With four award-winning Pan-Indian restaurants in London and a number of awards and much-loved cookery books under his belt, Spice Man Cyrus Todiwala has certainly come a long way since his days as an Executive Chef for a luxury hotel group in India. He makes regular appearances on shows including Saturday Kitchen and Daybreak with his friend, Tony Singh as one half of The Incredible Spice Men.
I always think to myself 'how can I do something different this time', that's how you can create something completely out of the ordinary
Cyrus took time out to talk to us about his favourite Indian flavour pairings, midweek meal inspiration, best London kebabs, pet hates, and what it was really like to cook for the Queen.
You've achieved so much already in your career. What's been the highlight and what's been your biggest challenge?
There have been so many highlights... My most recent highlight is definitely cooking for The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh at their Diamond Jubilee dinner – which was also my biggest challenge! Of course it was challenging because of the pressure – it's very intimidating as you're in the spotlight and everyone is watching – but I also had to find the venue, then the Palace had to investigate the venue to make sure it was appropriate, and then there were a lot of hoops to jump through, like getting council approval.
You’re well known for blending traditional Indian spices and flavours with more unexpected ingredients. On your show The Incredible Spice Men you have featured some really interesting and unusual flavour pairings, such as chocolate and cardamom mousse, and pulled pork with cinnamon, do you have a favourite unexpected flavour combo?
At the moment I'm busy working with Macsween, the haggis manufacturer, to put together my Burns Night menu for January 2017. I want to make something really special so we're planning on making a haggis sausage which is going to be cooked Indian style. I'm still working out the exact recipe but there will be two very different flavours in there, so I'm currently trying to see how I can blend the two flavours to work well together, and create a Scot-Indian dish. I love trying new things and discovering the unexpected. For example, we like to use star anise and liquorice in ice cream, or caramelised butter and almonds. When people try it they think 'wow, that's strange', but then after a few mouthfulls the flavour erupts in their mouth and they start to really enjoy it. We experiment all the time!
How would you describe your recipes in three words?
Uncomplicated, accessible, and with easy ingredients. That is my primary concern; that people can easily find the ingredients that I include in my recipes.
Where do you find your recipe inspiration?
The best inspiration comes through trying new things. For example, I made a recipe for haggis soup by using wild bird. The haggis was made with wild grouse, pheasant and partridge, and we made that into a cream soup. I always think to myself 'how can I do something different this time?'.
Asda use a Kent supplier who grows over 100 different types of chilli including Naga and Scotch bonnet. What you can tell us about these chillis and how to cook with them?
I used to have a large collection of chillies from all over the world. Even now I still have about 85 different chillies in jars somewhere, just to understand those chillies better, and how each chilli works with the food. Often, when you add one of those chillies it's too strong and all you can taste is that chilli. Similarly, if you use a particular type of Scotch bonnet or a Naga in a main dish, the chillies will overpower the flavour completely. You can lick a Scotch bonnet and know it's a Scotch bonnet! You can taste a Naga and know it's a Naga. In the old days you would use them to camoflage food if it didn't taste very good or was going off, as the chillies would mask the flavour. I think these chillies are instead much better suited to condiments, rather than the main meal. You could use these chillies in a light chutney, to add just a bit of zing.
What are the most unusual chillies that you’ve come across, and do you have a favourite?
I love the finger chillies that come from India and Kenya, they really give the best flavour – but they can be very hard to find in the UK. I also love Kashmiri dried chilli – that to me is the absolute king as it gives the best flavour, the best colour, and the least amount of heat. Kashmiri is not very easy to find, but you will find it here and there, sold in small jars.
Who does the cooking at home and what does a typical midweek meal look like in your house?
Cooking is mostly done by the boss – my wife! She does most of the cooking, she's brilliant. Of course when we have visitors over then we share the load - I'll do some and she'll do some. She trained as a chef – that's how we met. When my wife makes dinner, it's usually something very simple and quick as we both tend to come home late from work. She'll just marinate something very quickly and let it cook in the oven whilst rustling up a salad or boiling some rice. But it can be hard to find the time after a long day. Last night we just ordered a pizza and had it at home.
You didn’t take after your parents and instead decided to pursue your own passions and dreams. Do your sons have an interest in cooking, and do you think they will follow in your footsteps?
Both my sons have a passion for cooking but they definitely won't be following in my footsteps! Our youngest son (26) has grown a very deep passion for growing chillies – he is completely obsessed! We have 10 different kinds of chilli plants in the house at the moment, which he's trying to clone and cross-breed. My other son (30) runs our cafe in Victoria Park. He's a designer, so he designs our website and other things for us as well, such as the branding, as well as running the cafe. He's very involved in the business.
You must sometimes enjoy a break from cooking – where do you like to eat and go out in the UK?
In London we have a local favourite called Green Papaya in Hackney, near where we live. We'll end up there more often than not! We do try and visit a few top end restaurants every now and again. Last week we ate at our favourite Chinese restaurant, Min Jiang, in the Royal Garden Hotel in London. We also have a local Turkish place, Efendi, that we love to go to, especially when we leave work late and we haven't eaten, then we'll order one of the kebabs, and grill it at home.
Are there any current food trends that you love?
I'm really enjoying the rise of street food culture. It's a great trend as it gives people honest wholesome food at a reasonable price and in a location that's convenient for them.
Feel inspired? Try one of our Indian inspired recipes.
Book a table at Cyrus Todiwala's Cafe Spice Namaste for a lunch time between 15th October and 15th December 2016 and be entered into a prize draw to win a meal for two with wine or beer at Café Spice Namaste. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to make your booking and quote “spice raffle” to enter.
(Image by Jay Rowden)