Arun Kapil – Green Saffron – interview

Arun Kapil 1 It’s possible that the names of both Arun Kapil and his company Green Saffron will be new to you but it’s likely that over the next year or so they will become, if not household, at least kitchen names. The man and the company are carving out a respectable place for themselves in Ireland and in the UK. Green Saffron is an award-winning family business based in the famous food county of Cork, Ireland. They specialise in the best quality whole spices and unique blends and sauces for use in home as well as professional kitchens.

Green Saffron Red Lentil Dahl Spice Mix arrived along with food products from far and wide, the usual post of boxes of (usually) interesting items, but this little packet was bound to find its way to the top of the pile. Dahl is comforting and particularly when, as on this day, the snow is snowing, the wind is blowing (cue a song). I weathered that storm with the most delicious pot of lentils I have ever eaten.
But how did this particular spice route start? This handsome olive-skinned chap has not a trace of Irish brogue but a rather polished upper-class English accent. He comfortably straddles Asia and Europe and is well-placed to take advantage of both continents.

‘My father’s Indian, from a Brahmin Hindu family, and trained in Lucknow as a doctor. My mother’s from Headingley, Yorkshire. My father was the youngest of 7, and it was a big thing for an Indian to decide to come to Britain in the 60s, but he was the black sheep of the family. His mother and father had died when he was quite young, and his family said, “If you’re leaving, you must learn to fend for yourself,” so they taught him how to cook. Now for a Hindu man in the 60s to cook was quite strange. They taught him to cook kitcheree, lentil dishes, potato dishes, tomato dishes, and packed him off.

‘He came to Leicester, where he met my mum in Leicester General Hospital. My mum clearly had a liberal way of thinking, because to be marrying an Indian man in those days was quite a rebellious thing to do! So the three of us – myself, my younger brother and my elder brother – had a very loving, liberal upbringing.’ It’s evident that Arun’s parents have given him a free spirit and a ‘can-do’ attitude that has served him well.

A gastronomic career wasn’t initially on Arun’s agenda although he has always loved good food and vibrant flavour. ‘If we weren’t making models out of Corn Flake boxes and Andrex tubes we were cooking: rock buns, marble cakes… I have so many memories of cooking – corned-beef hash, Mum’s cowboy ranch beans which we used to have when we went to Wales on our holidays. ‘Kitcheree is the one recipe of my dad’s that I keep coming back to. I have vivid memories of being fed on rice pudding and raspberry jam, or kitcheree (the basis of the English kedgeree) while my mum was having my little brother. Now that my father is retired he is coming back to cooking, and Methi Aloo (potatoes with fenugreek leaves) is his latest thing, which was a childhood favourite of his.

‘Mum and Dad were by no means extravagant: “We have to cook for ourselves, we can’t afford to eat out all the time,” very practical. But I am fortunate in that we used to go to India quite a lot when I was young, so having seen big bowls of lentils, Mum and Dad in the kitchen cooking, sweet and aromatic smells, ladies in saris, bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label – it was an attack on the senses and it was something I wanted to dive into.

‘It was when I went away to school at Oundle that I began to ignore my Indian side and concentrate on the British, probably because I wanted to ‘fit in’.’ Oundle was founded by the Worshipful Company of Grocers; coincidentally the Company was responsible for maintaining standards for the purity of spices, and was closely associated with the East India Company.

‘That was while I was in junior house at Oundle, but when I moved up to a senior house I began to rebel, or at least my Indian side began to come out and I became a little more ‘left of centre’! I was in a rock band at school, joined the National Youth Music Theatre (my first pay-cheque ever was from the BBC!), and I was into acting and music.’

Arun Kapil 2 School finished and Arun moved to London where everybody assumed he would take a lucrative job in the City. ‘I was due to go there for some interviews, but the day before, I found myself in Sloane Avenue and was walking past a cool-looking place called 5151 (Robert Earl and Ronnie Wood’s first restaurant), which had a Cajun-Creole theme. I went in to ask for a job, not having a clue about it, but they were looking for characters and I started as a bus-boy, and absolutely loved it! As my friends were coming home from their City jobs I would be going out for my second shift at 5151, and everybody who was anybody went there – it was THE place to be. Michael Jackson visited; Ronnie Wood was having a party at the same time as Terence Trent D’Arby.’ 5151 was Arun’s first introduction to the food industry and to those who would come to shape the restaurant scene in London.

‘Waiting on tables was a bit like acting for me, and I wanted to sing as well. A production company took me on, but I didn’t get a recording deal, so I formed my own record label, Funky Peace Productions. I was the first person to take the DJs out of the fields and put them in the studios, because I thought, “These DJs know what people want to dance to.” Then I worked with some well-known bands and it was a great life – clubs in Ibiza, clubs in London, a mad life, but brilliant when I was that age! But I realised that I was becoming a ‘shark’, focused on money – “money, money, money, where’s my percentage?” It was a cutting-edge industry, you almost don’t dare to sleep, you have to know the next trend, and it became too frenetic, so I pulled out.’

