Indian cooking is not about chucking in the chilli and seeing how hot you can get it, it’s about the layering of flavours,” says Hari Ghotra as she stirs the mouthwatering deep red masala sauce for her Thari Wala Chicken.
Into her cast-iron pot, we’ve added onions and garlic that have been cooked until they’re a dark golden brown (“Onions are so important for that depth of flavour,” she says), a tin of plum tomatoes (“Not chopped, because the gravy’s better”), ginger, salt, turmeric, coriander stalks and, of course, chilli.
A self-taught home cook and soon-to-be executive chef at the Soho sister restaurant of Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Tamarind, Ghotra is passionate about Indian food and is on a mission to enable everyone to cook a curry from scratch for themselves.
“It’s healthy, wholesome, really flavoursome and you can cook it at home quite easily,” she says, when we sit down to a sumptuous feast of samosas, aloo gobi (potato cauliflower vegetable curry), cumin rice, the chicken curry and red lentil dhal (Ghotra’s hangover cure, “It brings me back to life”).
I’m amazed that, having never chopped a chilli in my life, I now feel more confident around them and understand a lot more about Indian ingredients - particularly spices and how to use them - than I’ve ever done. I’ve also become quite nifty at folding samosas!
Ghotra, who lives in Redhill, Surrey, with her husband Jeremy and children, Neyha, 11, and Jai, 9, started out teaching Indian cooking classes at evenings and weekends when she went back to work part-time after having kids.
“I had two small children and a tiny kitchen, so I taught people in their homes, where they felt more comfortable. They’d be quite sheepish at the beginning, but the feeling I’d get when I left them was just amazing: ‘Oh my God, I can do this in my own home, with my own saucepans!’ They were so inspired and happy.”
The 40-year-old is a shining example of how hard work and tenacity can make your dreams come true. Her parents came to Britain in the Sixties and for them, it was “never an option that food would be a career” for their daughter.
“My dad worked as a bus driver. For him, he was sending his children to university and they were going to get an education and good jobs. Food was just what you did at home. Why would you want to go out and cook if you have to do that at home anyway? Especially if you’re a woman. My dad would never have wanted his daughter in that male environment.”
She studied biology and worked as a microbiologist for Unilever, then took a degree in marketing and worked for Tesco, until her husband, seeing how much she enjoyed teaching her cookery classes, bought her the Hari Ghotra domain name, designed a logo and had business cards made for her one Christmas. Her website (www.harighotra.co.uk), full of recipes and videos of Ghotra revealing how to make them, soon caught the attention of the Tamarind Collection and she’s spent the last 18 months training at the Mayfair restaurant under chef Peter Joseph.
She’s leading the way for female Indian chefs: “It’s a male-dominated environment. I haven’t had any bad experiences, they’re so respectful, but a lot of women in Indian culture are expected to run the home. Maybe more British Asian women will be going into that industry now, because it’s more accepted.”
Ghotra learned to love cooking and Indian food by “following my mum around the kitchen” at their home in Wolverhampton: “Food for my parents was very important, because it would have been another thing that they left behind, they tried desperately to hold onto their culture and roots. I come from a very working class family, so it’s very basic food, authentically cooked, the way my mum had been taught by my grandma.
“It instilled a real love of ingredients in me - mum would always make me go to the garden to pick mint in the rain, or I’d make the dough for the rotis. I absolutely hated it, but every day we had to do that and my mum would make about 30 to 40 chapatis that everyone would sit and eat.”
Try one of Hari’s recipes for yourself and discover more at www.harighotra.co.uk...