A city restaurant is championing authentic curry cuisine, writes Richard McComb .
From dawn ’til dusk, a bearded man stands in the heat at a busy roadside in Hyderabad, serving up goat biryani for five rupees a bowl.
He is rarely short of customers – the city has a population of more than eight million – and although he is occasionally lashed by monsoons and temperatures topping 40C, the biryani wallah remains at his post, rain or shine.
The hygiene standards might trouble British food inspectors, the cooked rice, prepared earlier at his home, sitting out in a huge metal tub throughout the day. But there can be no doubt about the popularity of the unfussy dish, packed with flavour and served with democratic zeal.
It’s a Rice-You-Like-It concept, traditional Indian food prepared as it has been for generations.
In the heaving subcontinent, the biryani seller is far from alone, like a grain of sand in the desert, competing for trade among the purveyors of pakora, aloo chaat, paratha, kebabs, bhajis, pani puri, samosas and dosas.
Compared with the banality of British “fast food,” India’s bustling street food culture is an intoxicating blend of tastes and textures and it has caught the eye of two of Birmingham’s top restaurateurs.
Jabbar Khan, the founder of Lasan in the Jewellery Quarter, and Aktar Islam, the restaurant’s inspirational chef, are at the leading edge of modern Indian cooking in the UK, combining classic styles with modern culinary interpretations and stylish food presentation. Keen to further their knowledge, the duo embarked on a whistlestop food tour of India to pick up new ideas and refresh their impressive kitchen repertoire.
The results of their three-week curry-finding mission, best described as a culinary passage to India, were showcased recently at a stunning nine-course dinner at Lasan.
The evening, one of the restaurant’s regular food celebrations, featured south Indian tiffin, kebabs, vegetarian snacks, kebabs, seafood, chicken, lamb dishes and desserts.
It’s nigh on impossible to list the highlights of the feast, such was the level of excellence, but if pushed I would heap particular praise on the exotic Keralan masala fish. A whole bass was marinated with curry leaves, red chilli and kokum (a coastal fruit) then wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted. The flesh was succulent and wonderfully aromatic.
A robust dish of khoye avadh was a stunning counterpoint, a Lucknowi mutton broth of neck mutton in a rich bone marrow and caramelised onion gravy.
The preparation of the food, as always at Lasan, was fastidious – one of the minced lamb kebabs was flavoured with no less than 26 spices – but the hard work and care was rewarded in the fabulous taste.
Lasan’s chefs will be giving visitors to Taste of Birmingham a flavour of their repertoire today and over the weekend in Cannon Hill Park. The award-winning restaurant is one of 17 taking part in the food festival.
At the Lasan kitchen, the taste-buds of people gathered in a municipal English park will be tantalised by the flavours Aktar and Jabbar have developed following their Indian Odyssey.
Add to this the fact that the duo are of Bengali origin and one gets an idea of why Birmingham is considered a culinary, as well as a cultural, melting pot.
During their voyage around India, Aktar and Jabbar checked out cooking styles in Chennai, Pondicherry, Kerala, Chattinad, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi.
Aktar says: “We wanted to refresh our minds, experience the culture first-hand and bring back new ideas.
‘‘As Asian as we are, we are very British and we miss out on the cultural elements of being Asian.
‘‘Indian food is so varied and there is so much to take in. Every region has its own specialities and its own style of cooking.
‘‘We wanted to speak to the guys who cook this food every day.”
The Hyderabad biryani seller used the local dum-style of cooking, in which the natural moisture of ingredients is exploited to the max to provide an intense flavour.
The cooking pot or dish is sealed and gently simmered, aiding the absorption of the spices.
“We bumped into him at about six o’clock in the evening but he had been there all day on the main route. Where there is traffic, there is
always someone who wants a quick bite. He cooked the food at home and plonked it out in the sun all day.”
In Pondicherry, they came across a woman making vegetable pakoras out of potatoes, aubergine and okra. Her husband was by her side, cutting up the veg, which she then deep fried in a batter of chick pea, rice flour, chilli, tumeric and salt. The finished snacks were lightly sprinkled with dry mango powder before serving.
Fish abounded in Kerala, with stalls selling pomfret, a flatfish, and mackerel. Aktar took time to quiz the street cooks, jotting down recipes in a book.
One of the marinades used by a trader on a beach – it incorporated chilli, tumeric, tamarind paste, garlic and salt – helped to inspire Aktar’s banana leaf masala fish.
It was on the same beach at night-time that he and Jabbar came across a fortune teller who used a parrot to predict the fate of passers-by.
Aktar recalls: “You tell the man your name, age and your father’s name. Then his parrots jumps out of the cage and pecks away at a pack of cards until he finds one he takes a liking to.
‘‘The parrot gives the card to the man and he tells your fortune. He told me to watch out for women. I can’t help it – it’s one of my weaknesses.”
All the action took place by the glow of lamps, families heading to the beach in the evening to cool down and catch the sea breezes.
“People were flying kites. You get the very rich and the very poor eating at the same roadside stall,” adds Aktar.
The informality of street food has been incorporated into Lasan’s second outlet, Lasan Eatery in Hall Green, where customers are encouraged to “pitch up” and tuck into snacks, dosas or a classic curry.
But the ideas behind the street food are also being applied to the more formal dining experience of Lasan’s signature restaurant off St Paul’s Square.
Aktar is a great fan of the F-word – “F” in his case, being for feast – but the 29-year-old curry maestro is also a fierce advocate of the A-word: that’s “A” for authenticity.
“Most of the curry in English curry restaurants is so different to real Indian food,” says Aktar. “What people refer to as Indian food is not Indian food.”
Take a jalfrezi, for example. It is a staple of so-called Indian restaurants up and down the land, sometimes good, often synonymous with bland gloop. Something got lost in translation when the marinated meat dish was adapted to English sensibilities.
Aktar says: “Jalfrezi in a typical Indian restaurant is pepper, onion, reduced onion gravy and green chilli. That is not a jalfrezi.”
His version uses a tomato-based sauce flavoured with pickling spices and scented orange: “There are roasted peppers, which are stewed in the gravy. The chicken is marinated in garlic, ginger, ground Kashmiri chilli, cumin, coriander and mustard oil. The chicken is seasoned with salt and roasted off in the oven, ‘feathered’ and placed on top of the sauce.”
The processes and practices mirror those used in India as closely as possible, with tweaks to satisfy modern sensibilities.
So ghee and saturated fats are replaced by oils, from corn, olive and rapeseed.
Ghee, essentially clarified butter, is often served with onions as a dish in India. “If you or I ate that, alarm bells would go off. ‘Heart attack. Heart attack. Heart attack,’” says Aktar.
He and Jabbar hope to revisit India later in the year, switching their focus further north, and are concerned about the growing influence of multi-national food brands. The times are changing.
“McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut are all moving in to India and I would hate to see the day where people choose McDonald’s over street food,” says Aktar. As we talk about the US-led food invasion, it is the only occasion the chef’s mood drops.
“It is quite upsetting. In the UK, we have seen the big brands come in and the independents go out and I would not like to see that happen in India.”
Neither would lovers of great curry in Birmingham.
* Taste of Birmingham continues today and over the weekend.
* For more information and details about tickets, go to http://taste.visitbirmingham.com