Hustling it out with Heston: What happened when British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal got a taste of a Mumbai sabzi mandi
We took the celebrated Michelin star chef on his maiden trip to a bustling Indian vegetable market where he ended up frying bhajiyas at a roadside stall.Updated: Apr 28, 2019 16:48 IST
It’s one thing to escort celebrity chefs through the bustling bazaars of Old Delhi on toasty winter afternoons, but to trudge through a local vegetable market on a sweaty summer noon is a mean feat! More so when the superchef in question is the iconic Heston Blumenthal, who recently made his debut dinner for people in India and was here with his lovely wife Stephanie and doted-upon eight-year-old daughter, Luna.
Heston is often called a culinary alchemist and his restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, has bagged three Michelin stars and in 2005, it ranked No. 1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and made it to the fifth spot in the Good Food Guide 2018’s Top 50. Among his other restaurants are Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, in London and Melbourne, and The Hind’s Head in Bray. Both Fat Duck and Dinner featured six times in the The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in the last 10 years.
He is one of Britain’s best-known celebrity chefs: known for his scientific approach to cooking, the eight books he’s written, his many appearances on TV shows as a favoured guest, and his shelves full of culinary awards. Nonetheless, he wears an air of humility and cooperation.
In our air-conditioned car, as we set off to explore the vegetable market in Mumbai’s Vile Parle area, I tell him that I met his good friend, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, only a few months ago. Heston happily declares, “He’s family”.
Just a couple of minutes ago, he readily agreed to change out of his breezy tee and shorts into a shirt and trousers on our photographer’s request, and now he laughs: “My head is very sensitive to heat, so I’m not doing the ideal job. I can tell the temperature of every room by what my head does. On British national radio once, when the presenter asked me the temperature of the room and I said it was 19.5 degrees, he put a thermometer into the room and it was indeed 19.5 degrees!”
The first impression
This, however, is not Heston’s first visit to India in summer. He still vividly recalls visiting the Capital about 10 years ago when the mercury soared to 37 degrees when he arrived at half-past-two in the morning. “And it got to 48 degrees the day I was in the kitchen,” he says. “I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but they had turned the extractor fan off because it was noisy for the cameras. That raised the temperature to nearly 60 degrees, and it was so hot that the chefs’ paper hats disintegrated as though they’d been dipped in water!” he adds.
He contrasts this with the vibe in Beijing where he was filming for Peking Duck. “The weather was overcast and the people were dressed in grey work suits. But when we landed in Delhi it was super energetic and busy,” he says, fondly remembering his trip to the famed old spice market where he was amazed to see people walking with sacks on their backs, a chimpanzee appear in a corner and then a cow walk down the road – all at once.
“I love the warmth and comfort that sharing an Indian meal offers”
“One minute I got the smell of something rotting, the next minute we passed by someone selling a big pile of flowers and I remember having my first paan. It had some tobacco in it as well, but the explosion from the floral notes, the cardamom and the saffron was quite something. Outside my body the smell was not so nice but inside, my body was on fireworks. The contrast was amazing and that was my first impression of India,” he says.
In an earlier interview, Heston mentioned his preference for street food over restaurant fare. “I’ve spent my life on the fine nuances of food and if I go to a very accomplished restaurant, it can be a very wonderful experience but it’s a long time, three hours minimum. And that’s not something you do very often, and I am at an age and a stage in my life where I prefer more simple cooking,” he says.
Tracing the desi connect
Heston had his very first Indian dish over 40 long years ago when, at the age of 10, he was living with his parents in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about 45 minutes from London’s West End. There’s quite a big Indian community there, but it was at a Wycombe curry house that he had chicken korma.
- Indian dish: Chicken korma
- Ingredient: Tamarind
- Chef: Alain Chapel
- Street food: Tandoori roti
- Dessert: Ice cream
“I’ve grown up with British curry and British curry has grown up with me because when we were young we were not used to eating chillies. So when we start eating a curry, we start with the mildest one and therefore, it was the chicken korma for me and I still love it,” explains the chef. And this is precisely the way he intends to initiate his other daughter, one-year-old Shea, to Indian food.
It’s tough to get Heston to pin-point his favourites though. So, when the question of his favourite Indian spice comes up, he’s quick to retort with, “I don’t have a favourite food, I don’t even have a favourite pizza. Sometimes you want a pizza in Rome and at other times in Naples. The beauty of food is our own relation with it – there’s no wrong or right to food.”
“[On My First Visit To India] It was 37 degrees celsius. They turned off the extractor fan in the kitchen for the cameras, and it became 60! And the chef’s paper hats disinegrated”
But we manage to get him to pick his favoured Indian restaurants in the UK. Over the years it’s been Maliks, but he says he also really likes Gymkhana and recently had a really good dinner at one of the oldest Indian restaurants in the UK, Veeraswamy on London’s Regent Street.
Victorious, I urge him to pick between sweet and savoury. He gives in. “I don’t like sweet desserts but I love a well-made ice cream. I’m generally a savoury person, though in the kitchen it’s easier to be creative with desserts.”
Masterchef in Mumbai
Heston’s really excited to whip up a feast for food connoisseurs in Mumbai and Delhi at the Marriott for their Masters of Marriott – a food and beverage programme where some delicious culinary experiences are offered by some of the best chefs in the world.
A day before the dinner in Mumbai, he’s happy to go vegetable shopping and takes the vendor’s seat to browse through fresh green chillies and okra amongst other veggies, before heading to Sahar Road, where hawkers churn out hot, crispy bhajiyas.
The masterchef arms himself with a large ladle, and gets behind the giant karahi to turn out a fresh batch of bhajiyas with the precision of a scientist!
HT Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi conducted an informal chat with Heston Blumenthal at the dinner at JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity
Back in the car, he tells us how much he’s enjoying the food in Mumbai. “In Indian cuisine the use of spices is so much more complex than in French cuisine, where a classical French chef needs just three or four spices,” he says and reveals how he tried cooking his first Indian dish at 14, which was a “very badly-cooked naan bread”. No wonder that’s what he wants to learn from Indian chefs this time.
What he loves most about Indian food…well it’s no one dish in particular, but the warmth and comfort that sharing an Indian meal offers. “Sharing as opposed to the rigid structure of a tasting menu is what I like the most. You use your fingers and that has a warmth to it. The smell of naan or rice being made is cosy and satisfying – it is truly nourishing,” he says.
Now his chicken tikka masala recipe is quite a hit. So would he tweak his dishes to suit the tastes of his guests? “I used to stick to my beliefs up until 20 years ago, but now everything is changing. My chilli or salt threshold might be different to yours, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong in tailoring recipes to suit different palates,” feels Heston.
“I’m generally a savoury person, though in the kitchen it’s easier to be creative with desserts”
And yes, he has been inspired by an Indian chef too. Not a celebrity chef, but a participating one in a cooking competition. When Heston was asked to be a judge for the Roux Scholarship for upcoming professional chefs in the UK in 2006, he met Pravin Sharma. “When we were marking the work of the chefs who made it to the final round, Pravin’s technique, where he heated a piece of charcoal in butter and black salt and infused it in a dish, amazed me. He won the competition and chose to work at The Fat Duck, but lost his life battling leukemia the following year,” says Heston.
Of course, he wants to come to back and explore the mountains and rivers in India and is also fond of Sadhguru and his writings.
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From HT Brunch, April 28, 2019
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First Published: Apr 27, 2019 23:04 IST