HE’S the Indian chef who takes the guesswork out of cooking with spices, but Cyrus Todiwala is at home in Wales as he is in his native India. For now, at least…
WHEN it comes to familiar faces at the Abergavenny Food Festival, Cyrus Todiwala is definitely up there with the best of them.
Article by Nicole Garnon | South Wales Argus
The Indian chef known for Parsi cuisine has been a stalwart of the Welsh food fiesta for so many years there could be a danger in him looking like a part of the – albeit delicious – furniture.
A firm favourite on the British food scene with more than 10,000 followers on Twitter – where his handle is @ctodiwala – the instantly recognisable 59-year-old is as at home sparring with Tony Singh on The Incredible Spice Men as he is toiling over a bubbling pot of exotic curry in any of his ventures.
But top of the lot, the MBE reveals, has to be that one special weekend in Wales every year.
Well, as long as he can find it, he jokes.
“We always get lost finding our house in the middle of the night,” he laughs. “We get stuck on that one-way system every year, we’re always on that road with everyone else.”
Joking aside, Abergavenny Food Festival is what Cyrus, commonly regarded the “UK’s best Indian chef” terms “a homecoming”.
“I think Abergavenny always is the best food festival in the country. We’ve been to many and I do believe that it’s if not the best, it’s one of the very best,” he enthuses.
For one thing, Cyrus and his staff look forward to the Welsh excursion immensely.
“We know we’re going to work our socks off for it, and we start planning a year in advance.
“And the people are just fabulous. Nine out of 10 people come there to actually buy, enjoy and have a good time.”
As opposed to other food events where ‘tasters’ swing by and enjoy some of his Mr Todiwala’s range of sauces but don’t return, Cyrus says Abergavenny pulls in those who want to shop, shop, shop.
“They say ‘I want that, that, that, that and that, please put it in a bag for me’. We love that because they trust you and they’re happy to see you there – unless you don’t bring their favourite products and then you get told off by them!”
The different areas celebrating cheese, wines, meat, baking and more are all a draw for the Mumbai native – and he even has his own shopping list all ready to go.
“If I get time to wander around, the guy I have to track down sells damsons. If I find him, I buy the whole lot because then I come back here and make chutney with them,” he shares conspiratorially.
This year’s impressive Abergavenny chef attendance sheet includes MasterChef Monica Galetti – on the bill for the first time – Jose Pizarro, a restaurateur and chef known for his Spanish and Basque recipes, and even a rare appearance from Tom Kerridge, the West Country cook who never knowingly under-flavours his classic British cuisine.
Cyrus says the variety is what makes Abergavenny – and the ingredients they use are part of what makes Wales.
“Most of the lamb we use [at the restaurant] comes from North Wales from Lord Newborough’s Rhug estate in Denbighshire and we have a lot of other suppliers dotted across the country that give the very best inWelsh produce, whether it’s pork, lamb, beef.
“There are great preserves – and not to forget, Wales has great seafood. The crab meat is good, they’ve got lobsters and langoustines from the West coast. And the only sustainable sea bass that’s farmed in the UK is in Wales,” he adds.
It’s not just the Welsh produce that he’s bugging up this year, as Cyrus also has a new book for those nervy of Indian cooking.
Mr Todiwala’s Spice Box shows the fearful how they can use just 10 spices in 120 recipes – and it’s bound to be a hit with all those foodies swinging by his stall.
“Brits are still daunted by spices,” he says firmly. “The number of classes I do where people ask what spices they should have in their larder prompted me to start thinking about it.”
The book adds to his already impressive bibliography of five
Away from Abergavenny, Cyrus has a summer of food events coming up, including some Scottish dates at Taste of Grampian and Taste of Dundee in June and July with his old friend Tony Singh.
He doesn’t mind admitting that he would take the festival atmosphere over a TV studio any day.
“Festivals are more enjoyable because I’m on a one-to-one with the people there and I get my own stage.
“Working on television or in a studio is a completely different atmosphere simply because you are doing something which you do not have any control over. You are at the hands of the producer, director, whatever you do, they are the ones who control.”
But working with Tony is “great” at festivals or in front of the camera.
“We have a lot of fun together, we enjoyed Incredible Spice Men, because food is all about having fun, not getting bogged down. If they wanted another series, I would take it, but at the moment it’s on the back burner.”
Trained as a classic French chef, Cyrus has gone back to his roots with the Indian dishes he and Tony were so skilled at showing the British public, and he says nothing makes him happier.
“It was after I trained that I realised I had to switch back into Indian food and learn something about my home cooking – and that’s when the excitement came. It helped me reconnect with where I am from.
“If you look at Indian cuisine as a whole, that’s 26 different cuisines. If you live 1,000 years, you will not understand Indian food, it will take that long.”
Coming to the UK in 1991 and building on his already successful career and reputation here, Cyrus recently opened a restaurant in Goa, The River Restaurant – his first in India.
He says the opportunity to dip back into some of the flavours of his past was a proud moment.
“At the restaurant we went back to basics, what we knew as children. We grew up eating simple food at home.
“If you grew up in Mumbai you were very privileged, so privileged to grow up in a city that was so dynamic, but so open to other cultures.”
The love Cyrus has for his homeland is clear, and he reveals that he even thinks about one day returning to live there.
“I would like to spend more time in India, perhaps, maybe two, three months a year at least, and the remaining time here.
“We would love to go around India driving and cooking and learning more about the cultures along the route.
“But you cannot say anything because you never know where life may take you.”
Sounds like anyone keen to see Cyrus should make sure they get to Abergavenny – because the next step he takes could be much further afield.
Cyrus Todiwala: Mr Todiwala’s Spice Box is at the Borough theatre on Saturday September 17 at 1pm for Abergavenny Food Festival. Tickets are priced £12. For more details visit www.abergavennyfoodfestival.com
Mr Todiwala’s Spice Box, published by Octopus, is out on July 5