Founder of the renowned Mowgli Street Food restaurants and author of the new cookery book ‘Mowgli Street Food: stories and recipes from the Mowgli Street Food restaurants’ opens up about her culinary journey and her ambition to “lift the veil” shrouded over real Indian cooking in Britain.

 

“Mowgli is a new face of Indian food and at its heart is the brisk freshness of Indian food unplugged.

Rather than a quiet or intimate dining experience, Mowgli is about the ‘smash and grab and taste’ adventure.”

 

I understand you’ll be attending the BBC Good Food Show this summer and giving audiences a live cooking demo! How would you describe the flavours and style of Mowgli’s popular dishes?

I have always been passionate about Indian food, but not the stuff of curry houses. What is peddled in curry houses is a far cry from the way Indians actually eat at home and on their streets. Our food is actually fresh, light, delicate and extremely healthy which are not words the UK would ever associate with "Curry". Mowgli is about how Indians eat in their homes and on the street, pared back and unplugged. The selection of dishes feed that yearning Indians have for bright intense rich flavours. Rather than a quiet or intimate dining experience, Mowgli is about the smash and grab and taste adventure.

There can be apprehension for culinary ‘rookies’ to delve into the world of flavours Indian food offers. Do you hope Mowgli’s recipes will help to dispel these fears?

In Britain, we're slowly shifting to recognise that there is no 'Indian' cuisine; rather, the country is composed of many dozens of distinct cuisines, plural. Our style is Bengali. We are lovers of mustard oil, mustard paste, Panch Poron, asafoetida, fish, and white poppy seeds. These are on the top layer of the Bengali spice tool kit. The Portuguese introduced chilli to India in the 16th century. While other Indians used Pippali to heat their dishes, we were using mustard. There, was forged this Bengal love for all things yellow. Gujratis are genius in their lightness of touch. Their favoured headnote spices are the combination of cumin and mustard seed. They usually have a sweet dimension to their dishes which are mainly vegetarian. There is something clean and elegant about their food. Punjabi food is a culinary fiesta-big flavours, garlic, ginger, onion at the heart of their dishes - shamelessly pungent, heavy and rich. The way the British embrace the cuisine of other nations is unlike any other country I know. This, I'm sure, comes from the paternal and proprietorial history of Empire.  No other nation, save for Durban in South Africa, have embraced Indian food as their own in the way the British have.

 

What do you hope your recipes and the cooking style at Mowgli achieves?

There was always an eddy that ran alongside my love for the law. It should have been a silly daydream, but it became loud and bold. It related to the base matter of real Indian food which in Britain, sits in a shrouded and misunderstood corner. I wanted to lift the veil on the undressed, humble way Indians actually eat in the privacy of their homes. Healthy, light, virtuosic simple fayre that bears no resemblance, in name or flavour, to the stuff of the high street. I wanted to build a restaurant that was modelled on an Indian home kitchen and this swirling mission would not let me sleep. A simple ambition one might think - but far from it. My ambition was not for a blog nor a home spun pop up. It was for bricks and mortar, with a body of staff, with accounts and accountability. It involved me stepping from the security of profession to the white waters of business.


 

What advice would you give your younger self, first starting out on Bold Street?

It is an incredible truth, but I can honestly say I would change nothing. I love every part of the journey so much, it does not feel like work at all.

My forte is actually knowing what I’m NOT good at and delegating. This comes at a cost, but you ensure your mental health, your time, and your pride is kept in check. I hired a General Manager to build me a restaurant system before I even had a restaurant. I am the executive chef and so every single dish is mine and under my tyrannical control.

 

“I wanted to lift the veil on the undressed, humble way Indians actually eat in the privacy of their homes.”

 

You’re set to open several more Mowgli’s across the UK, and already have successful branches in Liverpool, Oxford, Manchester and of course, Birmingham. Why did you settle on Birmingham?

