Vegetarian and Vegan Indian Cookery with Ben and Jasmine of the Mahamasala Spice Company

Back in February we teamed up with Ben Martin and Jasmine Sharma of the Mahamasala Spice Company to launch a new Indian cookery course. As it’s been so popular, we’re launching a new Indian cookery course for vegetarians and vegans!

Ben and Jasmine will share their skills and experience, teaching students how to prepare delicious vegan and vegetarian curries, traditional side dishes and breads from scratch, helping you use spices with confidence, and understand how Indian flavours interplay to create harmony on the plate. As well as using some of the finest, locally-sourced Cornish ingredients you’ll also be using traditional Indian spices imported from India by Ben and Jasmine.

We spoke to Ben and Jasmine about why they’re excited about this new course, why they think Indian food is still hugely popular, and about their upcoming Indian feast night at Philleigh Way!

Q Ben and Jasmine, in your own words, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

How did you both meet? 

Ben: We’ve been married for six years having initially met online. We quickly realised after an evening of chatting that we in fact worked about 150 metres away from each other! We met in person for a meal the next day after work and the rest, as they say, is history (we were married within six months of meeting!) I had travelled quite a bit in India before I met Jasmine and studied South Asian religions at university before getting into social work. This meant that I had a passion for all things Indian including, of course, the food. I like to think Jasmine was quite impressed with my interest in her culture despite my terrible small talk! Jasmine moved to the UK to study in Edinburgh before finding work in Cornwall in the voluntary sector. She realised that we both had lots in common in terms of career and outside interests, so we had no shortage of things to talk about. Above all we loved sharing home cooked food together.

Q Who were your cooking influences/inspirations growing up? 

Jasmine: I was raised by my grandparents and was the chosen sous chef of my Dadimaa (my grandmother on my father’s side). Dadimaa did most of the cooking at home rather than having a paid cook and this proved to be invaluable experience for my future career in food. It helped me to forge the homely style of Indian food that has become our trademark. Dadimaa also played an active role in the running of the local Hindu temple so cooking for lots of people was a common feature of my childhood and something I still love to do. I have also travelled extensively in India and have lots of experience in the extremely varied regional foods on offer. 

Ben: I was passionate about food from an early age and growing up in a family with Irish and Cornish roots, it was hard not to be. Whilst like Jasmine, I’ve had no formal culinary training, my Mum is a very accomplished cook so I was exposed to all manner of cuisines from around the world. As a young person, Sunday was a day for a family get together and was always centred around food. This often included produce grown, foraged or caught by the family. I still go sea fishing regularly and make cider from our orchard with Dad every year. I’m pleased to say that our cider (which we call ‘Adam’s Ruin’) has quite a reputation with our friends and family and it is particularly lethal this year at 9.9%! I think these early experiences have inspired me to continue to keep things local and seasonal in the food we do as well as keeping an eye on chefs with similar values, such as Raymond Blanc and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I suppose where we differ to these cooks is that we give local seasonal things a distinctly South Asian twist by combining them with the best spices from India that we can get our hands on. This chimes well with the life that we live and how we eat as a family; bringing together two cultures and cooking heritages.

Q What prompted you start up Mahamasala Spice Company? 

Ben: Jasmine and I were always keen hosts and held dinner parties and BBQs on a regular basis for friends and family. We were often complimented by our guests on the food that we produced and over a period of time, the love of cooking and hosting started to take over from our day jobs. With the birth of our son, Isaac, we began to review our priorities and we felt that food may be the answer to achieving the work-life balance that we wanted. We have never looked back.

Q Indian food has been hugely popular in the UK for many decades, why do you think this is? 

Jasmine: Aside from the deeply connected history of trade, migration and colonial rule that has existed for hundreds of years between the UK and India, I think a bit of spice seems to have great appeal to a broad spectrum of society here. Indian food seems to bring people together and it’s a real contrast to traditional English or European food. It is quite amazing what you can do with a few spices and very humble ingredients. Also, if you really want to push the boat out, Indian food has a long tradition of luxury derived from the kitchens of kings and princes, so the possibilities are endless.

Q The food you prepare on the Indian Cookery Courses is different from a lot of the food we might eat or pick up from an Indian take-away. Do you feel the dishes you prepare on the courses are a lot closer to traditional Indian cuisine? 

