Recipes: Atul Kochhar on the secret to great vegetarian curries, his late dad’s lessons, and narrowly avoiding medical school

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ATUL Kochhar wants us to step away from shop-bought curry paste. “You honestly don’t need the paste in the supermarket – please don’t buy it, even if my name is on it!”

Besides – the trick to cooking a good curry from scratch, he believes, is simplicity. “Don’t go for very complicated recipes,” says the Indian Michelin-starred chef. “Complicated recipes are generally the creation of, sadly, chefs like me who want to look good and put in too many ingredients. Whereas if you ask any Indian mother or mother of the Indian subcontinent, she will tell you: four or five ingredients only.”

It’s why his new cookbook, Curry Everyday, is packed with shorter, easy-to-follow recipes, and with inspiration taken much further than just India – from Cambodia to Kenya, Afghanistan to the Maldives – and they’re all vegetarian.

The 52-year-old only eats meat twice a week, and when it comes to vegetables, his late father’s influence was huge. “I always say I have learned most of the cookery from my father, and a little bit from chef school. His way of spicing things and handling vegetables was quite unique. He was just a magician with flavours,” the dad-of-two says.

“He was an orphan. He lost his parents at a very young age and I think he had to learn cooking very young. I adored his way of cooking and I often try to copy it – most of the time unsuccessfully, but I do try.”

Kochhar was the first Indian chef to ever win a Michelin star, and is often credited with elevating Indian food to a fine dining level. He says it’s “very heart-warming to see” how people in Britain have embraced Indian-inspired food and made it part of their own culture. “I think more and more people cook and eat curry at home now than ever before.”

Immigrating to the UK in 1994, he says: “Wholeheartedly I have become ‘British-Indian’ and people asked me, ‘What’s your food?’ I’m proud to say I call my food British-Indian. [It] has grown very different from how my contemporaries are cooking in New Delhi or Mumbai. This is me, this is how I cook, this is what I love.”

Before he arrived in the UK, Kochhar says he was “pretty naïve” about food across the globe. “Growing up, the economics was such that you had to buy locally. India is a very large country, making food travel from one place to another was kind of unthinkable, to be honest, so you had to rely on what’s in season and locally available.”

But he says it “opened his eyes” to the agriculture of the UK. “I realised the great produce this country has as well. We may not be great at growing tomatoes and basil, but this country is great when it comes to root vegetables.” And these are perfect for vegetarian curries, he says. “Anything from carrots to turnips to parsnips, you name it, I experiment with all the combinations of the different types of vegetables we have in this country. I love it, I think it’s amazing. There’s fantastic cabbage and cauliflower as well.”

And when you cook veg in season, “Mother Nature does 80% of the job, and I only have to do 20%”.

So what does his 86-year-old mum (who still lives in his hometown in India) think of his food now? “She enjoys what I cook, but I often cook dishes she used to cook for me – and it’s a cheeky competition between mother and son. She still verifies dishes, she says, ‘You’re getting there, you’ll learn one day’,” he says, smiling.

His mum originally wanted him to be a doctor. “I always say as a joke, Indian families can be quite persuasive when it comes to the education of their children.” To appease his “strict” mother, he applied for medical school. “Sadly I got the placement, I was really hoping I wouldn’t get the place!” he laughs. Thankfully, his parents agreed he would be happier at cookery school.

Awarded his first Michelin star in 2001 at London restaurant Tamarind, he went on to open his own restaurant, Benares, where he won his second star. But his career hasn’t been without controversy – he had to deny he was Islamophobic in 2018 after sending a tweet to Priyanka Chopra about her TV show Quantico, claiming Islam had “terrorised” Hindus for 2,000 years. Kochhar apologised the following day and acknowledged his inaccuracy, and Chopra apologised for any offence caused by the storyline depicting a terror plot from Indian Hindu nationalists. But the incident resulted in Kochhar having to part ways with Benares and the JW Marriot Marquis hotel in Dubai.

“I never had any bone like that in me,” he says now, four years on, saying he had been shocked a “small mistake would land you in trouble”, and it was a “very tough” time for him and his family (he has two teenagers).

Kochhar has gone on to open more restaurants since (he currently has eight – the latest, Riwaz, opened in February). “I know who I am and what I’m made of, and I’ll stand again and work again and make it happen,” Kochhar says. “My quest to open more restaurants is an answer [to those] who took away my 18 years of hard work.”

His enduring success is down to expanding our perceptions of British-Indian food. “I was brave to break the boundaries, I didn’t see any culinary borders, they were quite blurred for me,” he says.

“I thought if Gordon Ramsay can do it, so can I – maybe I landed a Michelin star because of that. That helped me to elevate the food to where it is today.”

