Epicure Digital Marketing Interviews Chef Cyrus Todiwala
The UK’s love affair with Indian food goes back several hundred years and, although the two countries have had a complicated history, Indian cuisine’s beneficial effect on British food is undeniable. The same cannot necessarily be said on our part. Britain has shamelessly borrowed, manhandled, and misunderstood Indian food almost for as long as it has loved it but, with the world of food shifting and changing all the time – are we starting to give Indian cuisine the respect it deserves? We sat down with Chef Cyrus Todiwala to find out.
In 1600, the East India Trading Company was founded to open trade routes with the Indian subcontinent, ushering in a whole new food era. Brits returning from their travels had acquired a taste for the flavourful dishes they had been eating abroad, and new recipes sprung up in their homeland to accommodate them. The first English curry recipes can be found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, as early as 1747, and 1809 saw the first ever Indian restaurant open in the UK. Although Britain’s passion for Indian cuisine declined in the later years of the Raj, the influx of Indians and Bangladeshis into the UK in the 20th century saw it come back with a vengeance.
But we have always insisted on doing it our way. Early English curries were extremely mild and nowadays the food we consider “Indian” often bears little resemblance to what you can actually find in the country itself, as Todiwala points out. “If people come to Indian restaurants in the UK, everything is not all dark and smelly like it is in India. Everything is deep-fried and full of colour - in India we don’t use a lot of colour in our food, whereas here we use it rampantly”.
For Chef Todiwala, Indian cuisine in the UK has not followed the same trajectory as that of, say, French cuisine, attaining a high profile and a “fine dining” stamp of approval. On the contrary, the majority of Indian restaurants are treated as day-to-day British dining, a perception, Todiwala remarks, which has prevented the Indian food industry from growing and developing.
“To the bulk of the British public, Indian restaurants are still “curry”, because they haven’t identified what curry really means, and what Indian cuisine really stands for.” Rather than a complex and profound gastronomy, most of us still think of Indian food as a Friday night takeaway or post-pub sustenance. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a typical Indian takeaway as much as the next person (and I must admit, I'm a sucker for a sweet, mild korma) it is great, tasty food, and, as Todiwala himself points out, "you can't say it is poor quality, it isn't necessarily. It is simply that these restaurants are providing a service for people who demand that kind of quality, product, and service." It is simply that our view of this particular style of cooking is often applied to all Indian food, regardless of quality.
And it is exactly this perception that restaurants like Todiwala’s own Café Spice Namaste are trying to root out. To begin with, says Todiwala, it was out with the dim lighting, flock wallpaper, and musty carpets, and in with the bold colours “India is a very very colourful country, unfortunately the restaurants within Britain did not represent that”.
Secondly, if you are looking for your standard Jalfrezi, think again. The Indian subcontinent is bursting with regional cuisines, each as exciting as the last, but in Britain there are very few opportunities to try anything but the well-worn options you can find at your local curry house.
But this is changing, with restaurants like Michelin-starred Trishna offering options such as a Kerala-inspired tasting menu. At Café Spice Namaste, Parsi food is the order of the day – a cuisine found in India’s Western Gujarat area which is closer to Persian food than it is to a Brick Lane Balti – alongside Goan-inspired seafood dishes and much more. “We always try to educate our public, so those who have not had our cuisine before will have the opportunity to dine on different forms of cooking.”
And it turns out that we Britons are increasingly willing to be educated. Our love of food TV is at an all-time high – I myself am a MasterChef obsessive – which means it has never been simpler for us to learn how to cook these dishes ourselves. Instead of relying on a curry recipe from a cookbook, you can watch Chef Todiwala make it himself on Saturday Kitchen. It is also easier than ever before to travel to India and try the food first-hand. And this, according to Todiwala, is what is making a real difference. Once people have tried real Indian food, our pale British imitation simply will not cut it.
“There is this amazing growth in the palates and the refinement of the taste buds of British people today, who demand more in terms of quality, in terms of consistency, and in terms of variety”, remarks Todiwala. Not only are we beginning to create superlative, informed eaters (or foodie hipsters, whatever you want to call them), we are also producing superlative raw materials, which many UK Indian chefs are using in their cooking.
In fact, Todiwala only uses British produce in his kitchen, taking great pains to source the finest meat, fish, and vegetables from all over the country. When we visited, there was a trout on the specials which can only be found in the chalk streams of Hampshire, where some of the purest water in Britain can be found. “I buy British, and I’m proud to buy British, that’s what we do.” So here it is – with our long-delayed appreciation for more complex and “authentic” Indian cuisine comes an opportunity to contribute something worthwhile ourselves in the form of our world-class local produce.
A new era of British-Indian food, authentic to us, celebrating the best of both countries is about to begin, and it’s going to be delicious. Want to get involved? Café Spice Namaste might be a good place to start.