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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Curry and Shakespeare at Taste of Britain Curry Festival


 Hotel ITC Windsor, Bangalore

“Unquiet meals make ill digestions”, wrote William Shakespeare in the Comedy of Errors. Good to report then that there was no “ill digestion” whatsoever in the Raj Pavilion at ITC Windsor, Bangalore on 18th July when the Taste of Britain Curry Festival launched with a tribute to the bard himself.

Performances of the Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet by talented students of Christ University, marked Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and presented a serendipitous opportunity to highlight another world famous institution – British curry. (Rumour has it that you can find a pretty good version of it on the Indian subcontinent as well!) 

British Deputy High Commissioner, HE Dominic McAllister, and Syed Nahas Pasha, Editor in Chief of Curry Life Magazine spoke at the opening of the Festival, after which guests had a chance to meet the other star performers of the evening – the chefs.

The merry band of five from the Sceptred Isle including Syed Zohorul Islam (The Capital, Durham), Amjad Ali (Eurasia Tandoori, Bridgnorth), Syed Noor Hussain (Spice Lounge, Durham), Pintu Rozario, consultant chef to Curry Life (Dhaka Sheraton), and Michelin-star chef Mark Poynton of Cambridge’s famous Alimentum, will be serving up a daily feast of British-Indian food and sophisticated gastro-pub fare. 

At a poolside banquet at the launch, guests had a sneak preview of the chefs’ showcase dishes including the legendary British Chicken Tikka Masala and Balti curry, followed by a collection of Windsor Desserts.





The Taste of Britain Festival, held in association with ITC Windsor Bangalore Hotel continues until 24th July 2016 at the Dublin Bar and the Raj Pavilion, presenting a gastronomic treat fit for kings and poets.


Historic city of Bangalore




                            




Saturday, 16 July 2016

Montenegro: Europe's new destination


Montenegro is Europe’s latest must-visit destination that balances medieval atmosphere and mystery with outdoor adventure and chic beach resorts. We took one of EasyJet’s new flights from Manchester to have a look …

Why go?

If your only impression of Montenegro is in association with the Eurovision Song Contest, think again. Europe’s best kept secret, crushed between Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Albania, is a bewitching kingdom of karst mountains fringed with pines, deep canyons, azure seas, and medieval cities, permeated with churches, monuments and monasteries. But if history doesn’t float your superyacht, Montenegro has a double life: it’s also a playground for the rich, the cool and trendy, and the hyperactive with world class marinas, party beaches, adventure activities, vibrant nightlife and up-market restaurants.

Oh! ... And bears still lurk in the forests!

The History

Proudly independent, Montenegro has been successively ruled by the Venetians, Ottomans, Austro-Hungary, and the Italians and Germans during World War II. Afterwards as part of Yugoslavia Montenegro spent 50 years as a communist state, gaining independence from Serbia in 2006. In the recent civil war Montenegro united with Serbia to bomb neighbouring Croatia, in particular its city of Dubrovnik. Some bad feeling still remains between the two countries, but in spite of its turbulent history and a population of mixed religions including Islam, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox, people now live together in enviable harmony.

First Impressions

With mountains on one side and sea on the other, unnervingly, the runway at Tivat airport is hardly visible until you hit the tarmac. Emerging from the airport, the mountainous karst landscape is immediately apparent. After five minutes the road plunges in to a long, unlit tunnel through the mountain, from which we emerged into what could only be described as a vast sea-filled valley. The Bay of Kotor is often described as the Mediterranean’s only fjord; dramatic mountains dotted with white, craggy outcrops plunge straight down thousands of feet below the water’s edge. There’s no tide to speak of; access to the sea is from small jetties and tiny shingle beaches punctuated by waterside bars and restaurants.

Highlights



Old Town Kotor
From our apartment in Muo we had romantic views across the bay with its daily flotilla of cruise liners, luxury yachts and smaller craft, looking towards Kotor.

The medieval city is surrounded by a walls which date from the 9th century. Inside, a maze of stone passageways, and hidden steps lead to the walls and rooftop areas with panoramic views over the bay. back street bars, promenading locals, and spacious piazzas with sophisticated restaurants and shops.

Njegos Mausoleum
We gaped at the huge cruise ships whilst sipping cocktails outside the gate to Kotor’s Old Town. At dusk, we watched as lights formed a golden semicircle around the walls of the old town of Kotor from our balcony, hearing the church bells strike with a melancholy, gradually diminishing cadence.

