But it was back in India while working as a sales manager for the Taj Group of hotels that Panjabi started to challenge people’s perceptions of Indian food and what it could be. Not only did she bring street food to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel – “It was like trying to bring a hot dog into the lobby of The Dorchester,” Panjabi recalls of her mission to convince the owners that street food was acceptable fare – but she is also credited as being the mother of Indian Chinese cuisine. She acquired her fiery palate during trips first to New York and then to Hong Kong, and it was while dining at Hong Kong’s Red Pepper restaurant that she knew that the Szechuan flavours she had fallen in love with would appeal at home. “It wasn’t just that the dishes were fiery,” says Panjabi, “it’s that they were highly complex. You see a dish doesn’t become great by only adding chilli; when you add chilli you have to add other ingredients to balance it out so that it becomes sweet, it becomes sour, it has an astringency to it and it has a great aroma. It has to have complexity,” she explains. So, with a charm and gusto that has helped her eke out the closely guarded secrets to the recipes that form her seminal book, 50 Great Curries of India, she simply pointed to a postcard of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and asked the Red Pepper’s manager whether he would like to bring three Szechuan chefs to India to open a restaurant there: “I like to come straight to the point,” Panjabi laughs. Needless to say, the manager jumped at the chance and The Golden Dragon opened in 1973.
BLENDING TRADITION WITH MODERNITY
While Panjabi was rising through the ranks of the Taj Group, Namita and Ranjit were forging ahead with their dining empire in London, opening Chutney Mary in 1990 and acquiring Veeraswamy, Britain’s oldest Indian restaurant, in 1997. The highly successful Masala Zone chain followed (currently seven branches and counting) and by 2001, Panjabi was persuaded to come to London to mastermind the launch of the Michelin-starred Amaya. She has been instrumental, too, in overseeing the most important development in the group in recent years – the relocation of Chutney Mary from Chelsea to St. James’s and, so as not to disappoint Chutney Mary’s loyal local clientele, the opening of Masala Grill on the site vacated by the group’s venerable stalwart.
“The relocation of Chutney Mary has been very exciting. Taking an institution that has been popular in a certain context and location for a quarter of a century and bringing it to an area with a different ethos, an area proud of its roots and its culture, was a big challenge,” Panjabi reveals. “We have created a restaurant that retains the characteristics of the old and yet blends with the culture of where we are now – bringing the food up to today, offering some innovation but with a fair amount of nostalgia for what Chutney Mary stands for.”
The nod to modernity is revealed in what Panjabi calls the “spaciousness and restrained elegance
of the décor”, and also in the menu itself, where starters have given way to small plates and new dishes include lobster biryani and a reinvented kulfi deliciously flavoured with salted caramel. “I’ve seen Indian food evolve over the past 40 years and I have travelled around India completely, so I know the gems,” says Panjabi. “I hope our guests at Chutney Mary come away having enjoyed the kind of Indian food they won’t have experienced anywhere before, including in India itself.” For a group that has dominated London’s Indian culinary scene for so long, it will be interesting to see what plans MW Eat’s trio of directors have for the anniversary of Veeraswamy next year. “It’s the 90th birthday of the Queen in 2016, too,” says Panjabi, as if by way of a clue. For now, Chutney Mary looks set to become a St. James’s stalwart, a place to experience real Indian food with some innovative twists that only MW Eat and its talented chefs have the secrets to.