Interview with an Innovator

Manchester United consultant chef Anjula Devi: ‘Indian food still isn’t understood because people don’t talk about spices’

In a chat with Sarah Sharples, Devi talks about the power of using spices correctly, training Manchester United’s chefs to create great Indian food and introducing al dente into the cuisine.

12 July 2019
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Devi on Paper – CV

  • Launched her business in 2010 offering cooking classes
  • Created recipe books, products and spices for Lakeland and is also a brand ambassador for TRS Foods, the world’s largest Indian food company
  • First Indian chef to work for Manchester United to train their chefs and create a menu of curries and appetisers on match days

Anjula Devi is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to using spices in Indian cooking – something she learned from her father. He worked as welder, but Devi describes him as a culinary genius, with his cooking so popular that people in the Indian community would wait to set their wedding date based on his availability. Devi says she was his right-hand woman at these nuptials, helping to cook 10 curries and breads for up to 700 guests.

Devi’s mother banished them from the kitchen at home as they made too much of a mess, so they would sit in the backyard, looking at recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation, which had anywhere from 18 to 30 spices in them. They would identify spices that were overlapping or did exactly the same thing.

“So for example, star anise and fennel were very much similar in terms of delivering taste, but star anise is much stronger, so we would remove one of those or take a few spices out and reduce something that had 20 spices to eight spices and still be able to deliver something that was really delicious Indian food,” she explains.

Devi has gone on to forge a varied career: running her own business, where her cooking classes are booked out until November; introducing Indian spices into Lakeland’s range; and working with Manchester United’s hospitality chefs to bring authentic Indian food to crowds.

 

I think even today Indian food still isn’t understood because people don’t talk about spices. Quite often people will say:‘Does anyone really need to know that brown mustard seeds, although they deliver the most beautiful nutty flavour, deliver heat as well?’ Well, actually, they do if you’re trying to teach someone about how to make a really well-balanced dish with all the flavours coming through.

Unfortunately, a lot of people still struggle to make great Indian food as we are not passing on the knowledge on why we layer food and why the mustard seeds go in before any other spice. Well, if you don’t mellow mustard seeds out before you stick coriander or cumin on top, your curry will be overpowered by mustard.

Training the [Manchester United] chefs was a different matter as we were training classically trained chefs, who are tasting all the time for seasoning. But when it comes to Indian food you really have to wait for the spice to develop, so for them it was very difficult to have to wait for an hour and taste. They would taste and say,‘Anjula, I’m not picking up much and I’m a bit worried that we are under seasoning.We need more salt.’ I would have to say to them, ‘You have to wait,’ and an hour later they would taste it and it would be completely different, which really threw them.

James [Tagg, executive chef at Manchester United] wanted me to come in to make great Indian food. They wanted authenticity and traditional Indian food, because what they were cooking they were second guessing and they weren’t really happy with.

Man United have 27 kitchens which cater for hospitality, and you can get anywhere up to 6,000 guests throughout all the hospitality areas.

I am always on the menu for every single game. So for one game I might put 800 portions of lentils, there may be a vegan dish, a vegetarian dish, a meat dish, but that could be up to 1,000 people depending on what match it is. For example, if it’s Chelsea and Man United, it’s a very popular match. I cook 1,500 portions of lamb, 800 portions of chicken curry, and every single curry will have its own unique flavour.

That’s one of the things that was really important to us was that we taught the chefs: there isn’t just one sauce that fits all. Every single curry that we made, we started from scratch and it has its own unique flavour.

Unfortunately, some restaurants have given [chefs] this reputation that they build this one sauce. To be honest, the base is very similar, but it’s what you do to that base and the fresh ingredients you add to that base that turn that dish into something quite remarkable in terms of taste. So we would start off with onions, tomatoes, chillies, garlic and ginger.

I put okra and black lentils on the table, which James was shaking his head and said: ‘No one is going to eat okra, they are used to chicken tikka masala.’ I kept chicken tikka masala completely off the menu and I’ll do that next season as well... We sold out of the okra and black lentils.

We have another season with Manchester United where we are going to introduce street food and dishes from other areas. Because to be honest you could be at Man United for 10 years and there is no way they would have eaten all that Indian food has to offer.