Ben: Yes definitely. Before we started the business we often remarked that the Indian restaurant food available here does not really represent the diverse nature of the food that can be found across India. This is not to say that it’s bad food, it’s just been a victim of its own success really. It can be quite generic and often far removed from the traditional dish. All of the food we serve always begins life on our family table and we want it to stay that way. I sometimes have to convince Jasmine that there is indeed something special about what she sees as these ‘everyday’ dishes. I’m certain that anyone who has eaten Jasmine’s food would beg to differ with this description, but I do have to plead with her to make sure that they go on the menu from time to time. 

Jasmine: We always try to respect traditional Indian methods and recipes in any dish that we serve up. Many remain absolutely true to their roots but we are not completely slavish to this principle. Ben applies a lot of modern techniques with our food too (like cooking in a sous vide for example or using a dehydrator), as well as sourcing fresh local ingredients that do a good job of imitating produce that is simply not possible to ship all the way from India. This is a really fruitful part of our partnership in the kitchen and we spend hours getting the balance right. The test for us is when we can serve our take on a traditional dish to our circle of Indian friends or family and they understand and enjoy it instinctively.

Q Once someone has been taught the basics of spice blending and flavour combinations, would you say that this would give them the confidence to prepare delicious curries and other dishes at home from scratch and experiment with flavours and ingredients? 

Jasmine: Absolutely. Despite what many people might think, Indian food only has a few basic principles that can be quickly grasped and applied. Once you understand how to create harmony with the Indian spice palate and build layers of flavor, you can ‘paint’ what you want. We spend huge amounts of time working to preserve the authentic feel of the cuisine we teach and serve whilst adapting to what’s good locally or what we have in the larder at the time. Anyone who comes to one of our courses will be able to do the same no matter how inexperienced they feel. You really don’t have to worry about following the recipes to a tee, just embrace the concepts.

Q You teach a range of dishes on the courses that are suitable for both meat eaters and vegetarians and vegans. Is this a common aspect of Indian food? 

Yes it is. It often surprises people who have only eaten Indian food in restaurants here that there is so much for non-meat eaters to enjoy. Indian cuisine really celebrates and gets the most out of vegetables, grains pulses and fruits, as many households are vegetarian for religious reasons. Having said this, there are also many Indians who eat meat especially in the North. India is so vast and regional in its food that you can really eat like a king no matter what your preference is. 

Q What’s your favourite meat and vegetable to cook with when preparing meat based and vegetarian dishes? 

Ben: I think that you can’t beat a Tandoori Raan, which is basically a whole leg of goat marinated in yoghurt and spices cooked over coals. It’s a real celebration dish and the left-over meat (if there is any) can then be used to make a delicious layered rice byriani. 

Jasmine: For me it’s Rajmah – a spicy kidney bean curry served with rice. It’s a classic Punjabi dish and reminds me of home. Sometimes I make a big pot of it and eat it for every meal until it’s all gone!

Q You import all of the spices for your spice blends direct from India. Do you feel this is key to being able to provide the highest quality products for your customers? 

Jasmine: Without a doubt. What’s available in the shops and supermarkets here is really not of the same level of quality. Even if it is reasonably good quality to begin with, the amount of time that it sits on the shelves means it’s not at its best when you get to use it. In search of the taste of home, Ben and I started to get my mum to send huge packages to us about three or four times a year, each filled to the brim with spices which we then ground and blended for use at home. It wasn’t long before people started to ask us for a jar of our blends and it seemed like a logical progression to turn this into part of the business. Now we import spices that we have sourced on our trips to India so we can personally vouch for their quality. It makes all the difference. Up until now we’ve mostly been selling the blends face to face at our events but with the launch of our new website www.mahamasala.com you will be able to order them from us online.

Q Are there any ingredients that you still cannot find in the UK that make you miss India, Jasmine? 

Jasmine: I would say that I really miss the different varieties of mangoes and bananas that are available as the seasons change. There are literally hundreds of different ones to choose from, each with a specific flavour and culinary use.

Q You regularly appear at food festivals and also run your own dining evenings, what do particularly you enjoy about these events? 

