Works of art, from the sublime to the ridiculous, are calling out for eyeballs and footfalls at the carnival of culture better known as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At one of the largest showcases of creativity in the world, a popular venue is a 45-seater The Raj Restaurant whose pieces de resistance can be tasted in a way stand-up and theatre — the dominant genres at the festival — cannot be chewed on.
“People come here from all over the world so we thought it was a great time to give them an experience of street food from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan,” says the master artist at the helm, 58-year-old chef Tommy Miah, who was awarded an MBE in June.
From August 4 to 28, the fine-dine restaurant will serve bhelpuri, kebabs, curries, rice and roti. Tommy Miah’s Indian Street Food Festival complements the burst of new writing and experimental performances at the Edinburgh Fringe with dishes called Angry Bird Tangri Kebab, Chor Bazar Paneer and Chapli Kebab, which are variants of kebab starters.
Aunty Geeta’s Prawn Curry — named after no real person — evokes Raj-era seafood delicacies while Agra Ginger Chicken is based on a dish that Miah discovered in the land of the Taj. Because the chef loves his mum, there is Mother Butter Chicken.
“I don’t follow the recipe exactly. Agra Ginger Chicken uses sliced ginger that we replaced with ginger paste to create a softer texture. A lot of British clientele might not like ginger slices. Just like that, we have Green Ginger and Rhubarb Dahl, which is a tangy and sweet green moong dish made with cumin, ginger and rhubarb. Rhubarb is not traditionally used in Indian cooking, and never in street food, but we adapted the recipe and it worked for us,” says Miah.
Miah was called Mohammad Ajman Miah when he arrived in the UK with his parents from a poor village in Sylhet, then in East Pakistan, in 1969. His father worked in a factory and his mother at home. A 10-year-old who couldn’t speak a word of English, Miah was sent to a school in Birmingham where a teacher said that he would make friends quicker if he had an easier name. He has been Tommy since then, to the world hospitality industry as well as clients such as the Queen, who wrote the foreword for his book, Favourite Recipes of the Raj, former Prime Minister John Major, whose 50th birthday he catered for, and Rahul Dravid, whom he fed when the cricketer was playing county matches for the Scottish Saltires in 2003.
“I finished junior school and attended secondary but didn’t even write my exams. I wanted to get out and work. I wasn’t good at academics,” says Miah. He started by washing dishes. “Now, I have three campuses in Bangladesh, the Tommy Miah Institute of Hospitality Management, which has produced 12,000 grads. Over the last two years, 180 students have been hired by Qatar Airlines,” he says. He has published 20 recipe books, owns award-winning restaurants, hosted a TV show and founded the International Indian Chef of the Year Competition, whose next chapter will be held at the Calcutta Club on September 5. The Guardian refers to Miah as “the curry king and Bangladesh’s polite equivalent of Gordon Ramsey”.
Miah has been visiting his homeland regularly since he was 14, and cherishes the taste of Daaler Bora and Piyaji — fritters of lentils and onions, respectively, which are a staple with evening tea, over adda and during football matches or film shows. “My mother still makes Daaler Bora. A lot of stuff on the menu, I picked up from her,” he says. He has replaced the gramflour that his mother added to the lentils with bread “and the result is much better, softer”.
The food will be accompanied by a performance of Bollywood dances but Miah is already making plans for next year. “I want to have a grand musical, in the style of Bombay Dreams, ending with dinner,” he says. Before that, he wants enough signatures for his campaign to ease work permits for chefs from the sub-continent to the UK. As for the street food festival for the Fringe, he says, “Already we are booked up.”