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Taste Derbyshire – The Spice Sisters

Taste Derbyshire – The Spice Sisters
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When it comes to curry, I adopt a relaxed ‘Jamie Oliver’ approach and simply chop, chuck, dice and drizzle the contents of my entire store cupboard into a pot until I have something runny enough to stick on some rice.

I draw the line at using the nine-year-old tin of fruit cocktail. I stopped putting fruit in curry after realising tangerine was no substitute for lemon and that banana curry does not appear on your average takeaway menu for a reason. My husband still goes the colour of an unripe banana at the thought of it, 35 years on.

Veena Gost and her spice sister Nilam Wright are behind the Curry on Cooking spice kit – formulated to give British ex-pats their curry fix. They promise that just one masterclass will banish my ‘throw it in and pray’ approach to Indian cooking for good.

It was Veena and Nilam’s flair for cooking – and sense of fun – which made them such popular guests at BBQs in the Murcia region of Spain where Nilam and her family now live.

Veena and Nilam would take along things like pakoras and bhajis and curry-starved ex-pats would grill them about where to buy the spices. One ‘light bulb’ moment later and sisters came up with the idea for the ‘curry kit’ – a spice mix with ‘no hidden nasties’ (chemicals or colours) which comes stapled to a recipe card.

“It was funny we ended up launching a food business as Nilam and I didn’t want to learn anything about cooking as children,” laughs Veena. “My mum is one of the best cooks I have ever come across. The house was always full of people and mum would spend hours preparing a feast inspired by her Northern Indian heritage. Friends and family were always asking mum for recipes but Nilam and I were focussed on education and careers. From the age of nine, I wanted to become a journalist – not a housewife.”

Veena says she and Nilam sometimes felt self-conscious about eating different food from their schoolfriends. “Nilam and I were only talking the other day about our trips to Skegness when we’d often be the only Asian family on the beach,” she recalls.

“Mum would be up at 5am to make the most amazing picnics. She’d make things like spicy pickles and stuffed parathas but Nilam and I wanted to eat fish and chips like everyone else. Now we appreciate how hard she worked. Spices and other Indian staples were so hard to get in Derby in the 70s – we’d often go to Birmingham or London to stock-up. If anyone offered to bring something from India, mum would ask for something ‘exotic’ like a mango.”

Mum’s cooking was the first thing Veena missed after starting work in Southampton; “I lived on Derby Road which is fitting because I was always running to the phone box on the corner to ring home,” she recalls. “If I wanted a make a tarka – which is a mixture of spices fried in ghee or oil – I’d have to ring my mum and she’d talk me through the processes. Mum couldn’t read me a recipe because she has never written anything down. There’s no teaspoon or tablespoons, just a case of a ‘sprinkle of this, a sprinkle of that’.”

Whatever she says, an instinct for cooking is in Veena’s DNA. As I begin my chicken curry, Veena whips up ‘the best and quickest’ vegetable side-dish of courgette fried in spices. It’s made before I have time to chop a pepper.  But what’s truly fascinating is watching Veena ‘fine-tuning’ the flavour. There’s no recipe or measuring; Veena simply stands over the dish holding her spice tray like an artist’s palette – adding the odd pinch or two – until the masterpiece is complete.

Small wonder Veena’s cooking skills were often required when her sister Nilam, husband Darren and son Josh (14), emigrated to Spain in 2009.

“After a short time living in Malaysia, they finally settled in Murcia,” Veena explained.

“I was working for the BBC at the time but would visit them a few times a year. As spices are hard to get in Spain, I’d have to pack a load in my suitcase. For years, all my holiday clothes smelled of curry. We’d cook Indian food for our ex-pat friends and they’d tell us how much they really missed it. People started asking us to cook dishes for them.”

Although the number of Indian restaurants in Spain has increased in the last five years, Veena says they are often too expensive for ex-pats. As for home-cooking, while the Spanish supermarkets and shops stock saffron, paprika and cinnamon; things like coriander, cumin and fenugreek are much harder to get because they are not traditionally used in Spanish dishes.

“Inspiration struck while house-sitting for someone who had the most fabulous kitchen. Nilam and I don’t travel anywhere without our spice trays and we couldn’t resist the urge to cook” recalls Veena. “As we started cooking we decided to create a spice mix which could be used by ex-pats to make dishes like Balti and Aloo Gobi. We did little packs of spice, wrote the recipes out in long-hand on a A4 pad and gave them out to our friends for feed-back.”

The feed-back was so encouraging, the sisters started to approach traders. “I don’t think the irony hit us at the time but we were Indian girls from Derby looking for ‘English’ corner shops in Spain,” she laughs.

“We also gave a korma curry kit and our instructions to all the foodie friends of ours and said we wanted totally honest feedback. One of the most useful comments came from my nephew Josh, who was ten at the time. He did our ‘Bombay potato’ blend and the chunks of potato were far too big and he didn’t wash them. Quite rightly, he said there was nothing about preparing the potatoes in the instructions. We took all the feedback and spent months refining the ingredients and the branding.”

Veena and Nilam both agreed to go easy on the cook –  no complicated recipes or hours of preparation required.

“Mum would often spend all day in the kitchen but our motto is ‘KISS’ which stands for ‘Keep it simple sister,” she laughs. “That also applied to our brand and packaging. Nilam and I grew-up in Stenson Fields in Derby. We didn’t want traditional images of women, elephants or swirling paisley patterns on our packaging. We wanted it to be modern and fresh – no gold or pink. Our logo features a crown for our Britishness, on top of a wok which represents our love of Indian food.”

