Swish kebab

Forget those drunken Friday-night doners (if you ever remembered them in the first place) - the kebab is getting a makeover. Sudi Pigott meets the chefs trying to put this dish back into fine Indian dining
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hands up if you've only ever coveted a kebab in a fit of drunken munchies. It's not surprising that kebabs are much maligned in the UK considering the post-pub company they keep. Too many culinary crimes have been committed in the name of kebabs - particularly the doner, and that's not to mention the chilli-doused greasy paper which accompanies nearly every mouthful. Most of us would consider "kebabs and posh" unlikely dining companions. The kebab, however, has an illustrious pedigree. It's one of the world's oldest dishes, considered a classic of northern Indian cuisine - the best kebabs were served in royal households - and espoused by Mrs Beeton, arbiter of middle-class dining etiquette, as a suitable dish for the English table.

Hands up if you've only ever coveted a kebab in a fit of drunken munchies. It's not surprising that kebabs are much maligned in the UK considering the post-pub company they keep. Too many culinary crimes have been committed in the name of kebabs - particularly the doner, and that's not to mention the chilli-doused greasy paper which accompanies nearly every mouthful. Most of us would consider "kebabs and posh" unlikely dining companions. The kebab, however, has an illustrious pedigree. It's one of the world's oldest dishes, considered a classic of northern Indian cuisine - the best kebabs were served in royal households - and espoused by Mrs Beeton, arbiter of middle-class dining etiquette, as a suitable dish for the English table.

Now the kebab is undergoing a gastronomic makeover, ushering in a new era of inventive and contemporary cuisine. Since arriving in the UK, chef Kuldeep Singh has gained a reputation for his self-professed mission to introduce diners to "real" Indian food. First it was country-style Indian cuisine at Mela; now his latest venture is the re-launch of Soho Spice as what Singh terms a "kebaberrie", offering an extensive, daily-changing kebab menu with 10 to 12 choices, featuring outré flavours and ingredients such as pheasant with orange zest and ginger. They're cooked with considerable theatre in a glass-screened kebab kitchen in full skewer-thrusting view of diners. Some believe that the word kebab is a derivation of the Indian term "kam abb" meaning "less water or semi-dry" and the Arabic "cabob" or "turning point."

Raminder Singh opened the Great Kebab Factory, a fashionable eatery in New Delhi, eight years ago. He is now executive chef and * co-proprietor of Soho Spice's Kebaberrie. "The skill of a specialist kebab chef," he claims, "is in precision timing, and balancing the fire and water; ie cooking the kebab in intense dry heat to ensure it is crisp on the outside, yet moist and succulent within." (Although it has to be said that our restaurant critic, Terry Durack, remains unconvinced that Soho Spice always manages to live up to its culinary promises.)

The vast repertoire of cuts of meat and types of fish and vegetable used in kebabs requires delicate variations in marination and cooking. For most meat kebabs, Singh uses double marination: the first to tenderise the meat and draw out excessive moisture, and the second to give distinctive, sophisticated flavour. Judicious spicing is all: relying on some ready-mixed garam masala or common chat masala is anathema to Singh. As he explains, "fierce heat accentuates the intensity of spices, and too many different spices in one dish confuse the palate". Hence each kebab has its own combination of spices, with one dominating. Well-versed in Ayurvedic culinary teaching, Singh works with more than 150 aromatic and digestive spices from every region of India, many with health-enhancing properties.

As in traditional northern Indian cuisine, kebab-cooking extends beyond the tandoor, too. Just as important are the tawa or iron skillet and the sigri or open flame of the charcoal grill, while the most delicately refined kebabs - such as seabass with okra and coconut - are cooked gently in a steamer.

Amaya, which is essentially an ultra-chic Knightsbridge kebaberie, was recently voted Tatler's most glamorous restaurant of 2005 and also showcases quintessential Indian kebab-grilling methods with a River Café-esque show kitchen. "We wanted to introduce a whole different dimension of Indian food to the UK and take it a step further," explains co-owner Camellia Panjabi. There are custom-made, beaten-metal tandoors, and a bespoke tawa and sigri built into illuminated granite-covered counters. Diners are encouraged to order, grazing-style, from a menu of some 30 kebab delicacies, from tawa-cooked oysters with coconut and ginger to sigri-cooked mustard seed-infused grouper fish wrapped in pandan leaf.

