HT Brunch Cover Story: Festive binge with Nigella Lawson
On her recent visit to India, the international food show host and cookbook writer plied her guests with warmth, humour and a lot of comforting butterUpdated: Oct 20, 2019 01:36 IST
Nigella is a name synonymous with comfort food, stirred with great beauty, an adept pen and an astute sense of humour.
I met her before we embarked on a series of lunch and dinner engagements in Mumbai and Delhi, which she went through like a real pro: poised, perfect and professional. I was excited at the prospect of meeting her, but also a bit wary when I stepped into her suite in the old wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai. She strolled out in a pair of black sweatpants, black T-shirt, and sneakers and the kind of make-up that’s there but that you don’t really notice. No pretence. No show. I gave her a little gift box of Ks Kitchen conserves, and she asked like a little girl with big eyes, “Can I open it now?” I half expected her to open the tiny jar of Alphonso jam and stick her finger in for a quick taste. And I’m sure if we’d known each other better, she would have. We went through the questions I had prepared – nothing too personal, but all about food and her story. That’s what people paid 25K a pop to experience – Nigella the person. Food, I feel, was a bonus.
I brought up the topic of dinner, of course. “Oh, I’m going to revisit Noor Mohammadi and have their chicken hakimi again,” she said. “I had it last year when I was here and absolutely loved it. It’s a basic sort of place with cooking of exquisite complexity. The chicken is like tandoori chicken with rich, deep spices and more butter than you could imagine possible.”
For those not familiar with Mumbai, Noor Mohammadi is in the heart of Mohammed Ali Road in Bhendi Bazaar, little more than a hole in the wall and not a place you would expect a culinary superstar to visit! I was more worried about the state of her stomach the next day than with any social implications, but she appeared for the lunch event to a room full of admirers in the Taj’s iconic private club, Chambers, cool, calm and composed showing no signs of ‘Delhi belly’ or any other ailment.
“I cook a lot of dal, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that it’s authentic”
As she posed and chatted in a flowy red dress (I believe she was asked to wear the colour red for her Indian jaunt), she was at ease and comfortable. Her chef in the kitchen was overseeing the lunch preparations while we began an informal interview.
Nigella’s dinner and lunch feasts for guests at Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and at The Roseate hotel in Delhi brought us together for Q and As with the audiences four times. Ticketed at 25K per person the dinners included her elaborate menu, wines throughout the meal and an autographed copy of one of her books.
And one of the most frequently asked questions on Nigella’s culinary roadie weekend in Mumbai and Delhi was what she thought of Indian food and whether she was inspired by anything she saw or ate here. She began by talking about the wonderful flavours of pav bhaji “with all that butter…lovely…vada pav, unfeasibly light spiced potato patties fried crisp in gram flour batter,” which she admitted she might reinvent when she got back home.“l’ll do something in the oven…I love dal makhani too...more butter, and your breads, the flaky ones rolled and then flattened with butter or ghee. I love crisp naan, which is almost laminated with butter. Your flatbreads are something I admire.”
“I’m going to revisit Noor Mohammadi [in Mumbai] and have their chicken hakimi again”
She admitted that apart from these two trips to India (she’d visited India in 2017 for a holiday in Kerala and had spent a couple of days in Mumbai where she visited Mohammed Ali Road), her experience of Indian food has been mainly in London where the days of the generic “curry houses” are over, replaced now by cooking and stories from different regions of India. She mentions she loved Dishoom, the Bombay style café in London.
“Cooking is about memories,” was the heart of her conversations in both Mumbai and Delhi. “I use spices, not like you do, but for example every time I fry onions with coriander seeds, it reminds me of an Egyptian friend of mine because that’s how he started every dish,” she said. “I use cumin and thyme together a lot and I cook a lot of dal, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that it’s authentic.”
Her honesty is infectious. “I’m a greedy person. One of my most favourite things is bread and good butter. Butter for me is moisturising from the inside.”
“I’m a greedy person. One of my most favourite things is bread and good butter. Butter for me is moisturising from the inside.”
The menu over the two days of feasting was the same – beetroot hummus on pumpernickel, devilled eggs and Vietnamese chicken lettuce cups as pass-arounds. Turkish eggs from her book, At My Table, began the sit down dinner: perfectly poached eggs wobbling on top of a creamy garlicky yoghurt sauce and finished with browned butter and chilli. Nigella explained that this recipe came from a London restaurant where the chef was Danish, but she thought it might be apt to begin her India menu. In the main course, a simple dish of roast chicken was transformed into a dish of warmth and delight with bitter orange and fennel. “This is the first dish I cooked in my then new house. I love chicken and there was fennel in the garden and bitter Seville oranges were in season…. Every time I cook this dish it reminds me of those first days in that house,” she said.
Emphasising and re-emphasising that she is a home cook and not a chef, Nigella made the idea of home cooking and comfort food celebratory in some way. “I simply don’t have the skills of a trained chef. In fact, I’m quite clumsy in the kitchen,” she admitted. “Chefs have to work quickly and get perfectly presented food on tables within a given time frame. As a home cook, I can take my time doing mindless repetitive things like chopping and stirring. I think geniuses in the kitchen should be left alone to do what they do, but I don’t like mediocre chefs trying to attempt imitations.”
She is clear and articulate and this is where her Oxford education and her background as deputy literary editor of the Times way back when she was in her 20s, really manifests itself. “She is the perfect combination of good food and the right lineage,” said the retired newspaper baron Aveek Sarkar at dinner. Clearly a fan, he asked her several questions including one on cooking equipment!
The piece de resistance of both meals was the dessert. Her salted chocolate tart and summer pavlova drooling with freshly-squeezed passion fruit floored the audience.
“I love crisp naan, which is laminated with butter. indian flatbreads are something I admire.”
At The Roseate in Delhi, the invitee-only American Express-Evolve lunch and ticketed dinner at Chi-Ni with its open kitchen and battalion of chefs, won over the discerning Delhi palate. Nigella talked frankly and openly about her mother using her children as “child labour” to help her in the kitchen and said that her mother was an impatient cook who resented cooking, but was still a good cook and probably her first inspiration.
Answering questions on health, she said frankly, “butter and ghee were once considered bad for you. Now doctors are saying the opposite. I say eat everything in moderation.” When someone asked her what her guilty pleasure was, Nigella replied that she never felt guilty about eating anything. “If you find something pleasurable and it gives you joy, then you must not feel guilty.”
Although it is reported that Nigella had 94 per cent male audiences when she first started TV, her Delhi admirers were mainly women. Young women who wanted to be like her, the selfie women’s brigade, and an older woman who said, “it was a dream come true” to meet her. Nigella gave that lady a huge hug and a kiss.
“If you find something pleasurable and it gives you joy, then you must not feel guilty”
Nigella tirelessly hugged, advised and posed her way through three days over four events, book signings and dashes to the kitchen. She made time for young kitchen staff at both the Taj and The Roseate, giving them more of those precious hugs and smiles, and thanks at the end of all meals. Her dresses moved from red and flowy to figure hugging bright coloured prints, which showed off her assets without indiscretion. To say she was exhausted after the whirlwind culinary escapade would be an understatement. I know I was. And she did it all in high heels and make-up. I don’t see many men pulling that road show off!
But that’s Nigella.
Author bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is curated food tours.
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From HT Brunch, October 20, 2019
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