For Bengali-born chef Romy Gill, Holi holds happy memories. Held every spring in northern India (this year it is March 1-2) it is increasingly celebrated all round the globe, finishing in a jamboree of colour, as crowds throw bright powders at each other in a sort of rainbow pillow fight without the feathers.
But, while this is the photogenic, Instagram-friendly side of the holiday, to Gill, feasting was just as much part of the event. “It’s a celebration of the end of winter, and of good over evil. All the parents would get together, bring food and celebrate. After the meal we’d go out to the street and play, and the kids would mix the powders with water and fill syringes to shoot at each other.
Your face would stay blue and green for a week.” Gill’s elegant restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, is more than 5,000 miles from her home town in West Bengal. Burnpur had just one telephone for the whole community and Gill’s family didn’t own a fridge until she was ten.
But it was a cosmopolitan upbringing. Born of Sikh Punjabi parents, her father worked in a steel factory that had employees from all over the country, so the food their friends brought to celebrations was a broad mix of Indian gastronomy, although the Holi specialities were sweets, fried food and vegetarian dishes.
Arriving in the UK in the late Nineties aged 23, she and her husband Gundeep worked in IT. When their jobs took them to Scotland, Gill began to cook in earnest. “We had so many dinner parties. When you move to this country, at first you are very excited – then you miss your family, your best friends, and the food,” she explains, tipping a loaded teaspoonful of turmeric into a pan of lentils on the stove in the tiny restaurant kitchen.
The nearest Indian grocer was an hour away from her home in Scotland, so she focused on local ingredients. Moving to Gloucestershire 12 years ago, friends persuaded her to start giving lessons, first in the community centre and then local cookery schools. Romy’s Kitchen opened in 2013.
Now, Gill uses organic Somerset yogurt, Cotswold rapeseed oil and British-grown pulses from Hodmedods in her restaurant. The food is very much Indian home cooking, “different from the curry-house food that people were used to, using fresh ingredients, and not 20 different spices. This dal has just got coriander powder and turmeric,” she adds, stirring the fragrant pan, before tipping on a sizzling sauté of chilli, garlic and ginger called a “tarka”.
Is it authentic? Gill shrugged. “I don’t like that word. It’s how we made it when I was growing up. Each household in India has a different dal recipe and in that household they’ll have 10 different ways of making it. Which is authentic?” She hands me a cup of sweet, creamy thandai, a traditional Holi drink. “In India they would probably add ganja.”
Thali: red lentil tarka dal, spiced okra, paratha,
Red lentil tarka dal
Eat this as a soothing soup on its own, with a dollop of yogurt if you like, or as part of the thali.
- 250g red lentils
- 2 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp salt
- 1,700ml of cold water
- 6 tsp extra virgin rapeseed oil
- 30g fresh ginger chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic chopped
- 1 tsp nigella seeds (plus a little extra for garnish)
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 4 green chillies with seeds, chopped
- 3 tsp tomato puréee
- Wash and drain the lentils and put them in a medium saucepan with the water, turmeric and salt. Cook on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until almost completely tender.
- Meanwhile, make the tarka. Heat the frying pan and once hot add the oil and then the nigella seeds.
- When they start sizzling, add the garlic, ginger and chillies and cook for two minutes on a medium heat.
- Stir in the tomato purée and coriander powder and cook for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave it to cool. This is the tarka.
- When the lentils are almost done, add the tarka, and stir for a minute or so on the heat. Allow to stand off the heat for five minutes or so before serving.
- 1 tsp extra virgin rapeseed oil
- 6 cloves garlic, sliced
- 3 red medium onions, sliced
- 375g okra topped and tailed, and chopped into 5cm chunks
- 4 green chillies, chopped
- 1 tsp mango powder (amchoor powder, available from souschef.com)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp turmeric powder
- juice of 1/2 a lime
- 300g plain flour
- 75ml water
- 1 tsp oil
- Pinch of salt
- Extra virgin rapeseed oil, for frying
- To make the dough, make a well in the middle of the flour in a bowl and pour in the water and oil.
- Mix into a dough and knead for five to eight minutes. If it feels hard, add a few drops of water. Cover with a tea towel and rest for half an hour.
