We’re both hairy but we’re not bikers,” says Edinburgh-based chef Tony Singh, when I ask him if he and his cooking partner, Cyrus Todiwala OBE DL, will be the new Si King and Dave Myers (aka the Hairy Bikers).
In a few days’ time, they’ll be hitting our television screens in BBC2’s The Incredible Spice Men – a jolly new five-part cookery series (with accompanying recipe book), which is designed to reintroduce the public to the wonder of spice, from turmeric to cardamom and star anise. Or, at least to inspire us to liberate some of the hugely out-of-date jars of dubiously musty powder that we all have lurking at the back of our pantries.
“Although they’ve been used in British cooking since Roman times, people are frightened of them,” explains Singh. “But they shouldn’t be. Even haggis has got mace and white pepper in it. So, what we do – on the show and in the book – is to take classic British dishes and add spice. For example, one of our recipes is a Scotch pie with ginger, garlic and coriander. It’s all very accessible, rather than cheffy”.
Indeed, there are plenty of appealing comfort-food style dishes, such as spiced fish and chips (with turmeric, cumin and coriander mixed into the batter), duck egg with cumin and asparagus, and treacle pudding with nutmeg, lemon and lime.
“Some may think we have committed culinary treason with our take on traditional British dishes – we think we’ve just given the food we love a new lease of life,” they say in the introduction.
To be fair, it’s unlikely anyone will be offended by a book that features classic home-cooking with a gentle twist.
One thing that’s noticeable is that the pair’s mums get plenty of mentions. Surely they will be owed a cut of the royalties?
“Well, I will be taking mine out to lunch,” says Singh, who also appeared on BBC2’s Great British Menu earlier this year.
“Mum, like Cyrus’s mum, was a very good cook,” he explains in the book. “She cooked traditional Punjabi food, which was quite difficult in Scotland because there was nothing in the way of ingredients, but as she’d had British-based domestic science classes at school too, she was able to cook Scottish treats for us – things like drop scones and shortbread (sometimes spiced). She takes elements from both cultures – she cooks a mean haggis pakora – and I have to admit that she’s probably well ahead in the spice race that Cyrus and I have entered.”
Although their theme is unique, the pair are joining one of television’s most established formulas in recent times – the on-screen cooking duo.
Successful examples include the aforementioned Hairy Bikers, Two Fat Ladies (otherwise known as Clarissa Dickson Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson) and Two Greedy Italians (Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio) – all of whom, like Todiwala and Singh, were buddies long before they became an on-screen item.
The Incredible Spice Men met back in 2000. Singh had just won ITV’s Chef of the Year competition and, for further inspiration, visited Todiwala’s multi award-winning restaurant, London’s Café Spice Namaste (he also owns Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen), which serves food that draws on its owner’s Parsee heritage.
The rest is history, and the pair now have a perfect bromance, especially as they appear so relaxed in each other’s company. Like other successful cooking twosomes, their programme works because it’s half good grub, half banter.
Bombay-born Todiwala – the elder at 54 years old – is the straight man, who constantly interjects with foodie facts, and Singh, 42 (“though I look 35”), is the joker.
However, you can tell that Todiwala is ultimately the boss and mentor.
“Cyrus is a genius,” says Singh. “He knows so much. When I was training as a chef, I was trying not to do Indian food, because I wanted to be different. One of the things I forgot about was spices, and that’s something I picked up from him. He also taught me about their ayurvedic properties and health benefits. For example, turmeric is an anti-bacterial and general wonder drug, while pepper is great for congestion and ginger for blood circulation. I think people are becoming more attuned to that.”
However, the series doesn’t cover the medicinal side of spices (maybe the next programme can be about that). Instead, it shows the pair touring the UK, where they meet various food producers, before returning to their rustic-style studio kitchen to add spice to whatever produce they’ve discovered on their travels.
Part of their obvious enthusiasm could be down to the fact that, for Singh, being approached by a television producer to film The Incredible Spice Men couldn’t have come at a better time. His Edinburgh-based bistro, Tony’s Table, shut its doors in 2010, followed by his 11-year-old fine-dining restaurant, Oloroso, in 2012.
“It was an economic thing,” he explains. “The rent for Oloroso was going up by £50k and it didn’t make financial sense any more. I didn’t know the book and TV programme were going to happen then, but the timing of being approached by the producer is great. To be honest, it would be hard to do all this if I still had the restaurant.”
One year after the demise of Oloroso, and Singh is so busy that it’s taken me over a week to pin him down for a chat. Not only has he been shuttling back and forth to London to meet with Todiwala, plug the series and wrap-up the final voice-overs, he’s also on the hunt for a new restaurant venue in Edinburgh (“in either Portobello or Leith, somewhere relaxed,” he says).
The final plate to juggle? A pop-up restaurant at the Summerhall venue, which will be open throughout the Edinburgh Festival. It will offer his signature quirky and imaginative take on traditional Indian dishes, such as a version of the savoury snack, bhelpuri, containing the classic breakfast cereal, Coco Pops, rather than its traditional ingredient of puffed rice.
However, when I speak to Singh, he’s feeling under pressure. “I’m stressed out to the max,” he says. The sous chefs who were supposed to be helping him with the pop-up project didn’t return from their holiday in Spain. Mysterious. Rumour has it that they’re in jail.
“They were having an adventure, but they’re not coming back, so now I’m in the poop,” says Singh.
I’m not sure exactly how he’ll find time to take off his apron, sit in front of the telly and watch The Incredible Spice Men with his feet up.
“I haven’t seen the whole show yet,” Singh says. “I’ve got a plan to see it with my family, but I’ve got a feeling that we might have to watch a recording.”
• The Incredible Spice Men is on BBC2, 19 August, at 8:30pm. The Incredible Spice Men by Cyrus Todiwala and Tony Singh is published on Thursday, BBC Books, £20. Singh’s pop-up restaurant is at Summerhall (www.summerhall.co.uk) until 26 August.