Indian fine dining in the UK has come a long way, with Britain now boasting five Michelin-starred Indian Restaurants. We ask their ground-breaking chefs how the cuisine came from corner curry house to being a frontrunner in fine dining.
Given the UK's rich and complex history with the subcontinent and its food, it's perhaps only natural that we should now be the forerunners when it comes to Indian fine dining, boasting a wealth of refined Indian cuisine presided over by five Michelin-starred chefs (see panels). Where once was the Anglo-Indian food of the Raj - the kedgerees and mulligatawny soups, which merged British ingredients with Indian spices - and then the homogenous neon sauces of our curry houses, dumbed down for the mass British palate, we now have light, modern, sophisticated dishes that pay homage to Indian culinary tradition while using superior produce and modern cooking techniques.
"In the last 10 years there has been a huge transformation in the Indian restaurant sector," says Alfred Prasad, of London's Michelin-starred Tamarind restaurant. "The big breakthrough was in 2001, when Zaika and Tamarind both got their Michelin stars. That set the benchmark and it's gradually increased. That jump and Michelin's acceptance of Indian cuisine gave others more confidence and proved that getting a Michelin star was only a matter of time for Indian chefs at the head of their game."
Prasad knows only too well the impact Michelin stars can have on a restaurant, having lost his in 2009, only to regain it a year later. But while the merging of British and Indian culinary traditions can be traced back 400 years - to when the first merchants from the East India Company landed in Surat in 1608 - it's only relatively recently that we've seen Indian fine dining reaching such gastronomic heights.
Karunesh Khanna, head chef of the Michelin-starred Amaya in London, traces this development of sophisticated Indian dining in the UK back to the capital's earliest formal Indian restaurants, Bombay Brasserie, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, and describes "a massive evolution of Indian cuisine from the 1990s to what we have today".
When Vineet Bhatia - who, along with Atul Kochhar, became one of the first Indian chefs to receive a Michelin star in the UK - arrived in Britain in 1993, he was shocked by most of the so-called Indian food he found.
"The first thing I noticed was that the menus seemed very classic Indian, but when you actually tried the dishes they had nothing to do with authenticity," recalls Bhatia, who now holds Michelin stars in both London and Geneva. "Peppers, onions and tomatoes, which aren't used much in Indian cooking, were everywhere, and I realised that what Indian restaurants were serving the mass market was food that was adapted, but not Indian."
He adds: "I was very disappointed, and I hated the word curry. I couldn't understand the idea of people getting drunk on a Friday night and breaking up glassware. I didn't want to be associated with that culture, because it's not what Indian food is about; I wanted to give the cuisine the respect it deserves."
That is exactly what he did: first, by creating fiercely authentic offbeat dishes specific to his homeland; and later incorporating high-end British ingredients not often found in Indian cuisine, such as quail, lobster and scallops, and presenting his dishes in a slick European fashion. Bhatia now describes his cooking style as "evolved Indian cuisine".
Moreover, it's this careful blending of genuine Indian cooking traditions with high-quality British proteins and ingredients that defines much of today's finest Indian food.
For Kochhar, who strove for similar heights when he started working in the UK at Tamarind in 1994, and who describes his food as "British Indian", utilising seasonal British ingredients is crucial. "There are two key things that a chef arriving in a new country has to understand: one is the demographic and the taste-buds of the people, and the other is the agricultural cycle of that country," he says. "Once a chef grasps this they are on top of their game. They become more creative. Understand the seasons and work locally, and that's the essence of good food, be it Chinese, Indian, Italian or French."
At his Michelin-starred restaurant, Benares, Kochhar combines Indian traditions with culinary progression in dishes like tandoor-roasted pigeon breasts, vanilla beetroot and crisps, and he's quick to point out the relevance of the marriage of old and new.
"What defines fine Indian food in the UK at the moment is the best of ingredients from Britain and chefs who are on top of their game who understand how to apply the technology - how to cook the meat and bring about all the essential flavours of the spices, never overpowering the main ingredient, but supporting and enhancing the flavour through perfect spicing," he says. "It's important to stick to tradition, understand how spices work in food and respect basic Indian cooking techniques, but the real fun and enjoyment of the food comes from ingredients in their prime."
