There’s no doubt about the influence of Indian food in the UK. Besides high street curry houses, supermarkets, weddings or corporate parties, pubs too promote rice and curry as their speciality. So it was no surprise to see an Indian dinner at the function in Wembley during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit.
The Metropolitan line Tube to Wembley Park was packed with Modi fans on November 13. The air was pregnant with excitement as we walked towards the giant stadium where Modi was going to speak to a 60,000-strong gathering of the Indian community. The stadium reverberated with colourful shows of Indian music and dance, followed by the grandeur presence of the two PMs and their inspirational speeches.
As the evening drew to an end, we queued up for the much awaited dinner after a rushed photo session. Aditi from the press group asked me, “Is it your food today?” As I said ‘no’ to her from a distance, I could read her feelings about a regular party dinner at such functions, ‘it’s so predictable’.
The Indian diaspora has expanded over the years in this country, and gradually our culture has blended well in every settlement. Unlike in the past when people travelled back home to get married and celebrate, festivals and functions like weddings take place a lot here nowadays. Traditional food has become a very important bargain even at the planning level of any event. Hence, a huge demand for catering companies from all sections of the community has grown.
Asian marriage functions are very popular in famous London hotels. People are willing to spend premium rates since a classy venue could become the attraction of the wedding. During wedding seasons, it’s impossible to get a booking in the centre of the city. The catch is, when it comes to food, one has to go with their contracted caterers as most hotels have the same people serving food, and they wouldn’t allow food or chefs of your choice.
Our experiences of events with regular customers have mostly been out of town and in beautiful country houses where people have the right to choose food as much as the location. There’s a popular notion that bulk cooking needs a special skill as supposed to cooking in restaurant where comparative portions are much smaller. In contrast, we managed to prove otherwise. Cooking goes with more care and creativity. However, a weekend outside catering could bring enormous pressure for a restaurant kitchen.
There was a time we had so many success stories of caterers who had a humble start by selling samosas from home kitchens. Parveen Warsi and G Noon are good examples. Some experienced party caterers also became successful over decades, although this business model never attracted many young Asian entrepreneurs.
The Wembley dinner was vegetarian and a normal buffet. Dishes were typical, as you would see on a regular party meal. Knowing the occasion and significance of this meal, we felt it could have been more imaginative since vegetarian dishes in Indian cuisine is supposed to be the best in the world and every province has a number of unique preparations.
London has some of the finest Indian chefs like Atul Kochar, Vineet Bhatia, Cyrus Todiwala, Sriram Aylur and Vivek Singh, among others. They are all proven stars of the British culinary stage. Imagine if all these guys had come together and created a spread at Wembley on the historic occasion of celebrating two cultures. It would have been a delicious finalé to a long but memorable day.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants