Sipping a cup of steaming chai on the patio of Mandira’s Kitchen outside a 200-year-old converted cowshed on the Albury Estate near Guildford is surely one of the best ways to while away a winter’s day.
My host is Mandira Sarkar - owner of the eponymously named Mandira’s Kitchen and purveyor of some of the county’s finest Indian food. Lunch – a freshly-prepared smoky chicken kathi roll, fragrant bowl of chaat and crisp samosas – is served against the equally exquisite backdrop of Surrey beauty spot Silent Pool.
As swans dip into the crystal waters and ruck-sacked walkers wave on their way to explore the North Downs, the setting is quintessentially English. And yet there are influences of India all around, from the intensely colourful venue to the authentic Indian street food-style cuisine.
Mandira started her business from the kitchen of her Guildford home in 2015. The best Indian food, she insists, is that served in people’s homes, or on the streets. Precisely why she set out to replicate those flavours in the Surrey Hills.
Going with this thought, I ask her to transport me from this tranquil corner to the bustle of an Indian street. She obliges, whisking me 4,000 miles to Old Delhi, “home of the best biryani in the world”.
Mandira describes the hot, narrow lanes that are lined with men cooking on slabs - “you hardly ever see women”, she reveals. I find myself able to smell the fires that Mandira terms, “the fires of heaven or hell”.
Munching on a warm samosa, I sip my chai, and gaze at the Silent Pool. Worlds apart, yet at this moment it all feels closely connected. Such is the power of food. And friendship.
“In India,” she continues, “you show your love through food. And chai and samosa is the most common food on the street. You could have it at breakfast time, lunch time, teatime, in between times.”
This samosa is so good; crunchy and gently spiced. I could eat one at any time at all.
Creating a home from home
Mandira’s passion for her business shines through. Her enthusiasm and love of her home continent’s food is infectious.
Before moving to the UK in 1998, she lived an idyllic, quiet life on a tea plantation in Assam - newspapers were delivered on the flight that brought sausages and bacon from Calcutta. “We grew up reading two- or three-day old news,” she says. It was, she admits, a “fairy tale” existence where Father Christmas arrived on an elephant and left by helicopter.
From the age of eight, Mandira attended boarding school with the other “tea kids”. She recalls: “Strict Irish nuns and the worst food in the world. Lunch was curry and rice, and dinner was always continental, a roast or whatever – but both were equally bad.”
Once home for the holidays, the budding chef would enjoy home-grown, home-cooked food. Many family recipes from those days have found their way on to the menu at Mandira’s Kitchen – in fact, she tells me proudly, everything her business produces is based on a personal connection.
Tamarind chutney is made to her mother’s recipe, as is the Great Taste Award-winning kaju dhani murgh, a combination of tender boneless chicken and cashew and coriander sauce.
“Mum cooked it one day because she ran out of things to make. It was just a recipe she concocted.”
The food takes inspiration from right across India – for instance, chef Sabina, who comes from Goa, draws on her huge repertoire of recipes from the southwestern coast, such as her chicken xacuti, which is based on a local fisherman’s curry.
A taste of local
Seasonality is important, too and Mandira’s menu changes to embrace fresh produce.
Many of her dishes are, by origin, vegetarian and vegan, and there are no processed meat substitutes. A favourite is her grandmother’s recipe, enchorer dalna, a spicy concoction using green jackfruit. While only relatively recently widely-used in the UK, jackfruit, or tree goat as it is called in India due to its meaty texture, has been on the country’s menu for centuries. It was known as the most wasted fruit, left to rot on the trees. Mandira recalls tales of 40 or 50 kilo fruits falling and fatally injuring some unfortunate passer-by.
As we consider the killer jackfruits, a man appears clutching a bowl and heads inside.
“That’s Todd,” she explains. “Our neighbour from Silent Pool Distillers. He comes here every day for his lunch.”
One of the great things about Mandira’s Kitchen is that the food is prepared on the premises and most ingredients are locally sourced. The team likes nothing more than a collaboration. Whether it’s a Biryani and Gin evening with the Silent Pool Distillers, Biryani and Bubbles with another neighbour, Albury Organic Vineyard, or an Indian-inspired frozen sweet treat, expertly made by Gray’s Gelato over at Goldstone Farm in Great Bookham. Mandira believes in staying loyal to local. And we’ll certainly raise a cup of chai to that!
Need to Know:
There are lots of ways to experience the delights of Mandira’s Kitchen:
In person at Mandira’s Kitchen, Albury, GU5 9BW
- Chai on the Patio. Indian street food to take away or enjoy at the outdoor seating seven days a week. Booking recommended.
- Visit the shop (or find more stockists on the website) or via click and collect.
- Weekend Thalis – a three-course meal which comes complete with a Bollywood playlist and quiz on India. Great way to mark special occasions such as Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. (Also available as Thali by Post and monthly subscriptions.)
- Picnic box collections
- Book a cookery class or spice tour
- Online with UK delivery. We also love the idea of the flexible monthly box.
- Whether an intimate gathering, a wedding or party for a crowd. Mandira and her team can bring the experience to you, or welcome groups of up to 24 people on her patio.
- There’s also the amazing Party in a Box option – fabulous food freshly cooked in larger catering trays and delivered chilled to any UK address. All you need to do is to heat and serve. You can also order eco-friendly palm leaf plates, bamboo cutlery and napkins to save on the washing up.
Mandira’s Kitchen is situated in a Surrey Food Hub that also includes fellow Local Food Britain members Albury Organic Vineyard, Silent Pool Distillers and Norbury Cheese
Read more: mandiraskitchen.com
Tags: surrey food