Birmingham is such an exciting, multicultural city and Grand Central is a pulsing street food hub that is growing from strength to strength. I’m so proud to have lead my Mowgli family to Birmingham. It’s such a warm embracing city, it already feels like home after a relatively short time period, and we look forward to a long and happy future here. 

Mowgli is about honest, home style, fresh food and it strikes me that Birmingham clients are all about this kind of edgy offer.


 

Birmingham’s multi-cultural culinary heritage is extremely rich – were you ever apprehensive in the early stages to open your restaurant in the city nicknamed the ‘Home of the Balti’?

Absolutely not. The Mowgli experience is about a fresh take on Indian food. This is a million miles away from the curry house experience. Mowgli dishes follow the Hindu tradition of garlic and onion free dishes for lunch.  Our dishes are low fat and gluten free and our light curries free from any artificial ingredients. We have an extensive vegan menu as in the Mowgli kitchen; vegan is where exiting things happen. This is how Indians eat in the privacy of their home kitchens and favourite lunchtime street stalls. Mowgli is a new face of Indian food and at its heart is the brisk freshness of Indian food unplugged.

I honestly feel that many Indian chefs and writers, through design or sloth, complicate curry making; it’s almost as if they want to maintain it as some mystical dark art. This winds me up no end. Look, in India, kids start cooking before they can hold a pen. Go into any Indian home and ask for a Chicken Tikka Masala and they won’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Balti translates as bucket. Chicken Pasanda translates as “Chicken I Like”. What you eat in Indian restaurants is not authentic Indian food. These dishes were formulated for an English palate - they do not exist in India. This keeps me awake at night. It does so, because real Indian Street Food utterly rocks and still it seems Indians are too afraid to serve it to the English for fear that they may not get it.

 

“I’m so proud to have lead my Mowgli family to Birmingham. It’s such a warm embracing city, it already feels like home after a relatively short time period, and we look forward to a long and happy future here.”

 

When did you first decide to write the Mowgli Cook Book?

This is now my third cookbook, and I am eager to incorporate recipes and stories from Mowgli’s super charged four-year rise. Ultimately, this feels like a love letter both to Mowgli and to my family’s approach to Indian cooking. Whether people sit there with a book propped open when they’re cooking is not the point. Cookbooks are one of the few genres that people want to feel and look through and see the pictures and take to bed with them, and so I only ever write cookbooks like that. This book captures the love and the irreverence I feel towards the world around me; its cultures, its accepted norms in terms of food and life.  Like my journey through the professions and the business world it will hopefully inspire as well as provide understanding and support. 



 

What is your first food-related memory? Do you remember the first Indian dish you ever tasted?

My parents, Indian Hindu doctors, came over to Ormskirk, where I was born, in 1968 and moved into an incredibly deprived area. They told me how they had to travel to Manchester to buy ginger, how onions were sold by the half in a bag of barley (for soup), and turmeric was peddled in pharmacies like some yellow narcotic. Some of my earliest memories are of being fire bombed, bricks landing through nursery windows and dodging the stones on the way to school. Food became our strongest force for race relations. Korma became the Kofi Annan of Skem. It is in the nature of Indians to feed, to show hospitality. We want you to like us. My need to feed is no different to my parents; it runs deep. I recall a defining incident, as a child. I was invited to play a friend’s house and my mother was asked to collect me just before lunch was served. This cut my mother. How could one not want to feed a guest, even more so a child? This is how we Indians show love.

I remember clearly the night that my mother, for the 100th time, dictated a curry recipe over the phone.  Suddenly, I saw a clear curry formula. It was a real eureka moment.  And it was as simple as this – all curry has just three spices, only one of which changes depending on what you are cooking.

 

Catch Nisha at The BBC Good Food Show this summer, where she will be wowing audiences with live cooking demos and Q+A sessions. For more information, follow this LINK.

Order her new book from amazon.com, and check out Mowgli’s dishes for yourself at Birmingham’s Grand Central.

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