Yes Chef’s Atul Kochhar on India’s top foodie cities

The Michelin-starred chef takes us on a culinary tour - from gourmet Lucknow to multicultural Kochi

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When he’s not mentoring amateurs on Yes Chef (weekdays BBC1), Atul Kochhar is head honcho at Michelin-starred Benares in London’s Mayfair.

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He grew up in Jamshedpur, an industrial town near Kolkata in East India, which he credits with giving him a taste of his country’s diverse diet.

“I had neighbours from the north, south, east and west,” he says. “It was very cosmopolitan.”

Here are five places he recommends if you want to explore India’s myriad cuisines.

Mumbai

“The Western Indian states are well represented here. You have the cuisine of Maharashtra, which Mumbai is the capital of, the cuisine of the mostly vegetarian Gujarat, and the beef, pork and seafood recipes of Catholic Goa.

“Earlier this year I opened two restaurants in Mumbai, which was very nerve-racking because I hadn’t cooked professionally in India for 24 years. I decided to serve Indian diaspora food and it’s a massive hit. My chicken tikka masala pies are flying off the rack!”

Kochi and Chennai

“Both the city of Kochi in Kerala and Chennai in Tamil Nadu are great places to experiment with coconut-heavy southern Indian cuisine. As a chef, I’m jealous of Keralans because they have seafood and wonderful vegetables at their fingertips, which they cook with freshly picked curry leaves and spices from their gardens.

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Kerala fishing boats

“Culturally, it’s very vibrant because Christians, Muslims and Hindus live side by side. The three main religions have a huge influence on the food here, and distinct cuisines that have intermingled through the centuries.”

Hyderabad

“Hyderabad is the capital of southern India’s landlocked Telangana state and it has a very beautiful cuisine, in my opinion.

“The city itself has a large Muslim population, but it’s in the middle of a Hindu stronghold, so there’s this delicious combination of two cuisines that’s testament to how this multicultural country has grown over the years. Hyderabad is famous for its biryani: lamb, spicy rice and aromatic seasonings cooked in a clay pot.”

Kolkata

“East Indian food is really amazing. It’s mainly seafood and fish-based, which they consider to be vegetarian and the food of the gods. In villages far from the sea, every house has a pond and the prosperity of a household is judged not by wealth, but by how large and full of fish their pond is.

“The main flavours they play with are bay leaves, cinnamon, black cardamom and cloves. Chickpeas are also a huge part of their diet.”

Lucknow

“In North India, New Delhi is the home of tandoori chicken and pungent, spicy and fragrant curries. But the north Indian city that stands out as a gourmet destination is Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh.

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A royal mausoleum in Lucknow, built in 1839

“Here, the delicately presented dishes are a taste of India’s Mogul heritage. Historically, the rulers of Lucknow considered cooking to be one of the arts.”


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