The rare flavours of North East India

Chef Kochhar is making a comeback after outrage over a post he made on Twitter got him fired from 2 restaurants


London has so many fine Indian restaurants, it’s tempting to wonder if there is room for anything new. Chef Atul Kochhar, who won Michelin stars at Tamarind and Benares, reckons he has the answer: He’s serving the cuisine of the so-called Seven Sister States.

This mountainous region of North East India is geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of the country, with a cuisine that reflects the harsh climate and the difficulty in growing crops.

“The cuisine in that part of the world is quite unique in a lot of ways and it doesn’t gel immediately with what we know as Indian food in this country, or even in India,” Kochhar says, sitting in the new Mayfair restaurant, Kanishka.

“The use of soya, the use of techniques like fermentation, air drying of meat, all those things are almost unknown to Indians as such. But that part of the world, because they have so little-hunting, foraging, fermenting, preserving food for rough seasons — they have to rely on those techniques. Salting, smoking, air drying, pickling, fermenting, these are the things they are really king at.”

The seven states are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, plus Sikkim. They are far off the tourist trail and quite distinct. Nagaland has 16 different tribes, each with one or more dialects, and Tripura about 20 tribes, according to the website of the Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation.

Seafood Alleppey curry (Source: Sauce Communications)

At Kanishka, which formally opens on March 18, Kochhar will serve dishes such as Kachela Maas, a Sikkim inspired venison tartare with mustard oil mayonnaise, naan crouton and onions. (The restaurant is currently open on a trial basis, with 50% off the food bill for online bookings quoting HOTDINNERS50 in the special request box.)

“That part of the world, where Burma, China, Tibet, Nepal are the bordering countries, they have things like dumplings and noodles and the tradition of eating raw meat, which we don’t have in India,” he says. “They will use garlic, they will use ginger, they will use turmeric, they will use salt, they will use vinegar, they will use tamarind, rather than rely on a blend of spices like garam masala which we very happily use in different parts of the country.”

Venison is served at Kanishka

(The cuisine isn’t completely unknown in London: Madame D restaurant in Shoreditch served Himalayan cuisine, including dishes from Nepal, Tibet and China.)

At Kanishka, there are two ingredients you won’t find on the menu, no matter how much he says he is striving for authenticity. One is yak. The other is bhut jolokia, or ghost chilli, the world’s hottest chilli, which is grown in the region.

“Chilli suppresses your taste buds, so you don’t want it in excess,” he says. “There’s no need for me to blow people’s heads off.”

Kanishka marks Kochhar’s reappearance in London after a catastrophic tweet last June in which he referred to “Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam over 2000 years”. A Twitter storm ensued and, even though he quickly deleted the tweet, he was ousted from his restaurant at the Rang Mahal restaurant in the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, Dubai. He later was also dismissed from Benares.

“All my life, I have always been inclusive, I have always been about all the cultures. I am the last person to talk about anybody or any religion per se. And especially a great religion like Islam,” he says. “I apologised three times because people kept getting angry with me and I said, ‘I am really sorry, I am really sorry, what can I do?’ I regret every day of my life that it happened through my hands. I am not that kind of person.” — Bloomberg

  • Richard Vines is the chief food critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and Instagram @richard.vines.