The Queen of Indian food

I was at a party last weekend to celebrate Camellia Panjabi’s MBE (a British award that is roughly equal to our Padma Shri), presented to her earlier in the day at a ceremony at the Delhi High Commission. The party itself was at the Taj Mahal Hotel and was attended by many of Camellia’s old friends and colleagues (Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Martand Singh, Rakesh Thakore, Bim Bissell, Ishaat Hussain, Navin Chawla, Aroon Purie and Priya Paul, among others). The hosts were Ranjit Mathrani and his wife Namita (Camellia’s sister) who are partners with Camellia in the massively successful restaurants they run in London. A good time was had by all and the evening ended with Harish Salve taking over the microphone and belting out old Cliff Richard songs. (Had you any idea he sang so well? I certainly did not).

One of Camellia’s achievements was her success in persuading north Indians that there was more to south Indian food than idlis

Ranjit made a brief speech and then asked me to talk about Camellia’s achievements in the Indian hotel industry. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with Camellia’s career – she crops up in Rude Food every two months or so – but I was not sure what to say about her. Should I focus on her phenomenal contribution to India’s hotels? Should I talk about how she practically invented hotel sales and marketing in India? Or should I laud her for her gastronomic achievements?

In the event, I think I made rather a bad job of trying to combine everything. But I began by saying that there were two ironies to the evening. The first was that we were celebrating an award given to Camellia by the Queen of England. I have no doubt that she has done much for the British culinary scene. But surely her contributions in India are far more substantial? And yet there has been no official recognition in her own country.

The second irony was that though we were meeting in one of the hotels that Camellia conceived and built, she no longer has any connection with the Taj, a chain that she and a core team of key executives transformed into the country’s finest hotel company.

It’s hard for the younger generation brought up in this age of globalisation and liberalisation to conceive of how different India was in the 1960s when Camellia came down from Cambridge and applied to join the Tata Administrative Service. In those days most large companies were run entirely by men and women were not expected to rise up the corporate ladder. It is to the credit of the Tatas that they hired her on merit, regardless of gender. It helped that at the interview when she was asked whether she would have difficulty coping with the demands of the job, she pointed out to the nice old Parsi gentleman who was interviewing her that she could actually fire a gun which is more than most Tata executives could manage.

Turning point: Camellia and her then boss Ajit Kerkar cleaned up the Taj Bombay, and persuaded JRD Tata to let them open a new wing on the site of the old Green’s Hotel

After a stint with Tata Oil Mills, Camellia ended up at Indian Hotels, then no more than a company that managed Bombay’s Taj. And that hotel was a complete mess.

Air India’s Bobby Kooka has written that when he once asked JRD Tata why he did nothing about clearing up the mess at the Taj given how obsessive he was about Air India, JRD replied, “Because I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Camellia and her then boss Ajit Kerkar cleaned up the Taj, and persuaded JRD Tata to let them open a new wing on the site of the old Green’s Hotel. (At one stage the Tatas were considering handing the hotel to Hilton which planned to demolish the building). When the new wing succeeded, Kerkar and Camellia had the courage to expand into Goa, which the Taj created as an Indian destination entirely on its own. Along the way, they had also taken over the management of the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and the Lake Palace in Udaipur, transforming them into the world’s most famous hotels.

Big step ahead: The Taj became a national chain when the Delhi Taj opened on Man Singh Road in 1978
But the Taj only became a national chain when the Delhi Taj opened on Man Singh Road in 1978. The hotel was an instant success, eclipsing the Maurya which opened at around the same time, ending the hegemony of the Oberoi and pushing the Ashoka into a second-ratedness from which it has never recovered.

Much of the credit for these achievements goes to Kerkar but I doubt if he could have done it without Camellia. The hotels got their character from Camellia’s vision and the marketing campaigns she launched positioned the Taj as the country’s leading luxury chain. While other hotels seemed faceless and international, it was Camellia who ensured that the Taj seemed determinedly Indian. In the Seventies, when India was not noted for luxury, this took considerable courage. But Camellia also found the perfect market niche for the Taj: the best of Indian hospitality, and the synthesis of the finest that this country could offer.

