School of Indian Cooking

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Getting Ready Meals ...ready

A few years ago I helped develop a curry sauce recipe for the trendy 'wholesome' fast food chain Leon. Now I've been doing the same thing for ASDA. Not quite so cuddly; they're currently number 2 in the supermarket rankings, a real giant of the corporate world. I was asked by a food manufacturer to help them develop recipes for a range of premium Indian ready meals for ASDA including a chicken balti. Whatever the dish and whoever for, the challenge is the same; how to replicate 'authenticity' on a vast scale working to strict budgets, using bulk ingredients - pre-prepared in the case of garlic and ginger, in massive cooking vessels and without the 'love' factor that all good food needs. What's more it has to match the retailers view of what customers expect of such a dish. Unfortunately for the most part this still remains trapped like a fly in amber in some 1980's lurid red, sticky, tomato based sauce; flock wallpaper in a bowl. I say this based on what was shown to me in the development kitchen.

The balti dish I was asked to work on was made with a 'balti paste' procured in good faith from a company boasting of its attention to detail when roasting chillies etc. It tasted of the sherbert lemon sweets I ate as a kid - far too acidic but with a chili kick. I suggested ditching their use of this and to his credit this is exactly what Development Chef Richard Pearson has done. Instead he's chosen to follow a method I demonstrated. A balti is typically cooked on high heat in a short space of time in a karahi or wok. One common method is to boil chicken and spices first for 5 or so minutes before adding oil and cooking for a few minutes more (red meats like lamb tend to be pre-cooked first). It's an unusual technique and the opposite to what is done in much of South Asia. Of course it's the all important spice mix which is key to the taste.

In Kashmir where baltis are thought to have originated, people make a basaar (or masala)  rich with asfatoeida which is native to the area and also fenugreek - both seed and the dried leaves. This combination gives the balti its distinctive taste and fragrance. If you want to cook a very quick curry then this is the technique for you. Adding the oil near the end of the cooking process gives the lovely glistening browned meat.  Drain off any excess oil before serving. Once you've cracked the spicing the challenge is to recreate the searing heat required on an industrial scale. The manufacturers plan is to cook the sauce in huge 'kettles' separate from the chicken. Straight away this factors in problems when trying to recreate a dish, that there will be no meat juices flavouring the sauce in the normal way.  So other techniques are used to recreate what happens on the small scale, using meat glazes etc.

These less familiar names are often what confuse and concerns shoppers when they read the list of ingredients on the side of a ready meal pack. I saw nothing to fear or arouse suspicon on Richard's cooking list - beyond the mysterious 'balti-paste' which was jettisoned.  Naturally I will be very interested to taste what his team finally comes up with. As much as foodies love to loathe ready meals they serve they serve an important role in the diet of millions of people in this country. Why else would they called convenience food? No matter what you feel about the lack of domestic science provision in schools, they help those people with no culinary skills to feed themselves. And there's a strong argument to say that they are the most energy efficient way to feed us all.