British chef and founder of Mowgli Street Food Kitchen, Nisha Katona, was the first female Indian barrister in Liverpool. She’s now swapped court for cuisine.
From barrister to restaurateur – why the change?
There was always an eddy that ran alongside my love for the law. It should have been a silly daydream, but it became loud and bold. It related to the base matter of real Indian food which, in Britain, sits in a shrouded and misunderstood corner. I wanted to build a restaurant that was modelled on an Indian home kitchen and this swirling mission would not let me sleep. I gathered together all my savings and built my ﬁrst restaurant while still working the day shift at the Bar. I would ﬁnish court and, in my suit, don a high vis and hard hat, sand ﬂoors, train chefs and plan menus.
Why did you name your restaurant Mowgli?
Mowgli is a pet name I have for my two girls which literally means “feral child”. As a businesswoman and a mother, I had to make sure my daughters loved Mowgli as a sibling – they chose the logo and ultimately, she is named after them.
What were the other restaurants lacking that Mowgli brings to the restaurant scene?
I have always been passionate about Indian food, but not the stuff of curry houses. What is peddled in curry houses is a far cry from the way Indians actually eat at home and on their streets. Our food is actually fresh, light, delicate and extremely healthy which are not words the UK would ever associate with “curry”. I became a curry evangelist, and spent time giving lessons in the ancient light curry formulas of India alongside my full-time job as a barrister.
What made you want to write this cookbook?
This is now my third cookbook, and I am eager to incorporate recipes and stories from Mowgli’s super charged four-year rise. Ultimately, this feels like a love letter both to Mowgli and to my family’s approach to Indian cooking. Whether people sit there with a book propped open when they’re cooking is not the point. Cookbooks are one of the few genres that people want to feel and look through and see the pictures and take to bed with them, and so I only ever write cookbooks like that. This book captures the love and the irreverence I feel towards the world around me; its cultures, its accepted norms in terms of food and life. Like my journey through the professions and the business world it will hopefully inspire as well as understanding and support.
Do you have a favourite recipe from the cookbook?
I love the Bunny chow. Bunny Chow which is a dish devised by Indian railway workers in South Africa. Rich mutton curry was transported to work in a hollow tin loaf. There is something so endearing and charming about a rich, exotic lamb curry presented in a humble, white tin loaf. To me it’s a beautifully tongue and cheek demonstration of Western restraint appropriating Eastern excess. The story of each dish is as delicious as its flavour!
What are your plans for the future?
I’m absolutely thrilled to pieces that a national rollout for Mowgli is taking place this year. We recently opened her doors in Oxford, and our Nottingham site is due to open in July. A second site in Manchester is planned for October and Leeds is hopefully on the horizon for early next year.
Name a simple foodie pleasure.
Oysters- lots and lots of them, with lemon only.
What chef would you love to sit down and have a chat with?
Fuchsia Dunlop as I want to completely understand Chinese food
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Try making one of these mouthwatering recipes from Mowgli Street Food Kitchen: