Spice Box: Easy, Everyday Indian Meals


Readers of this column will know about my love affair for India and the enormous variety of tantalising Indian food. Consequently, I was overjoyed to be asked recently to launch Indian Chef Sunil Ghai’s first book ‘Spice Box: Easy, Everyday Indian Food’.
There’s a bit of history here, my first taste of Sunil’s food when he was cooking in Ananda in Dundrum in the early 2000’s stopped me mid-sentence. I was curious, who exactly was the chef behind these delicious flavours,  then Sunil Ghai emerged from the kitchen…
Up until then, Indian food on restaurant menus on this side of the world seemed far from authentic and rarely reflected the diversity of flavours I’d enjoyed in India.
For decades I’d travelled widely all over the sub-continent, loving the variety of food from the street stalls and dhabas to restaurant and hotel kitchens.  Most of all, I loved the home cooking when we were fortunate enough to be invited into people’s houses.
I’ve eaten Sunil’s food on many, many occasions since then and have invited him to teach at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and to participate in the Ballymaloe LitFest.
Over and over again, I encouraged Sunil to write a book to share his cooking, not just with his many devotees but with a wider audience who would love to be able to cook authentic Indian food, particularly the kind of home cooking often with a contemporary twist that Sunil and his team serve at his restaurants Pickle and Street in Dublin and Tiffin in his adopted town of Greystones.
Sunil originally learned how to cook by watching his mother lovingly prepared home cooked meals for her extended family, hungry to learn more he worked in restaurant kitchens of both the Taj and Oberai hotels in India and eventually made his way to Ireland to collaborate with another giant of authentic Indian cuisine Asheesh Dewan of Jaipur and Ananda fame.
Sunil is a master of spices, his food and culinary skills have earned him many awards over the years. In 2009, Sunil was Food and Wine’s Chef of the Year and once again in 2013, he was chosen as chef of the year by the Restaurant Association of Ireland, the first Indian Chef to have been awarded that accolade in Ireland. Meanwhile, Sunil, his wife Lena, and their team were super busy and running three restaurants.
Penguin publishers commissioned the book in 2020, Now at last, due to great measure to Kristin Jensen who chased Sunil around the busy kitchens standing between him, and the scales to capture his spontaneous cooking, she tested and retested the recipes until they were happy that readers would be able to recreate Sunil’s exact flavours in their own kitchens with ingredients, they could easily source and might even have in the kitchen cupboard.
Spice Box is the result, packed from cover to cover with recipes that you too are going to love and by the way, this is the first cookbook by an Indian chef on Indian food published in Ireland.

Here’s a taste to whet your appetite.

All recipes are from ‘Spice Box: Easy, Everyday Indian Food’ by Sunil Ghai published by Penguin

Mulligatawny Soup (Dal Shorba)

This is practically the national soup of India.  It was a big shock to me when I arrived in Ireland and didn’t see any soups on the menus at any of the Indian restaurants; even when I put soup on my own menu, it never sold well.  I think that’s a shame, as there is so much goodness in a bowl of soup.  Keep this vegetarian by leaving out the cooked shredded chicken at the end.

Prep Note 

Measure out your spices into two separate bowls: one bowl for the whole spices and one for the Madras curry powder and turmeric for the soup. 

Prepare and measure out all the remaining ingredients before you start cooking so that everything is ready to go and the spices don’t burn.

1.Cook the lentils

200g dried red lentils 

Soak the lentils in just enough water to cover them for 20 minutes.

2.Cook the whole spices 

50ml vegetable oil 

15-20 black peppercorns 

2 star anise 

1 fresh or dried red chilli, cut in half 

½ tsp fennel seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds 

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat.  Add the peppercorns, star anise, red chilli, fennel seeds and cumin seeds and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant. 

3.Make the soup

100g sliced fresh pineapple 

1 small red onion, thinly sliced (70g)

1 small carrot, thinly sliced (50g)

½ green apple, cored and thinly sliced (60g)

1 fresh green chilli, halved lengthways

1 tbsp grated or finely chopped fresh ginger 

1 ½ tsp fine sea salt 

50g fresh or desiccated coconut 

2 tbsp Madras curry powder 

1 ½ tsp ground turmeric 

Add the pineapple, onion, carrot, apple, green chilli, ginger and salt and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the soaked lentils (including their soaking water) along with the coconut, curry powder and turmeric and 800ml water.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils, fruit and vegetables are all completely soft.

Blend everything, including the whole spices and the red and green chilies (although you can take the chilies out at this stage if you prefer), with a hand-held blender until smooth.  Stir in another 200-400ml water to thin the soup – it shouldn’t be too thick. 

4.To Finish

cooked basmati rice 

cooked shredded chicken (optional)

4-6 tbsp coconut milk 

handful of chopped fresh coriander 

1 lime, cut into wedges 

Put a little rice and/or chicken (if using) in the bottom of each bowl, then pour over the soup and add an extra spoonful of rice on top.  Garnish with a drizzle of coconut, milk and chopped fresh coriander, then squeeze over some lime juice.  Let each person stir everything together in their own bowl.