On our second day we travelled up the vertiginous mountain road to the Njegos Mausoleum where 461 steps took us to the dark tomb of the hero of Montenegro, Petar II Petrovic, guarded by two stern granite giantesses with views extending from the Bay of Kotor as far as Albania and Croatia.

Across wild mountains, we drove for three hours to Ostrog monastery, an Orthodox sanctuary and place of pilgrimage for followers of all religions. Slotted Petra-like into the vertical cliff 900 metres above sea level, no-one can explain how the cave chapels with their ancient frescoes were created. 

Ostrog Monastery
We visited Perast, the romantic village at apex of the bay of Kotor, where we took a boat trip to the island of Our-Lady-of-the-Rocks with its Venetian-style church. In the beautiful town of Budva, we ate fresh mussels in a shaded courtyard restaurant. A maze of old streets, surrounded by the sapphire-blue water of the Adriatic and sandy beaches, the town, set on the Budva Riviera, resembles a mini Dubrovnik - without the tourists.

My favourite moment was perhaps the climb up the 1350 steps up to Kotor’s fort 260 metres above sea level. We began our hot and steamy ascent from the North Gate for the price of three euros, accompanied by a hundred or so equally hot and steaming tourists, to enjoy unforgettable views of the Bay of Kotor and beyond.  


Descending, we rashly decided to lose the tourists by following the semi-circle of the walls down a precipitous, fast disappearing route. Clinging on to various rocks and vegetation, we landed on a path surrounded by untamed nature, wild flowers and brightly coloured butterflies, and a feeling of complete isolation despite the busy city below.


The path down to Kotor from the Fort
But two weeks was not enough to explore this small country which is full of surprises. For example, the Tara Canyon plummets to a depth of 1300m, only 200 metres smaller than the US’s Grand Canyon. From here you can go on full day or half day rafting trips for a white knuckle ride. There’s also the famous island resort of Sveti Stefan beloved by celebrities, the deserted village of Stari Bar, and the capital city of Podgerica or the former royal city of Ceninje, both of which are well off the western tourist track. Then there is a plethora of hidden or not so hidden beaches including the vast Jaz beach where the likes of Madonna and the Stones have performed. Plus, the Morača Monastery and canyon; the glacial lakes of the Durmitor National Park; Lake Skardar; wine tasting; cycling or hiking in the Lovćen National Park, there’s no end to the magic of Montenegro.

Expect to eat …

Typical Montenegrin cuisine is homely and hearty. Rest easy in the fact that there
Byblos at Tivat
aren’t many (if any) of the ubiquitous chain food outlets like McDonalds but there are excellent pizzerias and Italian restaurants. Lovers of spicy food may be disappointed to learn that there is only one Indian restaurant, Mantra, in the whole country in the capital city of Podgerica where the dining scene is more international. There is, however, a classy Lebanese restaurant – Byblos - which recently opened in Tivat, where meze appetisers and dishes such as baba ganoush, tabbouleh salads and kebab platters are served in Arabic tents, complete with draperies, tapestries and chandeliers. 

In Montenegro, ingredients are natural and organic with an emphasis on meat and fish. Lush vegetables, olives and cheeses are sold fresh from the markets. Bakeries sell rather stodgy waistline expanding pastries such as bureks and gibanica. The local red wine called Vranac is excellent and costs around three euros for a glass, the white wine is not quite so good but the Krstač is very palatable. Typical desserts include crepes, pancakes and delicious fritters or doughnuts served with honey or jam. Cured meats, local cheeses, soups, stews (čorba) and polenta feature on most menus. Visiting one mountain restaurant, I was slightly perturbed to discover dishes described as ‘Cooked Head’, and ‘Grilled or Cooked Bowels’ but I suspect that something was lost in translation!

Farther afield

Visiting Montenegro offers a golden opportunity to visit Dubrovnik in Croatia, dubbed one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a mere 17km from the Montenegrin border. Many people will be familiar with Dubrovnik as Kings Landing in the epic series Game of Thrones (which makes it even more unmissable). It took three hours to get there, mainly because of a slight delay at the border, but the picturesque drive was in itself reason enough for going.

Dubrovnik is a different world in terms of the number of tourists, but it still holds an atmosphere of mystery and romance. We walked the city walls, ate seafood in a shady square, explored the marble streets and drank beer in a bar set on the rugged rocks looking over the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik


When to visit

Montenegro’s main industry is tourism. At present the majority of tourists seem to be Russian and other Eastern Europeans. But there’s also a growing band of British visitors arriving via Montenegro Airlines from London and EasyJet from London. RyanAir offers flights to the capital city of Podgerico. Significantly, EasyJet have recently added two flights a week from Manchester which are proving popular (prices from £100). Our visit was in June and places seemed very quiet. The main holiday season is from July, August and September when the temperatures are pretty high and can reach 40 degrees, however a visit in May, June or October is recommended, when prices are lower and temperatures still well above 20 degrees. The skiing season runs from January to March, mainly in the Durmitor mountains so tourism continues all year round.

