The chef patron of Trishna and Gymkhana explains how his passion for freshly made dishes and prime ingredients was inspired by family holidays in rural France and his mother’s delicately flavoured home cooking.
It’s summertime in Normandy, some time in the early 1990s, and Karam Sethi is holding a glass, making a toast over the lunch table in the company of his brother and sister as their mother looks on. They are on holiday. Looking back, Karam suspects that they are raising glasses to freedom – the freedom to hold a glass of alcohol in their small hands, to sip it, and to experience that momentary rush of “grown-up-ness”.
Looking at the photo of these three Anglo-Indian children, who will go on to share a small empire of high-end Indian restaurants in London, it is tempting to view this scene as indicative of successes to come.
Each summer, the Sethi family would visit friends at the Manoir du Ribardon in the heart of the Normandy countryside. The surrounding orchards and fields with horses were a far cry from their home in Finchley, north London. Karam remembers how each of their three meals a day was made with produce fresh from the market, or even straight from the local fields. They would drive past smallholdings advertising corn on the cob, bunches of muddy onions or braids of garlic, and stop and buy, eager to get home and make a meal from their purchases. They would char the corn on the barbecue or put the sweet, fresh onions (the best he has ever eaten, says Karam) to work in their weekly Indian feast.
“When we were on holiday in France, our mother wanted us to eat the local cuisine, so we’d only have Indian food once a week,” Karam remembers. “She would make us dal and rice: Indian food of the most basic, peasant sort. She would boil yellow lentils with onion, turmeric, fresh ginger and cover this with tempered cumin, green chillies and butter. This was our weekly fix of spice in France.”
Given that Karam Sethi and his siblings, Jyotin and Sunaina (pictured here with him), have together all ended up in the restaurant trade (Jyotin works on the business side, Sunaina is sommelier at both Trishna and Gymkhana), it is perhaps surprising that their mother, Meena, learned to cook only after marrying their father. Born in Pondicherry, south India, in 1950, she spent her childhood travelling the world with her own diplomat father, hopping from country to another, and didn’t pick up the solid grounding in Indian food that her future husband – Harash, from Delhi – would have. But she soon caught the bug, and has become her son Karam’s inspiration in the kitchen.
“If you go into Indian homes, they never overpower you with spice. Mum grasped this – her food is never too heavy or spicy, but always delicate, allowing the main ingredient to sing,” says Karam. Indeed, the Sethis would also visit their grandparents in Delhi, watching them at work in the kitchen as each meal was made from scratch.
Karam emphasises the importance of freshness in achieving the well-balanced Punjabi food with which he grew up, and which he strives to emulate in his restaurants. “Indian restaurants in the UK have traditionally cooked in bulk, adding extra oil or citrus to preserve the food, or half-cooking it well in advance. I feel strongly about cooking to order. My food won’t arrive on the table within two minutes of ordering it – it’s all made fresh,” he says.
Back in London, their weekly treat was another of Meena’s signature dishes, a rustic and homely yoghurt-based dish known as kadhi. She would whisk chickpea flour with strained yoghurt and slow-cook it with mustard seeds, curry leaves, fenugreek and onion, creating a rich stew to which sweet corn or pakoras could be added. “She’d bring it in a box when she picked us up from school, watching us devour it in the back seat of the car before we went home,” says Karam.
Grounded in his mother’s cooking and early eating experiences in France and India, Sethi has created something unusual – two high-end restaurant settings that serve Indian food in a home-cooked, fresh and family style. Now that’s definitely worth a toast.