Breaking rotis with the Indian chefs of London… Meera Sodha, Asma Khan, Chefs Vivek Singh & Abdul

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I was a guest at all the three meals referred to here

I rarely eat Indian food when travelling abroad.

For me one of the biggest joys of travelling is the discovery of new tastes, flavours, aromas and dishes. I like to look at each meal as an opportunity to learn something new. To seek, to click, to eat and to share. Eating home food while travelling is a bit of a waste of time in my book. I would rather eat someone else’s home food if you know what I mean. It’s all about to getting to the know the food of the place where I am and of learning to appreciate it.

I was a bit apprehensive when I set off to London to be honest. Well meaning folks, whom one knew through social media, on hearing that I was headed to London, were excited to take me to their favourite Indian places. Just what I wanted to avoid.

I must admit thought that I had heard so much of the Sylheti curry shop led ‘Indian’ food movement in the UK that I was a bit intrigued to see how Indian food had transported to England. The trade off between this intellectual interest and making the most of my time there to collect experiences which I couldn’t back home was a tough one.

Greater India

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My first dekko of an ‘Indian place was a restaurant simply called ‘Indian Veg’ in Islington close to where I stayed in Islington the first half of my trip.

I ambled in one lazy morning after breakfast. It was noon and the place was filling. The crowd was multi-racial. The mood peaceful. The food was served as a buffet. Looked similar to what you would see in vegetarian sections of buffets in places like Copper Chimney in Mumbai.

There were a number of kitschy posters around extolling the virtues of vegetarianism…some of the selling points were the beauty of Bollywood actresses (Madhuri Dixit, whose picture was used, I am told is non-vegetarian) and the claimed virility of elderly vegetarian men from the subcontinent.

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I noticed that the people running the place were talking in Bengali. I went up to them to chat and realised that I had guessed right, they were some very friendly Bangladeshis. On asking the owner as to why a meat eating Bangladeshi Muslim would run a ‘vegetarian Indian’ place the gentleman smiled and replied, “It’s business”.

Well, looking around at their happy customers I guess it is a good business.

As Lizzie Collingham, in her excellent book ‘Curry’ points out, Sylhetis were Indian when they had first launched their restaurants in England.

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Basking in the warmth of Meera Sodha’s kitchen

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On my second night in London, I had a lovely taste of Indian home food at the place of Meera Sodha.

Meera is British of Indian descent and her parents had moved in from Africa. In her kitchen  Meera connects with her roots as she heads to the very tall spice cupboard at the entrance to her house, picks up ingredients to experiment with dishes that her mother had taught her. Through her work in her kitchen Meera is trying to recreate and hold on to the culinary traditions which the earlier generation of women in her family lived by. She is trying to bring alive the magic of her ancestor's cooking in her modern kitchen in a land far far away from the land of her fathers. Carefully documenting what works in today’s day and age and what needs to be worked on.

That night Meera had called over some of her British friends and cooked for them & her boyfriend A.

If I go simply by the daal makhni that Meera made,by  the sheer richness of it, by the warmth and love of the matrons of Punjab that swirled through the daal in this kitchen in London…the ease with which Meera whipped up chapattis after a long evening of cooking …. if I go by the sheer smiles which each bite of the daal makhni brought to my face…by the indelible and joyous memories the daal etched in my heart … then I can surely say that the Indian food being cooked in the Meera Sodha’s kitchen in London is as close to the kitchens of India as you can get.

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(That’s Meera in the extreme left)

Asma Khan’s Kolkata Kitchen

A few days later was an event that I was quite looking forward to. The Calcutta Pop Up by Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express in the Cinnamon Club.

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Like Meera, I knew Asma through twitter. On hearing about my London plans Asma got quite excited as the dates of her Calcutta Pop Up coincided with my trip and she very kindly invited me over. The supper club scene is very active in England. Asma, a lawyer by training, who came to England from Hyderabad via Kolkata, does pop up dinners which are quite sought after. We later found out that her brother and I were in school together. The twitter responses to Asma’s earlier pop ups had made me quite eager to attend one of them.

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Pic: With Asma,, pic by Ming Tan Evans

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Latching on to the chance I went to the very posh Cinnamon Club at Westminster to join in a banquet hall full of guests, again multi-racial, in the pop up. Asma and her team were cooking in the cavernous, modern kitchens of the Cinnamon club and then serving the lunch upstairs as a proper seated table service. Part of her team was Zoe Perett a Britisher who loves Indian food like few others can and is working with Indian restaurants in London from a PR point of view and writes adeptly on Indian food.