Montenegro uses the euro as the main currency even though they are not part of the EU. Not sure how that works but prices pre Brexit were favourable i.e. you can get a beer for less than two euros.

Where to stay

For our first week, we stayed at Kotor Vista, a lovely apartment overlooking The Bay of Kotor in Muo. Our second week was spent in the beautiful 5-star Regent Hotel in Porto Montenegro, Tivat, a new award-winning superyacht marina which was formerly a military shipyard Arsenal.  Regent Porto Montenegro offers the height in luxury and service – most rooms have a balcony with a sea and marina view and they even leave you a present at your bedside every night to thank you for staying there! Expect to pay around 300 euros a night for a double unless, like us, you are there (thanks to a cancelled flight due to bad weather), courtesy of EasyJet!

Regent Porto Montenegro Hotel in Tivat


Regent Porto Montenegro at Tivat Marina


For a video of the cruise ship Sirene leaving the Bay of Kotor, click on the link below
https://youtu.be/TfkgP-jJdt4 


Adapted from an interview with Steve Rudd, author, traveller, journalist and musician. You can visit his website with many interesting interviews at steverudd.co.uk


Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Feast for the Eyes: Inspiring wall art in Indian restaurants

Art is being added in some Indian restaurants art as an additional attraction to bring people across the threshold.
“Art makes a room. It is part of the culture of the place. As much as the food makes a statement about the restaurant, so does art.” Raymond Blanc. 
Henna Girl: Suzie Devey's iconic wall painting in the Sheesh Mahal

A
rt and food are inextricably linked: whilst food provides nourishment, a source of pleasure and sustenance for the body and mind, art provides nourishment for the soul. A stunning interior, painting or photograph on which diners can feast their eyes, not only enhances the décor, it adds interest, creates a talking point, defines the ambiance and renders it unique.  

For some years now, restaurants such as The Ivy and Le Gavroche have been showcasing paintings to popular acclaim. Now, Indian restaurateurs have also recognised the value of featuring original art to create exciting and beautiful spaces. 

Whether the interpretation portrays the exotic, the tribal, atmospheric or romantic vistas of far-away lands, a renaissance is underway. Thanks to the vision of enlightened owners and managers, restaurants are fast becoming the art galleries of the modern world. Let's take a look at some that are leading the way:

Sheesh Mahal, Hartlepool

A stamp inspired the wonderful paintings of artist Suzie Devey which now adorn the walls of the Sheesh Mahal restaurant in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool.

Suzie explains: “The restaurant owner, Shahrouf Miah, wanted one painting of the Taj Mahal, on the wall. I collected postage stamps as a little girl and I remembered one stamp which featured the Taj Mahal. I researched other stamps and presented the idea of enlarging the stamps from over 2cm square to over 8 feet! They liked the idea so much they wanted me to create the design around the entire walls of the restaurant.” 
Suzie then worked with the owners’ whole family to create the large-scale henna designs. “They were a wonderful family to work with,” remembers Suzie. “The dancers were the owner’s daughters’ idea as they wanted to have a contemporary twist to their space which reflected their love of Bollywood films. The girl behind the bar was created to tie the design together.”
It took about 100 hours to create the paintings which now also include a temple in Kolkata, a Bengali tiger, Bollywood dancing and a tea picker in India. The result is a vibrant, contemporary and inspiring space that draws on the contemporary as well as the traditional.
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The Miah family was so thrilled with the results they held a relaunch of the restaurant just to showcase the artwork. “We are over the moon with Suzie’s work,” said Samia Begum, daughter of Shahrouf Miah. “The customers are really happy with it and it has made the restaurant look really homely.”

For Suzie, playing with scale and proportion and creating new ideas are the most enjoyable aspects of art. “My ethos is that paintings are for people, not just walls!” she says.

Malvern Tilla, Malvern
Atmospheric panoramic work of Jan Sedlacek

Set in the moody Malvern Hills, the Malvern Tilla Indian restaurant provides a showcase for the large format panoramic work of celebrated fine art, commercial and landscape photographer, Jan Sedlacek.

After moving from the Czech Republic to the UK, Jan was so captivated by the beautiful landscapes of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, he decided to settle in Malvern, where he formed his company digitlight.co.uk. Now his art is celebrated across the world.


