We ask the celebrity chef how to spot a good curry
Time Out Bahrain staff
How did you get started cooking? I got into cooking by mistake – when I was younger, I wanted to be a pilot, but I was too short. So I went to hotel school, and I wanted to be a barman. I went through my training, and there was no vacancy, so they put me in the kitchen. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do this for a week or two and then move on.’ But when I walked in, I was amazed by what I saw. It was just the discipline they had.
Why Indian food? For me, it comes naturally. This is what I grew up with as a child. So I understood the flavours, I understood the spices, although I never really tried to cook as a child. But when I went into cooking eventually, I realised that this is what my forte was. This is what I want to do. In those days (when I started), you were only allowed to do European cuisine, or specialise in, and that’s what we were trained for. But I said no, I want to do Indian. This is what I think can develop and can grow, and this is where I see the future. Everyone laughed at me, they said, ‘No, you have to do continental cuisine and French cuisine, and that’s what you do.’ My heart was still with Indian. So during my off-duty hours, I used to go back in the kitchen. And that was my time, so I could do what I wanted – my off days were the same thing. When I came back to Bombay from my posting, I actually opted for Indian restaurants, and they said no. They put me in a butchery, like a punishment. But again, same story – I would get off at 5.30pm in the evening, and I would go back to the kitchen to practice. They were finally sick and tired of me and said, ‘Alright, go back to Indian.’
You can get a curry in almost every country around the globe. Why do we love it so much? I think it’s just the whole blend of the flavours and spices which come through, and the way it’s all done together, it’s just an assembly of ingredients that really comes to life. It tickles your palette. The colours are so vibrant, if done properly. About 90 per cent of restaurants around the world will do a brown stew and serve it as Indian food – it’s not really so. India is a country full of colours, and the food reflects that accordingly. It’s just a shame that when you go to hotels and restaurants, they perceive it to be one shade of brown or red. So curry has to be brown or red. Even the word curry is not the right word for Indian food – there are so many types of curries. Someone comes to me and says, ‘I want to have a chicken curry,’ I just laugh and think the guy doesn’t know.
So if not curry, what have we been eating all these years? There’s a lot more to a curry than just an Indian stew. There’s a green korma, a yellow korma, there’s a white korma, there’s so many colours to try with the food. So what I try to do is put those things in my food and try to make the food look a lot more pleasing. Because when you eat, you eat with your eyes first, and that’s really what gets you going. This is what interests people, the first impression you get, on seeing something, and that’s the memory you always take back with you, then the flavours come in, the smell. Then when you actually eat, or when you cook, you eat it and cook with all your senses.
Whenever we have Indian food, it seems to not want to be eaten – actively trying to escape our forks by being incredibly hot. Is that real Indian food? Indian food does not have to be spicy. That’s the wrong idea people have – that Indian food has to have half an inch of oil, and it has to be chilli-hot. That’s rubbish. I’m from India, I eat food at home, we never eat chilli-hot food. That’s not right; it’s just happened this way because in the UK especially it’s been treated like a pub food. You go out on a Friday night, you meet friends, then you have some pompodoms, you have a very spicy curry and maybe go somewhere else. That’s classically the Indian restaurant in the UK. The people who came to the UK to cook, they were not really trained chefs. They were immigrants who had nothing else to do, so they put things into a pan which they thought might please the English, and that kicked it off. And because the weather was so grey and cold and gloomy, you wanted something to pep you up, something hot. And they started putting in more chilli.
So what is true Indian food? True Indian food in India is not spicy-hot. Spicy does not mean chilli-hot. Spicy means flavours. Cloves, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, pepper, saffron – these are spices. You don’t need to eat chilli-hot food to start sweating. In the wintertime I can make you a nice lamb dish, or a game, or I can incorporate saffron in or maze in there, which are naturally healing your body and warming your body, and can make you sweat, which can make your body feel warm. That is what spices do. Chilli is not really Indian. It is used, but it is not what people think in the Western world that food has to be chilli-hot, really spicy. www.rasoi-uk.com
Without disrespect to Mr. Bhatia I find his comments superfluous and not going deeper into the nuances of Indian cooking. Cooking in India stands next to religion and probably its a way of life. Each state has its reflections, spices, sauces and so much more. Food reflects so much more than the flavor. Indian food reflects climate, flora and fauna and social standing of communities even religion. I do agree that Red and Brown sauce is not Curry but so are not his bland and experimental "ornamental" pieces which he serves in his overpriced restaurants. I was not quite impressed with his restaurant in Movenpick AlKhobar. Its all about the "Michelin" hype rather than Indian food. Sorry no offense. I am willing to take on Mr. Bhatia in a live cooking contest and I am not a professional chef.