Fish Cakes with Masala Mayo (Machhi Ki Tikki)

When I was opening a restaurant in 2005, Indian-spiced fish wasn’t being served anywhere.  We wanted to create a dish that everyone would love, so we came up with these fish cakes.  They were so popular that we put them on the menus of the entire restaurant group – they were still on the menu when I left the group 14 years later.

These fish cakes are a fusion of Indian and Thai food and are the perfect way to use up leftover cooked fish.  I usually use cod, salmon or even stone bass, but any fish will work.  I don’t like to use fresh fish for fish cakes because I find the texture to be too bouncy, but if you’re making these from scratch, start with 500g fresh, uncooked fish and cook it on a baking tray in the oven at 220°C (200°C fan)/Gas Mark 7 for about 15 minutes, until cooked through.

Prep Note

Measure out your spices into two separate small bowls: one bowl for the paprika, fennel, turmeric and salt for the masala mayo and one for the fennel seeds, nigella seeds and turmeric for the fish cakes.

Prepare and measure out all the remaining ingredients before you start cooking so that everything is ready to go and the spices don’t burn.

1. Make the Pickle

1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

6 stems of fresh dill, roughly torn

4 tbsp white wine vinegar

2 tsp grated of finely grated chopped fresh ginger

1 tsp fine sea salt

Mix together the cucumber, red onion, dill, vinegar, ginger and salt in a small bowl and set aside for 30 minutes to lightly pickle while you make the fish cakes, then drain.   

2. Cook the potatoes

500g Rooster or Maris Piper potatoes, peeled

Cook the whole potatoes in a saucepan of boiled salted water until cooked through but still holding their shape.  Drain and set aside to cool, then grate using the large hole on the box grater.

3. Make the Masala Mayo

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped

¼ fresh red chilli, finely chopped

1 tbsp grated or finely chopped fresh ginger

1 tsp paprika

½ tsp fennel seeds, ground in a pestle and mortar

pinch of ground turmeric

¼ tsp fine sea salt

squeeze of lemon juice

2 tbsp mayonnaise

Heat the oil in a small frying pan over a medium heat, then remove the pan from the heat.  Add the green and red chillies, ginger, ground spices, salt and a squeeze of lemon, then transfer to a bowl and allow to cool before stirring in the mayonnaise until well combined.  Chill in the fridge while you finish making the fish cakes.

4.Cook the fish cakes

1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for frying

1 tbsp grated or finely chopped fresh ginger

1 ½ tsp grated or finely chopped garlic

1 ½ tsp fennel seeds

½ tsp nigella seeds

¼ tsp ground turmeric

50g shop-bought Thai red curry paste

300g leftover cooked fish (or 500g fresh fish – see intro)

handful of chopped fresh coriander

5-10 fresh mint leaves, chopped 

While the potatoes are boiling and cooling, heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat.  Add the ginger, garlic, fennel seeds, nigella seeds and turmeric and cook for 1 minutes, then add the curry paste and stir to combine.  Reduce the heat to low and cook for 3-4 minutes more, stirring constantly so that the paste doesn’t stick or burn. 

Flake the cooked fish into a large bowl, using this opportunity to make sure there are no bones.  Add the spiced curry paste, grated potato and fresh herbs and mix until well combined.  Divide into eight portions and form each one into a cake roughly 5cm across.

Heat some oil in a large non-stick frying pan over a medium heat.  Working in batches if necessary, so that you don’t crowd the pan, add the fish cakes and cook for 5 minutes on each side, until golden brown and heated through (remember, the fish and potato are already cooked).

To Serve

Serve the fish cakes with a spoonful of the masala mayo, a pinch of flaky sea salt on top and some pickled cucumbers and red onions on the side. 

Egg Curry (Anda Curry)

Many years ago, the food writer Alex Meehan asked me if I’d serve egg curry, as he had fond memories of his father making it.  I thought it was such a simple dish that no one would want to order it, but I put it on my menu just for him. 

Prep Note

Measure out your spices into four separate small bowls: one bowl for the turmeric and paprika for the eggs; one for the whole spices; one for the ground coriander, paprika, cumin, turmeric and mace or nutmeg for the curry; and one for the garam masala to finish.

Prepare and measure out all the remaining ingredients before you start cooking so that everything is ready to go and the spices don’t burn. 

1.Cook the eggs

4-8 eggs

pinch of ground turmeric

pinch of paprika

1 tbsp vegetable oil

To hard-boil the eggs, place them in a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them by about 1cm.  Bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 6 minutes for a softer yolk and 7 minutes if you like it to be cooked through.  As soon as they are cooked, drain and cool them rapidly under cold running water before peeling and leaving whole.

Lightly score each peeled hard-boiled egg three or four times on one side with a small sharp knife, then place in a bowl with a pinch of turmeric and paprika and toss to coat.  Heat the tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat.  Add the eggs and cook for 2 minutes just to give them a bit of colour and to crisp up the outside a bit.  Set aside.

