Tony Singh played a major part in the burgeoning cultural cuisine explosion in Edinburgh and now he’s back on our TV screens.
When chef Tony Singh was a boy his father was busy driving an Edinburgh bus.
Turban wrapped around his head, he would have been quite a sight for goggle-eyed city travellers who had never seen a Sikh bus driver before. And given that it was the 1970s, chances are a few who boarded Baldey Singh Kusbia’s bus muttered something under their breath about the man with the funny headgear.
Not many will have paused to consider the rather more gruelling route that he’d taken with his family while he was just a baby – from Lahore during partition in India which tore communities apart, to Edinburgh – the beginning of a process to get his family where it was going.
Hard work, focus and a determination to do well meant by the time he was grown up Baldey Singh Kusbia had made a home and a life in a strange cold and wet land where faces like his were always going to make certain people stop and stare.
Today it’s his son who is a familiar face around town and beyond. Recognisable for his tightly-wrapped turban, his impressive whiskers, the mischievous glint in his eye and his witty repartee, like his father, chef Tony Singh has broken through a few barriers.
For a start, with a flair for cooking and a yearning to run a restaurant, he might have easily chosen to go down the ‘curry chef’ route – instead he opted for fine dining using classic Scottish produce and exotic flavours at the much acclaimed Oloroso. Even when the George Street restaurant folded last August, Tony may have simply opted to find another place and reopen, rather than throw his turban into the ring of a whole new area – television. Yet from next Monday, the Leith-born father-of-four will appear on small screens alongside his friend, London-based chef Cyrus Todiwala – the culinary force behind the Queen’s Jubilee dinner – in a quest to encourage us to search out the dust-covered spice jars in our kitchen cupboards and discover new uses for them.
During five 30-minute programmes on BBC2, the pair – dubbed The Incredible Spice Men – travel the country showing how spicing up our traditional and much-loved British dishes can make them even more delicious.
To prove the point, among the much-loved food given the ‘spice boys’ twist is a humble half-time pie at Easter Road – livened up with a dash of cumin and coriander.
It’s quite a turn of events from this time last year when the award-winning chef was facing up to the collapse of Oloroso. “It was market forces,” he says, in between juggling dishes at the pop-up restaurant he’s currently operating at Fringe venue Summerhall. “We had a national following, Oloroso was known around the country, and it was good.
“But the rent was going up to silly levels and it didn’t make economic sense to keep on working just to pay the landlord. That wasn’t going to happen. It was time to step away.
“I’d done 11 years, and every one was amazing, I met amazing people and having Oloroso gave me the chance to do something I really loved.
“But the time had come to take a break.”
He was developing various ideas and putting a few into practice – from consultancy work in Jersey to acting as a blade-for-hire, going to people’s homes and showing them how to cook some of his most loved dishes – when the phone rang.
Before long he was travelling the country, to Wales and the south of England, back up to Kelso in the Borders, then Edinburgh, with many stops in between, discovering which spices are most popular where and, with Cyrus, developing a few of their own ideas.
The result is a cookery-cum-travel show that takes British classics and throws in a spicy twist – spiced fish and chips jazzed up with turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli, Sunday roast lamb with a cardamom rub, rarebit with chilli and coriander, roast chicken with honey and ginger and bread and butter pudding with cardamom and orange.
At the heart of it all is a determination to encourage home cooks to throw open kitchen cupboards, rummage around in spice racks and then . . . dispose of what they find.
“If something has been lying there so long it has dust on it, then the first thing you should do is put the contents straight on the compost heap,” Tony, 42, explains. “The secret with spices is not using them all the time, but a little and quite often. Store them in the fridge or a dark cupboard but remember to use them.”
And using spices doesn’t necessarily have to involve cooking up a curry. “Spicy doesn’t mean ‘hot’,” he adds. “Spices are subtle, sweet, pungent and the easiest way to make everyday food sensational.”
His clever ways in front of a stove got the young Tony noticed as he worked his way into a Youth Training Scheme kitchen job when he was just 16. He’d already learned more than most of us can hope to ever know about spices by watching his mother and grandmother as they cooked Punjabi dishes – often having to improvise using Scottish produce – for the family and at the Sikh temple, the gurudwara.
