Maunika Gowardhan isn’t fond of epithets.
“I don’t want to be a curry queen or a curry princess. Whatever I do, whether it be radio, TV, a book, a magazine column, or cooking for people at events, I just want to be known for doing good food.
“I am happy to leave other people to take the title.”
Except it seems any well-known chef worth their weight in salt has to have a nickname these days.
Jamie Oliver – a friend of Maunika’s – has earned himself the moniker of The Naked Chef, which has nothing to do with him cooking in the nude but relates to the simplicity of his recipes.
After publishing her hugely successful book, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, 15 years ago, it’s title quickly became Nigella Lawson’s label.
Marco Pierre White is known as the ‘sexy’ chef, Gino D’Acampo as the ‘Italian Stallion’, Delia Smith as ‘Saint Delia’ and Simon ‘Si’ King and Dave Myers are collectively called The Hairy Bikers.
Then there’s the ‘one who swears’ (Gordon Ramsay), ‘Mary Queen of Cakes’ (Mary Berry) and ‘The Silverback’ (Paul Hollywood).
These days taglines are de rigueur.
So it has come to pass that Maunika has found herself dubbed the ‘Cook in a Curry.’
The Newcastle-based chef only has herself to blame, though, as she admits with a hearty laugh over coffee and a massive slice of chocolate cake (one of her guilty pleasures) at the Arlo Bistro and Café in Jesmond.
Looking for a name for her popular blog which champions Indian regional recipes, she came up with the phrase ‘Cook in a Curry’.
“I sat up in bed one morning and the name just popped into my head,” she recalls. “My husband said, ‘do you really want to call it that?’ But I loved it.”
The public and Press loved the catchy slogan too. The blog she launched in 2010 now gets a staggering 100,000 hits every month, and Maunika, who has since gone on to make a series of videos with Jamie Oliver for his online FoodTube channel and has been appointed a contributing editor for Vogue India, soon found herself branded the ‘Cook in a Curry.’
Thankfully, the 37-year-old isn’t the sort of person to get too hung-up on titles. “I’m not always wondering who’s doing what, or trying to be the next ‘whatever’. I’m just me and I’m very fortunate to have a career that I thoroughly enjoy.”
Her soubriquet isn’t something she’s likely to be ridding herself of in the near future, however. Especially as her status as one of the most exciting, entertaining and engaging exponents currently championing Indian food, is about to be elevated to a whole new level.
May 7 will see the publication of Maunika’s debut cookbook, Indian Kitchen.
The sumptuous tome is set to bring Maunika’s passion for regional Indian foods to an even wider audience than those already hooked on her informative, chatty, practical and warmly written blog posts.
It is being published by Hodder and Stoughton simultaneously in the UK, Europe, Middle East and India, and brings together in the one volume four generations of family kitchen secrets – although not all necessarily from her own kinfolk.
But many of the recipes are what Maunika grew up eating in Mumbai. That’s why you will find instructions on how to make a Mumbai Sandwich alongside more time consuming dishes like Keralan Kozhi Kuttan (chicken curry with chillies and coconut milk) or Malyali Kozhi Biryani (Southern Indian chicken biryani).
Sandwiches aren’t usually associated with Indian food. But Maunika explains “they are typical street food. I have been eating sandwiches all my life. I can remember standing in the street eating Mumbai sandwiches when I was a student and didn’t have much money as they are a cheap, fast, quick and tasty meal.
“I would eat three or four plates of them!”
The Mumbai Sandwich, it has to be said, is more fiddly to prepare than a classic cheese and pickle or ham and salad combo. There’s red onion, cucumber, potato, tomatoes, chillies, Cheddar cheese, spices and homemade chutney all packed between slices of white bread.
“It may seem long-winded just for a sandwich, but believe me, the effort is worth it,” Maunika maintains. “It will give you a real taste of Mumbai’s flavoursome street food.”
That particular recipe sums up the book’s attitude. It isn’t, in Maunika’s words “about being cheffy or clever. It’s about home cooking.”
It has been borne from Maunika’s own experiences as a busy working wife and mother to six-year-old Johann, as well as her move to the UK 14 years ago and her need to adapt to both a new culture and way of cooking.
She originally came here to study for an MA in business administration at Cardiff University and went on to work for British Gas before moving to Newcastle to be with her husband, Bharat, 40, a surgeon.
It was her arrival in Newcastle 13 years ago that changed her life. A self-taught cook, she spotted a gap in the market for a bespoke Indian catering firm.
