Ten years ago, I spent a few months living in northern India. Ever since, I have longed to be able to cook a decent Indian meal. My attempts to do so, however, have largely been unsuccessful. Indian food, to a greater extent than the cuisines of other countries, just doesn't seem to work for me. Take that most staple of dishes - dhal. Practically everyone in northern India eats dhal twice a day. I grew to love the stuff. If I had to choose one meal to eat for the rest of my life, it would undoubtedly be dhal and rice. Given dhal's ubiquity, you'd have thought it would be easy to cook. Yet when I've tried, the results have tended to be mushy and insufficiently spicy.
According to my friend Neha, the key to successful Indian cooking lies in getting the spices right. No great surprise there: but how exactly does one do this? Last week, I went round to Neha's flat, and we cooked a meal together. She produced a Tupperware box, in which she keeps her spices. Most were brought over from Mumbai by her mother, who visited recently. There were jars of jeera (cumin), turmeric, chilli powder, ground coriander, black mustard seed, dried red chillies and garam masala (the most common spice mix).
Neha put the dhal on first. She put a handful of yellow lentils in a pan, and then added water from the tap. There was no measuring, which surprised me: I'd always assumed there must be some magic ratio of water to lentils. "Oh no," she shrugged. "I just do it by sight." She added a capful of turmeric and a substantial amount of salt (about a teaspoonful) and left the lentils to simmer slowly.
Neha began to make other dishes. Diced potatoes and cauliflower florets were added to a pan of oil and ginger, and left to cook "dry". Cashew nuts were ground with a little water to form a thick paste, which was then slowly fried with garlic and tomato puree - this was to be the base for the "butter chicken". Basmati rice was put on to cook (again, no measuring) and a raita of grated cucumber, yoghurt, mint and chilli powder was whizzed up. Neha kept delving into her spice box. I'm afraid I lost track of which spices went into which dish.
In a couple of hours the meal was ready. My friend heated some chapattis and put a jar of her grandmother's Kashmiri chilli pickle on the table. We ate, in proper Indian style, with our hands. Neha told me that she had never cooked in her life before coming to Britain. She didn't learn from recipe books; she simply knew what to do, having watched her mother as a child. She must have watched carefully, for her food was delicious. It struck me that Indian food, if it is to be learned, has to be learned like this - as a child, by watching. If you don't already "know" how to do it, perhaps you never will.