Meet the Indian Chefs Bringing Modern Himalayan Cuisine to London


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Meet the Indian Chefs Bringing Modern Himalayan Cuisine to London

"You can't take away the fact that I'm Indian, so we're cooking food that's from all around the Himalayas," says Harneet Baweja, whose menu at the recently opened Madame D's spans momos, chili paneer, and masala lamb noodles.

When I arrive at Madame D's, a new restaurant serving food inspired by the Himalayan region, I worry that I've accidentally walked into someone's flat. Firstly, the dining room is located above Blessings, a bar near Spitalfields Market in East London. And upon peering into the dark room, I spot an oak coat stand, a fishbowl containing two goldfish, and various knicks-knacks arranged on a mantelpiece above an open fireplace. Awnings cover the window and block out the morning light, giving the room some serious Miss Havisham-esque vibes.


But before I have time to back out of the door and double check the address, Madame D's founder Harneet Baweja (also of lauded London Indian restaurant Gunpowder) waves hello from the other side of the room.

"Come in! I've turned the lights down and lit some candles so you can see what it'll be like when we're open in the evenings. Would you like some wine?"

Madame D's exterior. All photos by the author.

Opting for water (it's 10 AM on a Tuesday, after all), we settle down at one of the tables. Before quizzing Baweja on the goldfish and cockerel perched on the mantelpiece (metal, I hasten to add), I remember that I'm here for Himalayan food—not odd restaurant pets.

RECIPE: Harneet Baweja's Spicy Lamb Noodles

"If you look at a map of the Himalayas, you can see there's Nepal, Tibet, India, Afghanistan, and China all around the mountains. The food is shaped by the altitude, the terrain, and all the surrounding places," Baweja explains. "There's constant heat in the food because you've got India on one side, Nepal on one side, Afghanistan, and China. And also because it's cold up there!"

Inside Madame D's.

Baweja should know. After spending childhood summers visiting family on the North East Indian side of the Himalayas, he recently returned to the region with chef Nirmal Save. There, they gathered recipes and inspiration for Madame D's, which officially opens next week.

Baweja continues: "You see how culture and geography completely influence the food. They dictate what spices are use, what herbs are used, what ingredients are used. Whenever people talk about food, they want to talk about a country which is so not the way you should talk about food. Food comes from culture. Culture isn't limited to countries."


A selection of the Himalayan-style dishes at Madame D's.

I ask what he gained from his most recent trip to the Himalayas.

Without skipping a beat, Baweja replies: "Eight kilos. These cheeks aren't round because I'm happy, they're round because I've been stuffing my face!"

Apart from a few extra pounds (you'd never tell), Baweja and Save came away with recipes from families who cooked for them, and an appreciation of how the mountainous Himalayan landscape influences dishes.

"Trout is used a lot because as you move up from Punjab, you get a lot of rivers coming down. You get a decent amount of fish like that," explains Baweja. "But the flavours are so diverse and ingredients used to make the same things, change with the geography."

He continues: "Like paneer. People use a lot of paneer because it's a cheese that they're able to make in those conditions. But there are different versions of it—people make it with yak milk, with cow milk, buffalo milk. And with sauces, the more we went up to the Himalayas from the Indian side, Chinese-style sauces are made but with local ingredients. People from the Tibetan side and the Chinese side eat more pure soy or pure vinegar with some chili. On the Indian side, they add chili and coriander, or mix the vinegar with soy."

"You get a completely new set of flavours depending on where you are."

While diners at Madame D's will be served in the upstairs space (which I'm told is decorated in the style of the fictional Madame D's living room), we head to the bar below to sample some of the dishes and make the most of the sunny morning.


Baweja gives me the rundown.

Chef Nirmal Save and founder Harneet Baweja in Blessings, the bar below Madame D's.

"You can't take away the fact that I'm Indian, so we're cooking food that's from all around the Himalayas but of course, some dishes have a little more Indian influence than others," he says. "We're doing hakka chili paneer, we've got naga chili beef puffs, we're doing a whole fried chicken which is exactly how you'd get it up in the Himalayas. We're doing a whole steamed fish."

Reflecting the Himalayan knack for localising and adapting dishes based on available ingredients, the menu at Madame D's will acclimatise to London.

"First of all, we're also learning as we're cooking. This is our attempt at serving the bits of Himalayan food that we've been exposed to," explains Baweja. "So, we use sea bass instead of trout for the whole steamed fish because we get it fresh here from Billingsgate Market. And we're using buffalo milk to make paneer because we can get the raw stuff, fresh. Someone from Tibet might say the chicken doesn't have the same texture here, but we want to source local."

The tiffin masala lamb noodles at Madame D's.

All this talk of fried chicken, paneer, and fish is making me hungry. As if on cue, chef Save walks in with a glorious parade of dishes. Among them aubergine generously stuffed with mushrooms, naga chili beef puff, a plentiful mound of tiffin masala lamb noodles, and a plate of positively addictive pan-fried duck momos.

Baweja was right to mention the hotness of Himalayan food. Laced with chili and spice, the dishes all leave a lingering heat—just enough to keep you coming back for another mouthful.

Go on then Madame D, one more momo for the road.