Karti Kebabs

It’s been six months since Mum died. This post is less about Karti Kebabs than it is about the weeks leading up to her death…

We all thought her time was up this time last year, in July 2016. There were late night hospital dashes, phone calls to family and friends and difficult questions for consultants. Adrian got the vibe from hospital staff that her heart was not strong enough to survive the mystery infection she was suffering from. The consultants confirmed her heart was very weak and advised against resuscitating as ‘bouncing up and down’ on her chest wouldn’t be much fun for her. He couldn’t give us any definitive answers. We gathered. We had the conversation. She knew it was bad.

Then all of a sudden she got her appetite back. After about 8 weeks of hospital food (which she rather liked by the way) she had a hankering for chow mein, dosas and rice. The hospital said it was fine to bring in food so for a couple of weeks Dad brought in takeaways. She thrived!

She couldn’t come with us to Poland to visit her new granddaughter Baby Lara but she was out of the danger zone so we felt like we could go. Mum made the trip a month before when Lara was born, even though she was at her frailest. It was the beginning of her decline.

Christmas 2016 came and went too quickly. Mum was glad to have the family together but she was visibly altered. She’d shrunk quite considerably and her head seemed too heavy for her frame. She sat looking quite comfortable however, sitting propped up on her chair while we made a fuss over Lara and Pip. Christmas was for them really. Paul had come especially to spend time with Mum and it was the first time in a long time that we were all together. It won’t go down in history as the best Griffiths Christmas ever but it served its purpose.

By the first weekend of January she could barely sit without excruciating pain. Her chest plate had been pushed forward by her crumbling spine. After years of dialysis, her bones were losing their strength. She went into hospital to be made more comfortable, which meant enough morphine to impress an athlete. Dad used the time creatively and had new doors put in.

It was my birthday on Friday 13th of January and normally they phone to ‘wish’ me but no call came. Bloody cheek… We visited that weekend and the sight of her was a proper shock. She was still her normal self, felt okay thanks to the Fentanyl (before it was famous), and was even having a few cheeky vapes. Apparently it was comforting. But she could barely lift her head. Her chest was distended and served as a useful shelf for her drooping head when she got tired. On the Sunday she dropped the bombshell that she didn’t want to carry on dialysing as sitting tied to a machine all day was too painful. She didn’t want to be in pain any more. As though we were discussing whether to go on holiday or not, I left her that evening agreeing that she wouldn’t make any decisions until the following weekend when we could all be together.

At school the next day, Dad phoned to say that she hadn’t gone to dialysis. That meant only one thing. The beginning of the end.

I got to the hospital that night and she looked pretty comfortable, as before. The only difference was the previously optimistic consultant now referring to her treatment as ‘palliative’ care. The only treatment that recognises the end of life as the objective.

I was surprised she was not in her own room, but with hindsight, this made it more normal. There was talk of hospices but there was also talk of bed shortages. I don’t think any of us cared. She welcomed visitors, chatted nonchalantly and even said things like, ‘this is fun! Maybe I’ll change my mind.’ How we laughed.



The week passed quietly. Friends and family paid their respects. It sounds conceited but I enjoyed a pleasant feeling of role reversal – here was my mother in a hospital bed, cuched up like a swaddled baby and here was I, sitting nearby, watching her breathing while she slept. It’s the same anxiety you have with a newborn and it’s the same feeling of relief when you see the chest rise and fall eventually. She would rouse herself like a baby too. Eyes open blearily, furtive glances at the strangers sitting round – a quick identity check then back to sleep contentedly. During more wakeful hours she would shift uneasily until finding a new comfortable position. She would say she felt okay. She wondered when it would start to feel strange. You could work out when a new dose of Oxycodone was needed rather like baby’s next feed. As babies thrive with each new day, Mum became sleepier. Her train of thought was disorganised and she’d make funny slips in conversation, which she could hear and would amuse us, herself included. Her sense of humour never failed her.

