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masala chai

2 Feb

chai 2

The Grape Leaf Club made an Indian dinner this week. Largely based around Kerala (and therefore coconut) we had fish curry with tamarind, thoran, freshly steamed idlis and daal. Dessert was French-Indian inspired, a rice pudding with cardamom, pomegranate and kumquat like jewels on top. My kitchen is still under renovation, so the spice jars are all in bags in the sitting room, to be fetched one by one. As small as it is, at one point there were five people in the little space, chopping, washing up, shrieking as the pomegranate hit the floor with a horror-movie splash of red.

Later on, looking over my notes to find the thoran recipe, I glanced over Mrs Leelu’s masala chai (literally ‘spiced tea’) and the words ‘add pepper if you have a cold’ jumped out at me. The season of scratchy throats and runny noses has crept up on me, and my eyes are heavy, at half-mast.The idea of a hot, sweet, fiercely spicy tea could not have been more appealing. (Actually, in the book I am reading, Spice: The History of a Temptation, the Romans used pepper to cure all kinds of unsightly ailments as well as seasoning their stuffed, grilled dormice.) I went straight home to make a pot of chai.

Paris five years ago had not heard of chai, outside of the Indian area around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord. Now more and more cafes offer a chai latte, sometimes just a disappointing cup of hot milk with a tea ball floating in it, slowly turning the milk beige. The best one I have found so far (after an extensive survey) is at Bob’s Bakeshop, also near La Chapelle. (“What’s that you wrote down? Bob’s Bobo Shop?” a friend asked, squinting at my handwriting. She was not far off: it is a modern American-style bakery that does excellent bagels, proper Belleville Brulerie coffee and attracts all the bobos, or rich hippies, in the quartier. Their chai latte was properly aromatic with a thick mousse of foam on top, sweet but not too sweet. And they will do a ‘dirty chai’ Australian-style if you ask, with a shot of espresso.)

In any case, the chai I tasted in India was totally different, not a large latte but a small glass of liquid energy, to be refilled time and again. At the Jaipur literary festival, it was served in little terracotta pots brushed with gold and green swirls. (I collected them to take home, since they would have been thrown away otherwise. Had to buy six cups of tea to make a set, at the exorbitant price of 20 rupees each.) At the railway stations it came in plastic cups almost like espresso. We didn’t have to get off the train as the vendors would come rushing down the corridor with their kettles before the train pulled away again. In Kerala it smelled overwhelmingly of cardamom. Chai chai chai chai. When I came home after a month, British tea tasted bitterly disappointing and I had to stop myself from adding six teaspoons of sugar. However I did bring two bags of cardamom, 300g each, that I have slowly been using up.

Adjust the spices to your taste – I used the maximum amount of ginger and cardamom and some nutmeg as well (not in the recipe, not native to India either, as I learned in Spice, but to the Molucca islands in the Philippines). Sugar or honey can be added later on too, if people have different preferences. I plan on drinking the whole litre myself over this afternoon, if the kitten draped over my arm will allow me to get up to go back to the kitchen. Serve in small glasses or cups.


Mrs Leelu’s Masala Chai

375ml (1 1/2 cups) milk (or soy milk if you prefer)

750ml (3 cups) water

1 small cinnamon stick

2-4 cardamom pods, crushed

5-15g ginger, grated (approx size of piece of ginger: top joint of thumb)

1/4 nutmeg, grated

several generous grinds black pepper

10g (4 tsp) black tea leaves

40g (3-4 tbs) sugar

In a large saucepan, bring to a boil water, milk and spices. Add tea leaves and sugar and continue to boil gently for 5-10 minutes until it becomes a nice caramel colour. Taste to check. Strain and serve piping hot in small glasses or cups.

homemade ginger juice

29 Mar

ginger juice

Two of my favourite bars in Paris serve homemade ginger juice, both from unlabelled plastic bottles. Both are peppery enough to give you a kickstart, no alcohol needed. One is the Bar Ourcq, a bright blue cafe by the Canal de l’Ourcq that lends out deckchairs and pétanque sets in the summer months. They have board-games inside too (including Trivial Pour-Sweet as a French friend of mine insists on calling it). On the countertop around 7pm, they lay out a saucisson, bread, olives and crisps for the apéritif. The other day when it was too cold to sit on a bench at sunset as I planned, I was grateful to find exactly enough change in my pockets (three centimes to spare!) to pay for a ginger juice and a spot in the corner amid the hubbub of regulars. And despite the ice-cube, it warmed me right up.