Locally, Jan’s work can be seen in diverse settings ranging from Worcestershire businesses, hotels and several Indian restaurants. In the Malvern Tilla, Jan’s images provide a dramatic backdrop with their depiction of the surrounding landscape. Balanced between photography and painting, full of unusual light, they bring the untamed outdoors indoors, lead the eye and create an atmosphere of mystery.  
Memsaab, Nottingham

These quirky paintings, found in Memsaab Indian restaurant in Nottingham, provide a talking point for customers according to the restaurant’s co-owner Amita Sawnhey.  Created by an Indian artist, the works depict a range of colourful, characters: bejewelled maharajahs, fierce Sikhs and bearded warriors, adding an idiosyncratic touch of humour to the décor.

Cutler’s Spice, Sheffield


Sheffield-based artist Brian Smith had a fine time creating the mural commissioned by Allam Shah Ullah, executive chef and director of popular Cutler’s Spice Indian restaurant in Sheffield.

The brief was pilgrims doing their ablutions by the Ganges in the ancient city of Varanasi. “It turned out to be a complex composition,” explains Brian. “As far as the architecture is concerned, the client wanted a representation of the general vernacular rather than anything specific, so the mural had a design element to it which I always enjoy.”

Rendering the painting in a mixture of emulsion and acrylic paints, Brian says he used everything from paint rollers to fine brushes.

“It was very like painting oils on canvas and gave me a free rein,” commented Brian who believes the mural is one of the most exciting artistic forms. Cutler’s Spice owner, Allam Shah Ullah is equally delighted with the result. His restaurant is now not only famous for the fine food and atmosphere; it’s also remembered for its magnificent painting.

The Eastern Eye, Bath

The Eastern Eye restaurant in Bath presents a relatively modest exterior so visitors may be forgiven for doing a double take upon entering. Set in a grand, vaulted Georgian ballroom, overlooked by three glass domes, the restaurant’s most awe-inspiring feature are the massive hand painted Indian murals that line the restaurant’s three main walls. In an explosion of rich, vibrant colours, they portray scenes in a Moghul Palace with dancers, musicians and worshippers, creating a lavish and opulent atmosphere beloved by celebrities.
The Eastern Eye has been run by Mr Abdul Choudhury and his family since 1984 (in its present location from 1997). The paintings have a more recent provenance than the building’s history suggests and are the work of award-winning international artist, Apulpan Ditt, who befriended Mr Choudhury in Dubai in 2004. Mr Choudhury invited Mr Ditt to revamp the interior of his restaurant in the UK. The 42-year-old artist worked through the night for two months, to spectacular effect. “I was so pleased with the finished product,” said Mr Choudhury. “I asked my customers what they thought and everybody says it is out of this world. These paintings have changed the way people see the restaurant. They give it a truly unique aesthetic appeal.”

Raunka Punjab Divan, Southall

With a name that means ‘Glimpses of Punjab’, the Raunka Punjab Diyan in Southall offers more than a fleeting view of India. The whole interior is an artistic recreation of a rural Punjabi village, an impression further enhanced by colourful ethnic furnishings and staff dressed in traditional costumes. Restaurateur and owner Rajen Wadheran was inspired to develop the concept after previous success running themed venues. He commissioned an artist from India to paint a mural of golden, sun-warmed landscapes with villagers plying their daily tasks; fetching water, spinning or cooking.  
Another wall depicts an old-style tractor, complete with passengers and 3D effects. There are authentic Indian cooking pots and artefacts dotted around and there’s even a vintage Enfield motorbike on display. Diners love the ambiance, especially those who hail from the thriving Seikh community in Southall, many of whom describe Raunka Punjab Diyan as a home from home.

Cinnamon Kitchen, London

The collection of photographs in Cinnamon Kitchen was originally commissioned for sister restaurant the Cinnamon Club and there is more to them than meets the eye. “The idea behind the collection is tradition meets modern,” says marketing manager Helen Geach. “You will notice that a lot of the images are of very traditional Indian street scenes, however if you look closer you will see that the subject is holding a modern piece of technology such as a phone or mac book. Or perhaps they are reading a Top Gear magazine or Financial Times, or wearing shades.”

