Café Spice Namasté
On St. Valentine’s Day I listened to Mozart’s Magic Flute, after which Mary and I went to dinner at Café Spice Namasté. There is a historical connection between them that goes back to the 8 th century. As is well known, Mozart’s opera is a sort of PR job for Freemasonry, in which the basso profundo Sarastro represents the prophet Zoroaster. When his followers were driven out of Persia 1400 years ago by the invading Muslims, some fled to Gujarat in north India, where they became known as Parsis. They had come in peace, bringing their talents and intellectual acumen, and were welcomed accordingly.
Britain’s invading hoards were a different matter. In the days of the Raj, the Parsis’ business acumen stood them in good stead and they came to dominate the commercial life of Victorian Bombay. Renowned for their honesty and their philanthropy, they had always enjoyed a high moral standing. Like the Quakers, the Zoroastrians have historically encouraged mutual assistance.
Having helped to straighten out India’s invaders, the Parsis were among the first from that continent to settle in Britain. The impartial observer might regard their religious and cultural tolerance as a civilizing influence among the bellicose successors to the schismatic and polygamous King Henry. Wherever they have gone, they have helped to raise the intelligence quotient as well: in 1988, 70% of Parsis in the USA and Canada held doctorates. The first three Asians to become Members of the British Parliament were all Parsis. Spanning a period from 1892 to 1929, they included with fine impartiality a Liberal, a Tory and a Socialist.
Not content with teaching us how to live, the Parsis are now showing us how to eat, and their modern prophet is the cordial and multi-talented Cyrus Todiwala, MBE. His home base is Café Spice Namaste, a colorful adaptation of a building in the City that started as an early 19 th century courthouse. Its present use is in its own way equally judicious: Cyrus claims over 1500 regular diners, which Mary and I happily number ourselves among.
Our first exposure to his culinary charms was at a workshop he gave for the Guild of Food Writers, in which he skillfully interwove political and culinary history. The result was a medley of memorable flavors drawn mostly from his Café Spice Namastecookbook. These included (to give them their simple English names) eggs on potato, fish in banana leaf with green coconut chutney, green fish curry, chicken with apricots, and coconut pancakes. The eggs on potato (Papeta pur eeda) was the simplest and therefore, to my taste, the most memorable. It consists of sautéed potatoes and onions with poached eggs, but is given a unique identity by liberal seasoning with garlic, cumin, chili and coriander. In the final stage, eggs are gently poached in round indentations first made in the top by an unbroken shell. Potatoes, onions, eggs—what a classic combination! In various transmutations, augmented with a bit of cheese, I would happily survive on them forever.
The Valentine Day menu last week was a tasting menu with five starters, five main courses, rice, naan and a desert of three kulfis. [Click on menu to enlarge, then click again.] The starters came on a single long dish. All were excellent, but the chicken cubes had a particular succulence and a flavor that cut easily through the chili and spices—no mass-produced birds here! Among the main courses, the daal leapt out at me, not because it was better than the other dishes but because it was so much more full of character and flavor than is usual with this plebeian dish. Cyrus told us that he often has it as his lunch, and we were quite prepared to believe him.
What keeps Mary and me coming back to Café Spice Namasté is not just the excellence of the food, but the restaurant’s attitude and ambience. The staff are respectful in the best possible way—they treat you as their equals. Cyrus acknowledges his gastronomic roots, but there is a playfulness in the cuisine, as in the décor: both are bright and colorful, but not screamingly over the top. The ingredients are organic when possible and seasonal always. In short, if I lived around the corner and could afford it, I’d happily eat here most every day.
Not content with just running a first-rate restaurant, Cyrus Todiwala has branched out into practical social work. If you want to eat well and also help train young chefs for a fraction of the tab you’ll pay at Jamie Oliver’s much-publicized Fifteen, try Zen Satori on Hoxton Street near Old Street tube. It’s the student restaurant attached to Cyrus’s award-winning Asian and Oriental School of Catering. While Jamie struggles to turn fifteen drop-outs a year into employable chefs, Cyrus and a staff of 18 have in five years trained about five hundred of society’s rejects and placed them in the restaurant and catering industry. A happy palate, a full stomach and a warm glow of satisfaction will cost you—well, a sum approximately equal to the name of Jamie’s restaurant.
Café Spice Namasté 16 Prescot Street, London E1 8AZ, Tel: 020 7488 9242
Zen Satori 40 Hoxton Street, London N1 6NH, Tel: 020 7613 9590
©2006 John Whiting