The other bar serves an even stronger version, at the quirky Comptoir Général. It styles itself as a “ghetto-museum of Françafrique” (the history and culture of French Africa) and is filled with artwork, taxidermied animals, political posters, trees, and a vintage shop upstairs. The food is fantastic, served up as if from a street stall, and the cocktails potent. For non-drinkers, they have maracuja and bissap juice (passion-fruit and hibiscus, respectively) and the house ginger juice. I asked how it was made, and the girl behind the bar said just grated ginger and sugar. I love the fire of ginger and often eat the crystallised version by the handful. But it isn’t that common in France, even their pain d’épices, a sweet spiced loaf we would call gingerbread doesn’t traditionally have ginger in it.

Google informs me that it is actually a specialty of west Africa – Mali, Senegal and the Cote d’Ivoire – called Gnamakoudji, and often mixed with pineapple juice. With a blender it was the work of two minutes, then several hours to steep. The leftover ginger pulp can be recycled, for it will still have some flavour. Freeze it and break off in chunks to liven up curries, soups, noodles. (I have an excellent recipe coming with an excess of garlic and ginger, this makes it even easier.)

Neat, the juice works almost as well as coffee in the morning. Fiery and lightly sweet. Over lots of ice, it makes for an excellent pre-dinner drink when you don’t feel like alcohol. With pineapple juice and slices of orange it would make for a beautiful punch, rum optional.

ginger juice, recipe

Homemade ginger juice.

200g fresh ginger

1 small lemon

1 litre water

80g icing sugar

Peel and chop the ginger into rough chunks. Cut both ends off the lemon and slice off the peel so that none of the white pith is left. Blend ginger and lemon in a food processor to a pulp. Add a little of the water if necessary. (Or grate the ginger by hand and juice the lemon – more time-consuming.) Mix the ginger, lemon and water in a large bowl. Cover and leave for a few hours or overnight. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pushing with the back of a spoon to extract all the juice then stir in the icing sugar until it dissolves. Freeze the leftover pulp, which will still have some flavour, for use in soups and curries.

Pour into a bottle and keep in the fridge for a week or so. Serve over ice with a splash of water if the ginger taste is too strong. Mix with half pineapple juice for a refreshing summer drink. Add a splash to herbal tea or honey and lemon when it’s cold; or, of course, use in cocktails and fruit punch.


paris apéros : l’antipode

30 Sep

canal de l'ourcq, da cruz graffiti

On my run along the canal the other day, I noticed a few novelties sprung up since the summer holidays. There were a group of teenagers slacklining between the trees (like tightrope walking, close to the ground). Someone had hung up four or five birdcages in another tree, each full of coloured parakeets for sale. There was some new street art: someone had cemented green tile mosaic frogs (not pixellated like Space Invaders but realist) low down near the playground, and a blue dog by the bridge. My beloved canal, the centre of my quartier, the 19th arrondissment is becoming more and more cool – no sign more obvious than the new frozen yoghurt stand near the MK2 cinemas. And the hipster with a ponytail and a ukelele case, giant teddybear in his bikebasket.

Every now and then an English magazine will run a story about the Canal St Martin as the lastest hip spot in Paris – in wide-eyed wonder, almost, they let you in on this secret area beyond the Marais, way beyond the Latin quarter and miles from the Eiffel Tower. It has bars by the water, boutiques, plenty of space for picnics and a little park. Rarely do they go up as far as MY canal, actually the same one further north, with a different name: the Canal de l’Ourcq. When I moved here three years ago I didn’t know the area at all well except as between Montmartre and Belleville, about five past two on the Parisian clockface. It had that cinema festival which seemed so far from the centre (all of 25 minutes on the metro).