- Divide the dough into eight balls and roll out one to make a thin pancake about 3mm thick.
- Place in a hot frying pan over medium heat and turn over after 30 seconds. Cook the second side for a minute, until small bubbles form. Spread a little oil over the top with the back of a teaspoon and turn again, spreading more oil on the reverse. The paratha should start to rise.
- Make sure it is cooked evenly on both sides, turning again if necessary. Repeat with the rest of the dough, keeping the cooked parathas warm in a towel.
The boondi add texture but the raita is still very good without them.
4 or more
- 50g boondi (crisp fried gram flour balls) easily available in Indian shops or big supermarkets
- 250ml natural yogurt
- 20ml milk
- 1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 1 tsp crushed black pepper
- ½ tsp chaat masala
- 2 tsp chopped fresh coriander
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tsp fresh pomegranate seeds
- Soak the boondi in warm water for five minutes, then drain. Lightly press in your palms to squeeze out the water, trying not to mash them. Put them in a deep bowl.
- Whisk the yogurt and milk lightly and add to the bowl, along with the spices, fresh coriander and salt. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
Aloo tikki chaat
Chaat is Indian street food, a fabulous explosion of flavour. This version has little potato cakes (aloo tikki) with spicy chickpeas and a garnish of chutney, yogurt and crunchy sprinkles called bhujia. Serve it at room temperature.
For the aloo tikki
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced in 2cm chunks
- 3 green chillies, chopped
- 1 shallot, peeled and chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tsp chopped fresh coriander
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 6 tsp oil, for frying
For the mint chutney
- 20g mint leaves
- 3 spring onions, chopped
- 2 green chillies with seeds
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 30ml water
For the spicy chickpeas
- 3 tsp extra virgin rapeseed oil
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ginger powder
- 1 tsp mango powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tsp tomato purée
- 20ml water
- 1 x 400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 3 tsp natural yogurt, whisked (add 10ml milk to make it runny )
- 3 tsp tamarind chutney (from Indian grocers)
- 3 tsp bhujia (crunchy chickpea flour sprinkles – Romy recommends the Halidram brand)
- 1 tsp pomegranate seeds
- 1 tsp chopped fresh coriander
- ½ tsp chaat masala (spice mix available from Indian grocers)
- To make the aloo tikki, boil the potatoes until soft, then mash with the rest of the ingredients apart from the oil.
- Divide into four balls and press them down like fish cakes. Put them in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the aloo tikki and cook both sides until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.
- For the mint chutney, whizz all the ingredients in a food processor to a smooth paste.
- To make the spicy chickpeas, heat the oil in a pan, add all the spices and salt. When it starts to sizzle, immediately add the tomato purée, then the water and the chickpeas.
- Stir and cook for four to five minutes on a low heat, then set aside.
- To assemble the chaat, put a teaspoon of mint chutney in the centre of each plate and lay two aloo tikki on top. Spoon over three or four tablespoons of the chickpeas. Dollop on the yogurt, the rest of the mint chutney and the tamarind chutney. Sprinkle with bhujia, pomegranate seeds, coriander, and finally the chaat masala. Eat straight away.
A deliciously sweet fragrant milky drink that is traditionally served at Holi. It can be made with milk or, as in Lucknow and in this vegan version, just with nuts.
For the spice blend
- 2 tsp fennel seeds
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- 3 tsp green cardamom seeds
- 3 tsp dry rose petals (some for garnish)
- 4in cinnamon stick
For the thandai
- 6 tbsp almonds, soaked overnight (and peeled if necessary)
- 6 tbsp cashew nuts, soaked overnight
- 3 tbsp melon seeds (available from Indian grocers)
- 8 tbsp white poppy seeds, soaked overnight
- A good pinch of saffron strands, soaked in 20ml of hot water
- 6 tbsp sugar dissolved in 40ml of hot water
- Grind the spice blend ingredients to a powder in a coffee grinder or spice grinder. Set aside.
- Blend the almonds, cashews and melon seeds to a smooth paste in a small food processor. Blend the poppy seeds separately. Combine both pastes with the saffron water, sugar water, spice blend and one litre of cold water.
- Chill in the fridge before serving, sprinkled with rose petals and more saffron water if you like.