There is nothing I love more on this blog than telling you about small businesses with imagination and inspiration, places which epitomise the independent spirit.
So I suppose the easiest way to tell you how much I enjoyed Clay’s food is this: they sent me a huge box of samples last month. It took us a week to eat our way through it. (Yes, ‘O the humanity!’ etc).
It came. I ate. I was asked to hold back from mentioning the food on social media while they finalised their plans. They just asked for detailed feedback.
And as soon as I could, I made another order. A substantial one. And from today you can, too.
Some background, as Clay’s may be unfamiliar to you until now. It’s a husband and wife team: Nandana, originally from Andhra, married into a Hyderabadi family (after spending years in the region studying) when she wed husband Sharat. This cooking comes mostly out of their family traditions, food which is underrepresented in the U.K., but unjustly so. The capital is a UNESCO creative city of gastronomy, after all.
They share the cooking, with Nandana handling the starters and the curries and Sharat taking charge of their impressive biryanis and rices.
They have been more hamstrung than many in 2020: even lifting restrictions doesn’t help them as they have no outdoor seating or proper ventilation in their small premises.
So they are making their food available across the country. This national availability then is their bid for survival. No more, no less. No guarantees. It’s a brave move.
And happily, it works. Oh, it works. It works in spades. They wanted some reassurance outside their local acclaim. They needn’t have worried.
Much of that second lot is a reorder. Or in the case of the chicken livers a rereorder, because those things are nothing short of narcotic. We’ll come back to those. It all arrives quickly, all food already cooked and chilled and each packet labelled with reheating instructions.
It’s too rare, finding offal on Indian menus, but Hyderabad has a long history of prizing these cuts- brains and trotters are common staples. We tend to think of Indian food as fertile ground for vegetarian traditions, yet huge regions have remarkably low numbers of non meat-eaters in marked contrast to the North western strongholds of Gujurat and Rajasthan for example. At Clay’s it’s the chicken livers which represent that tradition, and it feels innovative.
Once you try these livers you’ll be wondering why more places don’t serve them, not when they’re this successful. Tender, plump little things tossed in a clinging based sauce- slightly sour with dried mango, a hint of citrus from coriander seeds- which I quickly become obsessed with.
They label them bhooni kaleji. I call them offal crack. They play on my mind day after day after day, one of those things that takes up residence in a little corner of your mind and sits happily there.
By the time you read this I’ll have got through three lots of them. And I’ll still be thinking about the next one.
‘Ma’s fish fry’ impresses too. Little fillets of tilapia, bold with ginger and garlic and chilli, carry a heat which lingers.
Their lamb biryani is a mild, soothing experience. It’s a feast day dish, subtle and fragrant, one for long hours around the table. Clay’s version cooks the meat in milk and spices, layering the rice with aromatics.
The chicken version is bolder, tangy with yoghurt, the meat on the bone where it belongs and a more assertively spiced proposition than you might expect. It deserves to be the centrepiece of the table, something dug into and savoured as the shared centrepiece of your meal with people you care about. Though good luck getting in there ahead of me: this is another dish which proves absolutely compelling.
Nadan beef Urulakizhangu- a Keralan dish, and really, how could you not be intrigued by anything with that name- stands out, even among this company. It’s a deep dark braise of beef and potatoes, the meat cooked so patiently that some of the pieces have fallen apart, thickening the sauce with its strands. It’s a clever twist in a sauce which is already densely flavoured and textured. In short? One hell of a dish.
I love a rich, gamey meat in this kind of cooking, something robust enough to stand up to hefty spicing but still keep its character. This doesn’t disappoint. Venison chettinad is thick and dark with onions which are rich from long, patient cooking. Clove comes through, one of those flavours which if handled clumsily does more to turn me off than most. Here, it’s immediately compelling.
Murgh chana masala is a fairly rare thing: a meat dish which wouldn’t miss the meat. Chicken, chick peas, a silky tomato-based sauce: one of those things which manages to pull off the trick of soothing and exciting all at once, this would still be a sumptuous thing in its meat-free incarnation [sic].
Goan prawn curry balances sweet and sour, the latter from the telltale tamarind brings, and teams rather beautifully with the coconut rice, which thankfully lacks the somewhat cloying artificial sweetness of lesser examples.
And for ‘lesser examples’ read ‘most I’ve ever had.’ This stuff is full of character, speckled with mustard seeds, chana dal, curry leaf and the odd dried red chilli.
Rice is a strength- their baghara pulao is full of aromatics like mace, star anise, cloves, cardamom, bay leaf and cinnamon. You want to close your eyes, lower your head and breathe it in, that perfume. That ‘hundreds and thousands’ stuff at your local tandoori? This isn’t that.
There are plenty of other good things here- crisp little potato pattice, their kernel of peas with coconut and chilli coated and fried, and even better laced with tamarind; or the chicken thigh fry dressed with its bright hit of fresh coriander.
Roti are flavoured with beetroot or fenugreek. There’s a lamb curry sweetened and thickened with cashews, and perhaps most surprising a paneer tikka massala. I usually shun the stuff.
This, though? A revelation, something I kept going back to, over and over, just to see if it really was that good. And it was. A sauce full of character, the cheese just starting to melt into the sauce so it’s not immediately obvious where the cheese stops and the sauce begins. Any subsequent paneer dishes will be judged by this benchmark. It takes me from paneerasceptic to paneerevangelist in seconds.
I’ve got no idea what it’s like to eat ‘properly’ at Clay’s, though unsurprisingly I’ll be making a point of finding out as soon as I can. I have no idea where it fits in the Reading landscape. But I do know that, even shorn of all restaurant-standard plating and finesse, and left to focus on textures and flavours alone, this is intriguing cooking.
By turns subtle and rugged, hearty and delicate, this food is always interesting. Their livelihood disappeared almost overnight. That’s terrifying enough, but they have responded with innovation. This is a huge venture for them, a bold one too for a small restaurant with no national profile.
This menu which has its surprises and its quirks and delivers them all with style. It does things differently, it does them well. What they do is special, some of the most intriguing regional Indian cooking I’ve eaten for a good while and undoubtedly deserving of your time. Reading is lucky to have them, and the twist of fate means their misfortune is your good luck.
Here’s wishing Nandana and Sharat every success. Partly because I’m a sentimental old bastard, but more because this food deserves to travel. And if you see an HGV heading eastbound on the M4, that’ll be my bulk order of chicken livers…
Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.