An edited version appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 25 June 2010.
Last year, The Times of India, reported that a British MP tabled a motion in parliament to have Glasgow granted European Union “Protected Designation of Origin” status for chicken tikka masala. Apparently, the dish was created in the early 1970s in an Indian restaurant in the city. Chefs in Delhi retorted that the dish was Punjabi, already established under the last great Mughal, and their version doesn’t glow in the dark with tartrazine. Robin Cook as foreign secretary, declared: “Chicken tikka massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. Indeed; the chef had added a tin of Campbell’s soup to chicken tikka.
India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire for 200 years, and the colonial love affair with curry took root at home. Bengali lascars were the first to set up Indian restaurants in Britain, where there are now over 6000. Until the 1970s, Bangladeshis ran three-quarters of these, sharing popular imports of various origin, accounting for the homogeneity of Indian menus (vindaloo, rogan josh etc) in the UK, whereas the diversity of cuisine on the subcontinent is mindboggling.
Most of these curry houses are still lager-food outlets, but a new philosophy is at hand. The 21st century saw the first Indian chefs awarded Michelin stars. Authenticity has been overthrown as the critic’s yardstick. Restaurants like Tamarind and Quilon (both earned a Michelin star this year) create fine dining using Indian culinary art.
A leading exponent is the Taj Group’s Executive Chef Hemant Oberoi. His training was classical French; only late in his career did he turn to researching Indian food, compiling over 10 000 traditional recipes.
His Bombay Brasserie in London won a coveted British Curry Award last year. Its main dining room is elegant if a little bland (in that hotel sort of way), with plush carpets, earthy reds, soft brown tones, muted leather, sitar music, oil paintings and historical photos of Indian personages on the walls.
The set menu tiffin is modestly priced and ideal for lunch. Even the naan bread is satiating, but not oily. From a silver pot, the waiter pours delicious spicy corn soup (bhuni makai ka shorba, £7), surprisingly robust for a vegetable stock base, into your soup bowl over a sprinkling of popcorn. The popcorn instantly dissolves on the tongue. Much of the enjoyment of Indian food comes from the intense colours. The dum ki nalli, a slow cooked lamb shank on the bone (£19), is plunged into a tomato-based, saffron curry, with an elusive richness given by cashew nuts. You can feed an infant on this food it is so tender. Dessert is a magical blend of hot and cold, sweet and tart, smooth and crumbly. The final surprise arrives in an eggcup. What looks exactly like a white aspirin, at the touch of hot water, magically erects itself (rather graphically) and turns into a towelette.
Following the celebrity chef arrivals of Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa, Oberoi has opened in Cape Town the first Bombay Brasserie outside of London, with plans to make it a global brand.
He is an amiable, mannered, soft-spoken man who carries his enormous responsibilities gracefully. Oberoi happened to be in the Taj Hotel during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Seven of his chefs were gunned down. The brave staff hid the guests from the roving gunmen in a labyrinth of rooms. Psychologists observe that people cope during such ordeals by focusing on their roles, incredibly in this case even preparing food for the trapped during the siege, at the risk of their own lives. Questioned on the attacks, I can see from Oberoi’s eyes that feelings are still raw and he is exerting a considerable measure of self-control.
I change the topic to local produce. Yes, he says, he has been trying out an ostrich tikka, but the meat doesn’t readily absorb the Indian spices. Asked if he has a signature dish, he simply replies: “We are famous for our food.”
The Basserie has almost finished teething. Executive chef Harpreet Longani, close to confinement, was not on duty the night I snuck in to test how the establishment has settled. It’s dangerous to review too early. A scoop on Maze last year proved (ironically) prematurely positive.
Descending into the wood panelled, sunken dining room the first impression is of warmth and comfort – parquet flooring, blue Murano glass chandeliers, luxurious fabrics, and opulent peacock motifs on the armchairs. At 42 seats, it is a pleasantly contained space. Two high tables, ideal if ordering the chef’s menu, have a view into the show kitchen, though most of the action happens backstage.
With Indian food of this subtlety, there is no question that wine is a better companion than beer. Manager Francois happily pairs a flight of wines with the eight courses on the chef’s “instant sketch menu” (R550; if ordered a la carte, R645).
Garnished with a curry leaf, the amuse-gueule is a cake made from gram flour (ground chickpeas) to which baking soda is added to make it rise. Stripes of red chili sauce and green coriander complete this savoury taster.
It may not be poured from a silver pot, but the corn soup (paired with a Klein Constantia Riesling) is even better here than in London, and so is the lamb shank (R60). I am not a fan of paneer (Indian cottage cheese made in-house), but the two firm squares of Jaitooni paneer tikka (R55, in London £9.50) won me over.
At the chef’s table, the soup is followed by a chicken tikka ‘Doodhia’ (R75 / £10) kebab, made from the thigh meat which is tastier than breast.
Served on a small disc of saffron paratha, the Galouti lamb kebab (R80 / £10.50) is a pièce de résistance. The story goes that the ruler of Lucknow lost his teeth and asked his chefs to prepare the softest kebab, minced 11 times to almost a puree. It may be small, but its 35 spices pack a punch to which the Teddyhall Chenin Reserve stands up well.
The next course is a generous portion of tandoori Norwegian salmon (R95) with Bishop’s weed, perfectly partnered with a Creation Sémillon.
A mango sorbet refreshes the palate before the next ensemble:
aloo Katliyan (R60 / £4.50), waiver thin potato slices; dal Makhani (R75 / £4.50), black lentils and kidney beans simmered overnight; prawns in a spicy onion chutney; two kinds of naan breads – one piri-piri olive, the other garlic. Two wines complement the medley, a Paul Cluver Weisser Riesling and an Idiom Sangiovese. The entire menu is characterized by liberal use of ghee and cream. Each time I think I can eat no more, the pure pleasure of the tastes eggs me on.
Next is the Allepey fish (R135 / £25): Halibut in a coconut and light yellow curry, almost Thai-like (there are in fact historical influences of Indian on Thai cuisine). The fish is cooked in the sauce, so it’s full of the flavor and one finds oneself spooning it on to the fluffy basmati rice until the plate is clean. An Eagle’s Nest Viognier prolongs the pleasure.
For dessert there is Khaas malpua (R55), gajar (carrot) crêpe rolls centered with soft cotta cheese. The sweetness is toned down, and not cloyingly authentic. The Malai kulfi (R55), a cardamom ice-cream, is authentic, the milk cooked for hours on end to give the right thickness and caramelized flavours.
The miracle of this dinner however is that well before bedtime, it has magically dissolved. I seldom eat such enormous amounts, but there is no bloatedness, no reflux (which is saying something when it comes to curry), and no discomfort. Instead, it’s the kind of meal you think about for it sensational tastes days afterwards.
Bombay Brasserie, Courtfield Road, London. Tel: 020 73704040.
Bombay Brasserie, Taj Hotel, Wale Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 819 2066.