By Flick Hardingham
Moti Mahal is a gastro Indian restaurant in the hub of Theatre Land. Two minutes walk from Covent Garden and a stone’s throw from Holborn, it’s ideally located to tempt anyone from ravenous post-work City boys to tourists with a craving for spice.Recently, I was lured to Moti Mahal for a very different reason: to celebrate the launch of ‘India Cookbook’, Pushpesh Pant’s latest culinary journey through his homeland, offering over 1,000 recipes from Kashmir to Kerala.Venturing into the Moti Mahal kitchen, we donned chef hats and aprons, ready to get cooking. Head chef, Anirudh Arora, gave us a tour, pointing out his pride and joy; an ice-cream maker that he purchased for a fair few thousand, which concocts unadulterated frozen alchemy.We expectantly gathered around the oven where Ani taught us how to make ‘Paturee’, a.k.a. crab and prawn cakes. All ingredients are mulched (yes, that’s the technical term) together to form a lovely squishy ball of crab, prawn, grated potato, mustard oil, spices, herbs, chilli, lemon, cheese and fresh curry leaves before being wrapped in a banana leaf and pan-fried.Appetites thoroughly whetted, we headed for the bar!Head barman, Simon La’Moon (not his stage name...apparently) began his residency six months ago and guided us through Moti Mahal’s signature cocktail of his own invention. The Gin Shikanjvi is a devilish combination of BULLDOG Gin, gomme, lemonade, fresh ginger, mint leaves, basil, lime, cumin and pepper, to add an eclectic curry-esque edge to the tall refreshing drink.
For the mocktail fans among us, Simon mixed up a Thandaai. This is a milk-based drink inspired by the flavours of rural India and seasoned with white poppy seeds, coconut, almonds, cardamom and sugar to taste. Simon suggested adding Gin; and it would work equally well with rum, plenty of ice and a sun lounger.
Sound tempted? Well, Simon runs cocktail master classes at Moti Mahal to tantalise your taste buds and get you shaking in the kitchen. Simon will guide you through all sorts of alky-wizardry and let you run amok behind his bar. A 1½ hour sessions costs £30 and would be well worth it.
Mouths watering and raring for more, we sat down for a taste of Ani’s menu, inspired by India’s Grand Trunk Road, which is the main artery linking the East and West. Fortunately placed facing the Moti Mahal kitchen, I was able to watch chefs busy themselves in a whirl of skewered meat, pakoras and chapattis through the large glass screen.
Our Indian extravaganza kicked off with DIY salad. We were presented with a wooden board, knife, and a selection of raw vegetables including cucumber, radishes and tomato to be liberally sprinkled with freshly ground spices from a pestle and mortar.
We then swiftly devoured ‘Bhalla Papadi Chaat’, a clear favourite made with crisp fried pastry, chickpeas drenched in yoghurt, mint chutney and tamarind. We also sampled the Paturee I had mulched earlier and Titari, guinea fowl grilled in the tandoor and marinated in cumin, garlic and smoked red chillies. Each dish was fresh, flavoursome and utterly moreish.
Our table was cleared and set with four enticingly different dishes. I dived straight in to ‘Suvey aur palak ka gosht’, otherwise known as stewed lamb with spinach and dill to non-native speakers.
My plate was filled with dal makhani, a simmering pot of slow cooked black lentils and Methi murgh biriyani; chicken on a bed of fragnrant basmati rice, fenugreek, ginger and the in-house blend of garam masala. Dolloped with a cooling raita and mopped up with home-baked naan, it was a thoroughly scrumptious feast.
A bit like a first date, an Indian can come in all shapes, sizes and varying levels of disappointment. Some are a not quite spicy enough and others leave your tongue burnt. I am a huge fan of gutsy food; any dish unafraid to show its true colours and excite your senses. This is exactly what Moti Mahal achieves and ‘India Cookbook’ has inspired me to get busy with pickles, chutneys and raitas in my own kitchen.