Curry Leaf Cafe spices up Sweden

As part of the Brighton and Hove Food & Drink Festival's chef exchange programme, Chef Kanthi took over a hotel kitchen in Sweden last month to introduce the locals to the pleasures of South Indian food.

Chef Kanthi of Curry Leaf Cafe prepares to cook a three-course South Indian dinner for guests at the Stadt Hotel in Lidköping, Sweden last month

Chef Kanthi of Curry Leaf Cafe prepares to cook a three-course South Indian dinner for guests at the Stadt Hotel in Lidköping, Sweden last month

As a regular at the Brighton and Hove Food & Drink Festival’s events – appearing several times as guest chef – I never miss an episode of its International Chef Exchange show when it airs on Brighton’s Latest TV network. I love the idea of chefs taking over the kitchen of a restaurant in a different country for one night and running a special menu that represents their unique culture and style of cooking. 

Earlier this year, a well known wine merchant called Torbjörn Rundkvist from Triplus Vinhandel in Lidköping, Sweden, came to Brighton with his team to pick some English wines for his menu. A big fan of Indian food, he asked his host Nick Mosley – director of the Brighton and Hove Food & Drink Festival – where he should eat while in town. That night I found myself sharing a meal with Torbjörn and Nick at the cafe, planning my first ever chef exchange over pakoras and curry. 

First Impressions

When I arrived at Gothenburg two months later, the first thing I noticed was how clean and organised the city was. Everyone so well dressed and hardly any cars on the roads. After a short walk we ended up in a place called Tvakanten – a lovely little restaurant with brick walls and lots of wood. It reminded me of Curry Leaf Cafe immediately. There was a salad buffet and a bread station where you slice your own bread. The homemade bread was good, but it’s the butter that impressed me the most. It was rich, creamy and had a mild smoky flavour. On the manager’s recommendation I went for rapeseed-fed pork with apple sauce and an apple salad. The local apples were a revelation – so crisp and sweet.

The small town of Lidköping sits on the fringes of the European Union’s largest lake, Vänern

The small town of Lidköping sits on the fringes of the European Union’s largest lake, Vänern

Lidköping and Mellbygatans

Lidköping sits on the fringes of the European Union’s largest lake, Vänern, and has a great food scene for such a small town. Upon arrival, Torbjörn and his wife Ann invited our group for a meal at local favourite Mellbygatans Restaurant paired with some great Tuscan Wines from Volterra. 

Restaurants in Sweden seem to prefer neutral decor; it’s clearly not just as IKEA thing. Personally, I like it because it means the food stands out on the table – and this food deserves the limelight. There’s a really nice cocktail bar there, too, which we became quite familiar with by the end of the trip. Owners Samuel Didider and chef Emil Amarker are lovely. Samuel’s dad grew up at a boarding school in India, and while there he became good friends with the cooks and learned how to cook their food – traditions he has now passed on to his children. When I left, Samuel junior gave me a mango lassi-flavoured craft beer to take home. It was nice, but I struggled to taste the mango. Probably a good thing. 

Spicing up the school kitchen

Students at the local school line up to play the Spice Game

Students at the local school line up to play the Spice Game

My first full day in Sweden saw me host an Indian cookery lesson at the local Rudenschöldskolan secondary school, of which Tjorbjörn’s wife Ann is headmistress. So many students sent in applications to take part in the lesson that they had to hold a lottery. With so few of them having tasted Indian food before, excitement levels were running high. 

To get things warmed up we played the Spice Game. Despite the teenagers’ lack of exposure to Indian food, they managed to name most of them straight away. Impressive. Next I showed them how to make a spice mix for a simple South Indian chicken curry. Worried about their tolerance for heat, I decided to make the curry milder than usual. When the time came to cook their own dishes, however, all the students put extra chilli in. A good lesson for me there. Some of them even got competitive with each other and began experimenting with spices. I left the school confident that Indian food is set to make a much bigger mark on the Swedish dining scene before long. 

