Terrible thing when you nearly run out of something special. Especially when you’ve had it for 10 years. This happened to me recently when I nearly ran out of the garam masala I had been given by Uttam. He was a Nepalese chef and we ran a kitchen together, it was my first job in the kitchen and we made organic pizzas. I’ll never forget my mate Millie (who was also my manager) tell me in the pub ‘the restaurant is closing but you will get a redundancy check!’ Uttam gave me all his spices as a parting gift and also his full name and address in Nepal. It was on a tiny scrap of paper and I can see his squiggly writing vividly, but me being 17 and pretty irresponsible, I lost it. To this day it’s still in my top 10 regrets. We had shared panicked Saturdays in a busy restaurant and it felt like we grew a soldiers bond some days. We were a team pizza making machine.
We worked hard but every Saturday we would make a curry. The pizzeria would smell beautifully spicy as it came to 10pm. We would eat standing up in the back kitchen when the night-time lull came and before we started closing down. Left hand underneath the plate, right hand scrunching some lemon, grabbing some saucy meat off the bone and a ball of rice. The lemon was always the best bit. Sucking the sauce off your fingers with the condiment of hunger finally there, after working with food all day. There was a restaurant upstairs as well, all manned by Nepalese and me being the only English chef, I learnt the language and ate curry with my hand. I realised you could eat a lot faster with your hand and it was tastier. You have to try the finger lemon scrunch.
10 years later and I gingerly deal out a table spoon of Uttam’s Garam masala, or Gary as I affectionately call it, to make a dhal. I never knew how it kept its secret sweet spice, bringing any curry up like 3 notches on the banging curry scale. The smell of it never faded, it reminded me of working hard in that kitchen so we could relax and have dinner in relative peace. He would always teach me how to make it and still have it in my head. I still have some of his fenugreek seeds, he taught me to burn them in loads of hot oil as the very first step. I’ve never seen anyone else do it, but I’ve always followed his orders and I think it gives a wonderful bitter element.
I had the dhal for lunch the next day sitting with my two mates, Holly and Josie who work close by. Holly had a taste and wanted to make some dhal but I said she needs some of my special gary. After explaining my worryingly low stocks of 10 year old gary Holly suggests a simple but excellent idea- we make some more.
I worked out a recipe after buying pretty much the only Nepalese cook book there is and I ordered the spices in bulk. I persuaded Josie, who is also my housemate to go foraging at 11pm in the freezing cold. Picking 54 bay leaves so they could dry overnight. Luckily the bay tree was only 10 metres from our house, but it goes to show you can go foraging anywhere, even on a estate in Brixton in the middle of winter, at night, with an mildly unwilling friend.
The spices arrived in a huge box, kilos of cumin and coriander seeds, bags of black and green cardamom. As I opened the box the smell hit me like a freight train. This immediately made me phone Holly but I only got through to her voice mail. I unwrapped each parcel and therefore explained the overwhelming sensation of what was going in an answer phone message. I went a bit crazy with the aromas that was assaulting my face. I love things in bulk and to have so much eye watering spices was great. Holly’s cousin Jim brought back a very large bag of cinnamon sticks from Morocco, we were good to go.
The day came to toast and grind. We turned on all the gas burners and with 4 frying pans batch toasted all the spicy goods. The smell permeated the house and as we moved from cumin to coriander, to pepper to clove to cardamom. I went to get something upstairs and as you travelled the 3 flights of stairs in my house you could smell each spice according to when they were toasted. I was a bit worried I had permanently curried my house. When all the spices were toasted we mixed it up in a recycling bag, ready to grind. I got the nutri-bullet out and we grinded small batch by small batch. In a final nod to Uttam I chucked in my last few table spoons of his gary to the mix. Like a sour dough starter Uttam’s Gary will live on. I made his curry and it made the same smell that transports me to eating in the back kitchen with my brother Uttam.