India calling or how Ganapati Restaurant came about

Posted by Claire

My first trip to India was a kind of sensorial coming of age, introducing me to a world on a new and different wavelength. I felt a sense of validation, and revelled in the energy and creative inspiration that India seemed to give me in abundance.

It was somewhere I always felt compelled to visit, feeling that I would find something significant there. I set off on a three month tour with a friend Monica in late 1992. Arriving in Delhi, we went on to complete a vast anti-clockwise route from Rajasthan down to the southern tip at Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu where three seas meet, via Gujarat, Mumbai, Karnataka and Kerala, then up to Chennai, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Kolkata, into Nepal, and finally back to Delhi.

Indian street/river scene
ghats at Varanasi

It was fascinating to see how people lived and responded to their very different environments. In common was an artistry that was poetic and always resourceful. These characteristics were also very evident in the never-ending variety of foods, and how they were presented and served. We drank tea from street vendors in small unglazed clay cups which we learned to throw to the ground after finishing. It was before the arrival of plastic disposables.

hand drawing: street food stall, Calcutta
street food stall, Calcutta

ginger tea, puri masala, papaya, paper dosa, frangipani

Visually there were impossible colour combinations that could never be planned or dreamt up but just worked so brilliantly. There were strange implements and ingredients in the markets to wonder over. Layers of colourful advertisements and faded images of film actors, hand painted or fly posted, provided the urban backdrops, interspersed with the different palettes of the unfolding countryside and small villages. The vivid bright greens of the paddy fields against red earth felt particularly elemental.

watercolour collage
watercolour collage

Time was measured differently; it had become stretchy and more malleable. Long-standing and deeply engrained social customs and habits, and gestures of faith and worship gave a feeling of depth, meaning and a strong sense of connection between the divine and the every day. The openness and generosity of people was warm and instinctive. There was the sense of an enormous heart beating just below the surface which was impossible to resist. It was the start of a love affair which is still very much alive nearly 30 years later.

the moon in Kerala appears to have a fishing net hung across it

The foods of the southern part of India sparked a special interest, probably because they were so different to what little I had been exposed to before. (I didn’t get much opportunity to eat Indian food until studying in Manchester in my early twenties).

Those unfamiliar smells and flavours were from ingredients such as curry leaves, coconut oil, tamarind and roasted spices. And the serving of these foods on banana leaves without cutlery underlined the immediacy, abundance and naturalness of the ingredients which were hanging from trees and shrubs all around us, from the spices to the coconuts, to the rice and the coffee and tea.

back in England and time to get cooking

I returned home wanting to bring this sense of discovery and delight into my daily life. Food was at the head of the list, and I was keen to try recreating the dishes I had enjoyed so much on my travels. But I was also very inspired by pattern, form and material. All this fed into the design collective I was a member of at that time called Ahead Ahead, a mix of architects, designers and artists who came together to pool ideas, experiment collectively and individually, and exhibit the results.

differently coloured spices piled up behind window
spice window installation at Ahead Ahead studio, Duke Street, Liverpool

I bought a handful of Indian cookbooks and set about learning as much as I could. There was no time to lose, and I got friends involved, making it into a social thing. One afternoon a week we borrowed a friend’s restaurant kitchen at a tapas restaurant where I worked part time. We prepared different curries and chutneys, driving them across town and later serving them up in a room above a bar in Liverpool where I was living then.

a supper club called Idli

It was always a vegetarian thali, but each week all the elements would change. We tried to find recipes that would complement each other texturally, visually and in flavour. My friend Karin who had spent time in India helped with ideas of mixing and matching earthy with sweet with spicy. Marius Dean, another friend with an eclectic music collection played records to accompany the evening that we hosted upstairs at the Baa Bar. The album Curried Jazz was a favourite.

photo from above of Indian street with traffic, pedestrians and a hot food barrow, overlaid with menu and opening times
Idli flyer

a job and split shifts

What had started as an exciting hobby grew quickly. The more I delved into cooking methods and recipes, the more I got hooked. I decided to seek full time employment in a south Indian restaurant, and was very fortunate to get a job working for Das Sreedharan at Rasa Samudra. Das already had two very popular Keralan vegetarian restaurants in London when I joined in 1999, and this third one in Charlotte Street introduced seafood alongside the vegetarian dishes. He was a big inspiration, having pioneered a new kind of of Indian cooking which showcased its cultural roots, origins and traditions. Festivals would always be marked and celebrated with foods to match.

