by a very charming woman and her daughter of Indian nationality who were most impressed with the Sugarloaf Ridge wines as well as my performance. They had of course come to the event to get up close to the other Curtis, so flexing my newfound star status, I promised them I would have Curtis (Stone) come over and say hello and have his picture taken with them, with the caveat that they would invite me around for a genuine home-cooked Indian meal.

You see we had been in a conversation over how much I enjoyed Indian cuisine, however was disappointed by Indian restaurants that invariably served up adulterated or perhaps less than authentic dishes, with a commercial propensity to skimp on both technique and ingredients or quality of produce, to the point of palpable dilution and pedestrian food.

I confessed that whilst my knowledge of Indian cuisine was limited, I was totally fascinated by its complexity and regionalism, moreover the intriguing history and diversity of India. But in actuality, the best Indian food I had experienced was home-cooked with some most memorable meals that we have had by inviting ourselves around to people's house for dinner, on the basis I would bring the wines; wine that would match with Indian food.

I can still vividly remember a wonderful lunch with one of my wife’s work colleagues in Hong Kong, where they discovered the oily, hedonistic qualities of gewürztraminer and how flattering it is with Indian cuisine; equally, the slow cooked whole shoulder of lamb (Indian style) that our friends Sanjiv and Seema cooked up, forever indelible in my gastronomic Dopamine receptors.

This is a very topical subject - that is pairing wine with Indian cuisine - and one that I am constantly asked about as much by Indian nationals as all walks of life, such is the global popularity or consciousness of this universally widespread cuisine. My standard answer to the question, does wine go with Indian cuisine? “Absolutely! Show me a wine and I will find you an element of spice or herb infused within it." Further counsel incorporates what I call “Wine Kama Sutra”: you need to grasp it’s all about the dexterity of one’s palate.

And so, in the course of time, a precious photo of Curtis Stone and the ladies filtered through which I passed on and my passage to Indian cuisine ensued, the Bawajee family extending an invitation to their home for dinner with a group of their friends.

It was a most enjoyable evening of gastronomic conversation and I have to say, this meal was not only the most wonderful experience of friendly hospitality I had at someone’s home but also some of the best Indian food I have ever had.

The Bawajees were most intent on exalting the virtues of their helper, Mari, who is an exceptional cook and whilst under the expert guidance of Mrs Bawajee, Mari had spoiled us with her repertoire of both Southern and Northern Indian dishes and accompaniments.

Whilst sipping some German sparkling riesling and chatting, we nibbled on fried anchovies with groundnuts and pan fried mackerel cakes; well nibbling is not really the right descriptor as I gorged myself on these delicious morsels, whilst watching a procession of dishes being set out in buffet style.

I’m not sure where to start really, as in customary style, we grazed our way through this communal feast and as much as a recall, I refilled (heaped) my plate no less than four times and could quite feasibly have continued on endlessly if it were not a limit to one's capacity, or in this case my significant capacity.

The regional, cultural ensemble included chicken curry with potatoes, chicken sambal (some Singaporean/Sri Lankan influence coming through here), goat mysore masala which was a huge hit with me, being a big fan of goat meat. There was jeera rice, a Northern Indian staple infused with cumin seeds, also ladyfingers with cashew nuts and other accompaniments like homemade mango chutney and achar, a type of pickle with chopped vegetables and spices like asafoetida, red chili powder, turmeric and fenugreek, and there was the all important (cooling) raita, a dip of yoghurt and mint seasoned with coriander and cumin.

However, the main attraction was thosai, both plain and with egg, Mari showing us her skills in this staple dish in southern India and excellent for soaking up the curry sauces. And for dessert (not sure how I managed this), split pea payasam with Indian sugar, kind of similar to rice pudding and filled the very last gap in the stomach before I had to retire to the couch for a while.

Words will never cover the melange of hedonistic spices and textural sensations, moreover the freshness and liveliness of this food; actually that is the key element, a discernible lightness and purity of the ingredients that underpins the flavours and whole eating experience, something that is often missing at the restaurant experience.

Essentially, time and a passion for cooking with the very best ingredients and no compromise with techniques or the commercial shortcuts invariably used in restaurants. Yes, there are some excellent hawker stalls here (Singapore) serving up commendably authentic regional Indian dishes however, there is always the pressure of food costs and a dining public that is way too demanding, or shall we say not willing to pay that bit extra for quality ingredients.

And yet how can one arrive at the “best” in Indian cuisine when it is feasibly a polemic torn between the most humble of dishes in regions that see them as more a staple diet of existence, to vastly diverse and complex dishes that are exclusive to indigenous produce and steeped in history. Then there is the dichotomy between the most adulterated or plagiarized cuisine in the world fashioned to a mindset looking for an affordable Indian experience, to the avant-garde modern Indian restaurants such as Benar, London, Tabla in New York or Coriander Leaf in Singapore

The purists would say you must to travel to India to experience and marvel at the kaleidoscope of spices, flavors, textures and to fully understand the gastronomic maze and cultural intricacy. I’m totally all for that, only I crave Indian food far too much or often to be jumping on a plane to India all the time – although I am open to this; that is if there’s a media channel wanting to fund me covering the Indian continent, I’m available!

Meanwhile, I think my best avenue for Indian cuisine discovery is to invite myself around to the homes of Indian families, so this is an open bulletin to all good Indian home-cooks, I’m available for dinner!

And the wine... well, for a white wine, I took along a Felton Road Bannockburn Chardonnay 2008 from Central Otago, New Zealand I find chardonnay is one of the best styles to pair with Indian cuisine in terms of all the deep-fried starters and nibbles and more so with anything yellow – yes, I have a sort of colour code that covers turmeric, cumin, fennel seed, yellow mustard seed, coriander etc – all those things used in yellow curries and marinades, which I find the textural softness, richness and subtle spice in chardonnay complements well. Moreover, new world chardonnay’s and particularly New Zealand examples of the variety like Felton Road are lively and more primary in their fruit with vivacious acidity that keeps the palate titillated.

And the red, one of my favorite cool-climate shiraz’s from the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, Shaw & Smith, in this case a very juicy and spicy 2007 vintage with a requisite amount of power and infused black pepper spice, but not too overwhelming or tannic, and with crunchy berry fruit and again tantalizing acidity and cut. This went brilliantly with the goat mysore masala, equally good with the chicken dishes – and I have even enjoyed it with black pepper crab, as written in a piece I did for Reuters:

I can still taste the goat mysore masala to this very day and the olfactory’s light up whenever I smell coriander and cumin with the memory of a most wonderful evening with the Bawajee family, their friends and Mari’s too which I am most grateful for their and efforts and humbled that they would invite a complete stranger into their home with such warm hospitality and friendship.

And for that illusive best Indian restaurant, there are a couple in Singapore I like; Chat Masala on the East Coast who do excellent Biryani - and Mustard Seed in Little India with a wholesome repertoire of Bengali and Punjabi cuisine.

My good friend and intrepid cast iron constitution, Cormie, tells me Dhaba at the mill, Kyneton, in Victoria, Australia, is excellent, especially on Sunday lunch with an all you can eat buffet; which highlights how Indian food transverse the globe.

So, wherever you are on this planet, send me your best Indian restaurant recommendation, or an invite to dinner!