Masala Zone, London

Masala Zone, Soho
Already known for setting the standards for informal, imaginative restaurant design, the Masala Zone Restaurant Group pioneers Indian art by bringing permanent exhibitions to the UK. The Group has the whole gamut of Indian tribal and folk art in their restaurants across London. The Islington, and Soho branches lead the way, commissioning traditional tribal artists from different regions who actually painted the artwork on the walls. Bayswater has vibrant and exotic pop art blow-ups of firecracker labels from Sivakasi in South India done as a collage. Islington Masala Zone features brightly coloured murals by two painters from Gond, a forested area of Madhya Pradesh. A sister restaurant in Earls Court is covered with breath-taking, large canvases of Madhubani traditional folk art – a style of geometric painting with fingers and twigs from Bihar village in eastern India. The story, with modern resonance, tells of a tiger who wished to move to London aided by a migratory bird.
Masala Zone, Bayswater

So, whether restaurateurs are commissioning the work of local artists and photographers, or introducing the British public to aspects of Indian art and culture, restaurants offer a blank canvas with the possibility to inspire and enhance the dining experience. In a unique bonding of culture and food that appeals to all the diners’ senses as well as their palates, beautiful artwork provides food for the mind.


“I like the unexpected setting of a restaurant for art. If you're sitting beside great art, eating great food and drinking great wine, it is a voluptuous experience, and makes for a great evening.” Artist Maggi Hambling. 


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Recipe for Shatkora Lamb by Chef Abul Monsur


I've known Abul Monsur (Jewel) for almost 10 years now, ever since he was chef at the Curry Life Fusion Festival in Dhaka. Now, a veteran of the Taste of Britain Festivals in Spain, India, Bangladesh and Slovenia, Jewel is always the epitome of calm, cool and collected, whatever the situation. In fact he's so laid back that he even missed the plane on one occasion (happily he arrived in time for the festival on the next flight)! Having put fine dining Indian food on the map with his fantastic Taj Cuisine restaurants and takeaways in Chatham, Abul's son Sami has recently joined forces with his father to advance the Taj brand across Kent. This is one of Jewel's signature recipes at the Taste of Britain Curry Festival in Delhi earlier this year.
 
Serves 4 persons
Preparation time 30 minutes
Cooking time 45 minutes




Ingredients

  •   800g       Lamb (cubes)
  •   200g       Chopped onions
  •   100g       Fresh tomatoes (chopped)
  •   2tsp        Garlic and ginger paste
  •   1/2 tsp    Garam Masala
  •   1/2 tsp    Chilli powder
  •   11/2 tsp   Turmeric powder
  •   1 tsp        Cumin Powder
  •   1 1/2 tsp  Coriander powder
  •   1/4           Shatkora (thinly sliced)                   
  • (or 1tbsp lemon juice)
  •   2              Bayleaf
  •   4              Cardamom pods
  •   1              Cinammon stick
  •   4              Cloves
  •   20g          Oil
  •                   Salt to taste
  •                   Fresh, chopped coriander for garnish

Method:


  • Cook the onions in the oil until golden brown. 
  • Add the garlic and ginger paste and cook for 2 minutes.
  • Add the whole spices (bayleaf, cardomom, cinnamon and cloves), and stir for 1 minute.
  • Add all the dry spices (garam masala, turmeric, cumin and coriander powder) and cook, adding a little water to stop the spices from burning.
  • Add the lamb and coook for 20 minutes on a medium heat.
  • Add the tomatoes and sliced Shatkora and salt to taste and cook for 2 minutes, adding a little water for sauce.
  • Simmer for 10 minutes until the lamb pieces are cooked and tender.
  • Remove from heat and chopped fresh coriander and serve with rice or roti.


Abul at Curry Life food festival in Dhaka Sheraton

Explaining about one of his signature dishes


Friday, 27 May 2016

Daawat Indian Restaurant on the Strand


Chef Asharaf Valappil at the Strand Palace Hotel
I took a stroll down the Strand to meet Asharaf Valappil, the talented chef at Strand Palace Hotel’s recently launched restaurant, Daawat. Asharaf offers authentic Indian flavours with a British touch, and an exotic version of afternoon tea …

There are few buildings more steeped in British nostalgia than London’s Strand Palace Hotel. Built in 1909, the original plans described a “grand” hotel in the heart of the capital boasting modern architecture and stunning art deco features. Swiftly established as a famous social venue in the twenties, more turbulent times followed. World War II saw Londoners seeking refuge in the hotel's basement as bombs ravaged the city, and ration coupons were exchanged for meals.

Nowadays, following a £2.5m makeover, boasting 785 stylish rooms, the Strand Palace Hotel offers a historic and quintessentially English atmosphere at the centre of one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

But the concept of ‘Englishness’ has changed. Today, thanks to an energising invasion of cultures and cuisines, ‘being British’ includes many different elements. The most pervasive is the UK’s relatively new found passion for spicy food; hence, nestling alongside Strand Palace’s typically British carvery and grill, Nook Bar, and Gin Palace, there’s also a very British Indian restaurant.

