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Winter flavours: chef Nisha Katona's cold-weather comforts

The chef and founder of Mowgli Street Food restaurants discusses her favourite winter ingredients, festive getaways and what makes the perfect Christmas dinner.

Nisha Katona share the dishes, ingredients, traditions and treasured destinations that make the colder months a time to cherish.

Photograph by Annapurna Mellor
By Ella Walker
Published 17 Dec 2021, 06:09 GMT, Updated 17 Dec 2021, 17:04 GMT

What do you most look forward to eating in winter?

Things like lamb shanks, oxtail, slow-cooked curries with meat on the bone — no Indian would ever cook a meat curry without meat on the bone. And this is the time of year where you can get those really unctuous, marrow-releasing cuts of meat. That’s what I really have a passion for in the winter: my slow-cooked curries. You get that wonderful, golden veneer of fat on the top and it’s almost the colour of fire, reminiscent of warm evenings. Because you’re cooking with turmeric and paprika and chilli powder, those fiery colours rise to the top. When it’s grey outside, you want sunshine to emanate from the food you’re eating.

What’s your favourite winter ingredient to cook with?

Every year, I grow cavolo nero — no matter how grim it is outside, you can go and cut a few leaves of cavolo nero and you’re still eating from your own garden. And that’s what we Indians love about British veg — this chlorophyll-rich, robust leafage and foliage that stands up to a real hammering in the pan. You’re getting those wonderful, iron-filled, deep flavours that come out with things like mustard seed, a bit of lemon, turmeric, a little bit of garlic.

What’s your biggest winter indulgence?

Persimmon — sharon fruit. I can eat 12 in one sitting. They taste of caramel, but the way I like to eat them best — and this is really messed up but I urge you to try it — is with salmon roe. I use slices of sharon fruit like a cracker, then pop some salmon roe on them and you get this salty, poppy sweetness. I just can’t get enough of it.

What’s your idea of a perfect Christmas dinner?

Christmas dinner is my favourite dinner — how trite! I don’t mess with it. I get a bronze turkey, one of those turkeys that cooks in about half an hour and you eat them pink. It’s a revelation. I yearn for it all year round. Goose — you need about six geese to satiate your appetite because there’s so little meat on them, but goose breast is absolutely wonderful. I do roast potatoes with a little bit of turmeric, brown sugar and garlic; they’re to die for. Christmas Eve is the only time I’ve got to stand and peel five swedes for the swede and carrot mash, which we all absolutely love with a tiny bit of nutmeg, white pepper, butter. Heavenly.

Nisha Katona garnishing a dish at Mowgli Street Food restaurant, Liverpool.

Photograph by Annapurna Mellor

Which restaurants do you most enjoy visiting during the colder months?

In London, The Guinea Grill; it’s like stepping back in time. It’s being Charles Dickens and going into the restaurants he’d have gone into — a low-ceilinged, old pub, with white tablecloths, old dark wood and the smell of fire, but also the most phenomenal roast meats, heavenly kidneys, good gravy and Yorkshire puddings and great roasties.

It’s cold outside and you’re sitting by a fire — what are you snacking on?

A hot cup of tea and beigli. It’s a Hungarian pastry stuffed with sweetened black poppy seeds or ground walnuts. You get the almost-savoury part on the outside — pastry that’s glazed with a lovely egg wash. Being married into an Eastern European family, you get the gilded benefits of great Christmas food and traditions.

Where’s your ideal winter getaway?

My husband is Hungarian, so for many years we’d go to Budapest for Christmas Eve and come back for Christmas Day. It’s the best of both worlds and there’s something magical about that. Your breath freezing on the air in the Christmas markets in the Budapest squares, where they’re barbecuing those fantastic kolbász sausages. And you have mulled wine and beautiful craft markets, where everything is wooden.

Other than your own, which country does winter food best?

Poland. I went to Krakow in the winter, and it’s what they do with ham hocks and clear soup served in hollowed-out bread — that’s the kind of food you can have outside. It’s the ultimate warming food: it’s hearty, it’s big. But what I love is it’s that humble sort of peasant food. The offcuts, the bits that, here, we boil down to make stock with, there they’re the centrepiece of the dish. Oh my goodness, we don’t do enough dumplings in this country. Dumplings in clear soup are so cleansing, so warming and so hearty. 

What’s your ideal winter dessert?

Date sticky toffee pudding with thick double cream. That extra, slight fruity twang and that fibre — it’s one of your five a day! It’s those colours, that dark mahogany, come-inside kind of colour. That’s my idea of heaven.

Nisha Katona’s ginger beer, onion and broccoli bhajis.

Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

Nisha Katona’s ginger beer, onion and broccoli bhajis

These golden, nutty offerings are what we serve to welcome guests.

Serves: 4   
Takes: 30 mins 

Ingredients

vegetable oil, for frying
260g chickpea flour 
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda 
1 tsp ajwain seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
1 tbsp white poppy seeds 
300ml ginger beer (the fierier the better) 
1 ½ tsp salt 
1 lemon, juiced
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp chilli powder
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
150g broccoli, stems and florets cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander 
chutney or raita, to serve

Method

1. Pour 5cm of the oil into the base of a wok or deep frying pan and set over a medium heat until it reaches a temperature of 180C (make sure it doesn’t overheat). Alternatively, fill a deep-fat fryer with oil, according to manufacturers’ instructions, and heat to 180C.
2. While the oil is heating, put the flour, bicarb, ajwain, nigella and poppy seeds in a large bowl and stir to combine. Pour in the ginger beer and whisk to form a smooth batter the consistency of single cream. Add the salt, lemon juice, ground coriander, ground cumin and chilli powder and whisk again to combine. 
3. Add the onion, garlic, broccoli and coriander to the bowl and stir to coat everything in the batter. 
4. Once the oil is at the right temperature, carefully drop tablespoons of the bhaji mixture into the oil in batches. Cook for 2 mins until golden, then turn and cook on the other side for 2 mins more. Remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and leave to drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest of the bhajis. 
5. Serve the bhajis hot, alongside chutney or raita for dipping. 

Taken from 30 Minute Mowgli by Nisha Katona (£25, Nourish Books)

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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