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Meet the Indian chef who brought chaat to London

I hate the word curry but it is churlish not to use it, says chef Nisha Kotana who is all set to introduce Londoners to street foods of India

Kotana's menu is all about how Indians eat at home and on their streets. (Prachi Palwe, Unsplash)
Kotana's menu is all about how Indians eat at home and on their streets. (Prachi Palwe, Unsplash)

Britain’s leading Indian-origin chef-restaurateur Nisha Katona (see pic, below) is all set to bring her successful Mowgli Street Food concept to the heart of London. With a string of popular branches already dotted across UK cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield, Cardiff, Leicester, Leeds, and Cheltenham, London will become the latest addition to her fast-expanding brand by mid-November.

And in 2022, Mowgli Street Food is set for its further expansion to Bristol and Glasgow. “Mowgli is all about how Indians eat at home and on their streets,” explains Katona.

“She (Mowgli) was born to feed the raw need Indians have for tiffins full of fresh bright intense flavour. Mowgli is not about the intimate, hushed dining experience. It is about the smash and grab zing of healthy, light, virtuosic herbs and spices,” she says.

Katona gave up a 20-year career as a full-time barrister to build Mowgli and in 2019, she was honoured with an MBE in the New Year Honours list for services to the food industry.

“There is no better nation outside of India for appreciation of Indian food. Whatever the historic reason for this, the Brits appreciate the food of the globe in an open minded greedy hearted manner,” she feels.

“It might be that their role in colonisation gave them a proprietary attitude to the cuisines they lived with. It might be that the multinational integrated nature of many cities means that the love for flavour knows no boundaries, but I know that authentic Indian food is something that is dearly held on British high streets,” she notes.

It is this authenticity that she strongly holds on to when it comes to the use of the word “curry” in the UK, used to describe all things Indian cuisine. She notes: “I hate the word curry but it is churlish not to use it. I take a step back and feel simply glad that non-Indians flock to Indian restaurants.“I will happily tolerate this concession in language as long as my diners do not expect any concession in authenticity and flavour.”

It is this straight-talking that she adopts across the board, including on the subject of a well-documented crunch of skilled staff being faced by the UK’s hospitality industry in the wake of Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU).

“As an industry we need to be attractive to our domestic work force. We must build businesses that keep our people purposefully nourished and fulfilled,” reflects Katona.

“Let us not pretend that it is anything other than Brexit that has left us in this predicament and there is hence an urgent need to ensure those Europeans who would still want to work in the UK can do so legally and timeously,” she says.

Given her immense expertise in the sector, Katona was recently named among over 20 hospitality industry experts on a new UK government council set up to help with the country’s restaurants and cafes with their post-COVID recovery.

She has joined the Hospitality Sector Council to help identify and oversee actions related to  the government’s Hospitality Strategy and  create  solutions using expert knowledge and assess the strength of the sector.

“The aim is to build a financially stable dynamic innovative green sector that supports jobs, vibrant communities and creates places where people want to live, work and visit,” she explains.

Asked if she is optimistic about the industry’s post-COVID prospects, she adds: “I have full hope that the industry will bounce back as consumer confidence and zeal is at such a high point.

“People have missed the lights of hospitality on the high street and cherish the role of restaurants now more than ever.” 

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