Culinary pioneer's gamble paid off; Food & Drink Maharaja restaurant owner Nat Batt sticks to his principles with 'NO CHIPS'.
BIRMINGHAM may be blessed with some terrific Indian restaurants but it was a very different culinary landscape when Nat Batt unleashed his authentic rogan josh almost 38 years ago.
"There were no proper Indian restaurants. There were curry houses but this was North Indian cooking. We were the first restaurant to put in a clay oven," says Nat, the 66-year-old veteran boss of the Maharaja in Hurst Street.
This pasanda pioneer stuck to his guns from day one, refusing to compromise traditional Punjabi recipes to satisfy the dumbed down palates of 1970s English diners.
You couldn't then, and never will be able to order curry and chips at the Maharaja.
Time has vindicated Nat's decision and Birmingham's new breed of sleek Indian restaurants have, in a sense, followed the successful Maharaja template, refusing to compromise with one of the world's great cuisines.
But in the early days, Nat's food philosophy was a gamble. He recalls: "The first three years were difficult. Our menu and style of cooking was very different to what people were used to.
"We didn't do English dishes and things like chips. People used to walk out when they discovered we didn't do steak and chips."
They didn't walk out for long. The Maharaja was taken to people's hearts and has gone on to build up a loyal following. In a city of diverse cooking styles, it remains a timeless draw for lovers of Mughlai food, its dishes infused with subtle aromas and specially prepared spices and herbs. Everything is done in-house, starting with the mint yoghurt dip served with poppadoms.
"I don't Anglicise any of the dishes. 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 "hot" curry - is the madras. In fact, the madras, says Nat, doesn't actually exist as an Indian dish.
"I have never had madras in my life," he says. However, it is on the Maharaja menu, should you be that way inclined.
Elsewhere, there is a great array curries with chicken, lamb and prawns. Vegetable dishes, one of the many joys of Indian food, are plentiful.
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.
The profusion of great vegetable dishes may have something to do with the fact Nat is a vegetarian convert. A huge fan of butter chicken, 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 was named Egon Ronay Indian restaurant of the year in 1997 and Nat says: "My biggest pride was putting Birmingham on 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."
Despite his success, he remains a self-effacing character. "I let my food and my service speak for itself. I don't blow my own trumpet," he adds.
Nat Batt, owner of the Maharaja restaurant in Hurst Street, Birmingham, with his team (from left) Gaurav Chaudhury, Jairam and Raj Kumar. EL020209FOOD-4; A delicious dish of butter chicken (left) and (right) lamb kadai from the Maharaja.; Maharaja owner Nat Batt with just a small selection of the many dishes he offers.