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Wine & Dine
June 06, 2016

Chef Atul Kochhar On NRI

Text by Shirin Mehta

He talks about his early food experiences, his cuisine and returning to India after 22 years…

Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar’s new restaurant at Mumbai’s BKC, called NRI, brings a new ‘Not Really Indian’ dining concept to the city. The base taste is essentially that of Indian food. The country’s inhabitants have been migrating to other parts of the world for the last couple of centuries and the eatery celebrates the cuisine of this diaspora. Roti canai, pepper crab, Caribbean goat masala with buss up shut roti, Mombasa zeera chicken or paneer, South African bunny chow, Sri Lankan potli and South African piri piri chicken wings all find their way on the menu.

This is a far cry from Chef Kochhar’s innovative modern Indian cuisine that won him Michelin stars initially for Tamarind and then for Benares, both in London — an accolade that he has retained. The Mumbai space, conceptualised by Andy Lampard from the UK and executed by architect Udayan Bhatt, is large, airy, full of light and reflects a touch of colonial nostalgia with Victorian lamp posts, a chic thela or food cart and seating that is a throwback to railway stations of the 1920s.

The food is the star. The dishes look familiar, taste familiar and then, unexpectedly, an unusual flavour springs up — a pleasant surprise that keeps you guessing. Nothing out of place, nothing forced, just a subtle variation on the palate. Head chef Rohit Nair, who worked last in the Ambani family kitchens, makes sure that the vegetarian offerings are scrumptious and relates the back story of some of the dishes on the menu. The dalim shakkarkandhi, roasted sweet potatoes sprinkled with pomegranate kernels and yoghurt foam is delicious as are the popiah rolls, rice paper rolls stuffed with bean sprouts, papaya and red chillies. Of the non-vegetarian starters, the chicken liver masala on toast is recommended. From the Robata Grill, the mamak lamb chops are particularly good, marinated in soy, lemon and tomato. The highlight of the meal is the bunny chow — we have the non-vegetarian version, a special curry from Durban, served in bread. For the diehard traditionalist, the India Waale section offers delicious butter chicken, dal makhani, biryani and assorted breads, amongst other dishes. The menu is short and well planned and will change regularly.

The cuisine at NRI….
“It is the food of the Indian diaspora; a celebration of the lives of Indians everywhere. Take, for example, katsu curry in Japan. There is nothing like that in India. But the essence of it remains curry powder. In Malaysia, Indian soldiers who stayed back after the war became known as the Chettiar community. Their malai kormas and roti canai have Indian names but are quite different to the palate.”

Do you serve traditional Indian cuisine at Benares?
“In London, I was cooking Indian food as traditionally as I could, but with my insistence always for fresh and local ingredients. Using British ingredients, the food started tasting different. It became British Indian food and by default, the taste of my food changed. And, since presentation has always been my forte, it began to look different as well.”

Your early experiences…
“My family came from Punjab but I was born and bred in Jamshedpur. Cooking Punjabi food in Bihar was quite a challenge. My grandfather had been a baker; my father had a catering business, so they were very open to my choice of profession. I actually sat through a medical exam and got through…but then switched to the hospitality industry. Out of interest, I began researching recipes of the diaspora.  My work with the BBC took me all over the world — Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Mombasa, Zanzibar, the Caribbean Islands…. I have pretty much covered the entire British Empire!”

Why Mumbai now?
“To come to India after 22 years has not been a financial decision but rather, an emotional one. Things are changing and I want to be a part of that change. Indians have become more accepting of different cuisines and ingredients. I feel it is my calling to come to India….”

Are you in touch with the fraternity of chefs setting up eateries in India?
“We have a very sweet brotherhood. We have all pushed boundaries in so many ways. Chef Gaggan (Anand) has managed to do what none of us could…. Chef Floyd (Cardoz) is a respected chef in New York…. We are all trying to bring Indian food to the 21st century.”

How did you feel when you received your first Michelin star?
“It was a fantastic feeling. I never thought Michelin stars were for Indian chefs, so I was really surprised. But as I always say, it is the team that gets the star, from the doorman to the receptionist, not just the cooks and chef…. I always thought that I would move on after my stint in London, but the Michelin star changed everything.”

You have cooked for Prince Charles…
“He is a great human being, a huge personality, a fascinating orator — very passionate about nature and about improving the lives of young people. I was invited to work for The Prince’s Charities, and was very touched. I give my services by cooking for fundraisers rather than working on a daily basis. I have cooked for him several times. His palate is very simple, he likes good flavours, not at all complicated, eats earthy food and is happy to enjoy the meal — and compliment you at the end!”

Favourite restaurant in Mumbai….
“Mahesh Lunch Home is my fix every time I come here.”

Biting the backstory

Bunny Chow: the community of Indians that migrated to South Africa were called Baniyas. At that time, blacks and browns were not allowed to go to store fronts to buy food. There was a Chinese man who ran a food shop and was not allowed to sell to Indian workers. So, he scooped out some bread, poured some bean stew in, wrapped it in paper and passed it through the back door. Later versions also incorporated meat and goat but the beans are still the best.

Caribbean Goat Curry: Indians could not add coriander to their curry since it was not available there and so they added thyme and parsley and that became the tradition.

Buss Up Shut Roti: It actually means ‘busted up shirt roti’ named after mothers who shouted at their young sons who rolled up their new clothes and threw them in a corner! This became a way to describe the roti.

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