mid-day exclusive: Mumbai-born restaurateur's fine-dining eatery Veeraswamy in central London gears up to cater at the reception at Buckingham Palace to celebrate India-UK Year of Culture
Namita Panjabi (left), husband Ranjit Mathrani and sister Camellia own Veeraswamy
Mumbai-born restaurateur Namita Panjabi's fine-dining restaurant Veeraswamy will cater at the grand reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, on Monday to celebrate the India-UK Year of Culture.
Tandoori prawn cocktail served disguised as ice cream
Finance minister Arun Jaitley is a special guest and the many members of the Royal family are expected to attend, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Will and Kate, who won many a hearts during their visit to India last year.
Rajasthani soya samosas
The Royal palace confirmed that the "highlight of the evening will include a special Indian-themed canapes prepared by Royal chefs working alongside chefs from Veeraswamy, UK's oldest Indian restaurant". While the event promises to be "absolutely spectacular" on a "never seen before" scale, its preparations and details are a closely guarded secret.
pineapple and almond tarts
But mid-day can exclusively reveal the fantastic Indian menu that will be served on the big day and confess that it will leave your taste buds tingling for more.
From the kitchen
The 'secret' menu includes beetroot drenched paneer squares wrapped in herb crust, scrumptious dahi kebabs resting on earthy sev puri, bite-sized melt-in-your-mouth raj puris, Rajasthani soya samosas with a dash of the Tricolour, crispy salmon kedgeree croquettes and a visually breath-taking tandoori prawn cocktail served disguised as ice cream.
With these savoury dishes are refreshing desserts - pineapple and almond tart with a raspberry crown, chocolate covered aam papad and boondi rocks served on rose petals, and a kesar and elaichi sherbet - that the chefs hope will showcase the diversity of India.
There will be six other traditional British canapes prepared by the Royal chefs. In all, 3,000 canapés will be served to more than 250 guests. The palace kitchens are "very large with extremely high-end wonderful equipment and a fantastic team," according to chefs who worked there in 2009 during the visit of then India president Pratibha Patil at Buckingham Palace. The chefs were also given an exclusive VIP tour of the palace at the end of it by the Master of the Household.
From the chef's mouth
But 2009 pales in comparison to the significance of this year's event with the Queen playing host and rumoured to have signed off on the selection of the dishes herself. No wonder then that the atmosphere at this exclusive restaurant, which blends the East and the West in décor as well as on the plate, in the heart of the Royal estate on Regent Street, is absolutely electric.
"We couldn't have been more thrilled. It's a huge honour. Our chefs have worked very hard to create a menu that caters to the theme of the event. India and UK have been together for centuries - that was colonial India, this is modern India; hence, the menu has an Anglo-Indian flavour but with quite a modern take on it," said Panjabi, who grew up in Peddar Road and moved to the UK after getting married 30 years ago.
An investment banker from Cambridge University, Panjabi dabbled in fashion before finding her calling in the hospitality industry. She along with her husband Ranjit Mathrani and sister Camellia bought Veeraswamy two decades ago. They also own two other fine-dining restaurants in the West End - Amaya in Belgravia and Chutney Mary in St James - and a chain of Masala Zone restaurants, which have a more relaxed semi-formal atmosphere, across central London.
"Veeraswamy has such an exciting history, and we have tried to retain as much of it as possible," said Panjabi. The walls are donned with photographs of personalities and events that give glimpses into the colonial history and the origins of the iconic restaurant.
A lesson in history
Edward Palmer, who started this restaurant in 1926 in the heart of London, ran the company EP Veersaswamy & Co, Indian food specialists, and sold spices, chutneys and curry pastes since 1896.
It seems Edward's grandfather William Palmer was married to an Indian woman, Veeraswamy. William also founded the banking house Palmer & Co in Hyderabad in the late 18th century, where Edward spent his childhood. Edward's great grandfather was married to Indian princess Begum Fyze Baksh. The restaurant was taken over by William Steward in 1930s; the Panjabis bought it in 1997.
Veeraswamy has also gone down in history by starting the British tradition of curry with beer when one of its patrons, Prince Axel of Denmark, offered to send a barrel of Carlsberg every Christmas as he enjoyed a pint with the duck vindaloo, a specialty of the restaurant.
"This is how Carlsberg came to the UK; every curry house in the country serves it now," said Panjabi. Veeraswamy still serves duck vindaloo.
Besides European royalty, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and Charlie Chaplin were the other patrons whose pictures grace the walls of the restaurant. "I think it's our legacy of 90 years, created in the same year of the Queen's birth; so, we both are celebrating our diamond jubilee this year," said Panjabi.
The restaurant got its first Michelin star early this year.
"Finally, Michelin decided to award the old lady on Regent Street with a star this year, and then, we received an invite from the Palace for the event. This year has sure started off on a great note," said Panjabi, who is looking forward to meeting the Royals and the Indian celebrities during the grand reception; and, of course, happily watch them relish the culinary art her chefs put on the plate that day.