Vineet Bhatia’s Hundred-Foot Journey Home

The chef moved to London in 1993, but he still plates up Mumbai.  
Ziya, Oberoi, Mumbai
Ziya, Vineet Bhatia’s fine-dining establishment at the Oberoi, Mumbai.

I would never call a rogan josh, ‘rogan josh’,” says Vineet Bhatia, “I would call it a ‘slow-cooked shank of lamb with Kashmiri spices.’” We’re at Ziya, Bhatia’s fine-dining establishment at the Oberoi, Mumbai, where a new tasting menu includes items such as an amuse bouche of prawn, apple, corn and cauliflower, garnished with sweet yogurt and tamarind sauce to bring to mind the crunchy, sweet, spicy, and sour tastes and textures of chaat. As Bhatia explains the rationale behind his very successful rebranding of traditional Indian food for an international clientele—he currently runs 10 restaurants in eight cities—something else about Bhatia clicks into place.

In a way, the chef has been running away from tradition, from home, from Mumbai, ever since he was young. “As a kid I wanted to become a pilot, and travel, and fly,” he tells me. “But you know life has its ways—I ended up being a chef purely by error, and started training at the Oberoi.”

At culinary school, Bhatia was the shortest and youngest in his class. “I used to get bullied and had to learn to stand up and fight for myself.” Looking around him, the young Bhatia “realised that everybody was doing the same damn thing. And they were all like sheep, they would follow the same path.”

European chefs, and their ingenuity in the kitchen, opened Bhatia’s mind up to different ways of thinking. “I thought if a foreigner can do it in a foreign land, why can’t I do it in my own motherland,” he says. And I think food became a way for me to express myself, of what I wanted. It was my space, it was my freedom and I could do things the way I wanted to.”

This tension of wanting to escape, while being inextricably tied to his roots as a classically trained Indian chef, became even more pronounced for Bhatia when he moved to London in 1993 and got a job in an Indian restaurant. “I was the only Indian,” recalls Bhatia; the rest of the staff were Bangladeshis who had trained in curry houses. Bhatia was churning out, “chicken tikkas and biryanis and mussalams and kormas,” but his diners weren’t actually interested in the food he was serving up. “I realised I have to change my mindset to survive.”

So rogan josh became slow-cooked lamb shanks, and ingredients from India’s regional cuisines along with those foreign to Indian cooking came together in new and wonderful ways. A moilee, and rechado and coffee-rubbed lamb chops can be part of the same meal, as I experienced over a tasting menu at Mumbai’s Ziya, with not a single element feeling out of place.

Chef Vineet Bhatia

Chef Vineet Bhatia

Bhatia’s forging of a singularly Indian culinary identity, outside India, was a successful formula. Besides Ziya, Bhatia has restaurants scattered all over the globe; his customers include not only Indian immigrants to cities such as Dubai and Doha but also curious eaters in places like Geneva, who have little context of Indian food. Even in London, where his flagship eatery, Vineet Bhatia London opened last year, says Bhatia, “not more than 20 per cent of customers are Indian.”

Not all Bhatia’s diners are familiar with the ins and outs of Indian food, so his menus are accessible to a wide range of people. “I have always been very experimental as a kid from day one,” says Bhatia, “I used to question things.”

But today, back in Mumbai, Bhatia is also happy to talk about the childhood memories that fuelled his experiments with Indian food over all his years away from home. “What I used to love to eat was street food,” Bhatia tells me. Living on Mumbai’s northern seafront, there was a bounty of such dishes available. “I grew up on Juhu Chowpatty,” he reminisces, “so you know; you had your bhel puri and pani puri and ragda pattice and all that stuff there. The thelewala or the cycle guy used to come and he used to make the bhel puri in the building, neeche aake.”

After all, Bhatia, like most Indians, loves the play of tastes and textures that a chaat entails. As he waxes lyrical about chaat—“one thing which ignites your palette”—he talks about how “it’s not just one single taste coming through. It has got a lot of things that tease your palette, and that is why I think chaats are so popular.”

Bhatia applies the multifarious approach to other dishes, mixing memories with culinary discipline and a dash of whimsy. He talks about the crab khandvi dish he will be introducing to the menu at Vineet Bhatia London this month (it was also on the menu at Zaika, which Bhatia opened in London in 1999, in a different avatar). “I love Gujarati snacks,” Bhatia says. “You get some very good Gujarati food also in Mumbai. As a kid, I remember eating khandvi and dhoklas. So again, the khandvi has been a big inspiration.We’ve taken the khandvi—and if I tell a Gujarati what I want to do, he’ll probably turn in his grave—and we fill it with crabmeat. We did a crab ka chaat, and gave it coastal flavours of coconut, kadi patta (curry leaves) and rai (mustard seeds), and filled the khandvi with the crabmeat. When you roll it, you get a beautiful yellow spiral with the inside of white flaky crabmeat; it looks like coconut flakes!”

As typified by the khandvi and crab dish, Bhatia is still happy to transgress convention to create food that is both visually appealing, and that combines unexpected ingredients. But he appreciates that for many of his diners—some of whom have been away from “home” far longer than he has—“Many things boil down to what you have eaten as a kid. The flavours, the colours, the textures. You try and bring memories back. They may not think of it as a combination, but you know, when they eat, they say, ‘ha, yeh to maine khaya hai’—I know this taste.”

It’s a moment of recognition that makes the unfamiliar not only palatable, but delicious.

  • Aatish Nath is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. He has written for Time Out Mumbai, Mumbai Mirror, and GQ India.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?