India 2013… As many of you will know during August I visited Calcutta with Curry Life magazine. We were celebrating curry and promoting the magazine, I was traveling with six other chefs, we were cooking lunch and dinner at the Hyatt Regency food festival. I landed in Calcutta having flown via Dubai, as I walked out of customs and entered the arrivals hall I was greeted by my driver. He was holding a board up with Hyatt Regency written on it and was dressed in a white jacket and chauffeurs hat. As we walked to the car we were immediately approached by a small child asking for some money. The child was no more than four – I knew I had arrived in India.!
My driver was extremely friendly and very professional; he welcomed me to Calcutta and was excited to show me various places of interest. I’d been traveling all night and with-in minutes of leaving the airport we were in the ‘real India’ I have read about, seen in documentaries and films and heard about from many different people. It was brilliant, my eyes were popping out of my head; everywhere I looked there was something to shock, something so totally out of this world and unusual to this Brit that had just flown in from the west. However much I saw on his trip and however strange it may have seemed, nothing really shocked me, I loved it, I embraced it and just went with it. The people are so friendly, they seem genuinely happy with their lives and they are hugely resilient. They don’t have material wealth; they barely have a home to live in or clothes to wear.
It was 8am, the monsoon rains had battered their homes for days and flooding was affecting the whole city. As we drove from the airport, I witnessed human resilience at its best, life was going on as normal, and people were catching the bus to work, cycling to work or taking one of the many Ambassador cabs. There were also many, many people setting up business on the streets, selling various foods, cleaning shoes, sewing and repairing clothes, carpentry, iron work, cutting hair, shaving faces or recycling rubbish. The list of jobs people were doing is endless. This may not sound unusual, these people were getting on with their lives, the conditions they had to deal with is what makes India so different but also so hugely interesting.
On arrival at the hotel we were greeted by armed guards, the car was given a full security check and we were cleared to enter. I was staying at the Hyatt Regency, a five star hotel with all the luxury any westerner would need. I was greeted by the hotel staff and all the team from Curry Life Magazine; they welcomed me to the hotel and Kolkata India.
Having settled in, I met with the other chefs and the festival team. The plan for the festival was to bring our very British curry to India and celebrate some of our favourite dishes in their motherland.
I was working with six other chefs; they all had Indian restaurants in the UK. My contribution would be to fly the British flag and cook classically British dishes; together we would share our passion for food with the locals of Calcutta, journalists, local chefs, restaurateurs and the British high commission from all over India. We wanted to celebrate Britain through food.
We cooked lunch and dinner for 10 days, chicken tikka masala, railway mutton curry and kofta vindaloo were a few favourite dishes from the team. The aim was to produce a different menu each day. The people of Calcutta have a huge appetite for sweet dishes; they were very interested in my English desserts. apple crumble, trifle and bread and butter pudding were received incredibly well, as was my Sunday lunch of roast lamb with cauliflower cheese.
The festival was a huge success and caused a great amount of media interest, we made front page news of all the national papers in India; had good coverage in the UK Sunday Times and even had a 10 minute slot on BBC news and Radio 4s today programme. The experience was brilliant and having received a warm welcome from all corners of the city, I was asked to cook a special dinner for one of India’s most successful businessman and his family. The dinner was a seven course tasting menu for 6 vegetarians. No pressure!
To be continued…