But many of the ingredients she had grown up with were not initially readily available.
“When I first came to Newcastle, things like curry leaves and okra were very hard to find. I had to learn to adjust and revise and to fit my cooking into a new way of life.
“That is all reflected in my book. I still cook the curries I grew up with and reminisce about the food and emotions of Mumbai. But over time I have blended the traditions and techniques of Indian cooking alongside the culture in the West.”
She has developed her own contemporary style that has won over the likes of Jamie Oliver and earned her glowing recommendations for Indian Kitchen before it’s even officially hit the bookshelves.
The renowned London-based chef, cookery writer and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, has said: “Reading Maunika’s book feels as though you’re actually sitting in an Indian family kitchen, sharing stories and recipes.
“I’ve been inspired by her to make my own paneer and to play with pickled watermelon rind. Delightful!”
Jamie, meanwhile, is full of praise too. “I love Maunika’s cooking. Her food is a joy – she makes incredible Indian food really achievable at home. A fantastic Indian cookbook.”
The woman herself admits to “being excited and overwhelmed in equal measure” by the interest her cookbook has generated.
“I’m getting about 20 or 30 emails every week from strangers from as far away as New York, South America, Africa and even India asking when they can get a copy of the book.
“When I see people going crazy and telling me how much they are really looking forward to its publication, it’s very humbling. “Would I have had this same response 10 years ago? Probably not. But people are travelling more now and they want to know more about India and Indian cooking.”
Maunika has deliberately divided the book into four sections based on mood. ‘Hungry’ contains quick and easy curries to help warm up the senses for a mid-week meal. ‘Lazy’ includes comfort food that you can make slowly. ‘Indulgent is for when you need to treat yourself to the satisfaction of cooking and the pleasure of eating. ‘Celebratory’ is there to help cook up a feast to share with family and friends.
Maunika is especially pleased at the response her book has been getting in India, to where she still regularly travels to hold masterclasses, do consultancy work and research regional recipes.
While she admits it could be seen as “like carrying coals to Newcastle,” she adds: “There is a generation like myself in India who don’t know how to do all the regional recipes and don’t have the time to cook labour-intensive food.
“Indian Kitchen is full of contemporary ideas about how to make Indian cooking easier and simpler that will suit every mood and occasion.”
She is especially pleased at the number of regional recipes she has been able to include. “Somebody said to me aren’t all Indian recipes a closely guarded secret? Well, yes they are. But I want to pass that culture on.
“If you don’t and if it’s too closely guarded and nobody shares it, then it dies a death.”
A fate that is thankfully unlikely to be awaiting Maunika’s cookery career, with her hotly anticipated debut cookbook waiting in the wings, publicity tour about to swing into action and interest in Indian food booming both here and in her homeland.
Indian Kitchen: Secrets of Indian Home Cooking by Maunika Gowardhan will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on May 7 at £25.
Maunika will be signing copies of her debut cookbook at Forum Books, Market Place, Corbridge, on May 21 at 7pm. Tickets cost £5 and include wine and tasters. Call 01434 632 931
Read Maunika’s Cook in A Curry blog at www.maunikagowardhan.co.uk
Try this delicious and quick fish recipe taken from Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan.
“Having lived in a city where coastal food is thriving and the markets are filled with it, it’s not surprising that seafood still plays such an important part in my life. In fact, to me, fish and shellfish should be a must for mid-week meals. They are not only really quick to cook, compared to chicken or lamb, but they are also so good for you. Better still, fish and prawns complement spices really well. This masala mackerel is a family recipe based on pan-frying fish in a mixture of spices. Chilli, garlic and lime juice form the traditional basis of the marinade but I have also added some zest for that extra tang.”
Oil for greasing
4 mackerel fillets
1tsp lime juice
½ red onion (about 40g), sliced
FOR THE MARINADE:
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 heaped tsp Kashmiri chilli powder or mild paprika
3 garlic cloves, grated
½ tsp coarsely ground cumin seeds
½ tsp lime zest
Juice of ½ lime
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Preheat the grill to medium to high. Grease a baking tray with oil. Score the skin of the mackerel a couple of times.
Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl, then spread over the fish on both sides and leave to marinate for 20 minutes.
Place the mackerel on the greased baking tray and grill for 7–8 minutes until done. Sprinkle over some lime juice and red onion, and serve with chapattis and salad.
The word ‘masala’ means ‘spice mixture’, and it can refer to something dry or, as in this recipe, to something wet, namely the spice marinade. Oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon, stand up well to the spicy flavours.