| Front view of Sarkhel’s in south London; (below) interiors of the restaurant
A friend, blues guitarist and singer, tends, after a couple of Jack Daniels, and in a fit of Bengali, or more specifically Calcuttan, pride, to say profoundly, “We’re bad!”
Whether his chauvinism is justified or not is open to debate but a visit to Sarkhel’s, a restaurant at 19/9 Replingham Road in south London, is enough to make most of us, myself certainly, feel tempted to share his sentiments.
The place is run by Udit Sarkhel, a Bengali born and raised in Jamshedpur, who has numerous relatives in Calcutta and also spent his college life here. He went on to specialise in catering and in October 1997 opened this restaurant. I was taken there last week by a friend who has been guide and co-philosopher on matters culinary and musical on many previous occasions, on whose taste I place implicit trust, and, as fate decreed, was born British, but otherwise would have been Bengali, or, more specifically, Calcuttan.
Udit Sarkhel was there in person that evening. A disarmingly relaxed person, a few moments with him and a few shared reminiscences and you feel you have known him for a long time. He speaks of his cuisine with the enthusiasm of a creative artist — why he chose such and such meat or such and such poultry — how he adapted to raw materials available in England, and so on.
The main menu at Sarkhel’s is a compact collage of Indian cuisine, and includes recipes from most regions, such as Jardala Ma Gosht, a Parsi dish of lamb cooked with apricots and straw potatoes, Kozhi Vartha Kozumbu, a dryish, fiery chicken curry in the Chettinad style with chillies, pepper and coconut and our very own Chingri Malai Curry, which he also does with fish instead of prawns, and says these three items are amongst the most popular.
There is, however, a continuing calendar of festivals, which focuses on a particular region for a particular period of time, and is like a whistle-stop tour of India, starting usually with Calcutta and travelling around the country to return to base about once in every six months. The day we visited there was a Goan festival on; I thanked my luck and stuck my head into it for a serious perusal. A neat little menu with three starters, five main course items and one dessert, it was not difficult to decide what to ask for, especially so as the man of the moment was there to help us himself.
For starters, there was Shrimp Masala, described on the menu as “hot”, and Liver Masala (“medium”). The Shrimp Masala involves the typical Goan “red masala”, or peri peri to the Portuguese, to be found in many of their preparations, including the celebrated vindaloo. A paste is made by combining cloves, cinnamon, peppercorn, red chillies and a hint of cardamom (all ground) with red palm toddy vinegar and garlic paste.
Chopped onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes are sauteed for a while and the red masala is added to it and combined thoroughly. In a separate utensil, salt water Indian shrimps are sauteed, and the sauce made earlier is added to them to complete the dish, which was delicious — the shrimps fresh and done just right.
Liver Masala involves the grinding of whole, fresh spices (they will not use ready-made stuff at Sarkhel’s) such as coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fresh turmeric root and peppercorn. Diced pieces of Welsh Lamb (chosen for being less fatty than English lamb and hence more suitable for Indian food) are thoroughly stir fried over medium heat for a long cooking time with onions, garlic, tomatoes and the ground spices mentioned first. No water is used — all the moisture comes out of the ingredients, which is why the heat must be controlled and the cooking time long. In Bengali, this would be a “kasha” dish; in Hindi, “bhuna”. A dash of lemon is also used. A strange coincidence; just a day or two before our visit, I was fantasising over a liver curry.
Duck Assado and Chilli Grilled Salmon were the main course. In Goa, the Assado is done with beef or pork, taken from portions where the fibre is fine and uniform. At Sarkhel’s, the breast meat of the plump Gresham duck — the meat is reddish and the fibre uniform — is the one of choice. The meat is marinated with a paste made from chillies, shallots, ginger and ground garam masala (bay leaves, black and green cardamom). Whole cloves are stuck into the flesh for flavouring, but removed before cooking.
The duck breast is first seared on a very hot surface to seal in the flavours and then covered and pot roasted in the oven for about 18 minutes at 180O C. It is then removed and sliced. Onions and sliced bellpeppers are sauteed in oil, the roasting juices are added and this sauce is poured over the sliced duck breast pieces before serving.
The Chilli Grilled Salmon is made with the same red peri peri masalas as the Shrimp Masala, but without the chopped onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes. It is served with pickled chilli cabbage. Our staples were Coconut Garlic Rice made with brown basmati, and Tandoori Roti. For dessert, there was Tipsy Cake — dark, rum-soaked sponge cake topped with fresh fruit custard.
Salmon, Welsh Lamb, Gresham duck. Not to be found in Goa, but imaginatively used by a chef who knows his overall end product, and lures his clientele into the magic and diversity of Indian cuisine.
Sharing a common wall with Sarkhel’s was another property of his called Calcutta Notebook — primarily a Bengali restaurant, whose menu evolved out of recipes jotted down in an exercise book by his mother and grandmother. When the whistle-stop tour across the country halts at Calcutta (about once in every six months), such delights as Phuchka, Mochar Chop, Tele Bhaja, Behari Kabab (our famous kathi kababs) and Chachar Machher Cutlet feature in the starters, while Panthar Jhole, Shorshe Batar Maach, Khashi Roast, Begun Pora, Alur Dom, Shukto and Chholar Dal are among the main courses, to spread the gospel of our wonderful cuisine across the seas. The day I visited, Sarkhel’s was busy, and I was the only Indian.
Calcutta Notebook is closed now for renovation. In its new avatar it will be Magic Wok — to give people a taste of our long history of being the Indian capital of Chinese food. And the Calcutta Notebook items in all their cosmopolitan variety will come into Sarkhel’s.
Udit Sarkhel has also co-written a book with Simon Parkes, who is no stranger to us and has written frequently for these very pages. The book is called The Calcutta Kitchen. Text by Simon Parkes, recipes by Udit Sarkhel and photographs by Jason Lowe. Having leafed through it, the impression is distinctly that of three people who have, each in his own way, felt the pulse of how the city breathes — capturing the colour and the chaos, the languidness and our passion for food and adda.
Amit Roy, also no stranger to these pages, has described Udit Sarkhel as the “self-appointed ambassador of Calcutta”. Sarkhel is pleased by this, and it is not an inappropriate description.