 

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The spread was extensive with phuchkas (very authentic Kolkata ones and not paani puris), momos, grilled tiger prawns, fish malai curry, lachha parathas…this was Fellini gone wild with Kolkata as a canvas…the Tibetan momo shops of Bhowanipore, the phuchkawalas of maidan, the luxurious jamai shoshthi meals of North Kolkata, the Muslim biryani joints of Central Calcutta…all marched by in a dream sequence in a corner of London’s Westminster that afternoon.

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What stood out in an array of dishes which any chef in Kolkata would be more than proud to serve is the biryani. This was the sort of biryani that brought tears of joy to my eyes. Fine grained aromatic rice, delicately and gently bathed with the flavours of mild spices and very good quality meat. One of the best renditions of a perfect Calcutta biryani that I’ve had. Second only to that of Shiraz which is my benchmark of Kolkata Biryanis

Asma’s Calcutta biryani made Chef Vivek Singh of Cinnamon Kitchen stand up and say ‘this biryani deserves a standing ovation and we should stand up to serve ourselves’. It was a biryani which got me excited enough to stand up and give a speech in its honour shortly after I’d already given a talk on the food of Calcutta at Asma’s request.

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All of this mopped with a most fantastic, thick, very indulgent mishti doi made by Asma which the famed sweet shops of North Kolkata, I am sure, would be happy to pass off as their own.

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One of the highlights of the afternoon was getting to meet Chef Vivek Singh who runs the much lauded Cinnamon group of restaurants. He invited me and Chef Romy Hardeep Gill to join us at his table. We soon discovered a common Bengal connection and got chatting. The  Mishti doi gave Romy and me enough confidence to go up and sing ‘Disco Deewane’ to Biddu who was one of the guests. We were pre-90s children after all.

I quite enjoyed our adda so when Vivek invited me over for lunch at his restaurant at Liverpool Street, Cinnamon Kitchen, the next day, I readily accepted.

Last meal of the London trip to be Indian? Well I went for the company and to me that’s what matters a lot.

Chef Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen

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The conversation was indeed great witch Chef Vivek was indeed great.

I sat back and listened to Vivek talk about his journey in London where he landed from the fine dining kitchens of posh hotels in India and has,  over the years, built the Cinnamon restaurant chain starting with the very posh Cinnamon Kitchen deep in Westminster from where the Empire once ruled India to the slightly more relaxed Cinnamon Kitchen and recently Cinnamon Soho. Vivek told me that when he set up his restaurants he took a conscious decision to go against the existing notion of Indian restaurants being cheap curry houses. He turned the Indian restaurant shibboleths on their heads by choosing prime locations, the best produce, select chefs, modern cooking methods and plating and came up with his Cinnamon world.

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Yes, he did face flak as people walked into his restaurants and found their images of ‘Indian’ restaurants challenged.

‘This is not Indian’ is a comment Vivek has apparently often had to face though he has stuck to his guns.

I listened to this story while Chef Abdul of Cinnamon Kitchen cooked up a great lunch for us. Started with a Bengal mutton chop which had the texture and bounce of a street-side ‘roller dokaner’ chop and yet had the simplicity and purity which comes with chops that one’s granny would make for one. Then followed a smorgasbord of grills with accompanying purees which led to an interesting firework of tastes.

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This was followed by venison cooked in a tandoor. Astonishingly tender challenging my belief that venison is normally tough. Vivek, a Rajput himself, told me that he was really excited by the chance to cook with game meat in England as it is illegal in India now. Game meat was common in India historically, pointed out Vivek, with folks like the Rajput being big as hunters, cooked and ate.

Vivek is now working with game and using traditional Indian cooking methods to see if he can recreate a chapter of India’s past in his kitchens.

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As I chomped myself through the chops, the tandoors, the rather heavy biryani and then the lovely kheer that followed I knew that I was having a meal which was as ‘Indian’ as it gets and to be honest, one of the best Indian meals that I have had in a restaurant. Anywhere.

At the end of the meal I told Vivek, “You know, when I came to London I was expecting the Indian food here to be really bad but it was far from that. I have had some of my best Indian food here over the past few days”

Vivek looked at me and said very calmly with not a hint of reproach in his voice, “But that was very presumptuous of you”.

Yes chef. You are right.

By holding fixed notions and by being judgemental we serve no purpose but to rob ourselves of some great experiences and in the kitchens of Meera, Asma, Abdul and Vivek I had experienced the very best of India in a land that once ruled it.

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Dishes getting plated in the Cinnamon Club Kitchen

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