I came to see the apartment, already paid for, on a cold January morning. Our street had a drab pizzeria, a miscellaneous Asian restaurant, a kebaberie and a large bakery on the corner. The apartment was large and light with two small balconies, so I approved the Italian’s choice. We celebrated with pizzas and Peronis amongst our suitcases. Over the next few weeks, we found that the surroundings streets contained Indian, African, Chinese and kosher supermarkets.

What seemed to be an unprepossessing area, inbetween, plain, turned out to be a godsend. First we discovered the 104, the old state morgue, now a centre for art and community, with a bookshop, junkshop, cafe and a sort of indoor village square where mothers share sandwiches and breakdancers practice all hours of the day. Then there are the two best parks in Paris in the 19th: the Buttes Chamont up the hill on my own street, and the enormous Villette where they have that film festival, a concert hall and the science museum. When I run past there is always something going on. Once I got to see the soundcheck for De La Soul. My run was cut short, as I watched in wonder, audience of one.

canal de l'ourcq, bar ourcq

Between the Villette and the square at Stalingrad there are numerous bars. There is the newly renovated rotonda that now hosts brunches and parties. There are the bars at the two cinemas that reflect neon rainbows of colour into the water at night. There is the Bar Ourcq where you can get wine, beer, a killer homemade ginger juice and best of all, you can help yourself to balls for pétanque. Throughout the spring, summer, autumn there will be groups of people with crisps and beers lazily throwing those metal balls at their target, whooping when they knock their friends out of the way. There are table tennis tables too: bring a bat and ball for a match with a friend or a cheap date.

My favourite though is the Antipode, a bar on a boat, one of those large, long péniches. On the same stretch of water there is also a cinema péniche, one for opera and one that is a floating cave à vins. Stop by on the way home from work for a recommendation on the right bottle to match your lamb stew. Everything is better for the novelty of being on a boat. (Similar to the wider phenomenon of living in the Disneyland of a foreign culture, everything is an Adventure.) The Antipode will sell you a glass of wine at €2, a plate of tapas or a selection of cheeses that you can take up onto the deck and sit right on the water, watching the reflections. It is cosy, relaxed enough to allow you to bring in a birthday cake to accompany your pints (staff bribed with a slice of course). They have plays and concerts in the belly of the boat too.

When the boat disappeared over the summer, I was panicked that it wouldn’t return. It had moved out of the way of the Paris Plages, now including the Canal de l’Ourcq not just the Seine. But I found it on another run, 3km further along by the abandoned factory with incredible graffiti. And in September it came back to its usual spot, half way up, just past the footbridge that bounces.

canal de l'ourcq, peniche antipode

There is so much I love about this area, now, now that I have traced most of it on endless runs. I love the graffiti art from Da Cruz and Marko 93 that form whole murals on condemned walls. This summer photos from JR, of the project and film ‘Women are Heroes‘, with his classic black and white, expressive faces were pasted along the bridges. As the area becomes more gentrified, buildings are being knocked down and made into high-rises. Which means, sadly, the graffiti is disappearing. I learned the word for this: embourgeoisement. Bourgeoisification? There is an organic supermarket and the aforementioned frozen yoghurt stand. The pair of bistros (one red, one blue) near the Antipode are always packed with locals, so if you get too cold in the boat you can escape inside for aubergine-parmesan crumble, a large gigot d’agneau and a slab of pear tart.

While it is still warm, I will making the most of the canal, walking back from the cinema at night, watching the grey mist over the rooftops from my breakfast coffee in the corner bar and huddling around a rickety table in the convivial atmosphere of the Antipode. Anyone up for an apéro?

La Péniche Antipode – 55 quai de Seine, 75019 – metro: Riquet, line 7

a campari cocktail for ferragosto

14 Aug

grapefruit campari

You can find a microcosm of France in its swimming pools. The outdoor ones are only open for two months in the summer – certainly no quibbling, heatwave or not. Rules are important, even in leisure time. Once I dared to ask to borrow a kickboard – un kickboard, apparently – and the (admittedly Parisian) lifeguard explained patiently that, since the pool would close in September, they had already given away all the equipment. This was at the beginning of July. . .