At age 34 he was considering his next move and was naturally drawn to his previous passion for food. A friend had done a cookery course at Ballymaloe. Myrtle Allen, the doyen of Irish cooking, set up Ballymaloe House in Cork in the 1960s, first as a restaurant and later a hotel and school. Arun wanted to get back to cooking, so signed up. ‘It was another milestone in my life, and in the middle of the countryside in Ireland. My friends were amazed – I was not the sort of person they could imagine living here. Two of them came over to Ireland, and I remember talking to them, over a pint in the pub, about a salad I had been preparing, saying, “If it hadn’t been for one bruised tomato, my salad would have been perfect.” The guys both put their beers down and said, “If that’s all you have to worry about, isn’t that a beautiful thing?” My whole life had turned around!’

Arun had an idea for a range of spices but finding a means of selling them was going to be an issue. ‘How am I going to market my spices to people who aren’t familiar with them? But Cork has probably the largest natural harbour in the world, and was a major port for trade across the British Empire, so historically spices have been used by people in that area, appearing in dishes like Spiced Beef. I called up my cousin in India and got him to send me some spices, ground them, and called my aunts for recipes. I weighed out the spices into packs and included the recipe, went to the market, put on some Bangra music, and a pink sarong. The customers were very supportive, and gradually the sales began to grow. After three or four months word got around, and I started to offer hot food on the stall. The takings doubled, and I began to offer cooking lessons, and after 2 or 3 years we couldn’t keep up with demand. A journalist I knew put me forward for TV, so the brand became known.

‘The next milestone was in 2008, when we won an award for our Christmas Pudding from The Irish Food Writers’ Guild. Suddenly we are no longer just ‘curry boys’ but are known as spice people. Now I am meeting amazing chefs like Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Richard Corrigan, Pascal Sanchez, Eric Chavot, Bruno Loubet, and starting to learn from them about cooking.

‘Ross Lewis has the Michelin Star Chapter One in Dublin, and he called me up, asking for a plum chutney to go with a venison dish. So I mused on where to start.’ Arun has a speedy monologue to explain the process: ‘Plum – plum is purple; what else is purple? Rose petals; rose has floral sweetness, but an element of astringency; that astringency will cut through the richness and sugar. So what are we going to counterbalance that with? Vanilla – a lovely creamy vanilla with the rose. Now we are starting to get somewhere, but how are we going to take it around the mouth? Cassia – better than cinnamon for depth with an anise flavour. To back that up, tej patta, Indian bay leaf, with a citrus flavour. Now the blend is coming together. Star anise will add depth, but not raw, it must be toasted. Plum chutney is a gastric – how are we going to represent a gastric? Amchur powder – desiccated mango – a lovely caramel on the tongue but with a sourness. Now we want more fruitiness – orange, but desiccated orange for a biscuit note. Finally a little white pepper to back up the heat a little’. Arun draws a well-deserved breath and smiles a triumphant smile. ‘That’s how I come up with blends!’

Arun Kapil 3 ‘To make a spice blend you have to want to dive into it, to eat it, no one note too dominant, and it shouldn’t take over the food but complement it. Indian food isn’t about heat it’s about nuance; if you can apply that subtle nuance to Western food then maybe you can get something different. In my blends I am not reinventing the wheel, but adding value, suggesting that you can use them with this dish or that dish, and maybe try them in this other way, too.’

Arun is not into the elitism that pervades the food world. ‘If there’s something beautiful out there, it should be available to everybody – they choose to take it or not, that’s up to them, but having that choice is empowering and that is what Green Saffron is about. I won’t use the term ‘fusion cooking’ but if you happen to mix Japanese with French with Italian and it works, that’s great and it’s decent food, not ‘fusion’ or any other term you might give it. Even Indian food could be called ‘fusion’ because, after all, neither chillies nor tomatoes are indigenous to India!

‘We have just completed the re-branding of Green Saffron last year, and our distribution and supply chains are in place. As we are bringing investment into the company our marketing efforts here in the UK and in Ireland are focused on the high-end retailers.’ If that red lentil blend is representative of Green Saffron then those spices and sauces are sure to find a space on the most reputable of grocers’ shelves.

Arun Kapil sums up his work ethic. ‘There is a word in Punjabi, jugaad, which is interpreted over here as ‘entrepreneurship’ but really means ‘getting the job done’ – if you’re not ill, get out of bed and get on with it. It’s regarded as an intrinsic Indian trait, and when my Dad first came to Britain he met it in the British stiff-upper-lip get-it-done attitude. I’m glad that he instilled that jugaad spirit in me.’

Green Saffron
Unit 16,
Knockgriffin, Midleton,
Co. Cork, Ireland
Phone: +353 (0)21 463 7960
Visit Green Saffron here


Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018