20 years of The Cinnamon Club: Vivek Singh on the past, present and future of Indian food in the UK

20 years of The Cinnamon Club: Vivek Singh on the past, present and future of Indian food in the UK

by Tom Shingler 7 May 2021

Since 2001, The Cinnamon Club has smashed preconceptions about what Indian food could and should be. Tom Shingler talks to its chef and founder Vivek Singh about how the UK’s love affair with Indian cuisine has evolved and what it might look like in the years to come.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

The Cinnamon Club certainly broke the mould when it opened in 2001. Rather than serving the Indian dishes British diners were familiar with – the curries, poppadoms and snacks that still make up the majority of high street ‘curry house’ menus across the UK – it set out to show how varied and exciting modern Indian food could be. Sourcing the best ingredients, incorporating Western techniques and showcasing Indian flavours in a whole new light, it dared to tread ground where no other restaurants had gone before – but many followed in its footsteps.

Twenty years on, The Cinnamon Club continues to be at the forefront of modern Indian cuisine in the UK. Vivek Singh, the restaurant’s founder and executive chef, has been there from the beginning, making him a true expert in how the British public’s love affair with Indian flavours has evolved and changed over the past two decades. While dishes like chicken tikka masala and baltis remain ever-popular, he’s noticed a huge shift in what customers want when eating at his restaurants.

‘The affection the British people have for Indian food has always been there,’ he says, ‘but it’s changed massively since we opened and we’re in a completely different world now. Back in 2001, the majority of customers had a very basic understanding of regional Indian cuisine and the techniques behind cooking it – they knew vindaloo and madras were hot, while korma was mild. It was quite a basic way of looking at the cuisine of an entire subcontinent with a billion people! Now customers know the names of regions like Rajasthan, Kolkata and Kerala, and that Anglo-Indian food is often an adaptation of original dishes. They travel widely, see more things on social media and have a genuine interest in getting under the skin of a cuisine.’

Up until the likes of The Cinnamon Club opened, most Indian restaurants were pretty similar. They served the same (often Anglicised) dishes and the quality or origin of ingredients was rarely mentioned. When Vivek opened The Cinnamon Club, he wanted to put these stereotypes and assumptions about one of the world’s most varied cuisines to rest. ‘The Cinnamon Club was the first restaurant to care enough about seasonality and the quality of ingredients when it came to Indian food,’ he says. ‘We were very ambitious – dare I say audacious – but we wanted to liberate ourselves from the straightjacket of what people expected from an Indian restaurant. We purposefully didn’t put any curries or poppadoms on the menu in a bid to push boundaries and get diners to think about the cuisine in a different way. I like to think we played a part in setting a new benchmark for Indian cooking, and lots of other restaurants have followed in our wake.’

To keep a restaurant open for twenty years is no mean feat. For it to remain current, relevant, fresh and modern is even tougher. The Cinnamon Club has managed this by not only setting the bar twenty years ago, but continuing to push boundaries to this day. ‘At its heart and soul and ambition, The Cinnamon Club remains the same today as it did in 2001,’ explains Vivek. ‘It’s still about sourcing the best local, seasonal produce money can buy then combining those ingredients with Indian techniques and spicing. But things have of course changed – over the years we’ve gained access to ingredients like dry-aged beef, Iberico pork and black cod, which no Indian restaurant would normally have on the menu. We’ve also matured and become more confident, knowing that we should balance our more boundary-pushing offering by giving people something they recognise and are comfortable with. While we initially never had curries on the menu, we now have a lamb shank with rogan josh sauce, or an Old Dehli butter chicken curry. The chicken comes on the bone, however, so you still have to have it on our terms!’

Access to a better variety of top-quality ingredients and more informed, well-travelled customers who want to try something new have had a huge impact not just on Vivek’s restaurants, but the UK’s food scene as a whole. But what about the future of The Cinnamon Club and Indian food in the UK? ‘I don’t think it’s just a case of how we’ll see Indian cuisine changing in the UK over the next twenty years, but how the UK will shape Indian cuisine. For one, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of vegetarian and vegan Indian cooking, and I think that will explode in a big, big way.

‘In terms of which direction Indian food might go as a whole, I think it’s taking two routes,’ continues Vivek. ‘On the one hand, you have the experimental, controversial, boundary-pushing chefs, like Will Bowlby at Kricket. He’s serving the likes of samphire pakoras and trying new things with Indian flavours that haven’t been seen before. Then at the other end of the spectrum you have people like Asma Khan – people flock to her restaurant Darjeeling Express to try her dishes, which are as rooted and traditional as can be. The push and stretch is going in both directions; experimentation and adventure on one hand, discovering authentic flavours and enjoying the comfort of familiarity in the other. I’m delighted with both, and it’s fantastic that The Cinnamon Club had a role to play in both of those examples, whether it was Asma’s association with us in her supperclub days or Will’s stint working with us before he opened Kricket.’

As a diner, having the option to try both experimental, modern takes on Indian flavours and exploring time-honoured, authentic, traditional regional cuisine is the best of both worlds. In the middle of those two extremes, Vivek also mentions other restaurants creating a unique offering; Dishoom’s concept based on the Parsi-run cafés of Mumbai, or Gymkhana’s recreation of a gentlemen’s club from the days of the British Raj. There’s never been a better time to explore and taste your way through India’s incredibly rich cuisine and the many directions it’s moving in. It’s fair to say, however, that a lot of these restaurants simply wouldn’t exist if Vivek and The Cinnamon Club hadn’t dared to make the first jump twenty years ago.