The only thing Veena is strict about is the ordering of the kits. “I have been known to reorganise shop displays as our curries go from mild to medium hot which means the kits should start with Korma and end with Madras,” she laughs. “Just as Ant and Dec always stand in name order – so do our curries.” Veena admits the venture wasn’t without risks. She’d already put money into an organic food delicatessen, while she was living in Manchester, only to see it fail in 2001 due to pressures of the recession.

“After we sold the shop, I did some freelance radio work including part-time shifts at Radio Derby which meant I divided my time between Manchester and my mum’s house in Repton,” Veena explains. “Nilam was breaking into more outlets in Spain and, as we were getting approached by businesses in the UK, I decided to make the curry kits my full-time job. I put my house in Manchester up for rent and moved in with mum. People sometimes ask how I could bear to give up journalism. I tell them I have had two loves in my life; food and the media. I’m currently working on a cookery book with Nilam which combines both my passions.”

Veena certainly puts her journalistic talents to good use when she’s promoting the products. “I do the press releases, I write columns and recipes in magazines both here and in Spain,” Veena says. “I recently did a feature on afternoon teas with an Indian twist for the Women’s Institute magazine. I did things like ‘salmon masala’ and ‘chai tea loaf’. We do like to put a bit of fun into our business and even put little messages like ‘that’s a bit saucy’ on our labels. I think that’s why a friend of ours recommended us to a TV company making a reality show in Spain.”

The friend was fitness instructor Anthony ‘Ant’ Horadada, a regular on Channel 5’s reality programme ‘Bargain-hunting Brits in the Sun’. The programme follows various ex-pats who have made a new life in or near Benidorm.

“Nilam lives about an hour down the coast from Benidorm but we knew Anthony as he used to live nearby and we’d drive over to his aqua classes when I was in Spain,” Veena explained.

“Ant is one of our biggest supporters and he told us we had ‘got to do’ the programme. The TV company interviewed us for one day and then filmed us going about our business over three days. The main story thread involved some of Ant’s Fat Fighters coming over to make a curry and some chapatis. It was funny because one of Ant’s ladies said she couldn’t stand hot food – and she had to be dragged away from the table in the end.”

The programme, which was screened in March, gave the sisters’ business an unexpected boost. “For 48 hours after the screening our on-line sales went through the roof,” smiles Veena. “We were also approached by bars and restaurants in Spain to do cookery demonstrations. The tikka masala masterclass sold 40 tickets straight-away. It’s odd because people keep approaching me to ask for a photograph. The last time I went to see Nilam, I was even asked to pose for a ‘selfie’ on the plane coming home.”

The surge in interest inspired the sisters to expand their business. They are currently adding two new products – Pakora mix and Biriyani rice – to their range.

Talking from Spain, Nilam says she is rushed off her feet; “We are getting some amazing feed-back and reviews about our ‘currilicious’ kits,” she laughs. “I am doing a lot of markets and I have great fun myth-busting about curry being unhealthy and fattening. There can be a lot of hidden sugars and fats in the ready-meals, jars and take-aways so it’s rewarding introducing people to a ‘proper’ curry mix which contains no additives, gluten, sugar and certainly no oil slick.”

This November, the sisters will host their first ever week-long cookery retreat at the up-market Akinon Spa and Resort in La Nucia, near Alicante, Spain. They are also keen to offer cooking demonstrations to groups, private parties and keen individuals.

I can heartily endorse the classes. Although Veena does like to keep her chapati rolling pin in her hand – it’s not used for chastisement; her classes are fun and relaxed. She doesn’t even disapprove of my ‘throw it all in’ and see what happens approach to cookery.

“We all adapt recipes to our own taste,” says Veena.

“The curry I love will be different from my mum’s and my sisters. Also, our spice trays will be personal to us too. Most contain seven spices we love but three or four we cannot live without – mine are black pepper which I often use instead of chilli, fenugreek, my blend of garam masala and halde or turmeric. It’s important to cook with the things you love – although perhaps not tangerines.”

Which is why – other than frying a base sauce from onion, ginger, chilli, garlic and spices and plopping it in a pan with some tomatoes – Veena turns the refining process over to me.

“What is it missing?” she asks repeatedly after urging me to keep tasting, tweaking, perfecting and ‘layering’ the sauce.

The answer is – not much. After a couple of hours instruction from Veena, my curry is a world away from my usual ‘nice but bland’ dish. But, as good as it is, Veena’s five-minute curry is the real star of the show. It has that enviable mix of experience, instinct and indefinable ‘magic’ which turn ordinary ingredients into something quite special.

“My dad used to believe in ‘mood food’ which meant eating things to improve your health and well-being and that’s how I cook today,” Veena says.

“Take garlic, did you know it is an aphrodisiac? It will put the va va voom back into your love life.”

“What did you learn?” my husband asks when Veena finally manages to escape from my kitchen.

I avoid all talk of garlic and tell him about how ridiculously easy chapati is to make. I also tell him I ‘may’ invest in my own spice tray.

Or maybe not.

Making two curries (Veena always prepares a wet and dry curry), raita, lemon chilli pickle and flat breads might be a fun way to spend an afternoon. But, on reflection, popping one of the spice sisters’ mixes onto some meat and adding it to a pan of tinned tomatoes is a much smarter move by far.

For more information about cookery courses and stockists, visit www.curryonccoking.com

Email; keepcalm@curryoncooking.com

or ring 07884188764

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