VIDEO: A pinch of this, a handful of that and, hold on, I'm cooking delicious curry
ON a chopping board in front of me, I am staring at an onion, little realising I am about to witness a miracle.
In my time, I have chopped thousands of onions but never before have I ever seen anything like this.
"Right, so, you get your onion," says the chef, "and you just chop, see? Like this."
Before my eyes, the shining blade of the long kitchen knife quivers like an arrow in a tree for about three seconds. Then, as the chef removes his hands, there is the onion, chopped and diced to a mathematical precision.
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It is beautiful.
"Now you try, yes?" says the chef, handing me the knife and sliding a fresh onion half on to the board.
I nod, hesitantly. Suddenly, my little fingers feel vulnerable. I get to work, hacking and carving like a drunk surgeon, barely in control of my hands.
"Good, good, keep going. Maybe you want to flavour the chicken now," says the chef, taking the knife from me, wisely.
It is, I reckon, the stage, not the lines, which are causing such drama. I love cooking and have always been creative in the kitchen in my own home. But stepping inside a busy, chaotic, professional kitchen like this one is something else entirely.
I am at Shalimar, in Midland Road, to see what it takes to be a chef in a modern Indian restaurant. The place itself was crowned Derby Telegraph's Indian Restaurant of the Year 2012.
It was opened in 1983 by owner and manager Mahmood Akhtar, who refers to it proudly as "the oldest Indian restaurant in Derby".
Head chef Sunder Rana arrived in 2011, since when he has set about putting his stamp on the menu and is trying to make sure it is as healthy as it can be.
Rana – as he is known – says: "People want healthy food and Indian food is healthy. It comes down to the ingredients you choose. If you choose fresh food and get the best you can, it will taste good and be healthy."
Before his illustrious career as a chef began, his background was in chilled food manufacturing, which taught him a lot about tight targets for how much salt, fat and sugars content.
But, as much as someone can learn about food theory, real talent is instinctive, as I will soon learn.
Rana leads me through the restaurant and finds me a full set of chef's whites. We are going to make a curry. It is called tawa chicken (tawa means griddle) and is one of Rana's newest creations.
He says: "This is a healthy dish. Look at what we are putting in and see what might be unhealthy.
"I am currently putting a new menu together and I want to keep classics, like tikka masala, which is still the best-seller, and madras, but add healthy options."
We chop onions (he chops onions, I merely jab at them) and we put a big, comfortably well-used frying pan on the hob. Rana adds a slosh of oil and gets me to stir the onions. He adds garlic puree, ground ginger, then fresh ginger and garlic, plus star anise.
"It is the fresh stuff which really makes it work, and the powders complement it," he explains.
Around me, as we work, the rest of the kitchen staff – eight full-time plus more part-time workers – prepare for the evening ahead, chopping onions and tomatoes, filling huge buckets with chicken legs and breasts. Everything is smooth and ordered.
The hiss and splash of our frying is the only cooking sound and I can only imagine the sheer noise and heat of the kitchen in full flow on a Friday or Saturday night.
With the onions and garlic on a low heat, we turn to the meat. First, Rana takes a plastic bowl and goes along the rack of spices, adding a pinch of thyme here and a handful of dark, red curry powder here.
It is bewildering to me, but he regularly squints, raises the bowl to his nose and adds a little something else. This is the instinct I was on about.
I am instructed to empty the chicken chunks into this seasoning and "give it a good rub", which I do with glee. I have always loved the slightly transgressive feeling of plunging my hands into food and giving it some welly.
Next, we go back to the hob. We add tomatoes, fresh chilli and a few other bits and we get a good, silky, oniony base for the sauce. Rana gets a spoon and tastes it. He gestures for me to do the same.
"There's something missing, right? What is it?" This isn't rhetorical. What is it? It's quite bland, actually. But do I say that? I picture those crazy knife skills again.
"It's quite ... nice, but maybe it could do with a bit of salt?" I offer.
"Salt! Yes! Exactly," says Rana before throwing a good flick in the pan. We taste again. "Always taste, all the way through. It is the only way to really tell what you are doing."
And there is a definite improvement.
Next, Rana drains off the excess oil – using a spoon and an expert wrist-flick – into a tray, and adds the chicken, which we have seared beforehand on a griddle pan.
We stir it all together and soon it is ready.
Rana grabs a plate, garnishes it with salad and hands me the tongs.
"Presentation is everything, after taste. Make it look good," he tells me.
I hold the pan and tweezer each chicken chunk out into an artful pile. I smile questioningly at Rana.
"Not quite. What about the sauce? You need to take two off, put the sauce on and put them back, so it is neat."
Ah, the tricks of the trade. I do as he says, add a sprig of coriander to garnish and ... voila. It has taken us about 12 minutes.
At the Shalimar, every order is cooked fresh. It shows how vital preparation is.
We grab a fork and tuck in. The blend of warm tomato flavour and rich, fruity spice are quietly spectacular.
Whether or not I could do it alone remains to be seen but the amount of attention that has gone into this dish – and knowing it is done regularly, on such a scale – has given me a real respect for these curry connoisseurs.