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My life on a plate: Spice expert Arun Kapil on how Ireland influenced his life

Ballymaloe graduate Arun Kapil tells Katy McGuinness how Ireland led him down the spice route

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Arun Kapil, spice expert and founder of Green Saffron. Photo: Clare Keogh

Arun Kapil, spice expert and founder of Green Saffron. Photo: Clare Keogh

Arun Kapil, spice expert and founder of Green Saffron. Photo: Clare Keogh

Arun Kapil grew up in Lincolnshire in England and first came to Ireland when he enrolled on the 12-week Certificate Course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. He lives in Shanagarry, Co Cork, with his wife, Olive, and terrier, Nip.

Did you grow up in a family where food was important?

Massively so. We always ate together as a family. My mum was from Yorkshire and a feeder. She used to cut recipes out of newspapers and had books by Delia Smith. My dad was a GP who left home in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh in India with three recipes - vegetable curry, chana masala, and methi aloo, which is made with fried potatoes and fenugreek leaves and seeds. The smell of the leaves really lingers and my mum hated that; you can imagine with a mixed-race family in Britain in the 1970s, at the time of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, she didn't want her home smelling like a curry house.

What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?

I remember being fascinated by my mother making peppermint and chocolate marble cake - it was so colourful.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Rice Krispie cakes.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in food?

I was involved in acting and singing as a child and had a career in the music business until my early thirties, but from when I came to study at Ballymaloe at 34, I knew that I would work in food. I fell in love with Olive, my wife, and with Ireland. I never left.

Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?

Chef and restaurateur Max Renzland adds finesse to everything that I do.

What's your signature dish?

It has to be the Persian quail that I make for dinner parties - I stuff the birds with figs, golden sultanas macerated in Grand Marnier, saffron and pistachio nuts, and serve them alongside rich makhani lentils and a bitter leaf salad.

Is there any ingredient that you hate?

Pink peppercorns are the TCP of the spice world - they destroy everything they touch.

Is there anything that you won't eat for ethical reasons?

Anything produced with slave or child labour.

What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

Meeting with Marwadi and Rajput farmers in remote Rajasthan, I was given opium cakes -bitter-sweet, mixed with jaggery - as part of a welcome ceremony, to 'relax' me. It would have been offensive to reject them.

What's your guilty pleasure?

Lindt chocolate bunnies.

What kitchen gadget could you not live without and what's the most overrated?

Even though I love using the traditional sil batta, my electric spice grinder is in constant use. I don't like sous vides - everything has better flavour fried gently rather than cooked in a water bath.

What current cooking trend do you dislike the most?

Fermentation is a centuries-old skill that has to be learned and understood - now everything is fermented because it's hip. I think we need to ask: 'Why is it fermented? Does it work in the dish?' rather than putting fermented foods on the menu for the sake of it.

What's your desert island cookbook?

Ma Gastronomie, published in 1969 and created from the notes of legendary French chef Fernand Point of La Pyramide restaurant, who had a lovely philosophy of life and food. His is proper three-star Michelin food - wonderful ingredients, treated with care.

What three things do you always keep in your fridge?

Fresh ginger, Hellmann's mayonnaise and marmalade.

What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?

A stir-fry of rice and Ortiz tuna with spiced eggs on top, because everything is better with a fried egg.

What was the last great meal that you ate?

Christmas lunch with Olive's parents; a great meal is about atmosphere as well as food.

What's your favourite restaurant in the world?

Botafumeiro in Barcelona is a lot of fun. The waiters are old school - I sit at the bar and order half-portions of stunning fish and seafood dishes.

Which chef do you admire the most?

Myrtle Allen, who took me under her wing and gave me great advice when I was starting the company. She was the quintessential advocate for the home cook.

What do you think the implications of Covid-19 are for restaurants?

It will change the landscape of food service and restaurants, but the strong will survive. I hope that it gives those who complain about food prices a greater understanding of what it takes to produce and prepare good food and more respect for the people who do both.

Do you eat breakfast?

It's always porridge oats with almond milk, topped with bananas, walnuts, dates, peanut butter... whatever I have around.

What are you going to have for dinner tonight?

Slow-roast pork vindaloo using our Green Saffron spice mix.

And what will you drink with that?

I'd like to say a 1995 Haut-Brion, but in reality it will be San Pellegrino sparkling water.

Green Saffron's Curry in a Box meal kits can be delivered nationwide. www.greensaffron.com

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