Until Camellia came along, Indian hotels were not known for their food. It was the Taj that changed all that. Shamiana, the coffee shop at the Bombay hotel, was the first to put things like pao bhaji on the menu. And that hotel was the first to break away from the eggs-and-waffles formula and to offer idlis and dosas on the breakfast menu. When Machan opened in Delhi in 1978, it was Camellia’s idea to keep the prices low so that younger people could sample the hotel – one reason why the old Machan still evokes so much affection in people of my generation.

Hot Plate heaven: The Golden Dragon was India’s first Sichuan restaurant and it changed the way in which Indians looked at Chinese food

Of Camellia’s many gastronomic achievements, two stand out. In 1972, she went to a restaurant called The Red Pepper in Hong Kong and discovered that she loved the spiciness of the food. Till then, most of us had no experience of Sichuan cuisine but Camellia hired the manager and two chefs on the spot for a restaurant she would open in Bombay. This was easier said than done. The Tatas were not keen but she managed to get JRD on her side. Then the Reserve Bank would not give permission till ultimately the Taj petitioned Indira Gandhi to intervene.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Golden Dragon was India’s first Sichuan restaurant and it changed the way in which Indians looked at Chinese food. The
House of Ming which opened in Delhi in 1978 was even more influential. Consequently, the only Chinese food that most Indians will now eat is hot and includes fiery red sauces. Some of this has been bastardised to the extent that no Chinese person will agree to eat the rubbish that is served up in many Indian Chinese restaurants. But the starting point was Camellia’s visit to The Red Pepper. So when we talk of Punjabi Chinese food, we should remember that it is actually
Panjabi Chinese and that Camellia is the mother of Indian Chinese cuisine.

A second and equally substantial achievement is the Taj’s success in persuading north Indians that there was more to south Indian food than idlis and sambar. It was Camellia who pushed the Taj to explore the cooking of India’s west coast: Goa, Mangalore and Kerala. It was her love for the peppery hotness of Chettinad food that took the cuisine national. Because few restaurants in the south served the real thing, Taj chefs were despatched to private homes to learn how to cook the best dishes and to steal ancient family recipes. These days nearly everyone knows what an appam is or how a Mangalorean gassi should taste. But till the Taj took the plunge in the 1980s, the food of the south remained restricted to the south.

Gathering stars: Along with sister Namita, Camellia now runs three of London’s best Indian restaurants: the Michelin-starred Amaya (above), Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy’s

I could go on. In 1982, the Taj, led by Camellia, opened The Bombay Brasserie in London, broke away from the flock wallpaper formula of Indian restaurants in England and made Indian food trendy. Only Camellia would have had the guts to serve sev puri as a starter at a top London restaurant. Then, there’s 50 Great Curries of India, Camellia’s recipe book, which is probably the best-selling international Indian cookbook of all time. There is her love of Far Eastern food which led to the opening of Bangalore’s Paradise Island in the Eighties and introduced Indians to the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

And I haven’t said anything about her second, post-Taj chapter. Along with Ranjit and Namita, she now runs three of London’s best Indian restaurants: the Michelin-starred Amaya, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy’s. And there are (at last count) seven Masala Zone restaurants where you get bhel, undhiyu, khichri and wonderful Kerala curries at astonishingly low prices.

At the party to celebrate her MBE, Camellia was somewhat overwhelmed by the praise. But when she spoke, she did say that she had a dream. And that dream was to prove to the world that Indian cuisine is as sophisticated and as advanced as French, Japanese, Thai or any other. We should be proud, she said, to be Indian and to be inheritors of such a rich legacy.

She’s right of course. And her career demonstrates quite how right she is. That’s why Camellia Panjabi is the queen of Indian food, a woman who will always be a legend in all our lunchtimes.

Going global: Camellia and Ajit Kerkar took over the Lake Palace in Udaipur, transforming it into one of the world’s most famous hotels

From HT Brunch, March 3

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