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Twist in the tale

I don’t quite believe in destiny but am I glad that Vivek Singh followed his heart and not in his father’s footsteps. Singh didn’t want to be an engineer like him, and no doubt surprised his parents when he told them he wanted to be a chef instead. But going by the success of his restaurants in London — especially Cinnamon Club in Westminster, which hopes to welcome its millionth guest this summer — it’s a decision that Singh is unlikely to rue.

Once you read the recipe in this column, you’ll know at once what kind of a chef he is. In one word, he is innovative. “I present the familiar dishes in a new way, thereby making people stop, notice and think about what they are eating,” he tells me. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

I certainly can’t argue with that. I have been going through his recipes, presented in a book called Cinnamon Club: Indian cuisine reinvented, published by Random House India (price Rs 899). He has written the book in collaboration with his colleagues, Abdul Yaseen and Hari Nagaraj. The recipes are so simple and yet so mouth-watering that you can spend a lifetime in the kitchen trying them out.

Take an appetiser that he presents with wat-ermelon, hoisin sauce and cashew. The recipe is so easy that you feel you’ve been cheated. He mixes watermelon cubes with red chilli powder and chopped mint and then refrigerates them. He whisks lime juice and hoisin sauce together, adds toasted sesame seeds, and sprinkles this on each cube. On top he puts a halved cashew.

What intrigues me is the way he changes a traditional recipe, giving it a touch that’s different but familiar. The chicken korma, for instance, is a dish that’s so commonplace that you tend to tire of it. But the korma that he presents in his restaurant is a flattened chicken breast that’s been filled with a spiced mixture of wilted spinach and apricot and then gently poached and finally seared on a hot pan. The breast is cut into two and comes on tiny khasta rotis.

“When one comes across the same type of dishes, the same names on menus and perhaps the same appearance and presentation for years, an element of ‘fatigue’ sets in which stops both the consumer and the chefs from really appreciating and enjoying their bit,” he says. “Both parties stop thinking or stop getting excited and the interaction or exchange stops.”

Singh, who earlier worked with the Oberoi group in many cities, including Calcutta, says he wants to focus on quality local ingredients, while welcoming experiments and innovation.

So when he cooks fish curry, he, having grown up in Asansol, does it the way the Bengali maachher jhol is cooked. But he substitutes the rahu with red mullet. Or when he sears aubergine steaks, he stuffs it with a spice mixture, the way one would with bharvan baingan, but presents it with a sesame tamarind sauce.

I find it intriguing that in an age when chefs are going back to their roots and focusing on old recipes and local ingredients, he prefers to experiment with the same recipes. “But I am doing the same thing,” he argues. “My recipes are all inspired by age-old traditional roots and recipes, and I cook with local ingredients. The only difference is that my ‘local’ changes depending upon the part of the world that I may be cooking in.”

Singh plans to open branches of Cinnamon Club, which celebrated its 10th year in March, in India but after he’s spread his tentacles in some other cities across the world. You may depend on it, he’ll follow his roots.

Yoghurt kabab with fruit chaat (serves 4-6)

Ingredients:

For the yoghurt patties:
• 1kg yoghurt hung in a muslin cloth overnight • 250g powdered roasted channa dal • 3 finely chopped medium-sized onions • 20g finely chopped ginger • 20g finely chopped green chillies • 5g shah jeera • 10g mixture of crushed cinnamon powder • 2 tsp salt • 1 tsp sugar • ½ a bunch of finely chopped fresh coriander stems • 2 tbs vegetable oil
For fruit chaat:
• 1 red apple • 1 pear • 1 guava • 1 tsp chaat masala • ½ tsp sugar • juice of ½ a lemon

Method

In a mixing bowl fold the hung yoghurt with roasted channa dal and refrigerate. Meanwhile sprinkle some salt on the red onion and keep in a warm place for 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a muslin cloth and squeeze to get rid of excess moisture. Mix the onions with the yoghurt and rest of the ingredients. Form patties of equal size and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan and sear the yoghurt cakes on both sides to a golden brown colour. For the chaat, cut all the fruits into even-sized dices. Fold in the rest of the ingredients and refrigerate. Serve with the yoghurt patties.

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