But then adapting is part of the family make up. Displaced during the post-war partition of India, the family left Lahore when Tony’s dad was just a babe in arms and landed in a harsh refugee camp in Delhi.
By 1953 Tony’s grandfather and great-grandfather had taken the huge step of leaving Mumbai for London, arriving in mid-winter to a land still slowly rebuilding after the war. Eventually they gravitated north to Leith, where the thriving port already had a community network of immigrant families just like them.
Tony insists he never felt the sting of racism. Today we might like to use buzzwords like “multi-cultural and cosmopolitan” to describe the melting pot communities but back then, shrugs Tony, Leith was simply a place where different groups gathered.
“We just got on with it,” he adds. “Yes there was an edge to living there at that time, it was a community with Italians, Poles, Indians, Sikhs, everyone just getting by. I think for my family, the biggest thing was the weather – it definitely was not what they were used to.”
His father shovelled coal in a steam engine, became one of the first turban-wearing Edinburgh bus drivers and went on to run his own transport business. Tony loved to cook, going from restaurant kitchens and pubs, picking up vital knowledge of the trade, storing it away for the day he’d run his own place.
And he always aimed high. On the way he worked at the Royal Yacht Britannia, the Balmoral, on board the Royal Scotsman train and at prestigious Skibo Castle. He picked up various awards, including Scottish Chef of the Year, before opening Oloroso in 2001.
Tony’s Table, a rustic bistro followed, and before long Tony’s vibrant and charismatic personality was catching the eye of television producers, making him a regular on Ready Steady Cook and, more recently, BBC’s Great British Menu.
Edinburgh’s overheated restaurant scene and crippling overheads became too painful and the restaurants closed within months of each other, but Tony’s genetic make-up means he’s not the type to sit back and do nothing. From pop-up restaurants – even rolling into Freemans Coffee Shop in Marchmont for a spell which he claims serves “the best coffee in Edinburgh” – to television, he’s hardly been quiet since Oloroso’s doors closed.
Now, as The Incredible Spice Men gets set to hit the screens, there are hopes that it could well evolve into the next ‘Hairy Bikers’, there’s a recipe book to accompany the series and Tony is on the prowl for a new venue for another restaurant. It seems that the chef in the turban isn’t so much back, he’s never really gone away.
• The Incredible Spice Men is on BBC2, August 19, at 8.30pm. The book with the series is published on Thursday by BBC Books, £20. Singh’s pop-up restaurant is at Summerhall (www.summerhall.co.uk) until August 26.
Cumin let’s get together
FROM takeaway chicken tikka masala to jars of ready made sauces, Britons love their spices.
But while we might wish we could recreate our favourites at home, there’s a tendency to banish the spice rack to the back of the kitchen cupboards, lacking the knowledge and courage to use them.
According to Tony Singh, every part of Britain has its particular favourite spices – from us Scots with our peppery haggis and white pudding, Dundee cake even gingerbeer, to Welsh cakes jazzed up with a sprinkling of mixed spice.
“Vanilla, cinnamon, chillies, nutmeg, cloves,” lists Tony, who appears on The Incredible Spice Men with fellow chef Cyrus Todiwala. “They are so underused but so good. It’s about being a little bit more adventurous.”
Cyrus, who came to the UK from Bombay 20 years ago, runs a successful chain of restaurants and was chosen to cook the Queen’s Jubilee dinner.
The pair met 15 years ago and bonded over a joint love of British produce and the spices of their childhoods.
In each show they travel to a different region of Britain in their spice-filled vehicle, visiting passionate cheese makers, beef producers, pig farmers, fishermen and showing how even the best British produce can be enhanced by spices.
And they take on some serious British culinary traditions: spicing up a National Trust afternoon tea under the watchful eyes of the Women’s Institute; putting cumin and coriander in the Hibs football fans’ beloved half-time meat pies, adding chilli and coriander to the Full English in a trucker’s greasy spoon and adding a spicy marinade to bikers’ fish and chips in Hastings.