The upside: Delicious authentic Indian curries hand made by chef and storyteller Mandira who grew up on a tea plantation in her native India
The downside: No turning back after trying these dishes
The flipside: Available from farm shops and independent food retailers in Surrey
Mandira Sarkar is the creative force behind Surrey Spice. A management consultant, she worked in the public sector for many years helping organisations become more streamlined and productive. After her last large project with Guildford Borough Council ended, Mandira felt is was time to stand back and do something creative and more hands on. A love of her family’s cuisine and treasured handed down recipes inspired her to launch a calendar of pop up supper clubs. I was invited to one of the first she hosted with some other local food writers. Her supper clubs are all themed by festivals and ours for the evening was Holi the festival of colours. We were treated to a fabulous evening of Indian food and storytelling. The dishes were pure bliss, no overpowering chili hit, absolutely no puddles of oil just fragrant aromatic spices and complimentary textures. The desserts were amazing too. However whilst the food was as good as anything I have eaten in Singapore’s Little India (perhaps even better) it was really the delightful rhetoric from Mandira during the meal that made the evening sparkle.
A natural host Mandira embellished our evening with background information of each dish, a family party, watching her mother in the kitchen or a snippet of information about the festival. Holi commemorates the victory of good over evil, which culminates in the burning and destruction of a female demon named Holika.
Holi got its name as the “Festival of Colors” from Lord Krishna, a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who liked to play pranks on the village girls by drenching them in water and coloured powdered paint. The festival always held at the end of February or early March also marks the start of summer season. By the end of the evening the food entwined with vivid descriptions we almost felt we had been there ourselves. If Dev Patel had danced into the room none of us would have been at all surprised.
This was in February 2015 and I have followed Mandira on social media seeing her business grow. Supper clubs, while great for the guests are hard work and difficult to make a living from but great for getting your expertise recognised. Mandira had also started to offer take away food for pick up on Fridays from her home in Guildford too. Her supper clubs have popped up at local award winning distillery Silent Pool with Bollywood themed evenings and at Cellar Wines in Ripley, boutique wine shop and deli with a full events calendar. Cookery courses and bespoke catering are also on offer. In fact this entrepreneur has been so active that she has also been a finalist at the Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards for Food Innovation.
More recently Mandira decided the time was right to sell her freezer ready meals to farm shops and delicatessens. Making these fresh to order she delivers either fresh or ready frozen and she already has a keen following. There are so many Indian ready meals in supermarkets that Mandira fully supports her retailers by offering tasting events. These are a huge success as once bitten its difficult to resist the charms of these authentic dishes. After trying them myself I was delighted to get the opportunity to see them being made and hopefully get some trade secrets.
I arrived on a cold morning to watch the magic happen in this Surrey kitchen. Mandira has managed to find a lady from Goa to help her prepare her wonderful dishes and another helper was on hand to help pack. On arrival the kitchen was in full production, huge wooden spoons were used to stir giant pans of dhal and Dhania Kugu Murgh (chicken with cashew nuts and coriander). A curious machine was whirring on the work surface and from the aroma I could tell I was in curry nirvana. I was astonished at the amount of detail that goes into the dishes. No jar of Balti curry paste has ever been welcome in this kitchen. Instead the dishes are all authentic regional recipes which are made exactly as they would be in Indian homes. Mandira explains that dishes like tandoori chicken masala don’t exist in India but her dishes Xacutti chicken and Meen Moilee do.
I watched the Dhania Kagu Murgh (chicken in a delicate sauce of cashews, coriander and coconut) being created from chopped skinless chicken thigh meat, fresh coconut and coriander . Thigh meat is a preferred cut for traditionalists as its more tender and juicy than chicken breast ( a sentiment I found when I lived in Taiwan too). The curious whirring machine it turns out is a stone grinder for spices. Used in modern Indian kitchens and powered by electricity, Mandira had it bought to the UK by a friend in her suitcase. The only recognisable part of this machine is the name Prestige but its essential for the texture it creates when it grinds ingredients. In the machine I witnessed fried onions being ground with fresh coconut. The resulting pulp seasons and thickens the gravy. Using fresh coconut is essential says this chef whose attention to detail is emerging fully here. It is apparently, this way can you recreate the level of flavour and texture desired in the dish.
After this dish was made a second went into production Chicken Xacutti for whom a whole bowl of Kashmiri red chilli that had been steeped in water was ground with coconut too. A batch of Lehsuni Dal (yellow lentils cooked in caramelised garlic) was ready to portion up but first we sampled a small bowl each. Satisfying, spicy, smooth and aromatic it’s a delight to find such brilliant Indian food being made locally. Mandira sources her ingredients from a local Indian food retailer who also has a butchers counter so her business supports other local food businesses too. Currently there are ten dishes available in the ready meal range one of which is a Paneer (Indian cottage cheese) cooked in spinach which is the best I have ever tried.
I highly recommend these new freezer ready meals. They are beautifully cooked in small batches in a spotlessly clean kitchen. The effort and expertise that goes into their production is hard to beat and the recipes are totally authentic. In addition they are all gluten free and contain no preservative. Its just really good food!
Mandira’s amazing food is currently for sale in several farm shops in Surrey and a full list can be found on the Surrey Spice website.