Take the spice route

Take the spice route

Chefs Tony Singh & Cyrus Todiwala are (re)introducing spices to the British.Asha Chowdary interacts with the duo about the culinary show in which they travel across the UK to spice up the fare...

Duck eggs on toast with a pinch of cumin? A plate of treacle pudding with a dash of lemon? A golden Sunday roast with a drizzle of honey? Which one will it be? When you invite Tony Singh and Cyrus Todiwala into your home via the small screen to pep up your meals, get ready for a multitude of recipes and an incredible journey down the spice route. It could be an explosion of fragrance that a handful of star anise brings to a dish or the kick of a few peppercorns or the aroma of fennel — these two chefs know how to create magic with their spices.

British, meet spices

Catch them on television this month on TLC in their new series, The Incredible Spice Men, where the award-winning chefs of Indian origin will demonstrate their wizardry. They are on a mission to wake Britain up to the versatility of spices. As they travel across the British Isles, they add their own spicy twist to some of the classic and much-loved dishes of Britain. 

Ask them about their food mantra and they like to say, “For too long our spices have sat unused and dusty in cupboard shelves, when just a mere sprinkling of cumin, a dash of allspice or a handful of star anise has the power to turn our everyday food into an explosion of taste and smell.”

During an exclusive interview with the two chefs, it was clear that they believed they could create wonders with spice. “We wanted to take away the fear of spice that the British seem to feel and show them that spices can be used in their traditional foods,” explains Cyrus.

Adds Tony, “When we showed them how to combine spices, the people of Britain loved it. For instance, we used cinnamon and chilli in vanilla ice cream, mixed strawberries with pepper and vanilla, combined pork with ginger and laced a chocolate tart with cardamom — and they loved it all. Spice transfers itself to any cuisine — roasts, pies, pork and goes well with each dish. It was an eye-opener for them when they understood this.”

As for how they got into the profession, Tony says that he started cooking because he loved being around food. “My mother was a great cook, and I found that food makes people happy,” he says. Born and raised in Scotland, Tony began working in many of the country’s top kitchens, from The Balmoral Hotel to the Royal Scotsman train. Oloroso, one of his many restaurants, has won numerous awards, and was named by a well-known newspaper as ‘the hippest place to eat and drink in Edinburgh’.

Cyrus, who is Mumbai born, worked at a luxury hotel there before moving to London in 1991, where he opened his acclaimed Spice Cafe Namaste, which is currently one of the UK’s 100 top restaurants. Today, he is the author of three cookbooks. He also cooked a banquet for the Queen and Prince Philip during the diamond jubilee celebrations.

“But it was my first restaurant that was complete education for my customers. I had to teach people the Indian path and how great spiced food really is,” says Cyrus.Tony’s favourite spice has always been star anise, which he finds very fragrant and sweet, while Cyrus prefers cardamom. According to them, the must-have spices in any cupboard are cardamom, pepper and cumin. They are quick to point out that using spices wrongly can destroy a dish completely. Cyrus explains, “One of the mistakes Indians make while cooking is using too much and not understanding the great essence behind a spice. The use of spice is a science. You cannot put anything into a dish for the wrong reason.”

Tony says that seasoned chefs also need to learn to use spices wisely. “I find that one of the hardest spices to use is turmeric. It can overpower a dish very easily; both in colour and taste — in fact, too much turmeric can make a dish completely dull and flavourless.”

Shopping for spices

Buying spices is an art. According to Cyrus, “It is important to know that spices have a shelf life and too much should not be bought at once. Most Indian women know this fact but in Britain they buy very large packets of spices which can easily deteriorate over time. I would also advise the youngsters in India to hold on to and remember the traditional spices and recipes of our country, because they are very valuable.”Being a chef is a 24/7 job and Tony uses any free moment he gets to catch up on his sleep, but Cyrus finds that he never has any leisure time.

 “There is a never a moment when I am not working. I am always thinking up new ideas on food or being inspired by new foods,” says Cyrus. And when it comes to cooking, both of them believe that food is to be cooked carefully, savoured and enjoyed fully. Cyrus explains, “While cooking, always follow the mantra — KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Don’t overuse spices. In fact, just keep adding the spices gradually as you go along.” 

Tony has his own bit of advice to offer — “Have fun with food,” he says. “Enjoy what you cook and get over the fear of spices. If something goes wrong in your dish while you are cooking it, remember that you can fix it, but don’t let the fear of spice ruin your fun.” The Incredible Spice Men will premiere on August 23 and will be shown every Saturday at 8 pm, on TLC.