Curry Everyday by Atul Kochhar is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, priced £26. Photography by Mike Cooper. Available now. Below are three recipes to try at home…

MANGO AND TEMPEH CURRY

(Serves 4)

1tbsp sunflower oil

2 mangoes, halved, stoned and flesh cut away in cubes

200ml water

2tbsp palm or light brown sugar

500g tempeh or seitan, cut into bite-sized cubes

400ml coconut milk

8 baby tomatoes, quartered

Sea salt

Spring onions, chopped, to garnish

For the curry paste:

4–6 candlenuts or macadamia nuts

2 fresh red bird’s-eye chillies, coarsely chopped

3 shallots, chopped

2 thick lemongrass stalks, outer leaves removed and the stalks bashed and chopped

1 long, thin green chilli, coarsely chopped

Method:

First, make the curry paste. Put all the paste ingredients in a food processor and process until a fine paste forms, scraping down the side of the bowl as necessary. Alternatively, you can use a pestle and mortar. Heat a large wok over a high heat. Add the oil and swirl it around. Reduce the heat slightly, add the curry paste and stir-fry until it is lightly coloured. It’s important to cook the shallots at this point, and don’t stop stirring, because the paste can quickly burn. Add the mangoes and stir until all the pieces are coated in the paste. Stir in the water, sugar and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer just until the mangoes begin to soften. Add the tempeh, coconut milk and tomatoes, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for a further five to seven minutes until the tomatoes begin to break down and the flavours blend. Taste and adjust the salt, if necessary. Garnish with spring onions and serve.

CHERMOULA CAULIFLOWER

(Serves 4 as a sharing dish)

1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed and left whole

Sea salt

For the chermoula sauce:

3 garlic cloves, crushed

4tbsp olive oil

4tbsp runny honey

1tbsp ground toasted cumin seeds

1tbsp smoked paprika

½tsp ground black pepper

Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon

4tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

30–40g fresh coriander leaves, chopped

Slivered almonds, toasted, to garnish

Lettuce leaves on the side, to garnish

Method

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Fan 180°C/Gas 6 and line a roasting pan with baking paper, making sure the baking comes up the side of the pan. To make the chermoula sauce, combine the garlic, olive oil, honey, ground cumin seeds, paprika, black pepper, lemon zest and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice, then add about three-quarters of the coriander leaves. Place the cauliflower upside-down in the bowl and spoon over the chermoula sauce. Use your hands to rub the sauce all over the cauliflower, top and bottom, making sure it goes between the florets. Push any leftover sauce into the gap between the central core and florets on the bottom – you don’t want to lose any of that flavour. Transfer the cauliflower, right-side up, to the roasting pan. Pour over any sauce remaining in the bowl and cover with foil, pressing the foil around the cauliflower. Place in the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Uncover the pan and continue roasting for a further 25 minutes, or until it the cauliflower is tender and slightly charred. You should be able to slide a knife into the core easily. Sprinkle with the remaining coriander leaves, add the rest of the garnishes and serve.

PERSIAN PUMPKIN AND CHICKPEA CURRY

(Serves 3-4)

½ large pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into bite-sized cubes, about 400g prepared weight

Sunflower oil

Ground cinnamon

75g walnut halves

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 onion, chopped

7cm piece of cinnamon bark

1tsp ground cumin

1tsp ground turmeric

2 x 400g cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

100ml pomegranate juice

75g pomegranate molasses

½tsp salt

¼tsp ground black pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste, or a pinch of ground nutmeg

1 unwaxed orange, zested

About 500ml water, as needed

Maple syrup, optional

80g pomegranate seeds

Salt and ground black pepper

Chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander, to garnish

Method

Preheat the oven to 220°C/Fan 200°C/Gas 7. Put the pumpkin cubes on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Drizzle with sunflower oil and lightly dust with ground cinnamon, then shake the tray so all the cubes are well coated. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender and the tip of a knife slides through easily. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan, ideally non-stick, over a medium-high heat. Add the walnuts and toast, stirring often, until lightly browned. Leave to cool, then transfer to a food processor and process until finely ground. Set aside. Heat two tablespoons sunflower oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the garlic and onion and fry, stirring often, until the onions start to soften. Add the cinnamon bark and continue frying, stirring, until the onions are light brown. Stir in the cumin, turmeric and half a teaspoon ground cinnamon, and stir together for 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas, pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, salt, pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, stirring. Add the pumpkin cubes and ground walnuts and return the mixture to the boil, stirring until the stew thickens. Add the orange zest and stir in just enough water to get the thickness you like. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary, and if you think it’s too sour add maple syrup to taste. Stir in the pomegranate seeds and garnish with parsley before serving.

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