This International Chefs Day we’re turning the spotlight onto Chef Rajiv who shares his blessings of 2020 and flying the flag for Nepalese cuisine at the British Street Food Awards!
Describe yourself and your food to someone who doesn’t know you.
I find it a bit tricky when asked to describe myself even though it may seem one of the straightforward questions. I was born and raised in Nepal. When I was trusted enough to expand my horizons I decided to come to London for my undergraduate degree, despite the other options provided by my family ( America, Australia, Canada or Japan). I always had this inexplicable connection to the Uk and used to be teased as an “English man” as my fake English accent would come out after a couple of pints. I do consider London my home away from home. I am very highly motivated, laid back and tend to survive by focusing on the positive aspects of life with this great love inside me that needs to be let out – it’s reflected in the food I cook and serve.
What are the characteristics of Nepalese food?
Nepalese cuisine is often mistaken for Indian or Chinese food which is a huge misconception. It is more than a hybrid of the aforementioned cuisines. Nepalese food is a food forged in the roof of the world, often in harsh mountainous conditions; it’s born in the lap of the Himalayas. It is fresh, generous, unpretentious and made with lots of care which reflects the love and unity Nepal stands for with simple yet complex layers of flavours. My goal is to put Nepalese cuisine on the culinary map of the world.
Where does your love for cooking and hosting come from?
I was born in a kitchen just after luncheon (yup, home birth). Do I need to say more? No wonder I find solace there and all my creative ideas sprout when I am in a kitchen, particularly if it’s working on an original dish or creating a menu for a new project. Also, II was raised in a big family, where I grew up watching grandma, aunties and mother cooking. I always used to like to create something new even when I was a child and add my own twist to the dishes Mum used to make. I have always found it intriguing how the ingredients work together to create something so wonderful on a plate. It’s utterly fascinating to go through that creative process and see such satisfying results.. So my love for cooking and hosting comes from the happy place that I first entered this world in: our family kitchen.
What inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Inspirations can be gleaned from the moments you cherish, mistakes you have made and lessons you have learned in your day to day life. Revelation comes from all the things that keep me going. It can be an ingredient that I have never come across before or it can be the ones I have used a million times before but am trying to find a new way to use. I am my own worst critic so I am always learning and progressing in cooking. But mostly my family, my wife and the wonderful friends I am blessed with inspire me. It sounds funny but I create a dish depending on the person who has had most impact on me that day and depending on that, the dish has its own personality; feisty with heat or overly melodramatic with seasoning or sassy yet subtle flavours. I believe the food you serve on a plate to your guests should tell a story.
You’re a new father – congratulations! How were you able to navigate that and catering for food deliveries during lockdown?
Whenever I am asked this question, it makes me a tad emotional, still. Because It was an emotional time for everyone. Those were unprecedented times which were very hard to adjust to, for the whole world. And expecting a child during that time was even harder. But you have to search for positivity even when teetering on the abyss. So as hard as it was, we found a way to enjoy moments together. It gave me an opportunity to cook healthy and nutritious meals for my pregnant wife every day. And in a weird way, helped me to keep my sanity as it gave me an opportunity to be more creative with limited resources. So as difficult it was throughout the pregnancy and after the birth during lockdown, we found a way to enjoy those precious moments together, as a family and new parents. At the same time, I was cooking and delivering free meals for NHS staff and volunteers. It was our way of thanking the NHS staff so my eight months pregnant wife assisted me with prepping in the kitchen and later packing the meals, along with friends and family who helped with delivering the food. It was fun really (I’m not sure if my pregnant wife appreciated doing the work in the kitchen though she never complained, so we’re good).
You’ve been selected as a finalist in the British Street Food Awards – amazing! What does this recognition mean for you and Nepalese food (it’s the first time Napalese cuisine features in the awards 10yr history!)
I am still pinching myself to see if it’s real or just a dream. It’s an unbelievably amazing thing to happen and I am beyond ecstatic to be part of BSFA 2020 representing Nepalese cuisine. I count myself lucky to be one of the finalists. It means a lot and more to me personally and Nepalese cuisine as a whole. I will be able to feed authentic Nepalese food to more people from different demographics and reach a whole new audience. My goal of putting Nepalese cuisine on the world culinary map seems more achievable now than ever. So I am grateful to the BSFA board for providing me with this opportunity. I will try my best to make Nepalese cuisine and Nepal proud.
What would you cook for someone new to Nepalese cuisine?
There is this misconcept that Nepalese cuisine is just Daal Bhaat tarkaari rice, lentils & vegetables which is true and it is a staple diet in Nepal. But Nepalese cuisine is more than that. Even though Nepal is a tiny nation, living in the shadow of two giant neighbours (India and China), it has 126 ethnic groups and 123 different languages. Hence, my goal has been to encapsulate the essence of it in my cooking, sometimes in one single dish. I would cook Momos, Choyela, Goat curry, Chukauni and obviously Daal bhaat tarkaari which are the dishes from the four corners of Nepal. I always tend to make one ingredient from one region a hero of the dish and explain it to the guests and take them on a journey from how that particular ingredient is sourced to how it is used in cooking in different regions of Nepal. The flavours are fresh and spicy but not chilli hot. I try not to use too many chillies in my dishes as I believe they overpower the interesting flavours ingredients bring to a dish. So Nepalese cuisine is all about simple elements yet layers of taste that come out with every single bite. As many of my guests put it, “It is a party in the mouth with an explosion of different flavours”.
Despite the current climate, it seems 2020 is your year! What’s next for Rajiv’s Kitchen?
I am with you on this one. Even though 2020 has been such a dramatic year, in some ways, it has been quite good to us. We had our first born which has given us a new lease of life. Then being finalist in British Street Food Awards. We will be at Exale Tap Room in Blackhorse Road throughout the month of November with our street food menu, and we’re planning to host a series of SohoSupperClub events in 2021!
For updates, follow us across our social media platforms @rajivskitchen.
Written by The Soho Girl. Photos by Bibby Production and courtesy of Rajiv’s Kitchen.
This article was originally published My Soho Times autumn issue. Sign up for the latest issue straight to your inbox CLICK HERE!
Share your thoughts in the comment box below!
Are you following My Soho Times on social media? @mysohotimes #MySohoTimes