- The Executive Chef of popular UK Indian restaurant Dishoom says that chicken tikka masala was not invented in India.
- Speaking to Insider, Naved Nasir also shed some light on the origins of the balti, korma, and vindaloo.
- “I think the biggest misconception of Indian food, in my view, is that the words ‘Indian food’ are very misleading,” he told Insider. “India is a very big country. We have a saying in India that every 100 miles the food and the language changes.”
- Nasir said the restaurant has been challenged with showing people that Indian food doesn’t have to be spicy – and that they shouldn’t avoid Indian breakfasts.
- He added that despite all of this, you don’t need to go to India to get authentic food.
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The foodiverse is stuffed with myths, assumptions, and bias, especially around dishes that are drastically different to what we’re used to tucking into every day.
One type of food that is liberally peppered with misconception is Indian cuisine.
Insider spoke to Naved Nasir, Executive Chef of the UK’s popular Dishoom, who dispelled some of the most common misunderstandings around Indian cooking.
“I think the biggest misconception of Indian food, in my view, is that the words ‘Indian food’ are very misleading,” he told Insider.
“India is a very big country. We have a saying in India that every 100 miles the food and the language changes. So when people categorize everything we eat in India as ‘Indian food’ it’s very misleading.”
India is the world’s second most populated country with around 1.3 billion people (China still remains on top) and contains 29 states.
Blanket labeling all food with Indian origin as “Indian food” is similar to lumping together every delicacy that comes out of the Americas as “American food,” There are historical influences, individual nuance, and geographical identity attached to each much-loved dish.
Not all of your curry house favorites are authentically Indian
“I’ll start with the most common one, which is [that] the chicken tikka masala didn’t originate from India, first of all,” Nasir said.
“There is a history of butter chicken, which comes from a place called Moti Mahal in Old Delhi. [It came] over here as the recipe of the butter chicken.
“Then I think the origin of the chicken tikka masala actually happened here in the UK. I don’t think people know that this was the dish that was invented here.”
He added that Balti cuisine was invented in Birmingham, and that recognizable meals such as vindaloo and korma do not resemble what is eaten in India.
“Actually, the version you get in most UK curry houses is very different to the one which I grew up with because the korma comes from north India and the version which we eat there is very spicy, and there’s not sweetness to it which is what you usually receive when you order a korma in a curry house,” Nasir said.
Not all Indian food is spicy – and breakfasts are a staple
The comforting and creamy version of a korma that many of us known is usually a safe bet when ordering off an Indian restaurant’s menu if you don’t like anything too spicy.
But Nasir said: “This again is another misconception that all Indian food is spicy. I think that’s not the case. When I came here and writing the Dishoom menu, we really wanted to make sure that we could cater to everyone and I had a principle that I didn’t want to compromise on the recipe.”
The challenge for him was to make sure that people who think all food of an Indian origin is spicy can still enjoy Dishoom.
“I think the resolution lies in the vast range of Indian cuisine,” he said. “There’s so much to offer in India that we can’t possibly cover in one menu and we can find dishes that are easily acceptable to people with a really low tolerance to spices.”
Dishoom has also helped bring Indian breakfast food into the mainstream in the western world, and now has one of the highest-rated breakfasts in the UK.
Reviews and comments from patrons across TripAdvisor still seem pleasantly surprised by how delicious masala beans are as part of the most important meal of the day.
With lines often out door in the mornings as well (Dishoom looks after waiting guests with complimentary cups of hot teas) it’s hard to believe the breakfast sitting wasn’t always busy.
“It took us some time, by the way, to start this and convince people that they are more adventurous than they are used to be. So much so that the first year of [our] Covent Garden [location], people didn’t come. They didn’t know what to expect from an Indian breakfast.”
He said this was because most people don’t know what Indian breakfast is really made up of.
“I grew up eating, especially in the north of India, you grew up eating parathas for breakfast or if you’re south of India you eat idlis, dosas for breakfast. And the breakfast we serve at Dishoom comes from a very typical Parsi cafe of Bombay. They are very fond of egg, and egg features as a big dominant ingredient.”
Akuri, a spiced, scrambled egg dish, is one of the restaurant’s most popular.
Meanwhile, the masala omelette, which is basically onion, green chilli, coriander, and egg, “gives a different dimension to a simple omelette,” Nasir told Insider.
Another dish, the bun maska, “is simply the bread and the butter, but you buy the best brioche bun you can buy and then you dip it in a very nice, sweet, spicy chai and eat it. So I don’t think people normally expect that from a Dishoom.”
Still, the most famous item on Dishoom’s breakfast menu by far is its Naan roll filled with egg, sausage, and bacon, a Dishoom invention and did not exist before the restaurant, according to Nasir.
You don’t need to go to India to get the real thing
While some restaurants in the UK may not be the most authentic, that doesn’t mean India is the only place where you can enjoy the best of Indian cuisine.
“Dubai has some really cracking Indian restaurants and I’ve come across quite a few of them in my trips to Dubai. And actually now in the UK we have a good range of places where you can go and find a really good, classic Indian or Pakistani meals,” he told Insider.
For staple ingredients at home to recreate authentic Indian dishes, Nasir believes putting thought into building a cupboard is crucial rather than relying on just two or three things.
“I would start with a really good fresh ginger and garlic paste. I think you should have a really good chilli powder – I use a milder version of it called the kashmiri chilli powder – which gives a nice bright color but is not as spicy or punchy as a normal chilli powder.
“Then you need to have a very good garam masala, which is made up of 10-12 spices,” he said.
In the restaurant’s newly-released cookbook, “The Dishoom Cookery Book,” Nasir recommends one of his favorite ones which you can buy off the shelf.
“I think making your own garam masala is not difficult like people think it is. It serves you really well because it adds that extra layer of complexity to the dishes which people sometimes don’t notice as obvious but it is always there and without it the dish is half as good, so I think garam masala is a key,” he said.
Nasir also tells people they should store whole Indian spices such as clove, peppercorn, and cardamom, and that green cardamom is the best version to use.
“I also keep something in addition to this, which is a really good quality saffron,” he said. “I’m a big fan of saffron, it’s my favorite ingredient.”