I'll admit it - I am a curry snob. Ever since I went on a cooking course in India I've turned my nose up at most of the curries that we get here in England, preferring to make my own. I'll make an exception for the authentic Indian dishes that you can find in obscure parts of London like Kingsbury, Upton Park and Tooting and the delicious dishes at Dishoom. But usually I make my own. Yes I'm a snob but at least I admit to it!
I generally prefer to cook my own food anyway and we don't eat a lot of processed food or ready meals. I like to know exactly what is in the food that I feed to my family. And I really don't want my kids to eat a lot of unnecessary salt, sugar and preservatives.
So when Sainsbury's challenged me to see if their ready meals could meet my snobbish standards it took a bit of mental readjusting. I visited the Noon factory in West London, which has been supplying the supermarket giant with its Indian ready meals for 30 years and makes thousands of meals every year.
Noon claim to use authentic cooking methods and the freshest, natural ingredients possible to make their ready meals. Their vegetable supplier is just around the corner and they believe strongly that the flavours in their dishes shouldn't come from sugar and salt but from top quality ingredients, including spices, and careful cooking methods.
And I have to say that I was extremely impressed. I was shown the method by which their chefs - some of whom have decades of experience - make vegetable biryani, chicken tikka masala and vegetable samosas. Obviously it wasn't the same as watching someone cook in their home kitchen - the chefs were dressed in white coats and wearing gloves when handling food and the pots and pans and spoons were enormous. But what really struck me was that these cooks were essentially following the same process that I do in my own kitchen, just on a larger scale and with food hygiene as a priority. (And with a lot more expertise of course!)
Being a vegetarian I was of course particularly interested to learn more about how they cater for veggies. In India vegetarian food is widely available and the dishes that we see as side dishes here in the UK are often treated as main courses. A saag aloo, a dahl or a chana masala can easily be the centrepiece of a meal. Vishal, from Noon, is keen to bring this attitude to the UK. While Sainsbury's know that most of their customers eat meat they know that many people are also wanting to eat more vegetable dishes. Whether you're talking about vegetarians, people who are trying to eat less meat or simply those who want to eat more vegetables and therefore have a few veggie side dishes, Noon's approach is that it is wrong to substitute something for the meat - and they focus on making the vegetable dishes great as either an accompaniment or as the main meal. Vishal even said to me "veg is the hero" - which to me as a long-term vegetarian is so refreshing to hear.
I was particularly impressed with the care that the chefs took to make a brilliant vegetable biryani. Rather than the lot being plonked in a pot, each biryani is carefully layered for the customer to stir themselves. There are individually fried crispy onions served with each one and every element of the dish is carefully thought through and cared for.
I tasted some of the dishes at the factory and they were all delicious. But - these had been cooked freshly for me to try. The real test was when I got home - I served the ready meals from the packets to my family for dinner. I was happy to let the kids have some as I knew that they weren't overloaded with preservatives and nasties. My husband actually said: "This is better than any takeaway that I've ever eaten" - and no I didn't bribe him to say that! He's just as much of a curry snob as me so that is fine praise. The kids enjoyed the milder dishes, and of course the naan bread.
Sainsbury's offer 68 different Indian take away meals in their range and there are enough decent vegetarian options - such as biryani, tarka dahl, bombay potatoes, sweet potato pakoras and samosas - to make a full meal. See the full Indian takeaway range at Sainsbury's.
Disclaimer: this is a collaborative post with Sainsbury's