City Spice chef Niaz Caan cooked a chicken tikka masala on national TV when he was just 19, and now he’s making waves with a new cookbook based on his award-winning vegan menu.
“Every day you see something new on Brick Lane, whether it’s a new outfit or a new person playing music on the street,” Niaz Caan, 22-year old executive chef of City Spice, says. “It’s such a hodgepodge of culture, with the history of Jewish communities to the Huguenots and now the Bengali community.”
City Spice has consistently been recognised not only as an excellent curry house by the British Curry Awards, but also as one of London’s best restaurants, nabbing OpenTable’s Diners Choice award for Best Restaurant in London in 2022.
The restaurant is known for its fusion dishes, including Caan’s favourite black pepper lamb and mushroom, which mixes English and Indian flavours. It has been celebrated by national news outlets, and the restaurant is a favourite among celebrities such as The Crown’s Matt Smith.
Chef Niaz Caan has been an integral part of the restaurant’s success, helping to create the award-winning vegan menu when he was just 18. The following year he cooked Britain’s national dish, chicken tikka masala, on Channel 5 with a City Spice twist.
“Cooking on TV was a career highlight,” Caan says. “How many kids get to be on TV? There’s chefs who have been cooking chicken tikka masala for like 40 years, so for them to be saying I’m doing it better was pretty cool.”
Incidentally, Chicken Tikka Masala is Caan’s favourite dish to cook. “It’s always the most popular dish in any curry house,” he says. “It’s rewarding watching the colour change from the oil in the pan to a red, creamy, velvety sauce.”
Caan first got interested in cooking when he was only nine years’ old. “My mum forced me to get off the couch and stop watching The Simpsons,” he says. “That’s when I started learning recipes passed on from my grandmother that I still use today.”
When he was 14, Caan started working for an Indian takeaway in Kent. “Because of the staff crisis by age 16 I was pretty much running the place, cooking and scheduling orders,” he says, an experience which prepared him for his next job as a chef at Brick Lane’s City Spice.
“I love how fast-paced restaurant work is and how energetic you need to be,” he says. “It’s one of the few industries where you get your customer feedback immediately — within the first few bites you can see how good your food is, and you can adjust along with your experience which is one of the best things about cooking.”
Caan’s vegan Indian cookbook (published July 2023) features popular City Spice recipes such as Aloo Chat, crispy sweet-and-sour potatoes cooked with spices and tamarind. “I always believe food should be shared,” Caan says. “I made the cookbook because customers kept asking for the recipes.”
The cookbook features a whopping 50 recipes based on months of late-night experimentations finding dairy-free alternatives for City Spice’s vegan menu, such as swapping ghee for sunflower oil and coconut cream for double cream. “It also has quick and easy after-work meals which aren’t in the restaurant, like vegan butter chicken,” Caan says.
Caan also has a popular YouTube channel where he shares his recipes, and he’s opening a new Kolkatan fusion restaurant in Covent Garden in August. “I think I’ve done the standard curry house already really well, and now I want to do innovative cuisine to rival Dishoom and other big restaurants in London,” he says.
The new restaurant will be double the size of City Spice, but Caan’s career aspirations don’t stop there. “Hopefully I can get into TV a bit more, maybe one day have my own segment as a young up-and-coming chef,” he says.
Caan also completed his Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Birmingham while working for City Spice by studying remotely during the daytime and working in the evenings.
“I hope my parents are proud, I think I’ve done the standard stuff that would make them proud like getting a first-class degree,” he says. “I know they love me, and I love them more than anything.”
Caan’s ambitions are bigger than Brick Lane but the chef will never forget where his roots are — and diners should make sure to get a taste of the rising star’s food before he makes his way to their TV screens.