Bangladesh and bacon Naans
STORIES

Words: Tim Wild   Photography by chefs

Bangladesh and bacon Naans

The politics of Indian Food

 

The UK’s love affair with curry is legendary. There’s barely a High Street in the land that doesn’t boast a Taj Mahal or Spice Palace.

But like all great love affairs, it’s complicated. Look beyond your Friday night Dhansak and all kinds of questions start to emerge.

 

Why do the spicy, rich flavours of a former colony delight our traditionally conservative UK palates? How does politics affect the business of Indian cuisine? And just how authentic is a bacon naan?

 

To help navigate these murky waters, we asked three heavyweights of Indian food to dive right in. Authenticity. Immigration. Illegal paneer. We covered it all, and it made for fascinating conversation.

 

Our players:
 

 

Ranjit Mathrani - Chairman and co-owner of the MW Eat group, which runs Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy, Masala Zone, Amaya and more.
Ranjit Mathrani is a former government official and banker, now chairman of one of the UK’s biggest Indian restaurant groups, with over 35 years of experience in the business.

 

 

Harneet Baweja - Co-founder of Gunpowder
Harneet opened small plates Indian restaurant Gunpowder with his wife Davina and partner in 2015. They have just opened another Gunpowder branch in London Bridge.

 

 

Naved Nasir - Executive Chef at Dishoom
After working in a number of renowned restaurants in India, Naved Nasir moved to London in 2010 to open Dishoom. He now oversees the busy kitchens of seven Dishoom cafés in London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

 

R+B Let’s start with a biggie. Is there such a thing as authentic Indian cuisine?

 

Harneet That’s a tricky one. I’m going to say yes! Karim's in Delhi, they're still putting out the seekh kebabs, the way they used to 30 years ago. It comes out with that naan, that bread, you're dipping it into a sauce which has a little bit of oil floating on top…
 
Naved The most important question is, how do you define authenticity? Is it a dish being around for a certain period of time? Coming from a certain family? Home cooking? Food from the streets?

 

Ranjit The question signifies the challenges we face about Indian food. Pure Indian food is either in homes or the streets. It's not in the restaurants.
 
R+B As diners, we care more and more about what we’re eating, where it’s from, how it’s prepared. And the status of the cook has risen too – we want to hear a story that’s satisfying. When it comes to Indian food, does it matter who cooks it?

 

Harneet As a romantic, yes. As a consumer? No. My Executive Chef’s kitchen is one of the most diverse I’ve ever seen. I have this guy from Guyana...my God, when he makes this one dish… (mimes face of pure pleasure)

 

Naved It’s my responsibility to make sure the dal tastes as good in London as it does in Manchester. And so you need to bypass the problem of who cooks it. We open up and share things with people. I don’t want it to be a secret.

 

Ranjit My battle over 30 years has been the Bangladeshi restaurants. They're cooking a great curry, but it's not Indian food. Because it doesn't use the core cooking Indian process.
 
R+B So in other words, we think we love it, but most of what we’re eating is from Bangladeshi restaurants. And the Chicken Tikka Masalas and Bhunas we adore are cooked using a method specifically developed here in the UK. Maybe it’s not even Bangladeshi food either. And yet ‘Indian’ food has remained consistently popular in the UK. Why is that?

 

Ranjit Of something like over 10,000 so-called ‘Indian’ restaurants in this country, no more than 200 are proper Indian. And 9,800 are Bangladeshi.
Incredibly enterprising Bangladeshis recognised a niche – that British food was boring. It was ripe for someone to bring some colour, some spice and some life into it.

 

R+B Do you think there would be a market for your restaurants if that hadn’t happened?

 

Naved 200-odd years of curry houses? We can't discount that. I agree that they were not cooking Indian food, but they were cooking food from the sub-continent and that matters, because the spices were still there, whether you call it Madras or Vindaloo. But it’s brought problems as well. I'll get people on TripAdvisor saying "There was no Cobra beer, there didn't give me any free bread with the curry. This isn't authentic."

 

Ranjit There were no free poppadoms…
(laughter all round)

 

Harneet Yeah. We've been around for three and a half years, but we still get people who come and sit, look at the menu, say, "There's no poppadoms, there's no samosas...” and they leave. It is a double-edged sword.

 

R+B Authenticity is such a watchword in modern dining. We compete with our food-obsessed friends to out-authenticate one another – searching for the ‘real’ Sinaloan fish dish or the most artisanal handmade pasta. Can you create authentic cuisine when you’re so far from the source?

 

Naved When I first came here, I struggled, big time. I started doing everything in-house. I used to grind every single spice. I couldn't just find good paneer out there, apart from some guy in Southall who was definitely not legal…
(laughter all round)

 

Ranjit We broke all convention 30 years ago. We were the first to actually use totally local produce – guinea fowl, pigeon, venison, reindeer. We apply the cooking process of a comparable dish from India, it’s the same combination of flavours with a totally different raw material.

 

Naved New dishes emerge all the time. Our bacon naan didn't happen because we couldn’t find this or that ingredient. It's because the British pig is such a celebrated thing — why wouldn't you have that dish on your breakfast menu if you have such great produce? Maybe it’s not Indian…

 

Harneet I disagree that it’s not Indian! I grew up having ham on the breakfast table. The Chinese immigrants from the Hakka Region that moved to Calcutta made it. Anglo-Indians who were half British origin and half Indian origin, they ate sausages, they ate ham. Thanks to the Empire, all those flavours were there.
 
R+B The popularity of Indian food has thrust it into the UK headlines more often than most cuisines. From Robin Cook MP’s famous assertion in 2001 that Chicken Tikka Masala is now the nation’s favourite dish to tabloid panics about closing curry houses, that passion is something that no self-respecting politician can ignore. What’s the current political climate like for the Indian food business?

 

Ranjit It affects things. For example, if Corbyn were to adopt a tough view at the top end of the economic spectrum, it will affect fine dining restaurants pretty hard.
On the other hand, if the Prime Minister changes immigration, that affects all of us.

 

Harneet Before the current political situation, if we put an ad out, within 24 hours we’d get a couple of hundred applicants and 80% of them would be from mainland Europe. We find that number is down now. From 200 people applying, it's now only 40, or 50 people.

 

Naved When we heard about Brexit, we paid for every single visa application – 550 applications for EU staff working at Dishoom. 70% of our workforce. We can't afford to lose that.

 

R+B We’ve come a long way. From the Raj-inspired haute cuisine of Veeraswamy, through boil-in-the-bag Vesta curries, 2-for-£10 supermarket Thalis and Keralan-flavoured Sensations. What’s the next chapter in this love affair?

 

Harneet The only thing I hope for is that there is a burning desire for excellence.

 

Ranjit I want to talk about the new generation places which have been started by non-Indians, places like Kricket. I went there, and the tall guy (owner Will Bowlby) shook my hand and showed me the staff in his kitchen. “Can you see? I’ve got an Englishman putting his hand in the Tandoor!” I told him that’s more than I’ve been able to do with some of my staff in 35 years!

 

Naved I see cuisines as languages. They evolve all the time and every single day new words are written. And I strongly believe that some of the new Indian restaurants in the UK will become institutions.

 

The cuisines of India are here to stay.