We just both love sharing Indian food and educating people about it. Cooking is such a great way to meet people from all walks of life. We are really pleased to say that most of our promotion for the events is by word of mouth and we have really started to build a loyal customer base. It’s wonderful to see familiar faces popping up at the different things we host. Recently we did a Bollywood Movie Night with a curry at Devoran Village Hall and we also run regular Secret Restaurant evenings which takes place in our own home in Penryn on Fridays from June until the end of September. Our new website has an online calendar so we should be able to keep everyone more in touch with what we are up to.

Q What do you love about Cornwall? 

We think that Cornwall is full of people who know how to make their own fun and who embrace their communities and surroundings . These things are essential to making a great life here as it’s easy to think that it’s all cream teas and sandy beaches when you are here for a short time in the summer. Cornish people are proud of their culture and traditions but also welcome others to share it with them. As a business we love how making good friends with your customers and partners comes first and how good old fashioned kindness opens so many doors.

Q What is your favourite Cornish food product? 

Jasmine: I really love traditional Cornish mead. The one we particularly like is made by Ninemaidens in Lanner. Their spiced mead is perfect with Christmas pudding or you can use a splash or two of it on roasted Crown Prince pumpkins to add an extra bit of complexity. 

Ben: I think we make very little of our cauliflowers in this part of the world. I usually get them as close to where we live in Penryn as possible so they are super fresh. They really are the best in the country in my opinion. I like them early on when they tend to be a little smaller and I like the varieties which have firmer yellower curds. I make the curds into a purée with lots of butter and nutmeg and then sautée the leaves with garlic and Trevilley Farm rapeseed oil. They are a fantastic accompaniment to a nice bit of hake or sea bass. We also do a Gobi Mussalam which is a whole roasted spiced cauliflower that you carve up like a joint of beef. It’s so tasty you don’t need any meat at all for your Sunday roast. You can try it for yourselves at the Tandoori feast that we are holding at the cookery school this summer.

Q Favourite place to eat out in Cornwall? 

We both love the Gurnard’s Head near Zennor. The food is always very fresh with lots of specials and the surroundings are just breathtaking. You would be hard pressed to find a better slice of Cornwall and we recommend talking a brisk walk on headland to work up an appetite before you eat. We also enjoyed a great stay at The Old Quay House in Fowey a few weeks back. It has a lovely waterside dining room and the food was classic and seasonal. They also do a mean cocktail or two, which always adds to the enjoyment!

Q Why do you enjoy working with Philleigh Way? 

Well, what’s not to like? They are bleddy bewts! We first came across Philleigh Way as paying customers at their brilliant outdoor feast nights (the Woodfired Sessions). We were really impressed with the relaxed atmosphere and the different local produce that was on offer. Having now started to work with the team behind it all, we see that same warmness and openness transfers into how they do business. Plus we certainly all have a good chuckle together along the way. For us, being able to find a team like Philleigh Way who encourage us to be creative in our ventures together has been a huge bonus.

Q What are you looking forward to about teaching the new Indian Vegetarian and Vegan course? 

We’ve had so many people asking us for a specific vegetarian or vegan course it will be great to finally make it a reality. As we mentioned before, Indian food is full of vegetable dishes and as a national cuisine, it has to have some of the most interesting dishes in the world for those who don’t eat meat. It will be great to help home cooks gain confidence and challenge the idea that vegetarian or vegan recipes have to be in some way adapted from meat based dishes rather than just being a great dish in their own right.

Q You are going to be hosting a new Indian Feast Night at Philleigh Way in July, what delights can visitors expect on the menu!? 

We have all sorts on offer. The food is all going to be cooked on the outdoor grills and ovens which will give it an extra smokey character and that is really reminiscent of the roadside Tandoori food found in the Punjab region. We’ve got some delicious corn that we chargrill and smother in melted butter and spices. Another great dish is a whole spatchcock chicken seasoned for 48hours in our own dry rub. Also, if you have never tried goat before now is your chance! We are serving tenderised slices of Cornish goat on skewers made to a royal recipe. There are lots of other dishes that will be served to the table as sharing platters and we really want everyone to get in there and get messy – no knives and forks required for this one!

Tickets for the Indian feast night which takes place on Friday 7th July can be purchased via the website or by calling the Cookery School.