While Kochhar and Bhatia outline the importance of refinement and high-quality British ingredients, Prasad - whose menu is more classically Indian, with dishes such as slow-cooked lamb shank with whole spices, yogurt, saffron and Kashmiri chillies - points out the increasing appetite for regionality. "Tamarind is very traditional Indian, and I believe that there is much more regional Indian cuisine to be explored and brought to the UK. The more we can showcase regional Indian food, the better. People who've travelled know this: they know food in Kerala is very different to Punjabi cuisine. There are so many cuisines that haven't been showcased enough."
This idea of regionality is something equally important to Sriram Aylur, head chef at Quilon, the most recent addition to the stable of Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London, which gained the accolade in 2008. At his restaurant in Westminster he serves the cuisine of India's south-west coast in a menu comprising a balanced mix of contemporary and traditional flavours. Today, Quilon is the largest importer of South Indian spices in the UK, bringing in the likes of chilli, pepper and tamarind, which Aylur grinds fresh in the kitchen. "I have developed something I call progressive cooking," says the chef. "I use the traditions of regional Indian cooking but adapt them to the availability of international produce and influence of other cuisines."
Staying faithful to his Indian origins, but utilising global produce, he creates dishes such as tempered asparagus and French beans; seafood in mustard and coconut cream; or baked black cod - using cultures outside the Anglo-Indian pact for inspiration.
"The use of black cod is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, but I have adapted it into an Indian dish by marinating it in spices from the west coast of India," Aylur explains. They sit comfortably on his menu alongside more traditional South Indian dishes such as chicken korma, fish in banana leaf, avial and masala dosa.
For Khanna, there is also a tangible move away from the heavy sauces and creams of Anglo-Indian curries towards a lighter, more fragrant fare. "At Amaya the food is very light. We've taken away the heaviness and we're celebrating Indian grills, where usage of oils and fat is a bare minimum, but the delicacy of spices is still there. In all these top-end restaurants the use of ‘curry' as we've previously known it is very limited - and the word is barely used on most of the menus. The focus is on grills, pan-fries and pan-grills, because often in curries the flavour of the meat is lost."
But Khanna also expresses concern for the future progression of the cuisine, citing the Government's plans for an immigration cap on workers from outside the EU. "With the immigration cap coming into force next year, we'll have to see how many skilled Indian chefs able to contribute to this changing face of Indian cuisine will be able to come to the UK," he explains. "There may well be a shortage in supply of skilled chefs who can push it further."
Prasad, though, is more optimistic, saying: "It's only a matter of time before the one-star restaurants start getting second Michelin stars, and I think we'll see more at the one-Michelin-star level in years to come."
He adds that the seemingly London-centric state of Indian fine dining could be about to change. "My hope is that it will spread. A city like Birmingham could be next: there's a huge ethnic population there and it has its own version of Brick Lane," he says. "I would also like to see more Indian restaurants in beautiful locations. It would be nice to have high-end, proper destination Indian restaurants. It's something Britain still lacks, but it is just around the corner."
Restaurant Amaya, London
Biography Khanna started his cooking career on the chef's management training programme at the Taj hotel, Mumbai. After the course he was appointed sous chef of the Orient-Express French restaurant in the Taj and gained culinary grounding in Continental cuisine before moving into Indian, applying Continental ideas and technique to Indian food.
He moved to England in 2004 to open Amaya, having previously trained at the Dorchester, the Four Seasons, the Ritz and Claridge's. Amaya was awarded a Michelin star in 2006.
Favourite ingredient "I like English lamb and Scottish scallops, and lots of seasonal vegetables, which I feel gives us the edge over other restaurants. Customers are fully aware of the current trends for fresh produce, and we have to accommodate that need too, otherwise we'll lose them."
Restaurant Tamarind, London
Biography Originally from Chennai in southern India, Prasad graduated from the city's Institute of Hotel Management in 1993, completing his advanced chef training at five-star hotels and luxury restaurants across the subcontinent. In 1996 he took the helm in the kitchen of the legendary Dakshin restaurant in Chennai.
