As I write this blog on the eve of the 15th anniversary of my restaurant nilgiri’s, there is not only a feeling of happiness, gratitude and pride but also a desire to do a lot more for this wonderful cuisine called ‘Indian’.
Today I am also a little disappointed and disheartened when I hear a customer in my ‘nilgiri’s @ home’ take-home food shop question my staff for charging $26 for a whole chicken cooked in the oven; this is not just any oven but a tandoori oven. Sir, this chicken takes a lot of time, patience, technique and love to get where it is now. The ‘roast chicken’ you buy from the ‘chicken’ shop is dressed in a factory, not a kitchen.
Today I am extremely proud of my team who work tirelessly to produce cuisine of the topmost quality.
Today I am also sad to see my team, who have a combined experience of 125 man-years in the catering industry, questioned whether the food is “fresh” or if it is from the “bain-marie”? Sir, a bain-marie is used in a take-away where the chef is also the waiter, who also happens to be the owner, but it is not used in a quality restaurant which employs a specially-trained staff to cook and serve.
Today I am on top of the world but I am also at rock bottom. My passion, Indian food, is considered by many to be nothing more than a “curry”. I and my team may spend hours perfecting the technique and the taste of, for example, cubes of lamb pan fried in mustard oil infused with coconut, yet to many this is just “curry”. Sir, ‘curry’ is a corruption of the Tamil word kari which means a pepper-flavoured sauce. India has 34 other states that do not make a kari. How can we call everything a “curry”?
Today I am walking on air but I am also pained when my waiting staff, who are the backbone of my business and who treat every customer like an atithi (guest), are treated by some like naukars (servants). Sir, yes we do serve people who we consider our guests, but it is not because we are forced to but because we believe in treating our guests as Dev (G-d). As the famous Sanskrit saying goes, ‘Atithi Devo Bhava.’
Today I am blessed. I am very fortunate because my passion is my profession (well almost; my passion is actually cricket, but that’s for another time, another place), and I have been extremely lucky to have written three books on Indian food (with Jan Purser and Alison Roberts), and contributed to many more, including the famous India Cookbook 1000 Recipes by Pushpesh Pant, but I am also very depressed today because my cuisine is considered too old and out-of-fashion to even mention on commercial TV.
Today I am delighted when I see Indian companies doing well (and acquiring big-name companies like Range Rover!!) and many Indians excelling in their respective trades as cricketers, doctors, accountants, engineers . . . But I am pained to see that Indian cuisine has no place in this world-market and anha karta (the cook), is struggling because we have a fascination for all things ‘imported’, not just material things like cars, perfumes and watches but also food. For example, osso buco has a certain caché, but believe me, goat rogan josh is miles ahead. You can actually smell it, it has an aroma, my friends, that imbibes itself beautifully around the whole mohalla (village)!! Fast-foods like burgers and pizzas are preferred to equally fast-foods like ‘thalis’ which have the added bonus of being good for you.
Today I am laughing because ‘ctm’ (chicken tikka masala a.k.a. butter chicken) is a dish known all over the world; but I am also crying because it is not actually ‘Indian’ but a recipe devised in England. My beloved cuisine that offers at least 25 different styles of cooking has been reduced to ‘ctm’. All the great cuisines of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Hyderabad, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan . . . and many more has been reduced to one dish, ‘ctm’.
Today I am happy and proud to be a father because my son, Aniruddh, this month started working for me at the restaurant and even he is very disappointed when a customer asks, “How can you charge $16 for the largest container of chicken chettinad and $18 for the smallest container of palak paneer?”
“Well sir,” Aniruddh replies with the matter-of-factness of a 13-year-old boy, “We make our own paneer and. . .” before he can finish the customer [who is not remotely interested in the answer to his own question] has already retreated back into his brand-new BMW.
I am so bloody happy I cook!!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!
Try these two recipes that are both richly infused with very different flavours: a north-Indian spiced yoghurt cauliflower florets vegetarian dish and a Bengali-style lamb in coconut that is cooked using mustard oil.