Spice Queen Anjali Pathak on her incredible food journey
Anjali Pathak and her cookbook (right)
I’m a chef, food writer and cookery teacher from the UK and have always been in love with food. British food has had its fair share of bad press but I’m not talking about loving British food, I’m talking about loving Indian food.
I was born into a food dynasty that shaped culinary Britain, and it was through my parents and grandparents, I grew up understanding why Indian food is one of the best cuisines around.
My grandfather started small as a street cleaner in Britain
My family fled Kenya in the 1950s for a better and safer life in Britain. With little money (less that £5 and an insurance policy) my grandfather (Laxmishanker, Lakhubhai as he was fondly known) had promised my grandmother (Shanta) they wouldn’t regret leaving everything, and everyone they knew behind.
Life was hard in the 50s especially for an immigrant, and with six children to feed, my grandfather truly felt the pressure. The only job he was able to get on his arrival into London was as a street cleaner, which he gladly accepted, knowing it would provide some financial security until he was able to be the entrepreneur he once was in Kenya.
The family saved enough to buy a small shop
My grandmother did what made her happy and that was cooking; like most Indian grandmothers she loved to feed people. Her samosas, bhajias and mithais were incredible and gave local Indians that taste from home they had been missing. Her cooking started out just for the family, but word soon spread of her culinary talent and soon enough there were queues of Indians at dinner time.
The whole family pitched in and Patak’s took its first steps. They soon saved enough money to buy a small shop, and I’m proud to say the Patak’s sign still stands proud outside that very shop on Drummond Street near Euston train station in London.
Soon British locals took notice of us
My grandfather could see the love for Indian food and noticed the lack of availability of staple Indian ingredients and essential household amenities. He had a brainwave idea to import fresh Indian vegetables and essential Indian spices into Britain.
Word soon spread, far and wide, and Indian food shoppers would travel from across the country to visit our shop. It wasn’t only Indians, but British locals, who had experienced Indian food on their travels, visited the shop and picked up their much needed supply of fresh Indian ingredients.
My grandfather would travel to India to buy spices
One shop soon grew into two and the Patak’s brand needed to grow its product offering. My grandfather loved food. He knew spices didn’t last forever and he often travelled to India on spice-buying missions to learn all he could about their wonderful potent flavours.
He spoke to customers asking them how they were using their spices. Some savvy cooks knew to use them up quickly, yet others weren’t storing them properly so my grandparents decided they needed to lock in the flavour somehow, to ensure the ready-made spice mixes they were making tasted as good as on the day they were made. The first Indian spice paste was created. By storing the spices in oil their flavour was preserved and they could last 10 times longer than a dry masala.
The family cooked for a garden party hosted by the the Royal family
One day a scout from the Royal family visited the shop and shared his love of Indian food with my family. He explained the Queen wanted to throw a garden party honouring all the soldiers from the British Raj and they were interested in my family catering. Having never been caterers before, yet not wanting to upset Her Majesty, they gladly accepted.
It was all hands on deck and my father (Kirit) still tells tales of that one fortunate event that lead to them appearing on the front cover of The Times newspaper in 1959. Patak’s had shot to fame overnight. It wasn’t long before a food distributor offered my family a deal to manufacture their recipes on a larger scale to be sold in supermarkets.
My father took over the business at 17
After Patak’s hit the shelves, my family decided they should invest in a food manufacturing plant of their own. One factory lead to another, and we opened the world’s largest Indian food factory of its kind in 2002.
My father took over the business in the early 1970s, when he was only 17, and spearheaded the enormous growth Patak’s enjoys today. He dropped out of school to help his parents, and worked tirelessly with his brothers to keep Patak’s afloat in those early years.
At 23, he had found the most expensive spice
When my father was 23, he travelled to India on a spice-buying trip. In the last 48 hours of his trip, he discovered the most expensive spice of all – my mother (Meena). A few months later they were married and my mother travelled to England with my father.
Being an independent woman from Bombay, my mother was determined to work when she came to the UK. She wanted to work in hospitality, a degree she had studied at the Taj in Mumbai, but living in a joint family home wasn’t easy. With little knowledge of the family business she had married into, she knew getting permission to borrow the one car they all shared was going to be tough.
The nearest hotel was many miles away, so she asked if she could go the office with my father. He toured her round the plant showing her the food business they had created.
My mother was astounded at the size of it, and after seeing the bags of spices waiting to be blended, her creative mind started to work. She said she could cook, a rarity if you grew up with cooks in India, and she said she may be able to show them new recipes.
My mother's Tandoori paste was a hit
My grandfather was a kind and inquisitive man, and so agreed to allow her to create a recipe for a product they had been struggling to perfect. My mother went home, and got to work recipe testing.
That evening she served the family a dish using her new recipe. Astonished at the taste my grandfather asked where she had bought it, not believing she could have created something so delicious in such a short space of time. That Tandoori Paste still sits on supermarket shelves across the world today!
I have fond memories cooking with my mother and grandmother
Over the years we have expanded into readymade sauces, accompaniments and much more. I grew up working in the family business, accompanying my parents to the office when I was a little girl. My two elder brothers and I have all spent time learning the Indian food industry from a young age, often working throughout school holidays.
I was always more interested in culinary aspects, very much following in my mothers footsteps, and my brothers more with my fathers managerial side. I learnt to cook from my grandmother and mother, and have fond memories of our time in the kitchen together.
I worked my way up through new product development and eventually joined my mother managing the recipe writing for Patak’s. We sold Patak’s to Associated British Foods in 2007 and I stayed on with my father.
I trained as a sommelier
I took the role as brand ambassador and continued writing recipes and sharing my love of Indian cuisine with the world. I started a private consultancy that allowed me to share my love for other cuisines besides Indian, and I became a trained chef with a qualification from the prestigious Leiths School of Food & Wine in London.
I also love wine so trained as a sommelier, and my keen interest in healthy eating lead me to study Diet & Nutrition. I now work with other food brands, including Patak’s, and regularly appear in the media and on television across the world.
Spice cooking will always be my first true love
My mother and I wrote an award-winning cookbook together when the business turned 50, and I launched my second book ‘Secrets from my Indian Family Kitchen’ in February this year.
Today, I demonstrate at international food festivals and I teach cookery classes across many cuisines, but spice cooking will always be my first true love. I work in restaurants as often as I can, learning from other talented chefs across all cuisines, which is where my love of international food developed. As well as penning recipes for my next cookbook, I am also setting up a food business in Mumbai, which I can’t wait to shout about.
Check out Anjali Pathak's brand new food channel, Kitchen Quickies on YouTube -->