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My life in food: Nish Kumar on cooking in lockdown and eating off car bonnets

The comedian discusses Indian cuisine, comfort food and learning to cook during lockdown.

Published 13 Jan 2022, 06:06 GMT, Updated 18 Jan 2022, 14:08 GMT
Nish’s UK and Ireland tour, Your Power, Your Control, starts in February 2022.

Nish’s UK and Ireland tour, Your Power, Your Control, starts in February 2022.

Photograph by Matt Stronge

I come from a very foodie family. It’s just a sort of constant obsession, like: what are we going to eat? Where are we going to eat? What time are we going to eat? It’s a sort of long, continuous problem. To some extent, it’s also in my blood, because my grandfather ran curry houses in Leicester in the ’80s. So food, particularly Indian food, is deeply ingrained in my family. 

I didn’t realise until I was a bit older that it’s not normal to eat okra constantly. When I go home, my mum dry-fries okra. That really is my idea of comfort food.

Prawns taste different in Kerala. It’s because you’re eating them just after they’ve been plucked out of the ocean. My grandmother lived and died in Kerala, so we used to go and visit her a lot when I was a kid. It’s largely coastal, so you have access to incredible fish — there’s a Malabar fish curry that I associate with being in Kerala. Things like vegetable or lamb stew and dosa are very much the taste of my childhood.

I’m not much of a cook, but I did learn a bit during lockdown. I can now make a chicken curry that’s only a partial insult to my heritage as opposed to a total insult — that’s about the best I can say. It’s difficult because it’s all passed down through an oral tradition. If you ask my grandmother how much garam masala to use in a recipe, she’ll just say ‘enough’. 

I once ate off the trunk of a car. There’s a very famous restaurant behind the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, called Bademiya. [It started as a street food stall], cooking Indian seekh kebabs, tandoori chicken... and it became a kind of phenomenon. The first time I went was probably in 2004. People queued down the street and the meal was served by a guy who came out, popped the trunk of my cousin’s car and put a Coke bottle on it so it made it into a flat surface — and we ate off that. The kebabs are unbelievable.

Japanese food is fantastic. I had a great meal in a small town where four guys from the crew [of TV show Joel & Nish vs the World] and I were trying to find somewhere to eat. We ended up in a small sort of canteen, where the guy spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese. Somehow, between us, we managed to order a load of beers and karaage — Japanese fried chicken. It was so delicious. 

I love a dumpling. They’re so comforting. I went to Darjeeling Express, Asma Khan’s place in London. Darjeeling is such an interesting bit of India [and] at Darjeeling Express, they do chicken momos that are basically Indian dim sum, and they’re delicious. I love dim sum; I love pierogi, Polish dumplings; I enjoy every nation’s spin on them. 

Mexican cold seafood soup is a really amazing, unique thing. We stayed in a small town called Urique, and there was one restaurant run by this old woman who made cold seafood soup, served in a kind of stone bowl. It’s one of those things that occasionally flitters across the swirling, channel-hopping screen in my brain. It was flavoured with lots of coriander and there was a real punch to it. I’ve never eaten anything like it in my life. 

I’m an adventurous eater to a fault. I’ll eat anything — the sketchier-looking the place, the better. The places that look most like a one out of five on that green health sticker rating they slap on British restaurants often provide you with the most delicious food. So I’ve had very good experiences of eating street food — but when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.

Nish’s UK and Ireland tour, Your Power, Your Control, starts in February 2022nishkumar.co.uk

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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