Renowned for his lively personality and sublime cooking skills, many will know Tony Singh from BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, The Great British Menu and Ready Steady Cook. He also starred in A Cook Abroad: Tony Singh’s India and The Incredible Spice Men with fellow chef Cyrus Todiwala, receiving an MBE in 2017 for both his great contribution to the food and drink industry and his extensive charity work.
Yes, Tony’s kind of a big deal, so I jumped at the chance to go and meet him at his home in Edinburgh recently and learn all about his passion for cooking with wild ingredients.
Tony’s deep-rooted love of food stems from his childhood. “If I helped in the kitchen at home,
I got extra food, so that was my motivation to get involved,” he explains. “And as a young, growing lad, I was always hungry!
“My dad enjoyed cooking, too. In India, men push themselves into the kitchen quite often, especially for big occasions. I think it could be a cultural thing.”
Ingredients from the natural larder have been on Tony’s radar from a young age. His uncle often brought the family woodpigeon and other game meat which invariably found its way onto dinner plates. Perhaps it was inevitable that further down the line Tony would find himself in the field, harvesting these wild ingredients for himself.
“After being introduced to guns as a cadet when I was 14, I would take any opportunity I got to go target or game shooting. The latter is a more recent thing, though,” he admits. “I’ve been invited on a number of shoots and I absolutely love it. My dear friend Alan Stewart took me out on my first day’s game shooting. I’ve since had the opportunity to shoot ducks and other game thanks to Moshin Al Tajir.
Last year, I almost had a chance to shoot grouse – sadly, the day was cancelled due to the impact of the weather on grouse stocks earlier in the year. I was so disappointed; I was really looking forward to it!”
In his early days as a chef, Tony was surprised to see game meat was something of a novelty. “It’s easier to find it in the shops now, but still quite a struggle – especially if you’re looking for prime cuts such as venison loin.” When I asked him about how this could be improved, without hesitation he said: “I think everyone who shoots should eat more game and actively promote it to those around them. As a Sikh, I also firmly believe that no animal should ever suffer and all parts of it should be used – we mustn’t waste any meat, ever.
“Game can be quite strong in flavour, especially when it is hung for too long, and many people don’t like that. And then there is this perception that it is difficult and messy to prepare.”
Tony is adamant that people just need showing otherwise. “All the health benefits are there, so game should be flying off the shelves,” he continues. “People need to know they can use it like any other meat. Campaigns like Taste of Game and the Scotland’s Natural Larder are great at raising awareness and encouraging people to try game. I’d love to see the government get behind game as a sustainable, healthy and delicious food too.
“One thing that surprised me when I went shooting for the first time was that the animal is still warm when you pick it up – we are so used to buying cold chunks of meat that it really shocked me. I think everyone should experience it; maybe it would instil in people a greater appreciation and respect for the meat they eat, and highlight why we should use more parts of the animal, such as the offal. Even haggis was originally made of venison – not many people know that.”
Tony is particularly keen on venison. We spend a while chatting about his penchant for deer stalking – it didn’t take us long to find something in common. “I would love to do more,” he says enthusiastically. “And I’m always open to invitations!” he laughs. “My first experience was highland stalking with a friend in Scotland and I absolutely loved it. You can really lose yourself in the beauty and the soundtrack of nature. It takes a lot of skill and nothing is ever a given. I didn’t actually get a chance to shoot anything that day, but thinking back, I’m quite glad – we would’ve had to drag a massive red deer all the way back to the car with no help at all!” he laughs.
It was refreshing to hear a well-known celebrity chef talk so openly about his participation in fieldsports, rather than keep quiet in fear of difficult questions.
“I don’t hide it at all. I think many still associate shooting with the landed gentry, but once people understand what shooting really is about and what it does for wildlife conservation, rural communities and the economy, they are far more accepting.”
To the kitchen…
So, what are Tony’s top tips for cooking game?
“Less is more when it comes to game – keep it simple and you will rarely go wrong,” he starts. “My advice is to cook game very quickly or very slowly. Game meat is so lean, so the key is to keep it moist. Cooking times are important – overcooking will dry the meat. You can prepare game just like any other type of meat but you do have to remember to always use fat, whether it’s bacon, butter or lard. Try replacing beef and chicken with venison, pheasant or duck in your daily recipes – they will turn out better than ever.
“Game loves spices, too. I think people are quite traditional in the way they look at game. Don’t get me wrong, European traditions are great, but there is so much more you can do with game. Venison is lovely marinated in cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom and cloves; pheasant is great with nutmeg, fennel and coriander; ginger and chilli will go well with any game – you can have chilli with everything.”
Tony runs a Supper Club in his own kitchen, and offers cooking lessons on a one-to-one or group basis. www.tonysingh.co.uk
East Lothian woodpigeon with praline dressing
- 6 woodpigeon breast fillets
- 200g pea shoots
- Cold-pressed rapeseed oil
- 100g roasted hazelnuts
- 2 finely-chopped shallots
- Salt and pepper
- 100g hazelnut praline (minimum
- 50 per cent hazelnut)
- 150ml cold-pressed rapeseed oil
- 50ml balsamic vinegar
- Salt and pepper
- Place the praline in a bowl and whisk in the oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finish with a touch of boiling water and whisk until smooth.
- Roast the hazelnuts in a pan with a little oil until golden brown. Allow to cool and then crush them into smaller chunks.
- After making the dressing, cook the pigeon breasts for a couple of minutes each side in a non-stick pan with the oil and a good serving of butter until medium-rare. Then take the breasts off the heat and rest them in a warm place.
- Toss the pea shoots with the chopped shallots and crushed hazelnuts. Season and dress with the praline dressing.
- To serve, slice the pigeon breasts in half and place on top of the shoots. Spoon over more of the praline dressing and finish with a few more hazelnuts. Enjoy!