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Curry queen Maunika Gowardhan

Authentic home-cooked Indian curries are within everyone's reach courtesy of Newcastle-based Maunika Gowardhan

portrait: maunika gowardhan

MAUNIKA Gowardhan is running around the Brighton Oriental Food Store like a child let loose in a candy shop.

Her basket is filled with bunches of coriander and fenugreek, packets of yellow lentils, rice and exotic spices.

For the 31-year-old this is shopping heaven; taking in the sights and smells of this small Asian store in Newcastle’s Brighton Grove.

“Sometimes when I see friends they will say, ‘have you been shopping?’ They will mean clothes shopping, but for me shopping means food. I just love seeing copious amounts of food and all the different fresh ingredients. I love the way you can feel, touch and smell the food and see what you are buying.”

Maunika gives a broad grin and sweeps her left arm wide. “Isn’t this a wonderful sight?”

The vision in question is an impressive array of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. Many are familiar, many not. But what attracts the eye is the way the display is colour-coordinated – whether by accident or on purpose is unclear.

A green swathe of leafy herbs, mini gherkins, okra, spinach, spring onions and lemon grass fills one wall. Opposite, the produce is graded through the ranks of yellows, oranges and reds. Roots of fresh ginger give way to butternut squashes, apricots and nectarines, the fiery reds of chillis and the deeper hues of aubergines.

Maunika bags up her finds before moving to an aisle filled with spices: ground, whole and jarred. It’s a cornucopia of smells – the seductive warmth of ginger, the pungent tang of tamarind seeds and the wonderful aroma of cardamom. It’s like standing in the middle of a good curry. Maunika then dives off in the direction of the freezer cabinet where ready-made bhajis, samosas, chapatis, naans and parathas, ice cream barfi, and rice all jostle for space.

“I love making my own breads, but you don’t always have time.

“I have my lazy days. The other day I couldn’t be bothered cooking myself lunch so I had baked beans with melted Stilton cheese. It was wonderful.

“I could go on talking about food for hours – it is my great passion. I look at holidays as a way of seeing what the locals eat, sourcing ingredients, finding new recipes and working out how I can tailor them to my own needs.

“Food to me is a great leveler. Whether it is a coffee and cake or a meal – food is the thing that brings people together.”

For all Maunika enjoys every aspect of food, she cuts a trim figure in her black, opaque tights and purple knee length shift dress. This just 11 months after giving birth to her and husband Bharat’s first child, Johann.

But Maunika leads a busy life. She describes herself as a wife, mother and businesswoman. She runs Starters and Spice, a bespoke Indian catering firm. She has also just launched a new sideline which is already proving popular: Indian and Asian cooking classes for children and adults.

Her first children’s session during the May half-term was a sell out. Some of the junior cooks were so inspired, that a small group has organised an Indian food evening at one of the participants’ houses. And Maunika has been invited as star guest.

“It’s a great honour,” she says with a smile. “I’m so glad the children enjoyed themselves and have been inspired to carry on.”

Three months after seriously launching the idea, the success of the adult cookery sessions has taken even Maunika by surprise. She was fully booked throughout May and June is proving no less busy.

Best described as social evenings, it’s a chance for friends to get together over a few glasses of wine in a relaxed, domestic environment, and learn to cook Indian or South East Asian recipes.

“The client hires my services. I go into their own kitchen and there may be seven to 10 guests. I provide all the fresh ingredients, show them how easy it is to cook Indian food and then they get the chance to eat it.

“I also explain how healthy Indian food is because we use lots of fresh ingredients.”

Healthy Indian food may sound almost like an oxymoron – after all, we are used to eating restaurant dishes drowning in cream and ghee (clarified butter). But Maunika insists that just as Indian food doesn’t have to be complicated and time consuming to prepare, so it can also be wholesome.

Maunika admits that she and Bharat, 34, a kidney surgeon at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, went through a take-away phase, but then she realised just how healthy proper, home-cooked Indian food is.

“The fact is that home-style Indian food can be healthy, fun and light. It can be casual or formal, a meal or a snack, comfort food, diet food, traditional or modern. To me it is one of the world’s greatest cuisine’s because it caters for all.”

As she points out, true Indian food is inherently healthy. As with Japanese – cited as perhaps the healthiest diet in the world – Indian dishes rely on fresh, balanced ingredients.

A typical meal may consist of protein and minerals in the form of a lentil curry, a non-vegetarian (protein) dish, a vegetable option and a complex carbohydrate (wholemeal flatbread or rice). It steers clear of sweet desserts – except on special occasions – with fruit eaten instead.

Maunika’s present lifestyle is a long way from how her future was panning out. Born and raised in Mumbai her mother was a consultant chef to some of India’s top hotels and restaurants, while her father was a director for Shell in the Gulf.

She came to England 12 years ago and gained an MBE in business administration from Cardiff University. From there she secured a job with British Gas.

Later she met Bharat and moved to Newcastle to be with him. It was to be a turning point in Maunika’s life. While British Gas was anxious to keep her on its books and was willing to tailor-make a job for her, another door opened. For years she had been denying where her true love lay: food.

“I am a self-taught cook,” she explains, as she rustles up on her domestic stove the surprisingly quick-to-prepare prawn pulao she teaches in her cookery sessions. “When I was at university I used to eat ready meals and baked beans, but when I got married I wanted to recreate the food of my mother and that is how all this began.

“When my mum cooked in India she would insist I stand and watch.

Indian mothers always say, ‘it will come in handy one day,’ not as a career, but for when you are married and have a family of your own.

“I think my mum and dad were very surprised when I decided to make food my career.

“Coming to Newcastle gave me the chance to take a new path.”

Utilising her business skills, she saw a gap in the market in the North East for a bespoke Indian catering firm, which has led on to the cookery classes. She has found the North East people to be welcoming and very receptive to her style of cuisine. And she has nothing but praise for the region’s homegrown produce.

“I have found people here to be passionate about food and the produce available here is brilliant. I love going to farm shops and I love using local ingredients.

“Initially, I admit, I had trouble finding everything I wanted. But even in the last eight years, the supermarkets have begun stocking more spices and more unusual ingredients like okra.

“I use local where I can, but otherwise I love going to the Brighton Grove store. I love the way you can feel the food and touch it and see what you are getting.

“When it’s pre-wrapped you can’t tell what is what. I can remember when I was younger going to the markets in India. They aren’t like here, you literally have a vendor for each vegetable or spice, you haggle over the price and you can feel everything you are buying.

“My motto is: if you can’t feel every vegetable, don’t buy it.”

Maunika, whose husband has an English mother and Indian father and was brought up eating roast dinners, is enjoying experimenting in the kitchen with Indianising British food. “At Christmas I added cumin seeds to the roast potatoes with the turkey, and quite often I will marinade a chicken in Indian spices or add an Indian twist to the mashed potato.”

Maunika is obviously relieved she has passed muster in the North East. But as she tucks in to a plate of her deliciously aromatic prawn pulao, there is one judge above all others she is pleased to have impressed – her mother.

“She has tried my starters and she loved them, which was wonderful.”

To book Maunika Gowardhan for a cooking session call 07771 564 330. For more information on Starters and Spice go to www.startersandspice.co.uk

Maunika will be conducting more children’s cookery classes for seven-14-year-olds at the Trinity Centre, Gosforth, Newcastle, on July 15, August 5 and 12. Each session costs £12 per child.

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