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A triumph of good taste; FOOD Pasanda pioneer Nat Batt talks to Richard McComb about the evolution of Brummie curry.

Byline: Richard McComb

It is hard to believe now, but some customers used to be so unhappy with Nat Batt'smenu that they would walk out of his Birmingham restaurant.

It wasn't what was on offer at the Maharaja that upset them, it was what wasn't - more specifically, chips. Curry without chips? Whatever was this Punjabi restaurateur thinking about?

That was 38 years ago and it was hard work convincing the great Brummie eating public that a bhuna was best accompanied by rice and naan bread, not deep fried spud.

"The first three years were difficult. Our menu and style of cooking was very different to what people were used to," recalls Nat, the creator of the first, and still one of the best, Indian restaurant in the city.

"We didn't do English dishes and things like chips. People used towalk outwhen they discovered we didn't do steak and chips."

To add someperspective, theMaharaja opened in 1971. It was the year a stroppy Harvey Smith was stripped of a show jumping title for flicking a V-sign at the judges. Labour councils were in rebellion over the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher's decision to end free school milk for over sevens and Rolling Stone Mick made Bianca Perez Morena de Macias the new Mrs Jagger. The British palate was more attuned to bacon butties than bhunas.

Nat's trump cardwas to bring inMadan Lal, a top chef from the legendary Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. "He really put a stamp on the place," says Nat.

The Moti Mahal is credited with bringing the tandoor oven to the people and inventing murg makhani, the daddy of the much-loved chicken tikka. The subtle flavours and spices of real Indian cuisine slowly caught on in Hurst Street and the Nat's Maharaja - modestly named after the "king of kings" - became a stalwart of the local dining scene, attracting a loyal following with its North Indian dishes.

It has been a culinary journey without compromise - well, only one, which we will come to - and Nat is proud to say that he has never dumbed down his cuisine. "I don't Anglicize any of the dishes. I never have. I stick by my principals," says Nat.

"Some people say, 'Can you make the lamb pasanda hot?'But it would not be a lamb pasanda then. Or they say, 'Can you put more sauce with the bhuna?' No. It would not be a bhuna then.

"And people have this misconception that Indian food is hot - and the hotter the better! But it isn't the case."

Nat's one concession to Western tastes - and the hankering for a "blow your head off" curry - is to offer madras curries. In fact, the madras, says Nat, doesn't actually exist in India. "I have never had madras in my life," he says. However, it is on the Maharaja menu, should you enjoy sweating profusely when you eat. There are no chips, though.

The policy has served the Maharaja well for getting on for four decades and the restaurant's influence spreads throughout the city's modern-day dining scene. Without the Maharaja, would Birmingham have produced its new generation of cool, sleek Indian restaurants, the likes of the award-winning Lasan, Itihaas and Asha's? It's questionable.

The achievement is all the greater when once considers that Nat is not a caterer by profession. Arriving in Coventry from the Punjab in 1956, he didn't speak a word of English. His headmaster wrote "A, B, C" in his exercise book and the young Nat proved to be a quick learner. Within sixmonths, hewas interpreting for other non-English speaking Indian families. He later worked as a professional interpretator in many branches of the criminal justice system, such as the courts and police stations, and trained as a mechanical engineer.

He initially planned to be a "sleeping" partner when the Maharaja opened - it still occupies the same location, with ground-floor and basement dining - but ended up running it single-handed. Nat, nowaged 66, is ever-present, watching over the chefs to make sure the curries are prepared "Maharaja style."

Everything is prepared in-house, starting with the mint yoghurt dip served with poppadoms. The chefs select, mix and grind their own garam masala - there are no ready-made pastes or sauces.

There is a great array curries featuring chicken, lamb and prawns. Vegetable dishes, one of the many joys of Indian food, are abundant. As I talk to Nat, I try a mixed vegetable curry with pilau rice and a new addition to the menu, missi roti, a biscuity bread made from gram flour with fresh coriander. It makes for a splendid lunch.

Nat's original signature dishes - rogan josh, lamb pasanda and butter chicken - remain on the menu. "The chefs have changed over the years but they are always taught how to cook Maharaja style," says Nat. And no, he's not giving away any secrets. Rival chefs have been known to nip in, order butter chicken and smuggle it away to try and crack the flavour enigma.

The profusion of great vegetable dishes may have something to do with the fact Nat is a vegetarian convert. He followed the lead of one of his two daughters several years ago - not for health or ethical reasons, just to have a go - and has never gone back to eating meat. So when you see Nat having a spot of lunch these days, there's a fair chance it will have spinach or cauliflower.

He looks back on Birmingham's culinary evolution with a great sense of satisfaction. The Maharaja, which has recently undergone an elegant refurbishment, was named Egon Ronay Indian Restaurant of the Year in 1997 and Nat says: "My biggest pridewas putting Birminghamon the culinary map. Let's be honest, Birmingham was known as a culinary desert. Now I am so proud that we have so many good restaurants and so many good Indian restaurants."

He adds: "Food is like a religion. I regard every customer who comes through my door as a house guest. I always say to my waiters, 'You never serve a dish to a guest that you would not eat yourself."


Maharaja owner Nat Batt refused to compromise on his principled desire for authentic Indian food
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 6, 2009
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