“I spent so much time in Edinburgh as a student. We’d hang out in the Grassmarket being hippies, listening to Tom Waits”, says restaurateur, Nisha Katona, 50.
“When I was about 18, we went to a slightly high-end restaurant, and it was one of the best vegetarian meals I’d ever had. I’ll never forget those cashew dumplings. Edinburgh was so groundbreaking”.
This was one of Katona’s many formative restaurant moments, as was visiting The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, which she went to when her Liverpool university did mock trials in the Scottish city. “What an institution, back then it was the centre of student life, The Chip”, she says.
Since then, she’s been a child-protection barrister, a cooking teacher, philanthropist, television presenter and founded and built the Indian street food chain, Mowgli. Katona has also written four cookbooks, the most recent of which is 30 Minute Mowgli.
It features speedy and vibrant dishes including quick angry tandoori, million dollar dahl, and curries such as spiced butter bean or tamarind fish.
The most used in her own repertoire are the chicken curries, but also the pasta dishes, which are from the Ma, Look Away! chapter of non Indian food. Katona’s husband is Hungarian, and she’s also included his little sparrow soup, which is one of her children’s favourites.
“During lockdown, everything was shut so it was what I had in my cupboards and could create in that very short period of time. I did a video every day, so 30 Minute Mowgli is just a collection of those recipes”, says ‘curry evangelist’ Katona, who was awarded an MBE in 2019 for services to the food industry. “I’m so busy, if it takes longer than that, I can’t be bothered”.
Time is definitely at a premium for Katona, who’s just opened a London branch of Mowgli. She’s also looking after the launch of her first Scottish outposts: Edinburgh, which will be at 20 Hanover Street, and Glasgow’s 78 St Vincent Street. After lockdown set-backs, these branches are both due to open in the middle of 2022, with Glasgow coming first.
They are hotly anticipated, which hopefully proves we’ve come a long way since the bad old days.
“Coming over in the Sixties, for many years people shunned Indian food, you were teased because of it”, she says. “There’s no way a teenager would have a birthday party in an Indian restaurant, we were embarrassed by our food, it was seen as this dirty ‘other’ thing. At Mowgli, children choose to have their birthday there, grandmothers come in, it’s so touching. When me and my mum or auntie are in the restaurant, every spoonful we see people put into their mouths, we are humbled, thinking ‘oh my gosh, you like us’. You spend so much of your life wanting to be liked, feeding people so they would like you, it’s crazy”.
As with all her venues, this hugely hands-on CEO will be responsible for designing the interiors. The Mowglis have an atmospheric look that’s based on the broken down temple behind Katona’s grandmother’s house in Varanasi.
“It was full of monkeys and vines, like something out of a film”, says Katona, who also founded The Mowgli Trust, which has raised over £900k for charity. “The restaurant has to feel like an ancient temple rather than an Indian restaurant, so I wouldn’t trust anyone else’s hand because it comes from such a personal place”.
These venues feature wooden swing seats, tied to the ceiling with rope and fairy-light strung trees. The Edinburgh property, which consists of one main dining room and some smaller spaces, is proving tricky.
“It’s a big old building with domed ceilings. It needs a little bit of thought, we have to protect it, as we are trustees of this historic building,” says Katona. “I’m going to have to head up there a few times to make sure I get that design absolutely right”.
She’ll also be in Scotland to personally train the chefs, which she does at all of her restaurants.
“No question, these are my recipes and some of them are thousands of years old. There are certain techniques and tips that make them taste authentic,” she says. “I take curry virgins. I’m not interested in getting an army of male Indian chefs to come and cook my food. This is about teaching Glaswegians who can’t cook curry but love it how to use these ancient recipes. So, when we first or second generation Indians die out and shuffle off our mortal coils, the recipes stay alive”.
It’s a personal mission for Katona, and an emotional one. As she says, food is in her DNA, and the lovely montage of childhood holiday and cooking snaps that are in the opening pages of 30 Minute Mowgli are testament to that.
“The flares and the pigtails! It's only now that I’m 50 that I dare show these photographs without feeling utterly embarrassed”, she says. “The idea of a great day out from my parents was to go to a vegetable market and stroke the cabbages. Also, in India, you don’t have toys, you play by scaling fish, or instead of Play-Doh, there’s dough or squelchy mincemeat. You get your hands into food from the age of three”.
If you fancy getting stuck into some of this expert’s dishes, there are plenty of easy recipes to try, and the book demonstrates how to ‘wield spice’, like Katona’s favourite, the blend that is panch phoron, with recipes that feature no butter or ghee and plenty of meat-free options.
As Katona says, “It’s all about big instant flavour”.
30 Minute Mowgli: Fast Easy Indian from the Mowgli Home Kitchen, £25, Nourish Books