2.Cook the whole spices

50ml vegetable oil

3-4 green cardamom pods

2 cloves

2 bay leaves

1 fresh or dried red chilli, halved lengthways

½ tsp cumin seeds

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat.  Add the cardamom pods, cloves, bay leaves, red chilli and cumin seeds and cook for 1 minute until fragrant. 

3.Make the curry 

2 large red onions (300g), finely diced 

2 tsp fine sea salt 

1 fresh green chilli, halved lengthways 

1 tbsp grated or finely chopped fresh ginger 

1 tbsp grated or finely chopped garlic 

1 ½ tbsp ground coriander 

1 ½ tsp paprika 

1 tsp ground cumin 

1 tsp ground turmeric 

pinch of ground mace or nutmeg 

2 large ripe tomatoes (200g), chopped 

1 tbsp tomato purée 

Add the onions and salt and cook for 5-8 minutes, until softened.  Add the green chilli, ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes more.

Add the ground spices and 50ml water so that the spices don’t burn.  Cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes more, until they’ve started to soften.  Stir in the tomato purée and cook for 1-2 minutes to cook out its raw flavour, then pour in another 400ml water and stir to combine.

Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and thickened a little, then blend briefly, including the whole spices and halved chillies, with a hand-held blend blender.  You don’t want it to be completely smooth; there should still be plenty of texture.  This curry is also quite thin because it’s traditionally served with lots of rice. 

4.To finish 

40ml cream 

1 lemon wedge

handful of chopped fresh coriander 

pinch of garam masala 

Stir the cream into the curry, then add the eggs and simmer for a few minutes, until they’ve heated through.  Add a squeeze of lemon, then fold in the chopped fresh coriander and a pinch of garam masala.  Remove the pan from the heat and allow the curry to settle for 5 minutes.

Serve with plain boiled basmati rice and warm naan (shop bought or homemade).

Mint and Coriander Chutney (Dhaniya Pudina Ki Chutney)

This chutney is the freshest thing you can eat – it brightens up just about anything.  You’ll find this chutney everywhere in India, but a lot of places often don’t use the right proportion of mint and coriander.  My mother would never use a blender when making this, but rather would pound it by hand in a pestle and mortar, it makes a lot, but you can cut the amounts in half if you don’t need quite so much.

1 green apple, skin on, cored and roughly chopped 

4 small fresh green chilies, roughly chopped 

juice of 2 lemons 

3 tbsp olive oil 

1 tsp fine sea salt 

½ tsp caster sugar 

3-4 ice cubes 

70g fresh mint (leaves and stems if they aren’t tough or woody)

50g fresh coriander (leaves and stems)

Put the apple, green chilies, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, sugar and ice cubes in a blender and blitz until combined.  The ice is needed to counteract the heat from the blades of the food processor or blender, which would discolour the fresh herbs and make your chutney turn black instead of the vibrant green it should be.

Add the fresh mint and coriander and blend again.  You may need to add more oil or ice cubes to get it to blend and combine.

Transfer to a clean jar and store in the fridge for 1-2 days.

Indian Rice Pudding (Kheer)

Whenever there is a celebration, festival or birthday in my family there will be rice pudding (kheer), so it always makes me think of the feasts we had at home.  My sister and I would eat it very slowly to make it last until everyone else had finished their share.  When I met my wife, Leena, this was the first thing she made for me.

Prep Note

Prepare and measure out all the spices and ingredients before you start cooking so that everything is ready to go.

1.Rinse and soak the rice

75g basmati rice 

Rinse the rice a few times in a big bowl of water.  After rinsing, leave the rice to soak for 30 minutes, then drain.  Rinsing the rice like this gets rid of any impurities.

2.Soak the coconut 

40g grated fresh coconut, dedicated coconut or dried coconut flakes 

If you’re using desiccated coconut or dried coconut flakes instead of fresh grated coconut, you need to soak it in a small bowl of hot water first. 

3.Make the rice pudding 

40g butter or ghee

4 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed open 

50g sultanas 

20g chopped pistachios 

2 litres full-fat milk  

Melt the butter or ghee in a large heavy-based saucepan or casserole over a medium heat.  Add the cardamom pods and drained rice and stir gently to coat the rice in the butter, then add the sultanas, almonds, pistachios and milk.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes.

4.To finish 

90g caster sugar 

80g almond or cashew nuts 

tiny pinch of saffron (10 threads)

few drops of rosewater (optional)

Add the sugar, nut butter, coconut (either the fresh grated coconut or the soaked and drained dried coconut), saffron and rosewater (if using).  Simmer gently for another 10 minutes, stirring every now and then so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan now that you’ve added the sugar.  You want the rice to be completely soft and broken down in this pudding.

To Serve

This rice pudding can be served hot or cold, with a handful of chopped pistachios, cashews or walnuts and a few saffron threads scattered on top. 

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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