Brace yourselves. Liverpool’s curry evangelist Nisha Katona is about to blow the lid off everything we thought we knew about our favourite dish…
“Food became our strongest force for race relations. Korma became the Kofi Annan of Skem”
Nisha Katona: “My parents, Indian Hindu doctors, came over to Britain – 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, onions were sold by the half in a bag of barley (for soup) and turmeric was peddled in pharmacies like some filthy yellow narcotic.
Some of my earliest memories are of being firebombed, 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. We want you to like our food. We love that you might love our food. There it is – raw neediness manifest in the form of a meaty Madras.
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 at a friends house and my mother was asked to collect me just before lunch was served. This cut my mother more than any far-right turd through the letterbox. How could one not want to feed a guest, even more so a child? This is how we Indians show love. Deep down I must feel that I may not have enough personality to sustain a friendship, but damn it, I do have enough garam masala.
It is a fact little known that, most of the Indians who could afford a ticket to come to live in the west, could afford chefs at home. Hence, many first generation immigrants could not cook. Those that could were more interested in turning their children to the professions than teaching them the culinary ropes. See, the corollary of all of this is that curry making is a dying art in the West! Many of my cookery students are second generation Indians who want to capture their ancestral kitchen secrets before they die with the first generation. This is why I became a curry evangelist!
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.
The next day, I began writing a book based on the formula. The aim was to demystify curry making; to lift the veil on ancient kitchen formulas, for Brits, who have so lovingly embraced the dish.
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. I’m sick of them describing long lists of ingredients, a bewildering timberyard of spices, days of prep, a day to shop, the weight you can actually lose in stress before you even start to cook the damn thing. 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 bastardised and 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 still have a day job so I’m going risk giving it a go. I want to bring utterly authentic Indian Street Food and homespun dishes to Liverpool and I pray that this city will get it. London does. We will not be left behind.
Mowgli Street Food is built around the idea of ‘chat’ – which means ‘to lick’. Dirty, lush, lip smacking finger and plate licking. It is almost Indian tapas. Small plates of explosive, virtuosic flavours. I’m not talking about chilli heat but about the sweet tang of tamarind, the zing of coriander, the gruff citrus wake up call of roasted cumin, the deeply savoury crunch of Indian bread bombs. Cool, edgy, twisted, uber-sensory Indian street food is what Mowgli is all about.
The food scene in the Bold Street area excites me. Yes, it’s 20 years late but it is following the Soho model. Independents are the organic foundations of our increasingly concrete, homogenised cities. I’m utterly crestfallen that this homogenisation of Liverpool is not fully grasped and overturned by the top end of the city.
Commercial pressures made the journey towards Mowgli Street Food almost unattainable. It is impossible for a small independent like me, to go head to head in rent competition with the big, deep frying, sugar coating, transfat loving chains. But I really feel that its time that Britain owned the curry it so loves. This is the stuff of Indian homes and the streets of Calcutta. Brace yourselves, come, chat, chill, chat…”
69 Bold Street, Liverpool
Photos by Pete Carr / Peter Goodbody