It might be peak summer holiday time, with many of us planning far-flung breaks across the globe, but there’s a whole world of exotic dining to enjoy in Britain that we barely need to leave our doorsteps for.
As a nation, 43% of us ate out at least once a week last year, and we spent a total of £85 billion dining in cafes, pubs and restaurant in 2017. But what’s proving even more popular is our ever-expanding appetite for new tastes and different world cuisines, which astute chefs are plating up for us across the country.
Cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar were well aware of the UK’s obsession with curry - it is our national dish, after all - but when they set up Dishoom, they were inspired by a more specific type of Indian cuisine; the Iranian cafes of Bombay, opened by the Zoroastrian immigrants who resettled there in the early 1900s.
The Thakrars opened their debut venue in Covent Garden in 2010 and it’s fair to say business is booming. Five more restaurants have opened across the UK since then - including Shoreditch and Kensington in London, and one in Edinburgh - and the amount of people Instagramming their cult bacon naan breakfast wrap is off the charts.
Dishoom executive chef, Naved Nasir, says a vital part of creating such a unique menu is by visiting his home country regularly: “I go back to India at least two or three times a year. I am really lucky – every year I get to be part of the Dishoom Bombay Bootcamp, where we take team members who have been with us for five years or more on a guided tour of Bombay to learn about its food, culture and heritage. It’s a really fantastic, foodie experience and a great time for me to do research.”
He adds: “The city is a huge source of inspiration for me. I love wondering around the streets. On one of my previous visits, I had the best ever Nalli Nihari - which is a really hearty, lamb-on-the-bone stew - from Surti Bara Handi on Mohammed Ali Road. We now serve a version as the King’s Cross restaurant as a special dish. Then I had the idea of the option of adding bheja (lamb brains), which gives it a lovely extra richness.”
Nasir looks to the melting-pot of cultures in the Indian city - the Hindus, Muslim and Parsis - and the different spots like cafés, grills, street stalls and homes in which they cook up traditional food for his own culinary creations.
“There’s one ingredient I’ve got my eye on that I’d like to bring back to the UK, which is yellow chilli powder,” he says. “I love the flavour of it. It is sharp and fragrant and also gives dishes a lovely colour. It’s a key ingredient for biryanis and marinades, but it isn’t available in this country - yet.”
Sanguan Parr is head chef at Nipa Thai at Royal Lancaster London and she says she travels to her home town near Phuket every few years to ensure her menu stays fresh, yet in-keeping with traditional cuisine.
But in addition to this, she has a much more 2018 way for her to be inspired by far-off food trends in other countries: the internet. She explains: “I stay connected by watching Thai cooking videos on Youtube to find out new ingredients, recipes and trends.”
She adds: “I love to watch MasterChef USA and Australia (as well as the Thai version!) to get ideas and see what’s trending in other countries,” allowing her to make foodie notes for new flavours to explore on her next trip abroad.
In Nipa Thai, Parr likes to focus on the time-honoured cuisine of her homeland - and the way in which it is presented. “My signature dish that I’m known for is my Pad Thai, which traditionally in Thailand is served in cone-shaped banana leafs from street stalls. I’m also looking for a way to cook more with heart of palm and winged beans, but they are very expensive to import.”
Some tastes are not always to a British palate, she says, but are a real treat for the more adventurous: “I love to cook a lovely dish from South Thailand called Khua Kling which is a very spicy, dry Thai curry made usually with minced pork – but it’s not as popular in the UK.”
Across the country in Nottingham - and taking inspiration from another continent - is chef Ken Gambura of Braai Flavours restaurant
Gambura is Zimbabwean and he has created a menu of his traditional homeland dishes that have a slightly British twist. As braai means grilling meat over an open fire, that’s theme of the eaterie and diners tuck into Zambezi T-bone steak, sumu chicken and boerewors, a type of spicy beef sausage that is ringed, like a Cumberland sausage.
It’s Gambura’s family and the dishes he grew up with that have had the most impact on his menu. The meat dishes are coated in a special sumu glaze - a tomato-based sauce with paprika, turmeric and ginger, which is popular in Manicaland, a province in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe - and is a recipe given to him by his father, while his late mother, Florence, is commemorated on the labels of his in-house bottled sauces he makes.
Speaking to the Nottingham Post, he said: “The menu was driven by my mum. She was a really good chef and a lot of the cooking I do now I learnt from her - how to mix flavours and getting the spices right.
“We used to call her ‘wonder woman’ as she would put together, from nothing, a really good, tasty meal. She was really good at putting flavours together.
“I grew up around food, cooking, and I suppose that’s where the passion for food came from.”
Braai Flavours began as a street food stall as a way to “give back to the community”, says Gambura, and after he was championed by Marco Pierre White at the Nottingham Food Festival in 2015, he opened up his permanent restaurant in the city last year.
While Zimbabwe is going through a state of flux and political upheaval, Gambura says he hopes his cooking will bring the flavour of the country to a new audience in the UK: “The change is a good thing. It will open up other opportunities for people who are in Zimbabwe and will hopefully open up the borders and get funding in for tourism and business.
“Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, it’s got a lot to offer to the rest of the world,” he says.
Like any exploration of a new country, the food seems as good a place as any to start.