An Expert’s Guide To Himalayan Food
Naga chilli beef puff. Photographs by Mr Joe Woodhouse. All photographs courtesy of Madame D’s
The chef behind new Shoreditch Restaurant Madame D’s explains what makes the region’s flavours so unique.
Mr Harneet Baweja is co-founder of the critically acclaimed Indian restaurant Gunpowder, based in Shoreditch. Here, he explains the inspiration behind his new Himalayan venture Madame D’s.
The Himalayan region never gets proper recognition. We’re so worried about being politically correct and saying the right thing that we often forget about the food and the culture – how everything is preserved, the spices and the cooking techniques. We wanted to do our own thing, so we opened a dining den above a dive bar in East London. We got confidence from people accepting Gunpowder for what it is, so we wanted to showcase the food from the Himalayas.
Mr Harneet Baweja
My wife, Nirmal (our head chef) and I spent about three weeks between Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling and Bengal, and then in the northeast doing research. The mountains are intense and unforgiving. What we learned most when we saw both sides of the mountains is that, because of the altitude and the vegetation, despite their varying cultural and political backgrounds, people are cooking and consuming food in similar ways.
We found that on the India and Nepal side of the Himalayas there is still massive use of spices. But the cooking techniques take influence from Tibet and China etc. They eat a lot of pork, beef, and yak meat because of how high they are (depending on altitude). The milk sometimes comes from yak. They are very self-sufficient but there is easy movement of spices which makes the food quite interesting. We ate food which combined the Tibetan or Chinese aesthetic of flavours, with soy, whole spices, mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek), szechuan and vinegar all being used at the same time. It blew my mind. It gave us confidence to put some of the spices you get abundantly in the plains of India together with the everyday flavours of Tibetan and Chinese cooking.
My mum grew up in Kohima and Imphal in northeast India in the Himalayas. All my summer holidays were in different regions of the mountains – from Nagaland to Sikkim to Nepal. I owe my cooking knowledge to my mum because she made sure we travelled a lot.
Cook the meat first, dry later
We went to Kathmandhu in Nepal and saw that they cook their meat first, then fully dry it out, before storing it, with many people cooking it again before serving. This practice increased more in houses the higher we travelled up, because they don’t have massive fridges etc. When an animal is offering themselves up to you, you must consume the whole animal. So, you preserve it and serve it bit by bit. We use this very technique for our pork Nepali which is made by braising the meat before drying it out and then cooking again. It’s very labour intensive; you put love into it. The spices that we use are every day spices used in Nepali households such as chilli, methi, coriander seeds, ginger and garlic. The Kathmandhu pork chop that we serve is also very Nepali. There’s a market in Kathmandhu with a guy on a grill who does every meat in this brilliant sticky sauce. We tried to replicate it by using a blend of everyday spices with soy, vinegar and Chinese sauces.
Don't hold back on the spice
In Nagaland – northeast India – they cook beef with lots of naga chilli, which is very spicy, and they serve it with potato to bring down the heat, accompanied by fermented rice or bamboo. So we took this beautifully cooked meat and used it for our naga beef puff. That’s why it has a kick to it. We don’t hold back on the spices. Whole chillis are cooked down into the beef so it gets into every bit of it. It is completely honest to the region of Nagaland.
And don’t be afraid to cheat…
Our lamb tiffin noodles is a dish that is a little less loyal to a region. It’s a bit of cheat for us, but we love it. It’s the type of dish you want to come and eat at the top of a bar at midnight. We never get great late night options to eat in London anymore unless it’s a kebab or burger and a hot lamb tiffin noodle dish with a runny egg on top really satisfies the soul and the stomach. Growing up in Kolkata – which has the only Chinatown in India – whatever my parents had at home they’d combine with egg noodles and give it to me to take to school. At Madame D’s we took a recipe from around Darjeeling – a mutton or lamb dish they would eat at home with rice – and we replaced the rice with egg noodles and put a fried egg on top. Soul food.