Daawat has been spicing up the Asian dining scene ever since its impressive launch party in October 2015. Following the path blazed by Asian chefs including Atul Kochhar of Benares, and Vineet Bhatia of Zaika, Daawat’s culinary team is currently taking authentic Indian food into the realm of high-end dining … and beyond.

Entering the hotel, the reception area bustles with a stream of guests skilfully steered on and off the premises by genial, top-hatted doorman. A short walk up the steps to the right takes us to Daawat’s restfully elegant, cool interior. It’s a lesson in tasteful design and decoration: white tablecloths, restrained colour schemes and comfortable seats are the order of the day whilst subcontinental kitsch is definitely off the menu.



Asharaf Valappil, the Daawat’s 37-year-old sous chef, is brimming over with enthusiasm and passion for the food of his native India. Working closely with the Strand Palace’s head chef, Martin Lynch, Asharaf says his aim is to cook Indian food with an authentic touch.

“Everywhere you go in London, Indian restaurants have a similar menu with Jalfrezis, Dupiazas or even dishes which you don’t even find in India” he explains. “Here, we decided to offer something different – dishes similar to those found in my homeland, whilst still catering for the more delicate British palate.  

Asharaf has a simple rule for sourcing recipes: “I’m a great believer in real, authentic cuisine so I promised myself that I would stick to my roots and keep my food traditional," he says. "I’ve always found the best way to eat food in India is to enjoy the home cooking wherever possible.The home-style food is the same authentic taste I want to bring to the restaurant.”

‘Home’ for Asharaf is on the Malabar coast of Kerala in south-western India, known as the ‘Land of Spices’, abundant in coconut trees, rivers, plains and spice plantations, where environmental factors and humid climate have combined to create a culinary heritage of richly spiced food. Kerala is India’s largest rice producer so, unsurprisingly, the grain is used as the base from which most meals are made. Coconut, another common ingredient is often used to thicken sauces. Seafood and river fish dishes are plentiful, flavoured with pungent spices such as tamarind, fragrant cardamom, pepper and asafoetida. Inland, there’s a strong vegetarian tradition inland whilst fiery meat and poultry dishes are common in the north, often served on a banana leaf.  

Growing up surrounded by this wealth of foods and flavours, Asharaf explains that his training began at home in the family kitchen. “My father always used to cook for us when we were young,” he remembers. “His meals were always simple but tasty! When I was at school I took it upon myself to experiment with food for the family, so, slowly, slowly, I learned to cook as well – my interest developed from there. I always knew cooking was going to be a big part of my life.”

He went on to study at the Consult Inn Institute of Hotel Management in Kerala, carrying out his vocational training at the Taj group of hotels. After graduation he worked for the prestigious Oberoi Hotel Group at a string of top establishments in Delhi, Shimla and Mumbai, even on a cruise line, gaining experience in Thai, Indian and Asian cuisine.  He also trained in Italian cooking, a popular cuisine on the subcontinent, and learned how to create perfect pasta from an Italian-born chef.

Moving to Europe in 2007, Asharaf joined the team at the famous Moti Mahal in Covent Garden where he stayed for seven years before he was head-hunted to take the post of sous chef at Strand Palace in 2014.  

Now, with his wife and three-year-old also living in London, he oversees five chefs at Daawat alongside a team of 18 chefs who work in the busy kitchens of the hotel. Head chef, Martin Lynch had good reason to believe in his new chef’s ability being familiar with his cooking style and his strengths. Together they worked out several balanced menus based on the regional Indian recipes and ingredients, exploding with aromatic spices and flavours.

Asharaf explains: “When I came to London I went to many restaurants to research and I realised that British people love Indian food. But we decided to make it authentic. Now, all our menus contain elements from different parts of the Indian subcontinent including the Malabar coast, Goa, Kashmir, or the Punjab. Our achievement here makes me proud because I am doing what is in my heart.”



Authentic and fresh ingredients are sourced in Southall, a reliable source for Indian products. Asharaf has plans to add some Bengali dishes to the menu but not at the expense of authenticity. “I’d love to offer a traditional Bengal fish curry, but unfortunately, I can’t source the proper mustard used for the dish, even in Brick Lane,” he explains.

Indian street-foods also feature at the restaurant and Asharaf intends to build on these offerings using Masala Dhosas, kebabs and curries as the bait to entice the lunchtime crowd.


