What’s your favourite Indian dish? Chicken tikka masala? Rogan josh? Naan bread? Indian restaurants have huge menus full of these and other popular dishes from the north of the country, but most ignore the delightful vegetarian spiced food from the south, and the wondrous array of fish dishes from a country with 6,100km of coastline on the mainland alone.
By moving away from the staples of the north, Atul Kochhar has changed the way Indian food is perceived. In 2001, he became the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star for his cooking at London’s Tamarind. Following this, Kochhar went on to found London’s high-end Benares Restaurant, as well as Ananda in Dublin, Ireland, and Vatika in the Wickham Vineyard, south of England.
The first thing he did was throw away the curry tome that makes up the standard Indian restaurant menu. He started offering short menus of five to six starters, and seven to 12 main courses, while diligently selecting only the best produce.
“There were very old clichés of Indian food, and people just get stuck to that and [don’t] explore further,” he said, while in Australia for a Melbourne Food & Wine Festival masterclass. “Whereas, if you look at modern cuisine, [that] would lead to anything.”
During his recent visit to Australia, Kocchar found that while Indian food had evolved in London, that wasn’t the case in Australia.
“I think Australia has still, I would say, little when it comes to Indian food, and I think there’s no reason that it should be, in my opinion. If Australians set their minds and the chefs start doing a decent and good job to Indian food, it can propel to [another] level. The produce in this country is just amazing.”
In the UK, he found people were very adventurous when they ate at fine restaurants and would eat almost any meat, fish or cuisine. But, when it came to Indian restaurants, diners would safely stick to a very old routine of either lamb or chicken.
“That’s what I wanted to break and curb. My menus are very small… And that changed the perception of Indian food, to start with people’s hearts. It’s not a book of a menu – it’s just very focused cooking.”
According to Kochhar – whose favourite dish is a fish curry from Kashmir – Indians eat a lot of fish, yet it’s this ingredient that is largely missing from Indian menus. “People go to an Indian restaurant and it’s always a ‘fish curry’. They never specify which fish… That’s another problem.”
He says with prawns, everybody knows they’re frozen and just thrown into the sauce: “They don’t explore different ways of cooking, different ways of cutting, different techniques of treating meat, and that’s been a problem. That’s why I took, head on, [this] challenge, and I do a lot of fish in my menu.” Indeed, Kochhar wrote a cookbook in this vein, Fish, Indian Style: 100 Simple Spicy Recipes.
As for lamb and beef, he also moved away from generic to named cuts. “[Others] just buy the whole animal, chop it, cut it and stew it,” he says. But not each and every cut is right for braising or stewing.
The same goes for the selection of standard sauces that are used in curry houses. “For me, each sauce has its origin and it should be treated differently,” he says. “Of course, there are five mother sauces, but I’m talking only of north India there. When I look at south India, they have a different set of sauces. [And] so it is with east India and the west India.”
“For example, if I was cooking rogan josh, I would marinate the lamb rump and then roast it or grill it. I would make the rogan josh sauce, serve [the meat] with that and then, ideally, a compliment would be saffron rice or saffron potatoes.”
Kochhar was born in Jamshedpur in northern India and trained and worked with the Oberoi Group of hotels, eventually ending up at the five-star Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi in 1993. The next year, he moved to London. “Moving to London was also the idea,” he explains. “It was an idea that we should push the food forward. It was no point for me going there and, after all that training I’ve had in hotels in India, do the very traditional food, which was already being done by 10,000 other restaurants.”
So what advice does he have for the home cook? “The only point I want to stress all the time to people is, do not cook with old spices. They actually don’t have any flavour left. So don’t hoard spices, and don’t keep them for more than 12 to 18 months.”