He moved to London in 1999 and worked as sous chef at Veeraswamy, before joining Tamarind in 2001 as sous chef, becoming head chef when Atul Kochhar left in 2002 and maintaining the restaurant's Michelin star until 2009. In 2010 Tamarind was again awarded one Michelin star.
Favourite ingredient "I would struggle to pick between green chillies, coriander and garlic - they are my top three."
Restaurants Benares, London; Vatika, Hampshire; Colony, London; Ananda, Dublin; Sindhu on P&O's Azura
Biography Kochhar started his cooking career with the Oberoi group in India, graduating in 1993 to work as a sous chef at the Oberoi hotel in New Delhi, then moving to Bernard Kunig's fine-dining restaurant.
He moved to London in late 1994 to open Tamarind in Mayfair, where, aged 31, he became one of the first Indian chefs - along with Vineet Bhatia - to be awarded a Michelin star, in 2001. He left Tamarind in 2002 to become consultant chef for Marks & Spencer, before opening Benares in Berkeley Square in 2003. The restaurant won a Michelin star in 2007.
In 2008 Kochhar opened Ananda in Dublin as well as Vatika at Wickham Vineyard, Hampshire; and in 2009 he signed a deal to open a restaurant at the Marriott Central Market hotel in Abu Dhabi. In 2010 he opened the joint-venture Colony on Baker Street, in London, with restaurateur Carlo Spetale, and Sindhu on the P&O super-liner Azura.
Favourite ingredient "Coriander - it does a lot. I also love ginger, garlic and lemon grass."
Restaurant Quilon, London
Biography In 1984, inspired by his restaurateur father's cooking, Aylur gave up his law studies and joined the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in Mumbai. From a young age his father recognised his culinary talent and made him a working partner in his business.
In 1989 Aylur joined the Taj group of hotels and was made executive chef of the Gateway hotel Bangalore, heading up the Karavali restaurant, which was listed in The Statesman's Top Five Restaurants in India in 1995. In 1997 The Daily Telegraph ranked him as one of the Top Five Chefs in India. He moved to London in 1999 to open Quilon restaurant in Westminster, which was nominated as one of the five best restaurants in the Time Out food guide in 2003. It was awarded a Michelin star in 2008.
Favourite ingredient "Black pepper - because the heat of black pepper is very subtle and nice and the flavour is beautiful. You can use it in a mild way and still get a bit of heat - you can't really go wrong."
Restaurants Rasoi, London; Urban Turban, London; Bird by Vineet, Leeds; Rasoi by Vineet, Mauritius; Indego, Dubai; Indus by Vineet, Moscow; Maharajah by Vineet, Al-Khobar; Rasoi by Vineet, Geneva; Ziya at the Oberoi, Mumbai; Azok by Vineet, Mumbai; Saffron Lounge, Doha
Biography Born in India in 1967, Bhatia studied at catering college in Mumbai from 1985 until 1988. He gained an economics degree in 1989 and was recruited as a trainee for the Oberoi hotel group in Delhi in 1988 before being appointed chef de cuisine at the Oberoi in Mumbai in 1991.
Bhatia moved to London in 1993, and started working at the Star of India, changing the menu and shifting the customer base from lager-loving curry louts to gourmet eaters.
He teamed up with Iqbal Wahhab in 1998 to conceptualise Cinnamon Club and head the kitchen. Planning permission issues led to considerable delays and in January 1999, unable to sustain the business financially, he set up Vineet Bhatia - Hammersmith. This lasted only three months.
In April 1999 he opened and partnered Zaika, first in Chelsea, then in Kensington. In 2001 Zaika was awarded a Michelin star, making Bhatia one of the first Indian chefs - along with Atul Kochhar - to receive this honour.
In 2004 he opened his own restaurant, Rasoi, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2006. In 2009 Rasoi by Vineet in Geneva was awarded its first Michelin star, making Bhatia the only Indian chef to hold two Michelin stars and the second UK-based chef to hold a star outside the UK.