Here in the south, the water is beautifully warm. Our visits to the local pool mark an otherwise lazy day in the garden, planning what to eat next. Normally we go to the market first, stock up on warm baguettes and enormous tomatoes. Today we found “pineapple tomatoes” with succulent yellow flesh, perfect with ripe avocado and a sprinkling of salt. The lady at the vegetable stall was the best dancer at the annual garlic festival, I whisper to my mother. Which one? The diminutive sixty-something lady, with a twinkle in her eye – she was leading the line dancing last year.

When we have bought a case of peaches, tasted all the cheeses, and walked past the duck stall two or three times to swipe a bit of melting rillettes on toast, we go down to the swimming pool. It opens at twelve o’clock precisely, when most people go home for lunch. It is empty enough for us to do laps, for my stuntman brother to practise turns and jumps. In the afternoon there will be crowds of kids bombing down the slides, then begging for icecream. At midday there are a few locals, a granny or two and most notably, the man with one hairy shoulder. Every year, we try to figure it out. Only one shoulder. Hairy enough to wave like seaweed in the water, while the other is bare. Mystery.

Anyway, the most French of all these routines is that of the pretty lifeguard. She takes two weeks off in August. Even in high holiday season, she must have her break too. The pool is only open for two months, and she takes a holiday. Bien sûr!

My brother and I had swimming lessons every summer in France when we were small. He hated it – he hated not understanding the French. I acquiesced. The lifeguard had a different bikini for every day of the week, and a long pole she used to stop children from clinging to the side of the pool, not unkindly. No coddling. Probably why our neighbours’ kids are so well-behaved: they sit at the table for a dinner party and make polite and funny conversation. I was glad to see that nothing had changed twenty years on – a new lifeguard, but still a shivering child with floats around his waist, and a long pole.

Tomorrow is the quinze aout, or the Italian ferragosto – a sacred holiday in memory of the Annunication but mainly for the time-honoured right to faire le pont and take Friday off too. Two of my favourite Italians are coming to visit for the long weekend. We will be drinking my new favourite  summer cocktail, invented on one of the hottest days. A generous measure of Campari, half a glass of pink grapefruit juice and the rest topped up with sparkling water. Plenty of ice, of course. I’m afraid I couldn’t come up with a better name than ‘The Spinster’ since it is pink and gloriously bitter. I revel in the sharp tang of the long cool drink. It reminds me of all the Spritzes I have drunk with said Italians, in the days when we were all single, if not yet spinsters.

Possibly the pool will be closed tomorrow – it is the quinze aout after all – but if not, we will go for a splash there, and come home in time for sunset, where we will sit on the terrace with clinking glasses and wonder what is for supper.


The Spinster

makes one very generous long drink

50ml Campari

200ml pink grapefruit juice

200ml sparkling water

In a very large glass, mix all ingredients. Taste, adjust, add ice. Garnish with a slice of orange or grapefruit.

goat’s cheese, walnut and chutney tartlets

2 Aug

For a summer evening by the lake in the artificially natural Buttes-Chaumont park. Little tartlets laid out on a tea towel, shoes kicked off. A panzanella salad to go with it. Ten minutes prep time, hours to lie on the grass.

Really just a mouthful of goat’s cheese, no frills. Make sure to use a rich, sticky-sweet chutney – mine was date and ginger.

Goat’s cheese, walnut and chutney tartlets

makes 12 bite sized tartlets

1 pack puff pastry (220g or so)

180g log of goat’s cheese

50g walnuts, broken into pieces

3 tbsp favourite chutney

2 eggs

1 tbsp milk


Preheat oven to 200C.

Roll out the puff pastry as thin as you can. Stamp out 12 circles with a large glass. Gently line a 12 hole cupcake tray with the pastry. Add 1/2 tsp of chutney to each, top with a few walnut pieces and a fat slice of goat’s cheese. Whisk the eggs with the milk and a bit of pepper, pour just a little over each tart. Enough to stick it all together, not as much as for a quiche. Bake for 10 minutes or so, until the pastry is puffed and brown, the cheese melted.

a glass of red wine

18 Nov

A toast to the Beaujolais Nouveau.

(Yesterday in France, maybe elsewhere too, lots of wine buffs and general keen wine drinkers got together to taste the first bottles of Beaujolais, to sniff and to make informed comments.)

