"If you cook this for your date, they're going to have such a reaction. They'll be amazed at what you did with something that people put in the bin. It's so simple but people will be blown away."
I've come to Gunpowder, a modern Indian restaurant near London's Spitalfields Market, in the hope of elevating my Valentine's Day cooking game from a bag of Kettle Chips and a Hawaiian pizza (with extra pineapple) to something a little more sophisticated. But so far, founder Harneet Baweja's idea of a romantic menu doesn't sound so convincing.
Thankfully, Baweja and head chef Nirmal Save aren't suggesting I woo my boo with a meal of vegetable peelings, overcooked spaghetti, and mouldy back-of-the-fridge items.
Baweja explains: "We're going to do three hearts, three different ways—ox heart cutlets, skewered chicken hearts, and pan-fried duck hearts on a fermented and steamed rice cake."
Ah. My own heart worriedly skips a beat at the thought of limp innards scattered on a plate. I take a deep breath and follow Baweja and Save into Gunpowder's small kitchen.
"All three hearts are very different in terms of texture and size, so they've been cooked in different ways," explains Baweja. "Chicken hearts are obviously quite small and ox hearts can go up to one and a half kilos. Duck hearts are slightly larger than chicken hearts but very different in texture—they're a bit softer."
Scanning the kitchen for signs of offal, my eyes instead land on two breaded, heart-shaped parcels that look like croquettes. Save tells me that these are the ox heart cutlets about to be immersed in hot oil. I immediately feel a lot better about the prospect of eating heart once I know there's deep-frying involved.
"Cutlets are a very home-style Indian dish," says Save. "It's a bit like how the English have bubble and squeak. If you've got some leftover meat, some potatoes, and some vegetables, you mix them up and fry them."
Baweja agrees: "A lot of Indian households will have cutlets in the evening or for breakfast because you can make them in advance in large batches, store them, and then they get fried and served."
He adds: "It was Nirmal's idea to do them in a heart shape."
Save nods and smiles proudly.
But out of the corner of my eye, I spy what I've been dreading: the skewered chicken hearts, in all their glory, basking in a garlic, ginger, and black pepper marinade. Luckily, Save starts on preparing the duck next, giving me time to mentally psyche myself up for eating heart-on-a-stick.
"The texture of duck heart is more like liver. It's quite soft," says Baweja. "We cook them in a tomato sauce made with south Indian spices and then put the mixture on a fermented rice cake, which has been steamed so it feels like light, white bread. When the hearts and sauce are placed on top, the sauce will slowly seep through."
Duck prepared, the time has come for the chicken hearts. As Save places the skewers on the grill, he gives me his top advice for cooking the little organs: "Don't overcook them. If you do, they'll be more chewy. They should still have a bit of juice inside when you bite into them."
Baweja notices me wince.
"Chicken hearts are a good, simple, hearty meal. The flavour from the marinade permeates all the way through and there's a nice, slight char on the outside," he assures me. "We serve them with lime and paprika because you need some acidity to cut through the butter that's been used during grilling."
As we sit down to sample the trio of hearts, Baweja explains that the dishes are more than just a Valentine's Day gimmick.
"We're using the opportunity to say that everything has value and it's respectful to use every part of the animal that's been killed," he says. "When I was growing up in Kolkata in east India, we'd use everything. You're taking away from the earth so you must respect what you've got. Let's use Valentine's Day to tell people that hearts can be eaten as well."
Baweja pushes the two ox heart cutlets, which are served with yogurt, towards me and exclaims: "Doesn't it look like the hearts are in love!"
Buoyed by Baweja's enthusiasm, I dive into the cutlets and surprise myself by polishing off the plate. The crunchy exterior and soft potato and ox heart within win me over. Onto the duck dish and the hearts are slightly more chewy, but pleasingly so with the pillowy rice-bread hybrid.
Baweja and Save notice me hesitating at the chicken hearts.
"Just use your fingers and take one off the skewer!" says Save.
The verdict: I'm not such a fan of the chewiness but I can't fault the garlicky flavour.
The heart dishes might be on Gunpowder's menu for one night only, but Baweja and Save make a good point about respecting produce and embracing nose-to-tail eating. While the tacky shop displays and funfetti in restaurants will be gone tomorrow, hearts last a lot longer than just Valentine's Day.