On Saturday 21st January, I remember how beautiful the sunrise was. There is a playing field beyond the carpark outside her window and I would walk around it while she had her morning wash and change. It was a quiet day. We were expecting Aunty Smita and cousins Shirley and Anthony in the afternoon. She enjoyed sitting in her comfy chair during the morning and would receive her visitors looking her best. There was something lazy and summery about the ward. Even the bustle of the lunch hour was subdued. She always ate her lunch, even if though she had no appetite and could barely lift her head. This time it was cod in parsley butter and mashed potatoes followed by rice pudding. We shared it companionably – even the smallest portion was a bit too much. Lucky me!

After lunch, the ward dozed and the nurses drifted. At 2.40pm Mum decided she needed the loo and was trying to wriggle herself off the bed. We laughed about how pathetic she was (that’s the kind of bants that happens in hospitals). When I asked how she was feeling she said, ‘it’s so hard to explain…’. The nurse and a ‘healthcare assistant’ (who does everything the nurse does but wears different clothes) helped ease her off the bed. Even though I normally leave them to it, I stayed, partly in order to hold her head up and partly to help her back into bed (we had a system based on pivoting and sliding). All was well until the moment her head was back on the pillow. I saw a look pass her face. It was a look you see in the movies and it was the moment in the film when the assembled folks give each other another meaningful look. The healthcare assistant stood beside me with an arm around my waist as I put my head next to Mum’s. Her breathing shallowed and stopped. The pulse in her neck was strong. We watched it ebb. We marvelled at how strong it was. It became fainter and fainter and finally faded away.

I’m not sure how long we stood like that but eventually the staff left me alone and I made the calls. I put things in a bag. Aunty Smita, Shirley and Anthony arrived and paid their respects. Before long, it was time for me to go. The sunset as I walked across the playing field was remarkable. The hymn “I Watch the Sunset” came to mind and I was overcome with a confusing sense of birth and mortality.


I remember thinking how peaceful the end was and so unexpectedly clean and quiet. The opposite of labour yet somehow the same. I had the strangest feeling that she was present at my birth and I was present at hers. I remembered her saying that when her dad, Papa, died, she was holding his head and heard the breath leaving his body in one long exhalation like a whisper.

For a long time I have woken in the night and looked around to check if Mum’s still breathing. It’s not a pleasant feeling but at the same time it’s a reminder that she is at peace and that is comforting.

For the funeral reception I wanted to make Mum’s famous kebabs but was confounded by the fact that no recipe existed. Luckily I had time to grill her for recipes (apologies for unfortunate image there) and this is what she said: ‘You’ve watched me. Just judge it nicely.’

Mum funeral order of service

Karti Kebabs

Makes 20 (I actually could only get between 16-18 kebabs from one block of pastry at first but got more with practice)

For the meat (combine ingredients thoroughly and marinate overnight):

500g diced pork (I prefer pork strips that you can dice into really small pieces – the size of dice in fact)

2 tablespoonsish Pataks Madras Kebab Paste

1 tablespoonish natural yoghurt (too much and your cooked meat will be too watery)

For the rotis:

1 block of bought puff pastry

Flour for dredging/rolling pastry super thin

For the filling (chop finely):

1 large brown onion

2-4 green chillies depending on how hot you like it

lemon juice


This process will benefit from a cook with military/factory line experience. Use a rolling pin you are comfortable with. Mum preferred a narrow stick, I love a fat drum with handles:

  1. Cook the marinated meat at 200 degrees C for about 30/45 minutes until burnished but not too dry. Stir the meat a few times during the cooking process. Allow to cool but not completely before you use a spoonful at a time to fill your rotis.
  2. Roll your rotis thin enough that they won’t split yet robust enough to not crisp up in the pan. You also need to be prepared to roll and watch the frying pan at the same time, which is quite stressful! Have a few rolled before you start, but not so many that they dry out. Carefully place one roti at a time into a dry frying pan over a medium heat and then get rolling the next ones as each cooks. There’s enough fat in the pastry. You have to judge the heat as you would making pancakes: too hot and they brown/crisp too quickly, too cool and they crisp due to the length of time exposed to the heat. Remember that the area of the roti will reduce with the heat so try to be fleet handed. Use the rolling pin to transfer the roti from the table to the pan. Don’t let the cooked rotis cool so much that they become unwieldy nor be too hot so the meat/juice seeps into the roti. You can stack the cooked rotis while you crack on with filling them one at a time.
  3. Have your chopped mixture of onions and chilli in a bowl ready and your bottle of lemon juice (I’ve never tried using real lemons!) next to that. Place a cooled (but not too cool!) roti on a plate; spoon your cooled (but not too cool!) meat in a line across the top; spoon some onions/chilli on top of the meat and douse the line with lemon juice (the more the merrier). Roll into a tight double open-ended wrap and place on a clean plate (or onto a large sheet of tin foil if you are freezing them). Repeat until all rotis are filled. At this point they should be cool enough to freeze (and freeze they will beautifully – all you need to do to defrost them is put them into the fridge for a few hours) or consume immediately, whatever. I prefer putting them straight in the fridge and letting the flavours combine. The chilli loses some heat and the tanginess gets through to the meat. We always eat ours cold!

