Q&A: Manmeet Singh Bali
The head chef of Ooty on showcasing some of India’s less familiar cuisine and why a man from the far north of the country is focusing on the food of its south
Interview: Viel Richardson
Images: Orlando Gili
Where does the name Ooty come from?
It is a shortened version of Udhagamandalam, the name of a hill station in Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Hill stations are small towns at high altitudes, often based around a railway station, where the climate is cool and lush. People would go to them during the summer months to escape the extreme heat of the south Indian coastal plains. British officers adopted this habit in large numbers to escape the coastal heat. The idea of the hill station still conjures up the idea of a cool, pleasant refuge from the summer heat.
Is the food of southern India less well known in Britain than its northern counterpart?
I would definitely say so. India has a very varied cuisine. Every five miles you walk in India the food changes, sometimes quite drastically. But there is a distinct difference between southern and northern food. North India’s food uses a lot of butter and ghee, and they use a lot of rich sauces such as a thick cashew paste. They also use meat in a lot of their dishes. Southern Indian food, as a rule, is a lot lighter, with more vegetables. For example, you will find a lot of wild mushrooms in their cooking and there are not so many of those big, rich sauces.
Is it a spicy cuisine?
In the south, they produce a lot of spices. Some of the very first trading the British did in India was for pepper from Calicut on the southwestern coast. They have chillies ranging from mild to extremely hot. There’s cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Tamarind fruit adds sourness to dishes. They also use a lot of coconut in their sauces. One popular spice that British diners may not be familiar with is a lichen called kalpasi, often called the black stone flower. It is usually served with meat and gives dishes a very distinct taste—an aroma of the woods that brings a real sense of nature to the plate.
You come from the far north, in Kashmir. Where did you learn to love south Indian cuisine?
The food from my home is very different. In Kashmir the climate can be very cold, with long winters and hot but rainy summers, so it is very lush. I grew up eating a lot of meat, especially lamb and chicken. In Kashmir, the thing they probably use most is fennel—most of the sauces will have a hint of fennel in them.
I moved to a small town called Mangalore, on the southwest Indian coast, for my culinary training. I then joined the Taj Hotel group, and for the next five years worked in hotels throughout the south. This is when I experienced the full variety of southern Indian cuisine and I really just loved the flavours. This is when I really developed my love for this cuisine.
What brought you here?
I was offered a position as chef de partie at the five-star Turnberry Hotel in Scotland. That was very interesting, as it was my first experience of cooking Indian food for the European palate. In those days, you definitely had to adjust the spicing. Now, I think people are happier to try more authentic dishes. After moving to London, I became sous chef at Zaika and head chef at Vineet Bhatia, both Michelin star restaurants. All the time I was experimenting with combining the techniques I was learning with the Indian ingredients I knew so well.
There are three different sections at Ooty. Tell us about them.
We decided early on that this site gave us the opportunity to serve two different types of food. The main restaurant, which faces onto Baker Street, would be about the fine dining experience. The smaller space facing onto Dorset Street has a design reminiscent of a hill station railway building. This has more of a street food feel, with a more relaxed, less formal environment. Here you can get beer on tap, cocktails, all-day dining menu and take away food. Finally we have the bar downstairs called The Ooty Club. This has the feel of a Victorian-era colonial bar, with dark woods and subdued lighting. We serve whiskys, gins and beers in a very old-fashioned atmosphere. You can get some food, but first and foremost it is a bar.
How long did it take to develop your menus?
My sous chef, chef Niru, and I were the core menu development team. Creating ideas, cooking, experimenting and tasting was about three to four months of solid work. When we were happy with a dish, we got input from the kitchen staff and selected connoisseurs who understood our flavours. It takes skill and time to really balance the flavours. It also takes deep knowledge of the ingredients. Once you are happy, you lock in that recipe, but it does not stop there. As you get more experience cooking it, any dish will slowly evolve as ways of improving it reveal themselves. Menu development is a never-ending process—it doesn’t stop when the restaurant opens.
Spice blends are a key part of Indian cuisine. Did you develop your own?
We created our own biryani mix and the garam masala powder. We roast whole spices, grind them and blend the powders in our kitchen. We do buy very high quality blends for the chaat masala and the chana masala. With chaat masala, for example, it can be tricky to consistently find all the ingredients in the UK of the right quality, so it is better to buy that from a producer we can trust.
What are the dishes that you think exemplify Ooty?
We serve a wonderful Hyderabadi south Indian biryani with egg, cooked in a sauce of cashew, brown onions and spices. Then Tellicherry crab with a zesty coconut crab relish and tomato chutney; lamb shank koora with lemon pine nut rice, coconut foam and plantain crisps; and eral poriyal, which is a stir-fried gunpower shrimp dosa.
How have you approached the drinks?
Gone are the times when it was: “You have to have a beer with a curry.” People are now coming to the restaurant with the idea of having wine with their food. We have worked very hard on our wine pairings. There are some wonderful pairings that may surprise people, but work beautifully. We use wines from both the old and the new world: French, Argentinian, American, Spanish. There are some really good wines coming from the smaller European countries.
We have a producer in Poona in India who is making us a mango wine. Just as you can taste the grapes in a good wine, you can taste the essence of mango in his wine. It is quite a sweet taste initially but this fades, leaving a lovely mellow finish. It pairs beautifully with fish, scallops and chicken.
Can you give us an example of a pairing?
We have one dish where we marinate lamb for 12 hours with yoghurt, tomatoes, onions, garam masala, chilli powder, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, kalpasi, bay leaf, black peppercorn, green cardamom and black cardamom. Then we slowly braise the lamb in the oven at a very low temperature until the meat just flakes off the bone. We remove the meat and pass the sauce through a sieve and serve the smooth sauce with the lamb. This is served with ottappam—a spinach and artichoke pancake. We suggest pairing this with a malbec. You see so many spices and wonder about the wine pairing, but it is a wonderful combination.
How important to you is the way food is presented?
Considering the plate design is as important as considering the recipes. When you initially imagine a dish, you are imagining tastes and textures against a blank canvas. But when you start experimenting with different ways of plating that dish, different presentations on different types of crockery, each one will bring out a new dimension. It can change how the ingredients interact with each other and how the diner will experience the final dish. This is the point where the dish really comes to life. If you serve the same piece of meat on a ceramic, wooden or steel plate, each one will look and taste different. It is the way the human mind works. Plating a dish well allows you to play with that to improve the dish’s appeal.
Tell us about your tea offering.
It is a very important part of what we do. We have an extensive tea list that we give the same attention to detail to as we do the wine. Our main tea supplier regularly sends down one of their tea sommeliers to train our staff. The sommeliers have spent time becoming very familiar with our flavours and take the staff through potential matches. They train them how to combine the teas with different flavours we use. It means our staff can tailor their suggestions to the customers’ tastes and where they are in their meal.
How do you see the menu evolving?
South India is such a huge region, I can see different dishes coming and going from the menu at different times of the year. We won’t target specific areas—we won’t say, “We need a dish from Goa or Tamil Nadu”—but there is such a variety to choose from that the menu will always be fresh.
Have you been enjoying yourself?
Absolutely, I have enjoyed the whole project. I was the first person through the door of the site once we acquired it. I have really enjoyed being involved with the whole process, from helping devise the interior design concept, to designing the menu, to hiring and training the staff. I feel really connected to this restaurant. It gives me a sense of satisfaction seeing people sitting down at our tables, enjoying their meals with friends.