Around the world in a rich parade of curries
Indian food abroad always takes on a local flavour, according to Atul Kochhar, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
'Idedicated my new book, Atul's Curries of the World, to my mum and I was very emotional about the first copy I got so I sent it to her immediately. Two days later I thought I would check that she had received it, so I called her up. Before I could ask anything, she said, 'Oh, the recipes are good, but where are the recipes I gave you?'
"I said, 'Mum, did you like the book?' 'Yes,' she replied. I asked, 'Did you read the first page?' She said, 'Yes, yes, that's all OK, but where are the recipes?' I said, 'I dedicated the book to you but I guess I'll have to write a new book – for my mum!'"
Atul Kochhar is not only one of the best known chefs in the world, he is without a doubt the best known Indian chef in the world, achieving the first Michelin star for Indian food in 2000.
Atul, a very well known face on our TV screens, now has the Michelin-starred Benares restaurant in London, Ananda in Dublin in partnership with Asheesh Dewan of the Jaipur group, a new restaurant, Rang Mahal, in Dubai and a restaurant with P&O shipping called Sindhu.
A very charming and modest man, he has just written his third cookery book, Atul's Curries of the World, which features amazing curries from Bangladesh to East Africa, Indonesia to the Caribbean, Britain to the Gulf States, South Africa to Sri Lanka. You can learn how to make Wattaka Kari with powdered Maldive fish, or Sheem Begun Chorchori with flat beans, potatoes and aubergine. Hot and Sour pork has chilies and ginger balanced with the sourness of lime and tamarind, whilst exquisite East African prawns are paired with fried onion rings, chopped bananas, cucumber, pineapple chutney and grated coconut.
Atul is from the Punjab region in India. "I grew up in the food business, my dad was a caterer, and my grandad was a baker. So, when the British were still ruling India, my grandad had a massive bakery in Jamshedpur, in East India. My dad was a very passionate person. When it came to food he was usually 'tribal' in a way, he wouldn't buy anything that came from outside of that region. Perhaps he was ahead of his time but his reasoning was very simple. Refrigeration wasn't there and he wanted everything fresh. He was very fanatical about it. He also wanted to keep the money in the 'circle', saying every farmer that I buy from, his son or daughter is going to get married, and I am the one who is going to cater for them!"
It seems meitheal stretches far from our shores.
"He believed in that system and stuck to it," says Atul.
Choosing not to be in the family business but to make his own career, Atul started working for the five-star Oberoi Hotels in India. In 1994 he was headhunted for the opening of a restaurant in London, which at that time was called Tamarind.
"I came to Tamarind, and I stayed there until 2002 when I then opened my own restaurant, Benares. I got the Michelin star in Tamarind in 2000 and since then I haven't looked back, also getting a Michelin star at Benares."
Atul makes frequent TV appearances and I have always been very struck by how clear he is in conveying his knowledge when demonstrating how to cook a dish – not a factor with all chefs.
"I think that comes from my mother, because she was a teacher, so it was a good combination. I have been into teaching as well. When I was in India I had read a famous book used by every catering college, The Theory of Catering by Kinton, Ceserani and Foskett. As it happened, when I came to London, Professor David Foskett, head of hospitality and tourism at Thames Valley University, now West London University, called me one day and asked would I help him as he was opening an Asian Academy of Culinary Arts, so in fact, I was associated with that university for a good five years, teaching on my days off."
Explaining to Atul how Asian restaurants in Ireland can have difficulties in getting good chefs due to work permit regulations, Atul says that the UK has a similar problem. However, this Asian culinary arts course was way ahead of its time and there are many such courses opening now in various universities.
"Apart from that, there has been an initiative from the government which has come to us restaurateurs asking why some of us don't start a school. We are looking into the possibility of doing this in our own individual units, eventually coming up with a college in London, which will be spearheading this programme, and we will be doing it very seriously.
"We have the same problem as Ireland and we can't bring in people. I think it is right, why should we bring in people when there are many in the UK so we need to train our own," Atul says.
"Curries of the World has come out of my travels, places I have been to, and been inspired by. I have eaten on pretty much every continent so I thought now would be a good time for my book. Everywhere I go, I try the curries in that country, purely because that's the kind of food I do, and everywhere I have gone the curries are in a very different form, shape and colour.
"My approach to writing books has always been very simple. I keep to simple ingredients, make them flow, the way they are written, and I always educate people by saying don't go by the weights and things like that, use your instinct, gel with the food, see what you need and keep in your mind that the spices are just seasonings. Curries are a good way to eat, it is not chichi cooking. Everyone can take part in enjoying it."
Atul's latest restaurant is Rang Mahal in Dubai, an amazing contemporary creation. "I had wanted to open a restaurant in the Gulf for a while so I have partnered with Marriott Hotels which has just opened the Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, the tallest tower building hotel in the world and only one of three Marriott Marquis hotels."
Do people still want a very sophisticated presentation or a more home- style food, I ask.
"I think Indian food abroad always gels with the local culture, as it should be. It takes a new shape and form in whichever country it is in. Mostly for this part of the world, I think it will continue to develop the way people like it. More and more Indian chefs will be experimenting with ingredients that will be catering to the tastes of the locals.
"Obviously if you get an Indian straight from India and say, 'Try this,' he will say, 'I've never had this, what is it?'
"He will not understand because it has gone in a different direction here because the ingredients are not the same, and one thing that is most critical for any cuisine in the world is the water. The water in each place tastes very different. It affects the flavour. Not many people recognise that but it is as simple as that. For example, 90 per cent of onions are made from water, so it is that flavour which can affect the taste."
Living a very busy life, Atul makes a point of not working at weekends so that he can spend time with his family, wife Deepti, daughter Amisha and son Arjun.
"I take Arjun for his football lessons and we go for a big breakfast, all dirty shoes and dirty clothes. Then we go home and get cleaned up and Deepti cooks lunch. Dinner is my job so Amisha, Arjun and I cook together every Saturday and Sunday," says Atul.
Spices have amazing health-giving properties, and Atul Kochhar's use of them is absolutely inspirational.
'Atul's Curries of the World' is published by Bloomsbury