Favourite ingredient "I love fish. It's light, fresh and clean."
INDIAN INFLUENCE ON THE WIDER INDUSTRY
British Indian cuisine has come a long way, with top Indian chefs endorsing the use of superior produce, modern presentation and greater authenticity. But to what extent has this affected the way Indian food is cooked and presented in the wider industry?
For contract caterer Compass's UK executive chef, Nick Vadis, it's been a broad-reaching effect. "In the same way that lots of the very high-end Indian chefs have adopted the French modern style of presentation, a lot of modern European food is using Asian influences and Indian spicing in a subtle way," he says.
"What chefs like Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar have championed is a move away from the balti pot and rice dishes towards a more modern, refined presentation, and that's filtered through. Within the contract world we are doing Indian cuisine but serving it in a more contemporary style."
"At a chef level, fine-dining Indian cuisine has definitely influenced the way the industry views Indian food, because we no longer think of it as a post-Saturday night pub session filler," agrees Charlton House's executive chef David Cavalier, who employs two Indian executive head chefs and has observed an increase in the number of Asian weddings his company caters for.
"When you go to an Indian fine-dining restaurant you can see and taste the difference in produce. From a chef's perspective, you come away with a greater appreciation of what's possible with Indian food," Cavalier adds.
Vadis describes how Compass has embraced the more modern Indian approach on its menus. "Our Green Masala range, which we serve across staff dining, includes dishes that are served in a more modern European way. We have a Gourmet section to that menu with dishes like tandoori-spiced fish - a more contemporary, brasserie-style dish with a whole protein as opposed to chopped-up meat in a sauce."
There is also an increased awareness about healthy eating that has resulted in a different approach to dishes. At Café Spice Namasté, for example, only cold-pressed rapeseed oil or sunflower oil is used in cooking. "In the Indian dishes that we do we don't use ghee, and in general there's a move away from using ghee - because of those health connotations," says Vadis. "And we're a lot more educated now on food and regions than we've ever been. It's moved away from the kormas and madrases, and people understand more about the regions of India. Cyrus Todiwala has been good for that - he's out there in the industry flying the flag for Indian cuisine."
THE TODIWALA EFFECT
Indeed, Café Spice Namasté's executive chef and proprietor Cyrus Todiwala's name comes up a lot in connection with this subject, and while he agrees that the offering is changing for the better, he feels that there is still a long way to go. "Indian cuisine has long been regarded as cheap and cheerful fodder for the British masses," he says. "Sadly, it still has that image to some degree, and it will take a much greater effort on the part of the finer-dining establishments to raise that profile. However, the finer aspects of the cuisine are now catching up, and while more Indian restaurants are trying to up their game, the wider hospitality industry is looking at ways to introduce a higher level of the cuisine within its outlets."
He says that more of the cost sector as well as the corporate dining sector is looking at how to incorporate a better level of Indian and Asian cuisine in menus. Todiwala adds: "Their clients ask that Indian cuisine be introduced. Besides this, the fact that the UK is now a major hub for aspiring young Asians to further their studies has made it necessary for institutes also to provide a wider Asian cuisine choice on their menus."
FIVE WAYS INDIAN CUISINE HAS BEEN SPICED UP
Quality British produce Applying Indian spicing and cooking techniques to seasonal British ingredients has been a major development in modern Indian cooking.
â- Dedication to authenticity The Indian Michelin-starred chefs, along with chefs like Vivek Singh at Cinnamon Kitchen and Cyrus Todiwala at Café Spice Namasté, have championed authenticity in Indian cooking, moving away from Brit-Indian dishes like the balti towards more authentic Indian food.
â- Lighter dishes Awareness about consumer health concerns and the trend for lighter food has seen operators creating more Indian dishes with fish, grilled or roasted meat protein and marinades as opposed to ghee-saturated sauces.
â- Recognition of regionality Increased travel and consumer awareness along with high-profile Indian chefs championing the food of India's different regions has led to a more varied offering of flavour profiles.
â- Modern presentation Utilising modern European presentation styles, Indian chefs have led a move away from rice, curry and naan bread towards more refined, elegant plating.