Tony Singh meets Indian family in BBC Cook’s Tour

THE ornate arched gate across the entrance to chef Tony Singh’s ancestral home at the heart of bustling and vibrant Delhi slowly swung open.

By Sandra Dick
Thursday, 29th January 2015, 12:21 pm
Tony Singh. Picture: comp
Tony Singh. Picture: comp

Across the threshold, in the cosy comfort of what was once his great-grandfather’s house, eyes bright with welcome and arms open for a long-awaited hug stood the relations he barely knew.

Tied together by a mix of genes, flesh and blood, the Leith chef – a familiar and cheery face on television – had arrived at his ancestral home hopeful of learning more of the family bond that stretched from India to Scotland which connected them all across years of hardship and struggle and united them as one.

What he hadn’t expected, however, was just how overwhelming and emotional it all might be.

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And as he looked into the eyes of the great uncle he barely knew, listening carefully to the heart-wrenching story of his family’s history, the smiling chef’s tears began to flow.

Tony had travelled to India hoping to learn more about how the country being partitioned between India and Pakistan in the late 1940s had uprooted his family from their Punjab home.

Driven from Amritsar on an agonising exodus that saw millions uprooted from home, family and business in fear of sectarian violence and in search of safety, for many it was the first step on a journey which would take them to far -flung corners of the world – including, in his own family’s case, to Scotland.

Tony went on to become an award-winning chef running his own, now defunct, restaurant Oloroso, appearing regularly in front of the ­cameras, sharing his remarkable culinary skills for television audiences.

But at the back of his mind was an increasing desire to learn more about his own ­family’s story, the route they took from Punjab via Delhi to Scotland and the sights, sounds, even tastes of his ancestral roots.

It turned out to be an emotional – and colourful – journey, captured by cameras for a new BBC2 series, A Cook Abroad, which follows well-known British chefs to far-flung places in search of new recipes, different styles of cooking and unusual ingredients.

Due to be screened early next month, Tony’s journey would take him from the twinkling lights of Diwali in Amritsar, across death-defying roads, through the kitchens of a Maharaja, to a Bollywood-inspired exercise class and finally, to his aged relative’s front room.

It was there, in his great uncle Ameer’s home, that chef Tony’s eyes filled with tears as the full scale of the challenges his family had faced down the years unfolded... “It was like opening a Russian doll,” he says, recalling his trip in October. “I knew bits and pieces, but there was lots that I didn’t know. It had been years since I met my great uncle, but I’d never asked him questions because when you’re young you think you have all the time in the world and everyone will always be there and...” he laughs “ know it all.”

“But that’s not true.”

His 93-year-old great uncle Ameer revealed the nightmare journey he made aged just 13 as his family – including Tony’s great-grandfather – left their home in Amritsar bound for Delhi and one of India’s largest refugee camps.

Partition had forced them to flee in fear for their lives. What they encountered in Delhi, however was a seething mass of desperate people crammed into a desperately small area.

“Thirteen million people moved because a line was drawn on a map,” recalls Tony in the programme. “I can’t imagine what hardship they went through, they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, if they’d make it...

“Millions of people, and we were just one family. It dispersed Sikhs throughout the world.

“I want to find out [about it] so I can tell my own kids.”

Partition took place in 1947 as India loosened its ties with the British Empire. It was divided along religious grounds, with the mainly Muslim northern area becoming Pakistan and the Hindu- dominated south becoming the Republic of India.

The decision to split the country sparked a mass migration of people, as families uprooted to move to the area where they felt safest, leaving behind most of their worldly goods, homes and work.

“As they were coming down [from Amritsar] there was so much danger,” says Tony. “This was a partition on religious grounds. Muslim were attacking Sikhs, Hindus were attacking Muslim, it was horrendous.

“My great uncle saw guns, bombs going off.”

The family eventually constructed a new home in Delhi – today its ornate gates front a tall building trimmed with cheerful red brick and pretty balconies.

However in 1953 Tony’s grandfather decided to leave in search of a better life, arriving first in London and then heading north to Leith, where the thriving port had a community network of immigrant families like them. By the 1970s the family had laid down roots in the port and Tony’s father Baldey Singh Kusbia was one of the first turban-wearing bus drivers behind the wheel of a corporation bus.

While Tony had returned to India on previous occasions, his recent trip was the first he’d taken alone and a precious chance to follow the exact route along the Grand Trunk Road taken by his family from their original home in 
Amritsar – which he visited for the ­programme – south to Delhi.

On the way he took the opportunity to learn more about Punjab cuisine – stopping off to sample traditional dishes, discover unusual street food and at one point cooking and dining with a Maharaja.

One of the highlights was a meeting with nomadic Sikh soldiers known as the Nihang, famed both for their cooking techniques where everything is cooked under strict rules in iron bowls and their role as legendary fighters – a boyhood dream for the chef.

“I was in awe of them while growing up,” he grins. “My grandfather on my mother’s side used to tell me about the Sikh soldiers, the protectors of the faith.

“I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with the Nihang, these very religious and peaceful, saintly soldiers who were everything I had read and heard about while growing up.”

But it was learning more about his family’s background that whetted the chef’s appetite for further discovery.

“Every time that I speak to my parents, I’m finding out something,” he said. “They told me that at one point my great granddad ended up in Burma, the Japanese had over-run the British there and he was lost for dead. It took him four years to work his way back home.

“So there are lots of moments that I did not know in my own family history. I’m fortunate, I didn’t know half of this stuff and now I’m discovering it. Coming down the same road as my great-grandfather, as all those refugees,” he adds, “it’s now my duty to tell my kids.

“And I can’t wait to go back to India – I want to know even more about how my family came to be in Scotland.”

A Cook’s Tour featuring Tony Singh is on BBC2 on Monday, February 9.

Chef is a well-kent face

TONY Singh is a familiar figure on television cookery shows, with his brightly coloured turban, patterned shirts and, more likely than not, his kilt.

From Leith, he started his cookery career at Edinburgh’s Telford College. Classically trained, he went on to run the restaurant at The Royal Yacht Britannia and has worked at The Balmoral Hotel, on board The Royal Scotsman train at the prestigious Skibo Castle.

A former Scottish Chef of the Year, Tony, 44, he was Chef Patron at acclaimed George Street restaurant Oloroso, which closed down in 2011. His other restaurant venture, Tony’s Table, also closed.

A father of four, his charismatic and friendly style caught the eye of television programme makers. He has appeared on various television cookery programmes, including Ready Steady Cook, The Great British Menu and The Incredible Spice Men with chef Cyrus Todowalah.

And he has also written a cookery book, Taste.

Last May it emerged that he had taken over The Old Bakehouse restaurant in West Linton.

Sikhs’ hope for separate state dashed

The partition of India in 1947 brought chaos and bloodshed for millions.

The British government announced India would become independent by summer the following year but attempts to convince Hindu and Muslim leaders to form a united country failed. Lord Louis Mountbatten agreed to form two separate states – dividing the subcontinent along religious grounds. The date for the new divided subcontinent was brought forward and Sikhs who had campaigned for a separate state of their own, had their hopes dashed.

The decision created chaos as Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other faiths left homes and businesses.

It’s estimated that around ten million people were involved in the migration. At least half a million are believed to have been killed as violence erupted between religious groups. Many died in terrible conditions at makeshift refugee camps.

Partition led to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan being founded to the north and the Republic of India to the south.