After enjoying food from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen’s via mail order on many occasions over the last several months, we excitedly made a pilgrimage to visit the newly reopened restaurant in person with fellow fans. Located in Reading city centre, it’s a small and unassuming space.
Inside, magic happens.
One of my favourite dishes (of a night of amazing food) is the Village-style Lamb, cooked in a clay pot and featuring an entire bulb of garlic cooked whole alongside the lamb. Chef Proprietor Nandana brings the sealed clay pot to us, breaking open the dough crust at the table.
The dish is a recreation of one her grandmother used to cook, first pounding together onions, ginger and garlic with a mix of herbs and spices before combining with the meat (mutton in her grandmother’s case) to marinate, placing everything into the clay pot and sealing the lid with dough. Nandana still remembers her grandmother sitting in front of a wood fire and slow cooking this dish for the family.
Although her grandmother added individual cloves of garlic, Nandana has incorporated an idea from a similar dish hailing from Bihar: their Camparan mutton curry, which features similar techniques but a different set of spices, includes a whole head of garlic in the curry.
The clay pots Nandana uses are handmade by traditional potters in India and carefully imported to England. Because of their porous nature, the pots can’t be washed with soaps, as these would seep into the clay, so each pot is used only once. Customers can keep their pots if they wish – we plan to use one to create an homage to the dish, and another as a hanging plant pot, as we saw at the restaurant.
Once Nandana has opened the clay pot at the table, its heady aromas steaming upwards to our eager faces, we pull out the garlic bulb to admire it. After its long, slow and steamy cooking, the garlic is soft and sweet, best enjoyed squeezed out of the skin and enjoyed as a little dollop of magic, between bites of the lamb.
The dish takes 2 hours to cook (and that’s after 24 hours of marination time) so it’s a labour of love to create and serve in a restaurant setting.
So too are several other dishes we try during the evening. Dining with friends who’ve also been enjoying Clay’s by Mail during lockdown, we focus on dishes that are not on the home delivery menu.
Somewhat like popcorn, Phool Makhna (popped lotus seeds) offer a light, lightly spiced snack, perfect to pop whilst reading the menu.
Drinks wise, I stick to freshly made softs – first a homemade mint and lemon concoction and then a sweet lassi but there is also a well-regarded wine list of choices that work well with the robust flavours of Indian cuisine.
Crisp, light Cabbage Pakoras with a classic green chutney is the first starter to arrive at the table. They last only seconds after which I fiercely guard the remains of the chutney to eat with other dishes.
I usually find baby corn to be a little meh – grown up sweet corn is one of the best foods in the world but those tiny underdeveloped cobs little more than filler for stir-fries – but Clay’s Baby Corn Pepper Fry is a delight of super crunchy bites that have redefined the ingredient for me.
The soft, fatty Pork Belly glazed with ginger, tamarind and jaggary (unrefined cane sugar) also makes me giddy with delight, and I suspect the my declarations of deliciousness carry unintentionally to other tables!
Crab Vada (fritters) with moong dal are soft and gently spiced and have a good flavour of crab, but aren’t a favourite for me.
I’m more excited by the Cut Mirchi Chat – stuffed, battered and fried chillies that are cut into slices and garnished with bhujia (crisp fried threads of besan batter), diced onion and pomegranate seeds.
Onto the mains with Beef Mahikhalya, an Osso bucco-style cut of beef with aubergines and wild mushrooms in a mild spiced sauce. The meat is superbly tender and the spicing delicate, and I love the silky bites of the veg. A personal highlight is being able to slurp the marrow from the large bone in the centre of the chop. Heaven!
In a meal of many highlights, the Shahi Paneer Kofta is another crowd pleaser. The balls of paneer are fried ’til crispy and served in a thick, creamy sauce. This is luxury comfort food; perfect for anyone scared of chilli heat.
My joint favourite dish of the meal, alongside the Village-Style Lamb, is the Komati Sanchula Pulusu (squid stuffed with white fish) served in a vibrant tangy tomato-based sauce. I love the choice to use small squids, their bodies stuffed and served whole and the tentacles lightly crisped. I eat way more than my fair share of this dish!
Vegetable sides are also excellent, from a Bhindi Fry of okra, peanuts, abd fried onions to Mamidikaya Pappy, a green mango dal with black mustard seeds, to Beans Kuru – a simple mix of green beans, chilli, coconut and ginger.
We all opt for rice over roti. I am happy with the Baghara Rice which I’ve been so enjoying with our Mail Order meals. Some of our group have not yet tasted the Clay’s Lamb Biryani, also served in a clay pot opened at the table, so we have that too.
Of the three desserts, the most surprising is definitely Anokhi Kheer, a Hyderabad dessert made with onions, yes onions! The two types of kheer I’m more familiar with are rice kheer and seviyan (vermicelli noodles) kheer, though it is also made with wheat, tapioca, lentils and even corn. Historically, onions were one of the cheapest naturally sweet ingredients, so poorer communities in the region used to cook them with milk to make an inexpensive kheer. My brain is quite confused by this, so strongly do I associate the flavours of onion with savoury food, but it definitely works. The flavour is subtle (though clearly onion-based) and it’s not tooth-achingly sweet in the way that Indian desserts can be.
Nariyaki Kheer is a much lighter style of kheer, and vegan too. This coconut pudding will suit those who can’t face any more rich food but want to end the meal with a little sweetness.
We also enjoy Double Ka Meetha (a Hyderabadi version of shahi tukra), a type of bread pudding in which fried bread slices are soaked in hot, sweet, saffron-spiced milk or cream. At Clay’s, this comes napped in a thick, creamy sauce and scattered with pistachios, making it wonderfully rich and decadent. It’s my favourite of the three.
Although this feast of dishes were shared between four (as a table of eight, we ordered two of everything), this was still a huge meal; it’s probably no surprise that we almost needed to be rolled out of the door! And there are still several menu items we didn’t try – a great reason to head back again (and again)!
Do yourself a favour and book a table as soon as you can!
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen is located on London Street in the centre of Reading, Berkshire.