On a journey to India to visit their dying father, Aman Grewel and his brother realised that they needed to open a restaurant in London. They realised that they needed to celebrate the food of India and the central role it plays in families and communities. The bustling kitchens of humble eateries and family homes touched them more profoundly than the anglo-indian-fusion restaurants in today’s London or the anlicised curry houses of their childhoods. Food, they realised, was both simple and complicated. Simple in that it does not need to be embellished by rich sauces and can be delicious even when made from the most humble ingredients. Complicated in that food prepared by hand bears the mark of its maker and thus has humanity and individuality cooked into it for the eater to celebrate and enjoy. On a journey the brothers realised many thing about family, money, legacies, the country of their birth (UK), the country of their ancestry (India) and their need to contribute rather than take.
Aman sits in the Delhi Grill, the restaurant the brothers opened in Chapel Market, North London. Although it is early and raining and the tube is up the spout, the restaurant is packed and bustling: people hopping in and out, waiters calling to one another, steaming and aromatic bowls of food gliding by on trays and a roti chef working with water, flour, and fire: making the bread that is at the centre of it all.
“A good roti puffs up,” Aman explains. “A puffy roti is actually the symbol of this restaurant because it is the symbol of life’s basics, of home cooking and of home. When you tear it open it steams and releases its beguiling aroma…..Most people think naan bread is the staple Indian bread but it is not – it is roti. For naan, you need an oven. For roti you need a fire. Naan is a celebration bread; roti is for every day.”
I watch Gautam, the roti chef, at work. He looks about 12 but is actually a university student, working in the restaurant part time to fund his studies. The dough is prepared hours before it is used: flour and water kneaded together until the dough is springy and then left, covered, to rest until it is used. Gautam takes a small ball of dough: roll, flip, flour, roll, flip, flour, roll, flip, flour…he does this until the roti is paper thin and about the size of a dinner plate. He then transfers the roti to a dry cast iron frying pan that is set a top a gas flame. Flip, flip, flip with his fingers. I wait for the roti to puff up…Flip, flip, flip…and now little brown freckles are appearing on both sides of the roti…Flip, flip, flip…he transfers the roti to the key piece of kit – a long handled contraption with a flat base made of wire on which the roti sits to get maximum heat and air. Back on the flame and like magic, the roti puffs up into a ball and is quickly transfered on to a plate to get served. As fast as Gautam makes the rotis they are served to customers – a mirror of an Indian kitchen.
“Rotis only last a few moments and after that they are hard like cardboard,” he explains. “And they have to be warm so you can tear them open and smell the steam as it comes out.”
There’s the steam again. A lovely, wheaty, grassy, earthy smell. Clean. Fresh.
Aman takes over so Gautam can keep up with demand without me distracting him. I was clearly ready to climb over the counter and try my had at roti making.
“Indians eat roti with every mouthful. It is our knife, our fork and our spoon. If the roti is horrible you can’t eat your food. Roti’s are plain: they provide balance to the intensely flavoured dishes. You cannot eat a lot of any one dish without roti – they are too intense and require the roti’s simplicity. Without roti, your meal is out of balance. In fact,” he adds, “without roti, your life is out of balance.”
Roti, it seems, is the intersection between work and home, man and woman, outdoors and indoors, hunger and contentment. It is the cosmic balance and the basic necessity. It is life lived in harmony.