It was a sheer pleasure to enjoy a British afternoon tea whilst listening to one of the top Indian culinary chefs in London talk about his background history and experiences working with food. Devouring sandwiches and scones whilst listening to Vivek Singh discuss his influences, Indian festival food and his absolute indulgence, whisky, was a new experience for me as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and certainly the way to do things if listening to a published cook or chef.

Vivek Singh, who is renowned for being the Executive Chef at The Cinnamon Club in London, joked that he “got into cooking and cheffing as my mother was a terrible cook”, however it was soon made clear from this chat with Hannah Beckerman that his mother’s dishes eventually made their way onto his menus – the hot, sweet tomato chutney, for instance, is one of those very dishes. He was not taught by his mum though, he added.

Singh provided us with a wonderful context of his history growing up in India and the expectations when it came to food, including his work in hotel management which eventually led to his career in cooking. He has since gained a great deal of respect from cooking, now appearing on television programmes such as BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and Madhur Jaffrey’s Curry Nation.

He sets his prices at around £20 a dish, which many criticised when he opened his first restaurant in 2001 and is known for creating meals that with a contemporary edge – such as halibut in an Indian curry, which actually had me salivating for a spicier meal than the next scone I was about to polish off. There was also no shortage of discussion surrounding his new food book, which is as much a culture book as it is a cookbook. He mentioned that it was a real difficulty writing a book about festival feasts as ideas kept flooding in, making it difficult to know what and what not to include. Besides informing us about the food you should expect at festivals, he also offered a small insight into Indian festival traditions such as weddings (one custom, we learned, dictates that the bride and groom both be starved before their big day) as well as the colour festival Holi and the harvest festival, Vaisakhi.

Growing up in Bengal, he was born into a real fondness for food, he told us, but he’s also developed a fondness for whisky, particularly Johnnie Walker. More recently, however, he has moved somewhat away from the traditions of Bengal. Indian tapas, fist food, finger food – the canvas is there to be broadened according to Singh, and even went as far to say that “to cook Indian food, you don’t need to be born from an Indian woman’s womb.” It’s a skill that can be mastered by practice, learning and perseverance.

Vivek Singh’s Top Tips:

  • Never rush your onions
  • The amount of oil you should use depends on the time you have – little time, more oil
  • Use cheap oil and heat it up really hot. Doing so releases the flavours of your herbs and spices