claire and narayanan
Claire and head chef Narayanan at Rasa Samudra

home kitchens in Kerala

claire and family
Elsie and family, Cochin

The following year, I returned to Kerala and spent a month visiting the families of my chef colleagues. This time I was able to see at first hand the home kitchens, and how things were prepared there. Following my Indian kitchen initiation at Rasa, there followed a residency at the King’s Head theatre pub in Islington serving south Indian lunches with friend and former colleague K.P. Sukumaran (Suku) and his wife Emma. Suku had previously run his own kitchen in Kovalam in Kerala. My learning continued. In the evenings I cooked the set roast chicken meals that were served up in the theatre before the curtain went up, slipping the odd curry onto the menu when I got the chance.

Ganapati Restaurant opens

Ten years after returning from the first trip to India, I starting searching out the ideal spot for Ganapati Restaurant, and found it in a small residential street in Peckham.

Those first days and weeks at the restaurant seem a world away now, but I can remember something of the feel of the early morning starts, the chosen soundtrack of suprabathams, the hindu devotional music played at high volume from village temples at dawn across south India to awake the deity (and the devotees). Listening to these rhythmic, mesmeric chants accompanied by a glass of masala tea was a way of bringing some early morning Indian village life into our kitchen, inspiring greater authenticity, and willing the remote moral support of ladies preparing breakfasts and lunches for their families thousands of miles away in southern India.

Every day felt totally new with new challenges to face, and new customers to get to know. We were a very small team working all hours; myself and our first chef Hameed were in the kitchen morning, afternoon and evening. My then husband Jishi helped us each evening after he returned from work, and his brother Faisal headed up the front of house, with one waitress joining us in the evenings.

Each of the chefs who have been with us over the years have left their culinary mark and stories. Hameed from Nagore in Tamil Nadu had a wonderful singing voice, and introduced me to the Tamil composer and singer with the peoples’ voice, Illaiyaraaja. Some of Hameed’s dishes are still favourites on our menus, the Nagore Lamb Korma, and the Chennai Kozhi are his.

Faisal from Thrissur in Kerala, our first manager, and the gentle navigator of our small ship through new, but receptive seas. Neither he nor I had prior experience of running a restaurant, and we embarked on this steep learning curve together.

Aboo, Albert, Claire in the kitchen
Aboo, Albert, Claire

Chefs Aboo and Albert joined during 2005, and are both still with us. Aboo is now executive head chef of the restaurant and takeaway kitchens, and Albert is head chef at the restaurant. Their collective energy and input have been instrumental to our growth and success over the years. Adrienne Woods joined the team around 2008/9, (we cannot quite be sure!) and is our loyal and committed general manager. From small beginnings, we have enlarged our vision of possibilities, whilst trying to remain true to the original spirit of simplicity and authenticity that was at the heart of the concept for the restaurant.

Ganapati Takeaway Kitchen opened 10 years later in 2014 as it became increasingly difficult to meet demand for takeaway meals from our small restaurant kitchen. The shop has a small eat-in area, and the interior is very much a style homage to the Indian Coffee House with its utilitarian feel, mix of colours and fluorescent tube lighting.

A photograph of my maternal grandfather, Joe Stogdon hangs on the wall by the counter. He died in 2005 at the age of 99, and he’s my “business mentor”. He was the youngest of 10 children, his family were fruit and vegetable wholesalers from Bloomsbury and traded at the old Covent Garden market. Joe left school at the age of nine, and learned early on how to make himself pocket money running errands around the market.

Later on he became a fruit farmer, and specialised in growing traditional varieties of apples and pears at Boars Head in East Sussex, winning awards for his Cherry Cox amongst others. He enjoyed foreign travel, restaurants and dancing. He always used to tell us grandchildren that he was the luckiest man alive, and I know he believed it.

Joe Stogdon
Joe Stogdon