When Shariful Khan opened Nurtaj in Aberdeen last year he did so with the mindset of bringing a completely new concept of south Asian food to the city.
Launching the first low-fat Indian restaurant in the north-east, Nurtaj on Justice Mill Lane is only nine months old, but is fast becoming one of the top places to experience south Asian food in the city. With a focus on low-fat food, not to mention an extensive vegan offering, Shariful prides himself on bringing a unique dining opportunity to the table.
The owner of former award-winning Indian restaurant Cumin Tandoori on Union Street for three years, Shariful has 14 years of experience in the industry and his bachelor and masters degrees in hospitality have been fundamental in paving the way for the success of Nurtaj.
Specialising in a cuisine that can sometimes be thought of as unhealthy, Shariful says he wants to turn this mindset on its head and show that Indian food can be enjoyed and have a place in a healthier diet.
And with more than 250 dishes available across Nurtaj’s four menus, Shariful guarantees he can find a dish to suit everyone’s tastes.
Why was it important for you to centre Nurtaj around low-fat cuisine?
So far the response to the restaurant has been wonderful. I think it’s because we’re promoting healthy Indian cuisine that’s low in fat. All the food is cooked in vegetable oil and all the vegetables in olive oil. Nowadays people are more health conscious. They want to go out for a treat, but also look after their bodies so we’re focusing on using less fatty ingredients. We want to break the mould with this. Some people said it was impossible to make low-fat Indian cuisine, but we’re proving them wrong and customers are loving it.
And is it primarily Indian cuisine you offer?
We call ourselves a south Asian restaurant as we have three chefs from different countries. We have Nepali dishes on the menu, south Indian and Bengali dishes. These regions all have their own flavours and styles. The sweeter, creamier dishes like the pasanda, korma and masala are from Bangladesh, and then the hot spicy dishes are from south India. The modern fusion dishes are Nepali. We’ve incorporated a few of the award-winning dishes from our first restaurant Cumin Tandoori and put a different, innovative twist on them too.
You’ve got a big vegan offering too, was it important to have that from the get-go?
Before we even opened we planned the vegan menu for about seven months. Veganism is very popular now in the UK, but in India, vegetarian and vegan cooking has been around for centuries. We call it Shakahari and we have a long history with it.
We wanted to offer something different and one of our chefs is actually vegan which is brilliant. He makes the menu and changes it every six months. The dishes and cooking style are unique and they’ve proven very popular. There’s a dalani and aloo gobi, which is a cauliflower dish – it’s usually the first dish to be served at Indian wedding. The Princess Tiger with broccoli and chick pea is also brilliant.
So what else is popular at Nurtaj?
There are more than 250 dishes across our four menus, so there’s a lot on offer and Indian food is always best served fresh and hot.
There are a few classics that the people of Aberdeen love like masala, pasanda and butter chicken. To be different, we’ve created a stuffed chicken curry which no one in the city offers. It’s cooked on the bone and comes on a sizzler and is cooked in a ginger, coriander and tomato blend. It’s one of our most popular dishes.
Kandhari is also a big hit with our customers, it’s a Nepali dish that we cook in a woodfired oven and it’s slow cooked and is absolutely delicious.
You cook in the traditional charcoal cooking style, why is that?
In an Indian restaurant there are two kinds of meat. One is the curry meat and one is the grill meat. The grill meat is cooked in a charcoal oven which is quite traditional. We have a 1960s-style menu and it is very classic. Charcoal ovens were really popular from the 1950s to the 70s and we use it to cook the meat first, it’s more traditional in my opinion.
When cooking, we never use any powders and only use pastes for the curries and spices as it gives much better flavours I feel. We also hand-make all of our relishes and condiments. We have a mint and yoghurt, an organic mango and forest honey, mixed pepper and ginger too.
Is the takeaway service as busy as the restaurant?
It’s extremely busy but we have a different menu for the takeaway options. Takeaway dishes need to be able to travel and stay hot for 30 sometimes 40 minutes, so chef has to cook it differently. The food we know travels well will only ever be on our takeaway menu. We want the quality of the food to be how it would be in the restaurant, so it’s really important for us to adapt different techniques when cooking. We’re on Deliveroo, Just Eat and we also take orders via our own website – it’s the most popular of them all.
Where does the name Nurtaj come from?
Nurtaj means “crown of light” and it’s actually my daughter’s name too. When she was born we agreed that the next restaurant we opened we would name after her. We always wanted to do something to encourage female empowerment and this was a great way to do that. We work with a lot of groups back home that support female empowerment and we give a percentage of our sales to the charities and groups back home to put towards education and things like that. We’re also thinking of starting a homeless evening where we’ll be donating some of our food. The community is really important to us.
And how many are in the team?
At the moment we have three chefs, one person working the grill and one kitchen porter in the kitchen team.
Front of house, I work as the manager and then I have another two waiting staff that help out. There’s eight of us in total, but my wife sometimes comes in to help us out at the weekends as it’s extremely busy. She’s an excellent cook and it’s nice to get to work together.
What’s been the main highlight of Nurtaj for you?
With the business, I would say the main highlights have been how much people are loving the food. It’s a little different and we’re really confident in our hospitality. We serve every guest exactly the same and we try and give them great service in a relaxed atmosphere. Everyone is celebrated when they come here and it’s a wonderful place to be.
What’s next for Nurtaj?
We’re looking to expand the business. We’ll be announcing some big news in the summer but I can’t confirm anything yet. We’re looking to open a second restaurant in Aberdeenshire which is extremely exciting so I’ll be able to reveal more about that soon.
We change our menus every six months so we’ll be changing it for summer at the beginning of July and our takeaway menus change quarterly so that will be getting updated too.
Visit the restaurant on Justice Mill Lane or order try it out by ordering at www.nurtaj.co.uk