karti kebabs







We called it stew although it never took very long from the first idea of making it to the unmistakeable clovey, vinegary, meaty, spicy yet herby fragrance filling the house to that sated feeling of wellbeing after your second or third helping. In other words, very little stewing takes place.

My memory is that this Anglo staple was a weekly meal when I was growing up, but it was probably only once a month due to Mum’s school-night dinner repertoire of stuffed hearts, faggots, lasagne, Oriental beef, dhal and rice, spag bol, sausages –  the usual Anglo-Indian-Welsh suspects. This dish though was not my favourite when very young; there must have been a turning point that led to complete slavering commitment to its warming deliciousness. Perhaps it was that well-known adolescent rite of passage when cauliflower and broccoli are no longer vom inducing. Perhaps only then are we truly adult.

Mum’s stew is not really a proper cowboy/cassoulet affair as she never cooked it for very long. Just until the meat was tender enough to allow time for the potatoes or suet dumplings (or sometimes both) to cook or flump up.

And Mum’s approach to tender meat was to cut diced beef into tinier cubes to reduce the cooking time, increase the meat-on-spoon ratio and, classic Mum, to be thrifty with her resources. Ever the economist, Mum wouldn’t bother with expensive cuts of meat (and would often criticise me for buying fancier stuff) and for a dish like this, I can understand her reasoning. The meat isn’t necessarily the star of this show (although this didn’t stop us diving for pearls of meatiness when it was our turn to help ourselves) because of the tangy red unction, softened cauliflower and floury, tender spuds.

I tried making this as a student, reluctant to always be phoning Mum for help, and always getting it wrong because I’d missed some seemingly irrelevant yet undoubtedly indispensable bay leaf or nub of ginger.  Invariably I’d add more vinegar than was necessary (being a good half-Anglo) and I’d end up with flavourless thin, cauliflower and tomato soup with tough, but expensively julienned, fillets of Duchy, free range, organic, sustainable cow from the a farmer called Jasper or similar…

Mum’s recipe calls for modestly essential Anglo ingredients: ginger, vinegar, cloves, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon and peppercorns and a daitchkey brimming with onions, celery, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cauliflower and potatoes. You know you’re a little bit Welsh when you require stodgy dumplings as well as the spuds to fulfil a paternally inherited need to mop juices with sliced white bread. You know you’re Anglo when you’ve made the above but don’t feel satiated without a portion of fragrant basmati rice.

I made this for my brother and Dad a few days after Mum died in that period when close family sit around and either pretend to feel alright or have little bursts of tears when they realise they haven’t asked all the questions they should have like “how much is too much cornflour to thicken?” It was a success, even though I hadn’t found the recipe cards yet.

I recently made it at home, again without the cards and it was bloody awful. I’d forgotten stock cubes despite using posh fresh beef stock and I replaced chilies with West Indian hot pepper sauce that masked all the other flavours. It was bland and chilli hot.

I asked Dad to bring the recipe cards with him on today’s visit to Aunty Rita’s in Worthing and, not understanding what I meant, filled the boot with half her recipe books and not the little linen pouch that I’ve kept safely in her kitchen. So, once again, I’ll have to post the actual recipe next time I go to Suffolk.

We are staying in a Travelodge family room overlooking the sea. We came a few days after Mum died to see Aunty Linda before she died and then again a few days after Mum’s funeral. It’s funny how I associate Worthing with Mum even though I don’t think we’ve ever been here together more than once or twice.

