Sneak Peak in an Indian Kitchen

Hot Stuff RestaurantOne of my fantasies is to go to India and learn to cook from the people who invented dal, channa masala, and numerous other favorite foods of mine. Last night at Hot Stuff, I felt pretty close.

Stu (The Damp Cad) invited Tim and I to Hot Stuff after seeing one of my dal recipes on SmarterFitter.

“Hot stuff is LEGENDARY,” he said. “I’ve been such a long time customer that we’ll get various freebies chucked in PLUS!! If you ask nicely and go early enough you can go into the kitchens and watch your order be cooked.”

How could I refuse an offer like that?

So last night Tim and I ventured to Vauxhall where we found Hot Stuff down a quiet little sidestreet handily located next to an off license where we picked up a few Tiger beers before we found our table (Hot Stuff is unlicensed and does not charge a corkage fee… in fact, it’s pretty hard to tell what Hot Stuff charges for. More on that later).

Cooking with FireThe dining room barely seats 20 people and every table but one was taken. The crowd was buzzing under the soft blue lights and strings of chili peppers dangling from the ceiling. Stu wasn’t lying about the staff – I’ve never been to a friendlier place in London. This felt more like a house party than a restaurant, and like all good parties, this one ended up in the kitchen.

A little bit of tomato paste...Although the kitchen was even smaller than the dining room and already filled with at least four cooks, they didn’t mind packing us in to have a look at the operations and take some photos. It was all sparks and fire as the cook whip up a shrimp biryani. “This is punjabi style,” he explained and he seasoned it from the handy tins of spices sitting above the stove.

“Four basic spices form the foundation of almost every dish: turmeric, ground coriander, chili, and garam masala.”

The kitchen envy really kitched in when I watched another cook prepare the naan. I’ve never been so close to a tandoori oven before. As a lover of naan, chapati and all things bready, this was very exciting. Even though the oven was hotter than hell, I got chills.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to a restaurant kitchen before, even when I used to wait tables at Perkins in Champaign, Illinois. What impressed me most was how SIMPLE cooking seemed when everything you need to cook with is out and ready to go.

Spice StationIn addition to their spice station, Hot Stuff also had a table with big bowls of pre-chopped garlic, ginger, fried and ground onion, tomato paste, salt, ghee of course. I aspire to be so organized. I also aspire to have their ability to use these spices without needing a measuring spoon.

So the kitchen was smokin’. What about the food?

Hot Stuff is not strictly vegetarian, but there were plenty of veggie options to choose from, including a couple of specials. We started with bhajis, like vegetable fritters. They were crispy on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside, but the chutney didn’t do them justice. No worries – the chili paneer made up for it – what could be better than soft, spicy nuggets of cheesy goodness?

Dinner is servedStu said the spinach and butternut squash curry would make us feel like we had “died and gone to heaven”. I wouldn’t go that far, though this may be a personal bias – I love the flavor of spinach and butternut squash on their own, but they seemed to get lost when put together. Still, it was enjoyable, as was the sliced cabbage curry. The split channa dal was delicious.

Like most Indian restaurants, all of the dishes came with a liberal dose of ghee, just shy of being too over the top. The exception was the garlic coriander chili naan, which looked like a halo on our table, and indeed tasted like it came from above. If any of the other dishes were lacking, the naan picked it up and put it in its place: right into my hungry mouth.

If it weren’t for Raj and the awesomely cool people who run Hot Stuff, this might be just another Indian restaurant on just another tiny street in London. But Hot Stuff definitely is special. It’s more an experience than a restaurant. And you can’t beat it for the price. Dinner for three with leftovers and a tour of the kitchen cost just £35. Could this be right? There was no way of knowing – the waiter just told us the price without handing us an actual bill.

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Hot recipe:

Hot Stuff’s Lentil Dal with Courgette

Courgette – that’s the same as zucchini for you American folks! Stu learned this recipe from the cooks and passed it on to me. These are his words, and I hope you’ll enjoy his English vernacular. 🙂

150g red split lentils
2 gloves of garlic finely chopped or pressed
1 finely chopped onion
1 finely chopped green chilli
bunch of fresh coriander
2 medium courgettes sliced lengthways
pinch of cumin
salt and pepper
300g creamed tomato, tomato frito, or passata
olive oil

Put some of the chopped coriander with the sliced courgette on a plate and marinate with olive oil for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat a griddle pan and lay on the courgette slices. Cook well on both sides.

At the same time in either a large frying pan or large saucepan (i use the latter), heat 2 tablespoons of oil and chuck in your garlic, chilli and onion. Sweat them for a few minutes (but don’t crisp up or burn). Then throw in your split lentils, stir and coat all the lentils and then pour in your tomatoes. If you’ve used a jar then pour in the same amount of water plus half again. I swill around the water in the tomato jar to make sure nothings been missed.

Heat a pretty fierce flame for a few minutes whilst stirring to ensure nothing sticks. Then turn down to a steady simmer – ensuring the non-sticking principle during the cooking process!

When you turn the heat down take your cooked courgettes, dice them and put in the mix. Stir, and add in the coriander. (Being a big fan of said herb, I chuck in loads, but put in as much as your comfortable with.)

Season with salt and pepper, add the cumin, if you have some paprika add that as well. If you love hot food you can of course put 2 chillis in at the beginning.

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