As children growing up in India, our mental picture of England was shaped very largely by the books of Enid Blyton, which we read voraciously. In our imaginations all English towns were located on the seaside and had cobbled streets and half-timbered houses with hidden doors and mysterious underground passages in which smugglers lurked. Our first visit to Rye therefore brought an immediate jolt of recognition, followed by immense gratification to realise that the place of our fantasies actually existed. It came as no surprise to learn Rye had actually inspired Enid Blyton to write one of her "Famous Five" books!
Rye is constantly ranked among the most picturesque towns in England and its charms are immediately obvious. The town was established in ancient times since it is a very convenient harbour for ships traveling to the French coast, which is only a short distance away. The Romans had a large presence in the area and it was an important port in Saxon and Norman times.
The location made the town vulnerable in times of war, and a French force destroyed most of it in the late fourteenth century, requiring it to be completely rebuilt.
Fortunately, at least from the viewpoint of tourists, large parts of the town seem to have been untouched after that reconstruction and still appear frozen in time, looking much as they did in medieval times.
During the middle ages Rye was one of the principal towns charged with the defense of England. The imposing Ypres towers, built in 1249 as a defensive castle and named after its owner, John de Ypres, still looms over the waterfront. Known locally as the "Wipers" tower, the building now houses a museum.
Rye's location also made it a centre for smuggling, with several notorious gangs of smugglers operating in the area and transporting contraband to and from ships that crept close to shore under cover of night. The vast open areas of the Romney marsh adjacent to Rye made it easy to evade officers of the law. Rudyard Kipling, who lived very close to Rye, composed the "Smugglers Song" that went:
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie
The Giant's Fireplace bar at The Mermaid Inn where we had lunch, is very old (dating back to 1156) with a fascinating storied past. Once the hangout of the legendary Hawkhurst gang of smugglers, there is even a secret passage beside the bar that was their escape route to the sea. There is also a hidey hole in the chimney breast once used for safely harbouring Catholic priests on the run. All this is revealed later because upon first entering the room, all eyes are immediately drawn to the huge, crackling log fireplace that dominates an entire wall. All in all, a fascinating place to enjoy a drink and a bite to eat while soaking in the ambiance and toasting your toes.
The food in the bar is good English pub fare, accompanied by their famous ales. We had locally sourced fish with chips and suet pudding (which we had only read about in books!), all deliciously prepared. One of the joys of eating out in England is the variety of Indian food available everywhere. Sometimes you don't even have to go to an Indian restaurant to find it!
A popular staple on Indian restaurant menus, Karhai chicken has robust flavours, almost reminiscent of Butter Chicken. The cashews add a nice crunch, while the raisins give the merest hint of sweetness to the delicious tomato cream sauce. Karhai refers to the traditional two handled rounded wok this dish is cooked and served in.
For other restaurant favourites, try Lamb Roghan Josh or Chicken Tikka masala.
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 6)
4 tbsp oil, divided
Salt to taste
1 tsp each, ground spices, divided: garam masala, coriander, cumin, dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi), turmeric
1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, cumin seeds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 each, thinly sliced: sweet red pepper, sweet green pepper
1/4 cup whole raw (unsalted, unroasted) cashews
1 tbsp golden raisins
1/2 inch piece ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 fl oz, 790 ml) whole plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, pureed
2 tbsp each: butter, whipping cream, chopped fresh coriander
Preheat oven to 420F. Line a baking tray with parchment.
Cut chicken into bite sized pieces and place in large mixing bowl.
Add 2 tbsp oil, salt to taste, 1/2 tsp each of the garam masala, ground coriander, ground cumin, dried fenugreek leaves, turmeric and cayenne. Mix well and evenly spread the chicken on parchment lined tray. Bake for 15 min until chicken is lightly browned. Chicken will not be fully cooked at this point. Transfer chicken and all its juices into a bowl. Reserve for later use in this recipe.
Warm remaining 2 tbsp oil in deep non stick skillet (or wok/karhai) set over medium high heat. Add 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, sizzle for 30 sec. Add sliced onions, red and green peppers. Saute for 5-7 min, allowing vegetables to sear lightly.
Add cashews and raisins and saute 1 min. Drain and reserve everything.
Add another spoonful of oil to skillet if necessary. Add ginger and garlic, saute 1 min. Add pureed tomatoes, salt to taste and remainder of the ground spices. Cook 1 min, then add 1 cup of water. Cook 10 min for sauce to thicken up slightly.
Add reserved chicken with all its accumulated juices, the sauteed onions, peppers, cashews and raisins. Cover skillet, bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for 10 min.
Fold in the butter, cream and fresh coriander. Serve garnished with ginger julienne and sliced green chilies if desired.