Across My Table - Chef Vivek Singh, Cinnamon ClubWednesday, August 17, 2016Me! In words
A deep-voiced, articulate man, we spent a good while chatting on various things. Since this was a phone interview just before the pop-up took place, I recorded the call. And then a few days later had to reset the entire thing losing a lot of data. That is when I thought I lost this interview as well. But as luck would have it. And that was the end of the story for me. But just imagine my surprise, when I picked up a new phone recently, and had the data transferred in, this file popped up from one of the folders! So this interview was done in November 2015, you are going to read it now and let me tell you, it does make for a good read.
The "curry" in London today, is a whole different ball game? Does it measure up to its Indian counterpart and how has it evolved?Curry, at best in India, would describe a style of cooking or a section on the menu. But in the context of UK life, it has transcended those boundaries and turned into a phenomenon. A phenomenon of going out for an Indian meal or experience. It has acquired a much larger connotation than we would give it credit for in India. Curry is possibly Britain's favourite food, or at least in the top 3. It is now synonymous with going out, with Asian entertainment. It encompasses all of Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine and covers a larger scope.
How would you describe your approach to Indian food?My approach is something, which I believe, has relevance anywhere in the world you are in. I like to describe my cooking as evolved/evolving modern Indian. Why evolving? Because I have been a firm believer, through my 20 years of cooking that standing still isn't an option. No matter how accomplished you are, like any other art form, if you are not evolving, you are certainly not going forward. So whether it music, movies etc, everything has to evolve and so does food.
Why modern? When I went to the UK, I thought the menus and restaurants and the way they were styled, the service etc, was not necessarily reflecting the dynamism, the energy and the aspiration of the new and young India I had left. The world had come a long way and so much had changed in the 90s in this country and so much more was changing after this. However, in the UK and the at the risk of sounding irreverent, I felt that the imagery that they used for India, the way people thought of Indian curry as cheap and cheerful, chalk wallpaper, sitar music playing in the background, the imagery of the Taj Mahal, the snake charmer and lion... there was so much more to India than that and none of that aspiration and energy was being conveyed.
And that's why to me, modern was important, to convey the sensibility of a young India. Indian food, because that is my root, that is the cuisine I have chosen to excel in and a lot of our dishes are inspired by Indian dishes. They could be from popular, familiar Indian dishes that people may know already or dishes from lesser known regions of India. What we do is take traditional Indian dishes, deconstruct and dissect them, combine the spicing techniques with the very best of local seasonal produce that money can buy. So which ever part of the world I cook in, it remains relevant.
Through this I take a centuries-old recipe and connect that to something seasonal and fresh. By connecting those two worlds, I believe, we have created a beautiful marriage of the young and the old or the bold and the beautiful as I like to call it. It is truly Indian in its inspiration and at heart, yet is contemporary and comfortably sits in the global context, much like the modern Indian person.
Is your food pan-Indian inspired?
Our restaurants serve pan-Indian food. Often different influences can be found sitting together on a plate. For example - I will take a piece of halibut which is a quintessentially British frying fish, that is
cherished in the UK and will cook it in a tandoor, and combine it with a Bengali Kasundi or mustard sauce. I might serve it with a lemon rice which comes from Kerala. There are very different thoughts and techniques from across the country that is coming together with something that is British.
How do your work on your research for recipes to adapt?
A lot of my inspiration from my experience of cooking in India. I cooked for about 8 years in Mumbai before I left for the UK. I come back very often, not necessarily for inspiration, but for family, business and the like. My inspiration comes from memories, memories of the past, journeys, celebrations, a lot of it from reading books and what may be happening in the world, in the contemporary sense.
So for example, one of the dishes on the menu is a Carpaccio of cured Salmon, with a deconstructed Bengali Jhal Muri and it is served with wasabi-esque, green pea and mint chutney. For me that dish connects so many dots - fish and mustard is not really a British flavour, but more of a Nordic one, Salmon and Wasabia are very Japanese and recognized world over; and fish and mustard is very Indian and the jhal muri is a favourite childhood snack of. So I take a cured piece of salmon, dress it with a potato chaat made up with mustard oil and then I put some caramelized muri on top. So it is a deconstructed dish that has crunch, punch, salty-sweet cured salmon and it comes together as a global dish.
On the international spectrum, do you think Indian food has made a mark? How or why?
I think among the top cuisines of the world in the past 20 years, Indian food definitely features in the top 4. Whether it was the 80s or 90s when French food was all the rage. Or when Italian become
popular world over, thanks to its simplistic approach and wider appeal and hearty, homely cooking. Chinese, both because of its migrant population and its appeal and in recent times, on the sophisticated level probably Japanese. But Indian, over the last 20 years, has been up there on top. I don't see the affection for Indian food waning any time soon. It may have had its share of prejudice, 'Oh its curry, I will go home smelling of curry or garlic and I can't back to office and maybe its unhealthy to have everyday. But more and more people are realizing that there is much more to it and that it is not meat cooked to death in brown sauce. So people are discovering more and more and are becoming familiar with regional nuances and the health benefits of various spices. I see the interest certainly maintaining its strength rather than waning.
Plenty! When I started off, I was completely mesmerized by the Dum Pukht style that was going on at the ITC in the 90s. I was particularly fond of the NW Frontier style of cooking by Manjit Singh Gill at Bukhara. These were godfathers as far as someone was concerned back then. There is still so much credit that goes to chefs of this caliber who put Indian food on the map. I have been cooking now for over 20 years and in the last 4-5 years, I have realized how much of an influence my mother's cooking has had on me. Some of them comes from memories of trips and celebrations. One of the favorite times of the year for me in the UK is autumn, because of the game season. I was starved of cooking with game in India - rabbit, venison, etc. I would hear these stories of Rajput princes going on hunting expeditions for months, and hunting and pickling and we had no experience of that because we did not do any of that. I am able to cook all that in the autumn in the UK and I am able to reinvent and reimagine those images that may have been lost.
I grew up in Bengal, so the period between Durga Puja and Diwali is known as Bijoya and that is the Indian equivalent of Christmas, except that it is not one day, but three weeks. Everybody exchanges,
mithai, gifts... the memories of those times etc have a great influence on my cooking. So we have food that comes out on a trolley, that is carved up at the table and, flambed, all of which are celebratory influences.
What is your fondest food memory?
As a child, attending a typical Bengali wedding with 500-600 people where they would be put a thali in front of you and then they bring out dishes in sync... they will bring in a pakoda, some fried things,
some puris, dry and wet vegetables, rice and then they do it all over again. One of my fondest memories is having a Chingri Malai curry, I keep it on the menu for a few days and take it off so I don't get fed up off it, just to keep the romance alive.
What is the kind of meal you would like to sit down to at the end of a long day at your restaurants?
Its usually rather late when I get home, too late to have a proper meal. I usually plonk myself in front of the TV to unwind with a toasted teacake filled with a very spicy masala omelette. That is my kind of guilty pleasure.
What do you like doing outside the kitchen?
I try to create a lot of bandwidth around what I do. I like to read a lot - I read around 4 books at a time maybe some fiction, something on food, something on business. I love to unwind with music - Sufi
music being an indulgence. I love to go through compilations of Muzzafar Ali and so on. Between reading and music, I am also actively involved in the pottery that is used to create my food. I think that is failed side of me. I would have loved to be a potter if not a chef, but I can't throw anything on a wheel. Its much harder than it looks. So we have created Indian pottery with contemporary European glazes and contemporary shapes. I find that very therapeutic to indulge with.
Soon after this interview, we sat down to a media preview meal by Chef Vivek. You can check it out here . And I leave you with images of that meal.