Dark brown chickpeas no one has ever heard of and I’ve put it on the Manchester United menu for this coming season. The dark brown chickpeas deliver the most amazing nutty flavour, it’s phenomenal for hummus. It contains more protein so for vegans it’s phenomenal.

What we’re trying to do at Manchester United is to introduce them to the what Indians are really eating at home. If you went to 20 different Indian households and saw what they ate, they would tell you they eat mostly vegetarian during the week. They would never eat naans at home as that was something that was developed in restaurants, it would always be chapatis or rice.

We have also done away with garam masala. Last year I got quite a lot of stick, because it’s something ancient and has been used for years and years, but garam masala is warm spices like cinnamon, cassia bark, clove, cardamom, put together with black peppercorns, coriander and cumin and then blitzed. When you are balancing out a fine curry, what you want to do is teach people how to use these spices individually.

People don’t really know warming spices.Things like cumin and mustard seeds will hold their flavour for a good hour and a half, whereas warming spices like green cardamom, fennel, even the black cardamom and cinnamon only hold their flavour for 20 minutes – that’s sometimes why they are known as finishing spices… But some people will teach you – I’m not saying that it’s wrong, that’s the traditional way of cooking – to put everything in the beginning, but then you’ve lost that beautiful aromatic flavour.

A lot of people will say to you, ‘I really don’t like coriander, it’s very floral, flowery and perfume-like,’ but if you look at a masala dabba, which is a box which contains a lot of spices, you have coriander seeds. It’s one spice that loses its flavour very rapidly and you are actually only left with undertones of orange, so you can actually overuse coriander and it wouldn’t affect your curry, but if you overuse cumin your curry will become very, very bitter.

We use the word al dente and anyone who cooks Indian food will never use that word. We understood that we needed to remain traditional in the way we cooked recipes; however, we wanted people to be able eat and identify vegetables.

Years ago you had to cook vegetables to death before you could pick up the spice, but nowadays you can plunge all of your vegetables into hot water for literally 30 seconds and then plunge it into cold ice water, which a lot of other cuisines use as a technique. Then when you throw those vegetables into the spice you literally can physically see all that spice soak into the vegetables. So we serve al dente vegetables and people absolutely love the fact they can identify the vegetable and really taste the spice in the vegetables as well – that is our real USP in that we teach people.

A lot of chefs teach people to cook with already ground spices, which I think is a mistake, because when you buy already ground spices, they have already sat on the shelf for some time, so they have lost their flavouring. But also to grind their spices, the manufacturer has to warm them through first and that’s where the flavour is lost as you’ve lost those volatile oils.

We never use chilli powder because to date it still contains E numbers for the colouring, so we always say to our clients buy whole chillies and grind them yourself.

We use really natural flavours. One of the ways for us to do tandoor chicken is we would boil the shell of the onion. That’s boiled and what you get is a beautiful orange hue, so not only are you delivering flavour into your tandoori chicken but you’re also delivering colour with something incredibly natural. In terms of waste, to use all the onion including the peel is quite wonderful.

Turmeric also delivers that colour, obviously, but one of the things that drives me crazy is people think that turmeric is for colour. And yes, it is, but it’s also there for two other reasons: Indians always add it because it’s there for digestion, but it also delivers this beautiful earthy flavour.

Pomegranate seeds are another way to bring that vibrant colour into your chicken, or we will use a bit of beetroot if we have to. We never ever use colouring.

Even to make biryani – it’s got those green and orange colours – we will use spinach to make the rice green, and obviously we use saffron. It’s not necessarily to use those colours in food.

Gluten-free is huge at the moment, but for us it’s never been an issue as we have about 10 gluten-free flours we can use. Millet is one of them, cassava is another. Coconut flour. Obviously, cornmeal is another one we use. I think we will see millet and cassava flour a lot more, and there’s chestnut flour we can use a lot more and people will start to bring them out once they realise.

I’m currently doing a gluten-free book at the moment, but I’m just waiting to ensure those flours are available readily, because there are only a few stores like Asda that are doing them, otherwise you have to go to an Indian greengrocer to pick up those flours.

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