I still catch myself forgetting she’s dead. Yesterday, my cousin Catherine, who lives across the road from Mum and Dad, posted a picture of rice and peas and, for a split second, I thought ‘I wonder if Mum made her that and sent it over’. Then came the familiar sinking feeling…

Last week Pip and I went camping and I regaled our friends with memories of karti kebabs, tandoori chicken and paraffin stove beef curries. Mum’s curry powders went camping with her so I feel ashamed that we just took biscuits and sandwiches this time. Pip’s not entirely ready for Mum’s stew but luckily she understands that I’m trying to make Nana’s recipes partly for her benefit. It will be quite a feat to pull off the Phyllis Griffiths approach to camping so in the meantime I’ll stick to these old favourites.

Try it! But don’t forget to add tiny morsels of inexpensive beef and lashings of vinegar.

Beef Stew Recipe

Beef stew method (2)Beef stew ingredients (2)



Biriani and Hell’s Flame


Probably my favourite Mum recipe, this dish is actually very easy to make if you have a jar of Patak’s Biriani Paste. However, the simplicity can be deceptive if you are a rice-cooking amateur. I’m no professional and I often mess this up – too much rice means the stodge factor is increased. Burnt bottom (some of us like it that way) is fine as long as the burning flavour doesn’t pervade the whole pan. If you are cooking for more than four adults, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Mum used two types of daitchkey (sp?) – a huge metal one for lots of people or a heatproof lidded casserole for when she made it in the oven with yogurt and spices and things (she didn’t leave me that recipe…). She always said that the best biranis were Pakistani ones. I’ve had a fair few birianis in my time and I know what she means: layers of multicoloured tangyness with beautifully tender beef served with lashings of fried onions and maybe some cashews? I’m sure some birianis have nuts in them.

Anyway, Mum’s standard biriani (or ‘biz’ as my Welsh Dad calls it – I’ve only got one dad, what am I saying?) is beef or chicken, fried with the biriani paste and other spices, basmati rice and peas added later. Because us kids are half-Celts, Mum sometimes added potatoes (I know, carb overload). The most important element of the dish, however, is the drenching of Hell’s Flame that takes place once you have loaded your bowl (and bowl I always use, never plate).

Hell’s flame really is the devil’s work – raw onion, chilli powder, sugar (a bit of devillish jiggerypokery) and malt vinegar. It’s the tangyness that turns it Anglo-Indian. Not putting hell’s flame on your biriani is like not having salt and vinegar on your fish n chips. Or ketchup if you really like ketchup. The raw onions give enough crunch to balance the ricey texture and the tang of the vinegar followed by sweet and sour heat completes every mouthful.

Every one of Mum’s curries is accompanied by a plate (often the 70’s rose detail one) of sliced cucumber, tomatoes and spring onions sprinkled with salt and drizzled with more malt vinegar.

This is the dish I would request most often when visiting Mum and Dad. You could depend on it even if I hadn’t been asked what I fancy before I arrived. Invariably, Pip and I drove from London late in the evening, often on a Wednesday night in the early days when Pip didn’t go to full-time school (four day weekends – whup!) and there would be a daitchkey with enough leftover for several portions, even if it was late at night! Better yet, I would have my fill but make sure I left some for breakfast biriani… Perfection.

Most restaurants outside Southall serve biriani with an accompanying vegetable curry. I don’t see the point. I judge birianis on whether they can survive without any accompaniments (other than vinegar!). I think of biriani like an Italian risotto. Perfect just the way they are.

There’s a south Indian takeaway chain called Sambal Express which serves a really spicy version of mutton birani that tastes very similar to Mum’s. They have a store in Southall. They also do a delicious range of street food and snacks. My favourites are fish and egg rolls and fish rotis.


Mum’s Chicken or Beef Biriani Recipe

Biriani methodBiriani ingred

Hell’s Flame Recipe

Combine the following ingredients in a serving bowl:

1 brown onion – diced

Half teaspoon (or more!) of chilli powder

1-2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Enough glugs of malt vinegar to almost cover the diced onions in your bowl