Nisha Katona has always had a passion for food and cooking, but she started out choosing law over cooking, becoming the first female Indian barrister in the North West region of the UK.
Twenty years on, she followed her passion to bring the benefits of authentic Indian food to a British audience, and founded Mowgli Street Food in Liverpool.
She is the author of Pimp My Rice and will be attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2017. She answered a few questions for Gulf News ahead of the festival.
Q: Tell us about the journey from being a barrister to a food writer and restaurant owner.
Katona: I worked full time as a Barrister in Liverpool’s Chavasse Court Chambers under my professional maiden name Miss Nisha Sujata Biswas as is tradition at the bar. In 2008 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport appointed me trustee of National Museums Liverpool where I sat on full board, along with Audit and Marketing. In 2009 the Cabinet Office appointed me Ambassador for Diversity in Public Appointments. In my capacity as barrister, and non exec board members, I was frequently on radio on a local and national level and also engaged as an expert advisor by The Guardian.
Q: Why did you choose food as a subject for your writing?
Katona: All the while, I have been passionate about Indian food, but not the stuff of curry houses. What is peddled in curry houses is a far cry from the way Indians actually eat at home and on their streets. Our food is actually fresh, light, delicate and extremely healthy, which are not words the UK would ever associate with “curry”.
I began writing a book and was signed by Jamie Oliver’s agent. My first book Pimp My Rice was published in 2015. I have secured two more book deals. One is for a Spice Bible type book and the other is for the Mowgli Cook Book for which there is huge demand. This will be published in April 2018.
I regularly appear on ITV, channel 4, I have a My Spice Kitchen slot that plays daily on Food Network. I have over 40,000 twitter followers for the Nisha Katona and Mowgli accounts worldwide and have a YouTube channel that has a large following.
Q: Where did you learn the traditional skills involved in cooking Indian food?
Katona: The ancient kitchen formulas of my ancestors were something I learnt from my mother and my aunt. I was so passionate about the simplicity and wonder of these recipes that I became a curry evangelist and spent time giving lessons in the ancient light curry formulas of India.
All the while I worked full time but I loved my job as a barrister and hence had endless energy for all manner other interests. There came a point when I made a very commercial decision. I was becoming known as the voice for Indian food and yet had never dared to put my head above the parapet and sell my wares. There were a handful of dishes to which I know I was physiologically addicted. I thought if those are an addiction for me, they might just too, prove an addiction for the nation.
Gathering all my savings and my inheritance I opened Mowgli Bold Street in a relatively quiet, gritty area of Liverpool.
Q: What’s on the menu at your restaurant - Mowgli Street Food?
Katona: The whole philosophy of Mowgli was that it served the dishes that Indians ate in the privacy of their home kitchens and local street stalls. This was often vegan, simple homely fayre. A far cry from the heavy fayre of curry houses. Our big hits are dishes like simple Temple dahl, Yoghurt Chat Bombs, Bhel Puri, my ginger and rhubarb dahl. The Butter Chicken is of course a big seller but it is is wonderful to see our clients broaden their minds and expectations of Indian food. It fills me with joy to see dishes like my Calcutta Tangled Greens increase sales week on week. This is how we eat at home. This is what Mowgli is about.
Mowgli flew in a way that was beyond any expectations.The role of social media in brand building is utterly critical. I don’t pay for marketing or advertising or PR. I single handedly front and craft the Mowgli brand. This brings an eternally independent, home kitchen, family run feel to what I hope will become a national chain.
After three months of my first Mowgli opening I took a sabbatical from the bar. I did this because Mowgli needed me full time, I had a body of staff whose dedication to the brand meant I must join them at personal sacrifice and most importantly, I moved from Barrister to Mowgli CEO because I have been lucky enough to find in that, a profession that also thrills, stimulates and fulfils me daily.
Q: What’s your favourite dish and is it a part of your cookbook?
Katona: The Layered Leaf Lasagne is something I make at least once a week. There is nothing I love more than a dish that uses up leftovers. This uses up leftover rice, it uses up geriatric and limp cabbage, it even uses up your leftover mince in whatever form you left it to fester in the fridge — bolognaise, chill, keema. This is frugality on speed. This calls out to the camel in a sandstorm Indian in me. And the resulting dish is spectacular. It slices into big generous cubes and the strata of ingredients sit like geological magic. Actually, there isn’t even a photo of it in the book — it looks like one of those unloved recipes an author includes as a filler, which is totally not true by the way, each dish costs an arm and a leg to shoot and each one had its own wardrobe of plates, material, cutlery, lights and each one was at least three hours in photographing, much longer than it took to cook any of them!
For more details about the festival, visit www.emirateslitfest.com.