The main event

The next day, at the Stadshotellet in Lidköping, the event I had been looking forward to since that fateful curry with Tjorbjörn finally arrived – my first ever chef exchange. I must admit that I was initially a little nervous about the prospect of working with a completely unfamiliar team with little or no experience of cooking Indian food. Chef Gustav arranged the necessary ingredients for me, however, and before long we were getting stuck into the cardamom and saffron ice cream that would be served for dessert that evening. It worked out brilliantly – so much so that Gustav now has is on his own menu.

I took care to be extra organised, which always helps when dealing with an unfamiliar kitchen. Happy that everything was under control, Gustav gave me two of his chefs then went home to get changed and return for dinner as a guest in his own restaurant, leaving me as acting head chef for the night. Ably assisted by his talented kitchen team, we made short work of the prep for tonight’s menu: fruit chaat, vegetable pakoras, a Keralan seafood moilee, and gulab jamoons served with saffron and cardamom ice cream. I even had time to introduce each course to the diners, give them a bit of history behind the dishes. Accompanying this was a selection of delicious craft beers paired by Megan from The Beer Collective. It was such a relaxed and fun evening, and everyone seemed to really get into the spirit of things. As I told them at the start of the meal, “We're not fine-dining tonight, we're fun-dining.”

Caviar and Naturum

Caviar for breakfast again. It seemed that barely an hour went by in Lidköping without caviar making an appearance, and I started to wonder how much fish is required to satisfy the locals' enormous hunger for their eggs. Torbjörn took us to the island of Lacko Slott so we could see for ourselves. Vendance – a small, round-bodied fish – is the species used, and around 10,000kg of it is needed to yield 500kg of caviar. My heart skipped a beat when I heard that. That's a lot of fish. I was relieved to learn that the fishing boats are only allowed to catch Vendance from October to December. The actual caviar operation is as lean as they come – just one guy sitting in front of a huge pile of fish, popping them open and squeezing the eggs out of them into a small bucket; another one washing and straining them; and another packing and freezing them. One room, one freezer and three guys. Apparently they make so much money from October to December that they don’t have to work the rest of the year. 

Naturum houses a restaurant, theatre and natural history museum

Naturum houses a restaurant, theatre and natural history museum

Naturum is an amazing building beside the lake that houses a restaurant, a small natural history museum and a theatre. Its wood and glass construction really stands out while simultaneously complementing the surrounding environment. The head chef of Naturum’s restaurant, Stefan, cures, air-dries, brews and grows his own produce in the garden. The salads, herbs and root vegetables are incredibly fragrant and crisp, and we tried an amazing parsnip beer. Given a chance I’d love to do an Indian-themed dinner with Stefan in his kitchen, or even just visit for a weekend to give my brain a chance to relax and get my creative juices flowing.

Friends, fun and Bandy

As well as making new friends in Sweden, the event was a great opportunity to cement relationships with my friends from Sussex who came along to showcase British wines, beers, cheese and spirits. Watching the locals taste these products from The Beer Collective, Ridgeview Wines and Blackdown Spirits– along with Guernsey produce brought by Chef Simon McKenzie – made me feel proud to call Sussex home. It’s good to see these excellent products getting the international recognition they deserve.

On our last day in Sweden the group took a tour of the local fishing village, where queues of people crowd around the fishermen’s docks buying fish straight off the boats. While there I stumbled across this little fish restaurant called Sjoboden where my good friend Chef Jimmy Gray of Jeremy’s in Borde Hill did a popup as part of last year’s chef exchange. Seeing the Brighton and Hove Food & Drink Festival sticker on its door brought a smile to my lips. 

After another lunch of caviar at Torbjörn and Ann’s house, we all headed off to the airport. En route they stopped at a sports arena to introduce us to a popular local game called Bandy, which is billed as ‘ice hockey with the rules of football’. The Sparbanken arena is massive. As I watched the teams of secondary school girls’ knock the puck around the stadium, cradling my gifts of caviar and local beer, I took a moment to consider what I’d learned during my four days in Sweden. Then it came to me. If there’s one thing that transcends countries, borders, religions, class and language, it is food. Food has just one language, and it’s spoken by everyone with great joy. Cheers to that. 

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