An interview with Nisha Katona

Nisha 3 COVER
Written by ZOE PERRETT

As a former barrister with no formal culinary training, Nisha Katona is in at the deep end with her first restaurant, ‘Mowgli’. Zoe Perrett discovers if it is indeed proving to be a jungle out there.

Indian cuisine is as steeped in history and tradition as it is spice. The richness of the culture from whence authentic fare comes, seasons it with something intangible, yet inimitable. But that surrounding mystery also serves to deter those who lack a connection to the country from making their own forays into Indian cooking; seeing it as something that will always elude them.

Nisha Katona won’t have any of that. Since achieving infamy with a series of heavily-nuanced, endlessly entertaining Youtube videos – co-starring her mother – openly splurging Indian kitchen secrets with gay abandon, she’s been on a one-woman mission to demystify and democratise the cuisine, opening it up to all-comers with equal dollops of wit and wisdom. And now she’s opened a restaurant.

Liverpool’s Mowgli sits proudly on ‘Bold St’; a road that’s surely the most appropriate location for a venue whose proprietor could hardly be called shy and retiring. The aim is to go big on accessible authenticity, with very traditional food served up with a big warm welcome – and even the full recipe to those who desire it.

One thing’s for certain – Indian food just got no-nonsense. Nisha, meanwhile, is still trying to make sense of a deliciously tumultuous and rather radical career change.

Nisha and Mum
You are a trained barrister – why do so many legal eagles turn to food?

The collective noun for barristers would definitely be ‘a glutton’. A forensic mind means you analyse everything – for me, [that was] every dish that I ate, and every principle behind it. This love for good food and the alchemy of the kitchen awoke my food writing alter-ego.

There are many misconceived myths about Indian food and cooking – which are you most keen to challenge?

The idea that every dish starts with garlic and onions, and the notion that everything comes cloaked in a thick homogenised sauce. I’d also like to stress the importance of good quality meat – spice is not a disguise.

10 ‘Indian kitchen’ staples… go!

Turmeric, chilli, garam masala, cumin – whole and ground, mustard seed, nigella seed, panch phoron, ground coriander, and a pressure cooker. I know nine of them are spices, but with one pan and this little armoury of spices you can go anywhere in the ‘currysphere’.

You found fame with your quirky, informative Youtube food and recipe videos. Which has proved the most popular?

‘How to make every shade of chicken curry’ – but my personal favourite is the clip that captures a trip around a lively Indian grocer.

You also host a ‘Curry Clinic’ on the radio. What are the most common – and strangest – queries you’ve encountered?

I once had an enquiry about tinned fruit cocktail curry which I took very seriously as it was prefixed with the words ‘My Indian friend once cooked me…’. I was also asked about aphrodisiac spices, and was most unsettled when my mum rang me with a list!

You and she are a noted Youtube double act. What are each of your culinary strengths and weaknesses?

My mother is punctilious, inflexible, and not one to approach other cuisines with an open embrace – so the Indian formulas she passes to me are unadulterated, pure and uncompromising: timeless and authentic. I, by contrast, am a lazy cook. I am a vehement believer in making the spices work for me and not vice versa. The finesse is shaved off in my kitchen – but my brutal and rudimentary curry techniques are eminently accessible and attractive to those who need to administer good curry, quickly.

…and who is the better cook?

There is not a dish that my mother cooks that I can cook better. I hate this about myself.

In Britain, we’re slowly shifting to recognise that there is no ‘Indian’ cuisine; rather, the country is composed of many dozens of distinct cuisines, plural. What’s your own style?

As Bengalis, we love fish, mustard oil and paste, the five-seed spice blend ‘panch phoron’, asafoetida, and white poppy seeds. Before chilli came to India, many used long pepper to add heat, but Bengalis used mustard.

Nisha Katona 1
Which other Indian states are you happy to have on your plate?

Gujarat for its cleanly-elegant, slightly-sweet, lightly-spiced vegetarian dishes; and Punjab for shamelessly pungent, heavy and rich dishes that make great use of ginger, garlic and onion – and are a pure culinary fiesta when one is ravenous.

What’s on the menu at Mowgli?

I chose the dishes that I am addicted to- which ultimately meant 20 dishes with only 8 meat dishes amongst them. The menu showcases stuff that goes on the hob once the guests have left: humble, undressed, light fare that is eaten in homes and on streets all over India.

For too long Indians have felt that westerners won’t take to these items, so putting them centrestage at Mowgli is a huge risk. A recalibration of expectations is required to relish lightly-spiced dishes like temple dal, tea-steeped chickpeas, and poppyseed potatoes, and lamb and bone marrow curry.

Which authentic dishes are you determined to convert ‘curryhouse’ fans to?

Pulses! Oft-seen in the West as the ignominious make-do food of avoidant hippies; but the very lifeblood of Indian cuisine, and the most eager-to-please of ingredients. With just a little teasing they create dishes that dance magic over every area of the tongue. A good dal is the flavour of an Indian mother’s love.

Nisha 2
Do you feel that offering equal amounts of vegan and meat-based dishes is a risky move?

Why did you choose to make the menu thus? I simply chose the best dishes I know, with no prior motive. It was a shocking moment when I tallied up. Commercial pressures dictate a meat-heavy menu. But it was almost as though the food of my ancestors subconsciously animated me to make it this way.

This is not a restaurant where the ‘(v)’ is an apologetic second best. I love how the presumption in India is that dishes are vegetarian, with all else referred to as ‘non-veg’. It overturns the balance that we have in the West.

What is your best-received dish at Mowgli?

That’s like choosing a favourite child! Bunny chow is a firm favourite – the mutton-curry-in-a-hollowloaf concept devised by Indian railway workers in South Africa. My head chef was raised on bunny chow, and there is something so endearing and charming about the dish – a beautifully tongue-incheek demonstration of Western restraint appropriating Eastern excess. It ticks all the boxes.

…and the best received when cooking to impress at home?

Lamb curry with bone marrow plums and anise. The best compliment any man every paid me was after eating this curry. He said it was what every man would want every curry to taste like.

When you come home, what’s your ultimate spirit-soothing, soul-nourishing, life-saving dish?

The dal which features as ‘temple dal’ on the Mowgli menu (see recipes) as it comes from the pressure cooker of God himself.

For exclusive recipes from Nisha Katona, check out Good Things magazine’s

Calcutta Cabbage Tangles

prawn curry Nisha Katona

Temple Dal

House Curry

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