FROM a foreigner once threatened with deportation, to an Officer of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and a Deputy Lieutenant, Cyrus Todiwala has come a long way.
On Jan. 14, Mr. Todiwala was in the Philippines for Don Papa’s 10th anniversary dinner (see related story), which he prepared in collaboration with Patrick Go of Your Local. Mr. Todiwala was in the country to supervise the culinary immersion of culinary school students who won his Zest Quest Asia competition, which included a trip to an Asian country. For this year’s winners, Don Papa in the UK sponsored their trip and culinary immersion in the Philippines.
“I wanted to start teaching young British people about Asian food, to raise the profile. The profile is very poor,” he told BusinessWorld in an interview.
ON PARSI CUISINE AND SPICESAs a person of Parsi descent, Mr. Todiwala pronounces Parsi cuisine an obvious favorite — which would mean something to us if we knew what it meant. Mr. Todiwala was keen to explain: “Indian cuisine has maybe 30 different cuisines. Within that are more subdivisions.” The Parsi people, to whom Mr. Todiwala belongs, are people in India who claim descent from people who fled Persia in the medieval period. “There are still elements in our food which still take you to modern-day Iran,” he said.
“That has been very much an inspiration for me, because you learn your cooking from your mother. No man can say that anybody else’s cooking is better than his mother’s cooking,” he said.
Mr. Todiwala, in going back to his roots in India, also believes in the healing power of spices, in line with ancient Ayurvedic beliefs. “It works in very different ways. Spices are there for flavor, for color, for excitement: not for heat. People misunderstand that spices create heat. They don’t create heat — they create warmth in the body,” he said.
“Warmth in the body creates happiness, better appetite, but more than that, creates better digestion,” he said, citing for example, the presence of nutmeg and cardamom in desserts. These apparently act as blood thinners, which lead the body to create more bile, thus digesting food more efficiently.
“Spices have always been in existence to help man to have a better life. Modern life makes us forget all of that. We need to rekindle that.”
His favorite spice is cardamom, and his favorite condiment is cumin: both come from seeds, which lead us to ask the difference. While we thought that as long as something comes from a seed, it is immediately considered a spice, Mr. Todiwala said, “The Indians don’t look at it that way.” Spices come from seeds with a lot of volatile oils, which means they are to be used sparingly for their strong flavor. Something like cumin has a gentler nature, and could thus be used more liberally.
COOKING FOR QUEEN ELIZABETH IIIt seems that spices did help the chef man have a better life. Known for his restaurant Café Spice Namaste, one of the most famous in the UK, Mr. Todiwala has been seen on television, and was named in 2010 by the Evening Standard as one of London’s 1,000 Most Influential People. He was conferred his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the late Queen Elizabeth II for education, and was conferred his OBE for raising the profile of the culinary industry.
Mr. Todiwala explains what being a Deputy Lieutenant (DL, one of his titles) meant: this makes him a Royal Representative reporting to a Lord Lieutenant. “If today, a member of the Royal Family was to visit, I would be the chief organizing the event, and I would have the seniority in this room.”
In 2012, for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration, he even cooked for her.
“It scared me,” he said about the phone call from Buckingham Palace that gave him the task. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a big honor, so I’m not going to turn it down,” he recalled. He asked for three or four days to think about it.
For her and the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, he prepared a Shepherd’s Pie (called Country Captain in India) that was quite mild, because the Queen wasn’t allowed to eat chilies. Some Hamburg parsley also appeared on the dish, picked from the Highgrove estate of now King Charles III. “Britain and India have an old relationship. If I don’t do a fusion, it’s pointless,” he said.
TOUGH START THEN A BIT OF LUCKBorn in India, Mr. Todiwala, OBE, DL, moved to Britain in 1991. But things were never easy. He doesn’t forget the old days: he remembers the early 1990s, where he saw financial difficulty and even the threat of deportation. “For a few days, I was without a house, without a job, on the road, and no residency in Britain status. All four things hit me in one time.”
With £1 in his pocket, he bought a raffle ticket, which eventually won him a car, which he sold for £10,000 — the exact amount he needed for his mortgage.
He talked about what his experiences could mean for people in the culinary industry — but especially in Britain, and perhaps for many culinary professionals who had moved to foreign countries. “A foreigner comes in, he’s not being appreciated, and then things start falling into place, and you get appreciation, and you get opportunity,” he said. “You grow up thinking, my God, everyone’s a racist. It’s not. You start to appreciate what’s going on outside of you,” he said.
“If you really work hard, and if you’re really good, and you really do a great job, the recognition does come.” — Joseph L. Garcia