A toast to the lady in the wine shop who invited us all the way in to taste three different Beaujolais, despite the fact that we only wanted a petit vin at 4 euros. She offered us a neat rose of salami slices, listened to our uninformed opinions. The bald man butted in too, recounting the history of Beaujolais Day (it’s not called that). It was generally companionable and nice.

A toast to this stupid country, the France that provides me with angry tears from its illogical rules (I have to take a badminton exam? what?) then follows up with free wine, no snobism in sight. She even lets you drink out of non-wine glasses.

And in the spirit of tipsy sentimentality, to my dad, who had a collector’s love of wine and the mental encyclopaedia to go with it, and to my mother, who has just written a marvellous cookbook.


What would you like to eat with your red wine aperitif? Delicate cheese biscuits, conjured in a quarter of an hour? The subversive prunes wrapped in prosciutto? Maybe the pear and ricotta croutons or the beefy sausage rolls with goat’s cheese that I haven’t quite posted yet…

While you’re waiting, pour yourself a glass and go toast someone else, someone you like very much.

tea and rum

8 Nov

Learning Japanese in context: when the girls shriek nizumi and point at the mouse in the corner of the bakery, you don’t forget it quickly. (Cultural common ground confirmed it, nizumi as in Mickey.)

Rolling out hundreds of biscuits is mendokusai, boring and dull. And anything cute is of course, kawaiiii. At the end of the day comes the most elegant salutation, otsukare sama desu. Honorable Mrs Tired (you have worked well today).

The only important word I have struggled with so far is for the tea: I know how to ask what it is, but I never understand the answer. Five repetitions later, I convert aru gurei into Earl Grey, feeling like an idiot, and very un-English.

Working at the bakery is only hard because my millefeuilles aren’t straight enough, my eclairs aren’t properly shiny. Not because everyone speaks Japanese. Language barrier? Pointing and giggling and miming normally does the trick. Otherwise I get tea for breakfast and tea for lunch, dented macarons in between. Like home.


Another tea themed cocktail to celebrate (tea-party food to follow shortly):

Cardamom tea-infused rum with grapefruit and lemon

Steep cardamom tea in rum for 24 hours. (1 tsp strong tea leaves for 250ml). Mix a shot with a dash of limoncello and a splash of sugar syrup (equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil and left to cool. Top with grapefruit juice, taste and adjust accordingly. Stick a neat lemon slice on the edge of the glass for a classy touch.

strawberry-basil vodka lemonade

8 Jul

At the bottom of official French documents you have to sign, date and write “lu et approuvé” (read and approved). I’m drowning- again – in forms and contracts and taxes. My solution? Think about it later. Marinate strawberries in vodka. Have a red-themed dinner party.

This cocktail has been drunk and approved by a real French person. Even with the strange addition of basil. In a skinny flute with frozen strawberries instead of icecubes it looked like summer. It actually reminded me of Pimms, albeit less sweet.

(That will be my next step, convincing horrified French people that cucumber can belong in a cocktail. That it is perfectly acceptable to fish out the drunken fruit afterwards.)

One more step to changing the rules, escaping the official documents. Maybe I can offer the taxman a cocktail?


Strawberry vodka

1 l vodka

500g strawberries

(Choose very red, very sweet strawberries for the best flavour. The vodka can be quite basic but maybe not Tesco value.)

Hull the strawberries and halve any big ones. In a large glass jar or container mix vodka and strawberries. Put a lid on and leave for about 3 days in a cool, dark place. Then strain the vodka, tip into a couple of bottles/jars and store in the freezer ready for chilled cocktails.


Strawberry-basil vodka lemonade

makes 1

30 ml strawberry vodka (chilled)

2 small basil leaves

1 tsp brown sugar

1-2 tsp lemon juice

100 ml cloudy lemonade (so not Sprite)

2 frozen strawberries

Tear the basil into small pieces and put in the bottom of a nice glass – even better in a champagne flute – with the sugar. With the end of a wooden spoon or a chopstick, bash the basil so it releases its flavour. Add vodka and lemon then top up with lemonade. Taste and add more vodka/lemon as needed. Finish with a couple of frozen strawberries.

Repeat as needed.

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