Food: The rare flavours of Northeast India at London’s Kanishka

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 6, 2019.

Seafood Alleppey Curry.

Venison is served at Kanishka.

Kanishka marks Kochhar’s reappearance in London after a catastrophic Tweet last June where he was ousted from his restaurant in Dubai and later also dismissed from Benares.

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London has so many fine Indian restaurants, it is 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 is serving the cuisine of the so-called Seven Sister States.

This mountainous region of Northeast 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 said, 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.

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 [Myanmar], 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 said. “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.”

(The cuisine is not completely unknown in London: Madame D restaurant in Shoreditch serves Himalayan cuisine, including dishes from Nepal, Tibet and China.)

At Kanishka, there are two ingredients you will not 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 chili, the world’s hottest chili, which is grown in the region.

“Chili suppresses your taste buds, so you don’t want it in excess,” he said. “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. 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.

“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.”

In other London restaurant news:

• Wild Honey has closed after 12 years. Chef Anthony Demetre will focus on his Vermuteria all-day cafe at Coal Drops Yard, though he has not ruled out reopening Wild Honey after a break. Demetre and his then-business partner Will Smith are best known for their much-missed Arbutus, which led a trend in inexpensive fine dining when it opened in Soho in 2006.

• Asia de Cuba closed its doors last Thursday after 20 years. The Chino-Latino restaurant at the St Martins Lane hotel was a sensation when it opened in 1999. It will be replaced by St Martins Lane Kitchen, a restaurant pop-up serving an Asian-inspired menu. The hotel has plans for a second restaurant later in the year.

• Londrino also closed last Thursday, Eater London reported. The Portuguese restaurant of chef Leandro Carreira opened in Bermondsey to mixed reviews in 2017. He is a talented chef with an impressive resume and is likely to bounce back.

• Orasay restaurant officially opened in Notting Hill yesterday, serving a fish-led menu celebrating chef Jackson Boxer’s love of the Outer Hebrides. Boxer last year opened St Leonards restaurant in Shoreditch with fellow chef Andrew Clarke, who also joins him at Orasay.

• Cutting Room restaurant has opened in Fitzrovia, with dishes such as meatballs of zebra, ostrich and kangaroo, as well as goat curry, Hot Dinners reported. Cutting Room serves sharing plates, with a focus on organic, sustainable and ethical principles, the restaurant’s website said. For the less adventurous, options include artichoke, spinach and Parmesan dip. — Bloomberg