More than one dish at Daawat has been influenced by the curry dishes of the UK. In fact, Asharaf comments that the British-born dish of Chicken Tikka Masala, albeit with the chef’s unique stamp of a smoky blend of spices, is the most popular item on the menu.

“I also love British food,” admits the chef, who has a particular penchant for Cumberland sausages, especially when Kashmiri chilli paste and lemon juice are added before serving in a warm croissant.

With an à la carte lunch and dinner menu, and a Thali lunch menu for £9.95, there’s not much at Daawat (apart from the world famous CTM and biryani) to resemble dishes found in the average British/Indian diner.

It was evening so we had an excellent excuse to select from the à la carte dinner menu. From an economical but elegant choice of eight, starters preceded by tasty poppadoms and chutneys, included seared scallops encased in a crisp coriander crust with curried cauliflower, and a refreshing Tandoori Salmon with dill, ginger and yoghurt served with grape chutney. Balla Papri Chat: delicious fried lentil dumplings with Indian papri pastry, mint, ginger chutney and yoghurt provided contrasting textures with sharp and sweet tastes. The Tirange kebab, a colourful trio of chicken tikka with cheese and cardamom, smoked chilli, fenugreek and coriander leaves, was full of the flavours of southern India.


Main courses ranged from £7.95 for a Nizami Handi vegetable curry to £19.95 for the sea bass. Asharaf’s Grandma Kodi Kura, a version of the dish cooked by many grandmothers in Andhra Pradesh. It comprised Andhra chicken with black pepper corns and shallots cooked in a simple but spicy gravy. Other dishes are informed by the seasonings and flavours of Kerala such as the sea bass, marinated with spices and subtle flavours of coconut milk. The Biryani was cooked dum punkt style, the comforting flavours of spiced, meltingly tender lamb sealed in by the pastry lid, with the firm bite of aged basmati rice.


Goan Sungta Balichow of Tiger Prawns was consumed in a dark, fiery and tangy sauce with red chillies, shrimp paste and tomato. We learned that the coastal folk of India have an interesting way of preserving prawns – as the fishermen are unable to fish until September because of the rainy season, they conserve the fish in paste made from Kashmiri red chillies, stored in jars. Influenced by these traditions, the heat of the chillies in Asharaf’s dish packs a punch - enough to warm the cockles of the heart.

With nan breads of many varieties freshly cooked in the tandoor, sides included Bagan Ka Salan: small aubergines cooked in peanut and sesame, tamarind and jaggary paste. A range of ice-creams, sorbets and traditional desserts were perfectly sized after eating such hearty mains: delicate mini Rasamalai – mild dumplings flavoured with rose and fresh raspberries, or mini gulab jamon. But for us it was a no-brainer - we had to go for another of Asharaf’s signatures - delicious chocolate samosas stuffed with coconut milk chocolate, mango sorbet and strawberries marinated in ginger.

The Anglo-Indian fusion at Daawat is such that Asharaf even offers an exotic version of afternoon tea, otherwise known as High Chai. Forget musty tea rooms and stuffy drawing rooms. For £24.95 a head, partakers are transported to the glamorous world of colonial India, green tea plantations and airy hill stations. Sipping on refreshing herbal or Masala chai, they can feast on spicy savoury delicacies, and traditional Indian cakes such as Rasmalai and Pistachio Burfi, along with less traditional chocolate samosas drizzled with mango puree. Ultimately, they are returned to a more English world with warm scones and clotted cream – the blend of culture and cuisine at Daawat is complete.

Daawat, Strand Palace Hotel, 372 Strand, London WC2R 0JJ    Tel: ++44 207 836 8080  Reservations:  +44 207 379 4737

                                                                           








Monday, 9 May 2016

Curry UK versus Curry USA




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An overview from a well seasoned ex-pat:

Ken Renfrew, a curry aficionado, world traveller, businessman (and brother in law), was born and bred in the UK where he frequently experienced the delights of curry cuisine in the north of England. Now, living and working in North Carolina, America for almost 30 years, he reflects on how the Indian restaurant scene in the US has changed …

Ken: This evening when I finished work I took the dog out and stopped at a supermarket where there is a 'grab it on your way home' food bar, i.e. the place where people shop who don't want to cook or go out for their evening meal. Typical food on offer here usually consists of fried chicken or at the very extreme - goulash.
Yet what did I see but three vegetarian curries, rice, cauliflower and chicken tikka masala!