"We seek to raise the kebab's culinary status to the highest level, with sophisticated spicing and presentation befitting haute cuisine," explains Amaya's head chef Karunesh Khanna. His signature dish is the dori kebab, which is a fine, hand-minced lamb kebab with a tenderness reminiscent of finest foie gras, it has been adapted from a royal recipe devised for those too grand and too elderly to chew.

The modish deluxe kebab is not the exclusive preserve of Indian fine dining, however. French-Lebanese chef Karim Haider has re-modelled the Monday-night shawarma menu at Fakhreldine in London, and it has been well received. While many basic Lebanese diners serve low-grade meat heavily soused in vinegar-based marinades to disguise its inadequacies, Haider uses only impeccably sourced ingredients such as free-range duck - marinated with pear, black pepper and wine.

Shish! was the first posh fast-food kebaberie in London, serving a mix of Mediterranean and Turkish-inspired kebabs in a highly design- conscious setting. Hot on its heels, the Greek souvlaki kebab experience is set to be redefined when the restaurateur Dimitri Karoni opens the first contemporary souvlakerie, As Greek As It Gets, in April. Buoyed by his success in taking the Yo! Sushi franchise to Athens, the design of As Greek As It Gets is sleek as a modernist sushi bar. Its culinary emphasis is on authentic Greek ingredients presented with a modern twist: hence country-style sausage from southern Greece is complemented by Formaela, a mountain ewe's-milk cheese and fresh tomato sauce.These are posh kebabs to savour when sober.

Tandoori pineapple, star fruit and sweet-potato kebabs

Serves 4

4 sweet potatoes
2 small pineapples
4 star fruit

For marinade:
5 tbsp crushed dried pomegranate seeds (available at Asian grocers)
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp freshly crushed fennel seeds
1 tbsp dry roasted cumin seeds
11/2 tsp ground cinnamon powder
4 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp groundnut oil

Roast sweet potatoes with skins on (180C/350F/Gas4) for 1 hour. Cool, peel and cut into 2cm slices. Cut star fruit into 1cm slices. Cube the pineapple. Mix the ground spices in a bowl, add lemon and oil, mix, then marinate the fruits for 4 minutes. Skewer and roast in the oven (180C/350F/Gas4) for 5-6 minutes.

'Tawa' grilled halibut steak

Serves 4

8x100g halibut steaks
31/2 tsp fresh ginger paste
5 tsp garlic paste
4 tbsp lemon juice

For garam masala:
4 whole red fresh chilli
2 tsp ground black pepper
11/2 tbsp ground cumin seeds
11/2 tbsp ground coriander seeds

For the paste:
1 bunch green coriander, chopped
1/2 bunch fresh mint, chopped
1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped

Crush red chilli, black pepper, cumin and whole coriander. Leave fish to marinade for 1 hour. Chop the coriander and mint and blend to a thick paste with chopped green chilli. Spread the paste on the fish and leave for 30 minutes. Cook on a very hot griddle for 2-3 minutes each side.

Grilled lamb kebabs

Serves 4

16 small best end lamb chops

First marinade:
100ml dark rum
31/2 tsp ginger paste
31/2 tsp garlic paste
11/2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Half a freshly grated nutmeg

Second marinade:
125ml thick Greek yoghurt
1 tsp ground clove powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 small knob of chopped ginger
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp groundnut oil

Mix rum and chops and leave for 1 hour. Add the first marinade ingredients and leave overnight. Remove lamb chops and mix with the second marinade. Leave for 2-3 hours. Skewer chops and cook at 180C/350F/Gas4 for 12-15 minutes.

Amaya, London SW1, tel: 020 7823 1166; Fakhreldine, London W1, tel: 020 7493 3424; Shish! www.shish.com; Soho Spice, 124 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7434 0808. The first branch of As Greek As It Gets opens in April in Earl's Court, London

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