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An open letter to my favourite chef. . .

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about ajoy

i’ve been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i’ve owned nilgiri’s indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i’m on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a ‘curry in a hurry’! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i’m enjoying exploring the new social media to fulfil this passion! i’ve also published cookery books, been on tv, the radio, won awards! now i’m also moving into making cookery videos. these are simple and easy to follow and don’t go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

Dear Arora saab, Chef Namaskar!

Chef Arora

It was in 2009, on my last visit to India with my son Aniruddh and wife Meera, that I spoke to you from the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai and, though it was a very brief conversation, it seemed as though time had stood still.

As you may recall, it was over 20 years ago that I had the privilege of working with you and it was the best time of my life!

You were a great inspiration to me and the things you taught me during that short period have helped me in my career, both as a chef and as a restaurateur.

It has also helped me take pride in what I do and who I am.

vegetable ishtew

They were simple the things you said, like “Betae ise apne bachche ke liye bana rahe ho, aise samjho.” [Son, think as though you’re cooking for your child] and you will never go wrong.

Or another of your phrases lingers in my mind, “Khana banate huye mazaa na aaye to galti se na banana, yeh kabhi achcha nahin banega, khaana to haath se banta hai betae, lekin swaad to dil se aata hai.” [If you’re not getting enjoyment, or fun, from it, don’t do it, it will never be done well. Food is cooked with your hands and should come from the heart.] And these are only a few of the ones I remember!!

And it is this that makes me write to you today. I want to ask you this, where have all the inspirational chefs gone?

It seems to me they are too busy taking awards (and their ensuing rewards) and giving speeches in 5 star hotels!!

I have been in India for the past week and every time I turn on the tv to watch a food channel, or talk show, or a show about cooking Indian food I end up watching ‘how to cook pasta’ at home or how to make Caesar salad or make a trio of juices or cook some chicken dish…..!!

Is that really what we Indians want to cook? Have we lost all interest in our own cuisine or do we think we know everything we need to know about our food and that eating pasta and pizza is hip?!

Well, whatever the reason is, it doesn’t make for good viewing.

The guy who is presenting is totally spaced out, if you know what I mean. He has no real connection with what he is doing nor with what he is saying.

When I watch a cooking show I don’t want to be told about the dish we’re being shown because I can see that dish quite clearly on the screen! That’s so obvious and uninformative. I want to hear about the story behind the cooking. I want real information about, for example, the use of spices, the chillies and the addition of salt whilst cooking, not the impressionistic thoughts of the presenter that add no value whatsoever!

The great cricketer and TV commentator, Richie Benaud, once said, “If you cannot add to the picture, don’t talk.” Know what I’m saying?!!

And it was whilst watching these vapid programmes, without real content, or depth, or research, that I was reminded of you and how you once described the making of dal makhni that was the antithesis of these trite programmes that are ‘all about speed and show and no substance’. Yours was full of vitality, interest, knowledge and a measured pace, and I fear these features are disappearing (have disappeared).

Your five points about the dal makhani contained such measured and long-gained wisdom: never drain the liquid in which the lentils/beans are soaked as this ‘pot liquor’ helps soften the beans when you start cooking. Cook the beans on a low heat, and never stir. Add some salt after the beans are soft as the salt stops the beans from cooking. Add the spice (garam masala) as a bouquet garni and leave it in with the beans as it preserves and helps mature the dal. Make sure you add the rest of the ingredients one at a time, making sure you cook the last ingredient before adding the next. Finish the dal with Quasoori Methi (fenugreek leaves from the region of Quasoor) in Pakistan, as this prevents any flatulence!! And last, remember to cook the dal uncovered, which means no pressure cooking!! (If you want to read the blog about this, click Dal Makhani.)

Chef, what can we do to  bring back the ‘desire’ and ‘hunger’ to do well in young and up and coming chefs, like the sheer devotion the chefs of the 70s and 80s had?

Chef, how can we help young chefs take Indian food to the next level?

Most young chefs in India, and overseas, want to cook only modern/contemporary cuisine, now, of course there is nothing wrong with that, I love that cuisine too, but I want us to think for a moment. Is the world ready to eat modern/contemporary/French food cooked by an Indian chef? It’d be great if this were the case but I don’t think it is, but please do prove me wrong.

The world is ready and will accept Indian food with a modern twist, no, not Indian (con) fusion, but Indian food served in a contemporary manner where the artistic skills, along with the culinary skills, of the chef are brought to the front, something that makes him or her feel good about his or her creation.

At the moment Indian food is still seen as nothing but a “CURRY” which is not a feel-good, or seen as sophisticated, culinary term.

So what do we do? Well, we need to make the change and you need to start this process, now!!

stuffed baby eggplant

Chef, I am a student and a great admirer of this wonderful and highly varied cuisine that is dumped under the umbrella term of  “Indian food”, but my passion only happened because of chefs like yourself, and chef Arvind Saraswat, who made me believe that Indian food is intricate, delicate and highly skilled.

It is very disheartening when I meet young chefs in Australia and invite them to come into my kitchen to see how we do things and whilst most say they love Indian food, they then add in the same sentence, “But I don’t like the chilli or the oil in it.”

Indian food is not all chillies and oil. Well, you of course know this and I know it, but does the young chef in India today know it?

I think a lot of time is wasted in honouring and giving accolades to chefs in India so that they have become like politicians who need to be seen to prove their popularity!!

A chef is like a poet who lets his poem do the talking without being seen!

Chef, we are in dire straits and we need your help to bring back the aag, the ichcha, the desire to rise above the rest. I remember you once called it PASSION!!

I don’t expect a reply. I know you’re a busy man but I had to write a letter to someone. All I can do from here is share one of your amazing lentil dishes that so aroused my passions when I was younger.

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

About Ajoy Joshi

i've been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i've owned nilgiri's indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i'm on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a 'curry in a hurry'! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i'm enjoying exploring the new social media and as well as having published cookery books i'm now moving into videos. simple and easy to follow that don't go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

5 responses »

  1. Yummmmm 😉 I am so hungry …I wished you were next door and I can just plonked down on the chair and order and be fed… looks incredible! Love Indian food!

    Reply
  2. I loved this post…I am glad somebody out there feels like that. Cooking is becoming a sport…….I am so glad you wrote this…I would plonk myself in front of the TV all day if there is show that would do all you asked for. There is a joy in cooking….it’s sad that people in India feel that to get the viewership they need to do pasta and pizza…there is so much about our Indian cuisine …such depths, such layers…I wish someone brings that to light. Again, thank you for writing this post, you touched a chord.

    Reply
  3. Thank you for writing this post, it touched a chord. It’s sad to not see one single authentic Indian cooking show where ingredients are glorified and are given their due…where stories are told about the dish as opposed to “here 20 minutes and you are done with your pasta dinner”
    I would be the first to seat myself in front of the TV if there is a show that does all you that you talked about.
    Again, thank you for writing this post.

    Reply
  4. Very well said Ajoy and I agree wholeheartedly! And your passion is infectious! 🙂

    Reply

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