Such sights used to be more common in the ethnic areas of the large American cities, along with bazaars, beards and burkas, where immigrant families lived and fed on familiar food. Other famous examples include China Town, Little Italy, and Little Havana - all of which offer great opportunities for ethnic dining. I was amazed to see the Indian food in our supermarket tonight, but it shows who is demanding a change, and it’s not the original locals.
When we first moved to Research Triangle Park, NC back in 1987, an area known for its hospitals and hi-tech companies, there was - as far as we knew - just one Indian restaurant serving Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Now there must be 20 or 30. Similarly, when we moved to Charlotte 20 years ago there were just two Indian restaurants serving a population of around 700k - now I can think of about 15. But then again, this region is the second most rapidly growing in the nation.
As different cultural groups have always done in the New World, migrants from the Indian sub- continent come here for work, family, a better life, or just for a change. Not surprisingly, the restaurateurs pinpoint locations where the new diaspora work and live (no marketing degree or MBA needed to work out why!). The first places they choose are near hospitals, universities and concentrated areas of high tech business - Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park, Cambridge Mass for example. Then boy meets girl, relations follow, and pretty soon there is a new thriving community spreading the word about great curry, helped along by a few ex-pat Brits, and an American population that begins to love Indian food.
This roving correspondent has seen a huge increase in Indian restaurants in the past 10 years. It used to be a struggle to find Indian food in the developing areas of some states. Since moving to the US, my work has taken me to 43 out of the 50 states many times and I always make a point of dining at an Indian restaurant somewhere within an easy drive of my destination – usually by GPS or Google. Nowadays, finding one is not a problem.
A key difference between the UK and America restaurants involves the variety of types of Indian food. Yes, in the UK 90%+ of Indian restaurants are Bangladeshi. But in America there is a descending order: Indian, to Pakistani to others including Bangla and a subset of Goa style restaurants. Even Mongolian restaurants are sometimes generalized under ‘Indian’.
So, maybe the variety of flavours, styles, spices and methods of preparation are more varied in the USA than the UK. That doesn’t make one country’s menu diversity any better than the other, but it does mean the traveller in America, either  from out of the country or within, won’t find it easy to get the same flavours between one geographic region and another, or for that matter even between nearby restaurants. Does that make dining in Indian restaurants in the USA more interesting than a 90% Bangla-English dominated selection? Maybe, maybe not, because as curry life in the UK continues to expand so does the quality and inventiveness of chefs. It’s different, that’s all. Even celebrities become accustomed to, and develop preferences for particular flavours but perhaps it's because they're used to those wonderful Bangla curries in Great Britain.
Sangam Indian restaurant in Cornelius, N. Carolina
Our 'local' Indian restaurateurs who own Sangam in Cornelius, North Carolina, who are also great family friends, are Punjabi originally and their cuisine is very similar in flavour to the typical UK upscale Indian restaurant.  Some Americans find Indian and Pakistan style curries harsh and maybe, if the blend of spice is different in Bangladeshi cuisine there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to open up a restaurant serving Bangla-British style flavours that would appeal more to the Americans' palate.

What do Americans think about Indian food? In this great continent you have people of every social, educational and experiential mix. There are some who have been to India more times than you can shake a stick at. There are huge American Indian populations.  If there is a social group that may not like Indian it’s only those who haven’t been exposed to it, or those who prefer simpler food flavours (even though they still love spicy Mexican food). Are attitudes changing? Absolutely – that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, on average, Americans eat less curry than the Brits. Perhaps it’s just a question of numbers. The population of Bangladeshis in the UK is about 500,000 in a total population of 64.6 million or just under 1% – and Bangladeshis own about 90% of the Indian restaurant market. In the USA there is a combined Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi population of about 3.7 million or just over 1% of the total USA population; pretty even. So it’s not a case of dilution by numbers. Could it be that because of the patterns of human migration Americans simply have other deep-rooted options? Mexican, Chinese oh … and American!  Socio-political history, meaning historical connections, migrations and networking, may just be the answer for why less curry is eaten here – on average.
What does all this mean? Like anywhere, there are good restaurants and not so good ones there are styles of cuisine that some love, others hate. And there are the usual picky/not so picky eaters. Bottom line? Put a plate of curry in front of any American who hasn’t had the pleasure before and most will say something like ‘Not sure what it is, but I like it’.  
You must be curious about the dinner we had tonight on my return from the supermarket; an intriguing menu of Andouille spiced pork sausage, bratwurst, American style canned baked beans in tomato sauce, no fries –  sorry chips - and a very respectable Aloo with peas curry from the supermarket grab-and-go.

In the USA we love Indian food – how could we not?