COOKING became a calling for Niaz Caan at a young age and led him towards working in professional kitchens as a 14-year-old.
Despite taking a break to secure a first-class degree in Economics from the University of Birmingham, the 22-year-old is now the executive chef at City Spice in London’s Brick Lane. The award-winning chef had launched a vegan menu in 2019, which proved to be so popular that it led him towards writing his cookbook. The newly published Vegan: An Indian Cookbook sees him share delicious dishes and recipes created with home cooking in mind.
Eastern Eye caught up with the master chef to discuss his journey, new book, and top cooking tips. He also explained the importance of knife etiquette in the kitchen.
What first connected you to cooking?
My mother began encouraging me to cook with her when I was just nine years old. Thanks to my mother’s guidance, I acquired a wealth of knowledge, and it was the little things that truly stood out. Discovering the impact a touch of lemon juice can have, understanding the significance of using fresh vegetables and learning the art of tempering spices all taught me why adding that extra 10-15 per cent effort in cooking can truly transform a final dish. When I entered the hospitality industry at the age of 14, I embraced this approach wholeheartedly.
What specifically inspired you to write Vegan: An Indian Cookbook?
After the fortunate success of my vegan menu at City Spice, which garnered extensive coverage in newspapers and on TV, thanks to the overwhelming praise it received, a trend emerged. Whenever customers visited to indulge in the vegan menu, they were consistently intrigued by the flavours and delectable textures of my plant-based curries.
Tell us about that?
Despite using ingredients devoid of animal products, they persistently posed questions such as, “how do you achieve such creaminess in your curries without ghee?” or “how did you manage to cook the tofu without it falling apart?” The inquiries were plentiful and varied. Today, I have the privilege of addressing their curiosity by pointing them to this cookbook, a compendium of secrets, recipes, and much more.
Tell us about your book?
Vegan: An Indian Cookbook is a book close to my heart, where I bring out the very best of the awardwinning Indian cuisine that can be found in City Spice. The book follows on from my success with the vegan menu and boasts foodie first recipes such as vegan tofu tikka masala, as well as the restaurant’s favourites such as dall bindi gatta and palani potatoes. Taking over five years to write since the menu, I ensured all recipes were perfect and divine, before writing them up.
How did you decide on which recipes to include in this book?
Simply by ensuring they tasted amazing and were vegan. Some of the recipes are from City Spice, when I would be trialling and testing at 2am with recipes after hours of service, while others are based for those who may need something low effort yet tasty. But the decision to include recipes was a simple one – it needed to be tasty.
Who are you hoping picks up this book?
Anyone who has an interest in Indian food, and more specifically those who wish to try veganism, or may wish to continue their journey on a plantbased diet.
Why do you love vegan food?
I just think vegan food is such a sustainable, healthy way to live a life and certainly feels good knowing about the impact this movement is making on the world.
How much of the book is informed by your experience as a chef?
Almost everything. My culinary journey commenced at the age of 14 in the hospitality industry. From my involvement with the vegan menu at the restaurant, to crafting the award-winning à la carte menu, and constantly striving to elevate the restaurant’s offerings through recipe refinement, it all originates from a deep desire to captivate people with exceptional cuisine and delightful flavours.
Did you learn anything new while writing this book?
(Laughs) I learnt about the importance of good grammar.
What according to you makes for a great dish?
A great dish needs to have an amazing flavour profile, and the textures need to be as the chef intended. For example, if using baby potatoes, it’s always important to me that they’re crispy on the outside, but fluffy on the inside once cooked.
What top cooking tip would you give?
Temper your spices. Always spend some time at the beginning frying your dry spices in some sunflower oil, as the aroma and the ability to ‘break’ the spices into your pan really make a huge difference in the end result. Loads of people tend to skip it at home, especially when in a rush.
What common mistakes do you think people make while cooking?
Not learning good knife etiquette. I think the ability to cut, dice and julienne accurately can make such a difference in the texture profile of a dish, especially when cooking with onions. I think not learning how to use a knife well can debilitate the end result of your food to some respect as the difference between finely diced onions, and a rough cut is quite the difference.
People enjoy your cooking as a chef, but whose cooking do you love?
(Smiles) My mother’s, always.
What inspires you as a chef?
Just the ability and want to keep pushing myself, to achieve the very best in food and flavour.