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'Cooking good food is not everybody's cup of tea'

October 01, 2013 16:23 IST

'Cooking good food is not everybody's cup of tea'

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Rajul Hegde

Chef Ajay Chopra speaks of the nature of his business, his worst kitchen disasters and shares some of his meanest recipes. Read on and drool!

You first saw him in MasterChef India. Today, Chef Ajay Chopra hosts his own show, Hi Tea, on the FoodFood channel.

Chopra's show reflects his eclectic taste -- he features recipes from cuisines as diverse as Mexican, Jamaican, Spanish and European.

"Chai is such a big deal in India. But when it comes to tea time snacks, we're usually limited to samosas and pakoras. With Hi Tea, I hope to introduce viewers to quick recipes of dishes that can be savoured with tea. It could be crispy chicken quesadillas or jalapeno empanadas or even a chocolate samosa," he tells Rajul Hegde.

What is your favourite ingredient?

My favourite ingredient is the spice, star anise. It has a beautiful flavour.

I am an ardent fan of Chinese food where a lot of star anise is used.

The star anise shows you the circle of life. Its round centre is indicative of force and its petals embody strength.

I am planning to make a big wooden star anise and hang it in my living room; I am that inspired by the spice.

Can you share a quick recipe using star anise?

Try honey chilli chicken spiced by star anise; it is mindblowing.

All you have to do is roast some star anise and keep it aside.

You can crisp fry your chicken using egg and corn flour. Then make a sauce by sauteing garlic, a little pepper powder, chilli paste, roasted star anise, vinegar and tomato ketchup and let it stew.

When it's nice and thick, add the chicken and a little bit of honey. Toss well, and it's ready to eat.
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The most underrated ingredient according to you is…

Jeera (cumin). It can create magic if you know how to use it.

This is one ingredient with which you can start or end a dish. For example, you start with jeera in Dal Tadka while the final touch in Dahi Bhalle is jeera. You start chicken dishes with jeera while your finish a Gosht Beliram with lots of roasted pepper and jeera to give that distinctive aroma.

Jeera is underrated because people don't really know how to use it. I don't think people have really experimented with brown or roasted cumin powder, or with cumin seeds.

And the most overrated ingredient?

I can't think of any overrated spice because every spice is beautiful. Every spice has different elements in it.

But I do feel saffron has become highly overrated and is obnoxiously expensive.

Good saffron is supposed to give you good flavour and aroma. Iranian and Kashmiri saffron are both good, though Iranian saffron is larger and richer.

However, the reason why Iranian saffron is considered better -- which is the reason why it is so expensive -- is because you can buy 10 boxes and the quality of the saffron will be the same in each of those boxes.

Kashmiri saffron has different ranges in terms of quality, which is quite sad. But its aroma and flavour are good and it works well with Indian dishes.

What advice would you give parents when it comes to inculcating a love for food, and an appreciation of the cooking process, in the next generation?

This is a big challenge for parents.

Personally speaking, I feel if I can constantly excite my kids with new dishes, they will find themselves falling in love with food again and again.

Sadly, a lot of people have stopped cooking at home. Going to a restaurant is great, but cooking at home is also very important.

Eating together is something else we are losing out on. Honestly, I don't remember when I had my last dinner with my wife and son.

I want to practice what I preach. Eating together creates lot of bonding and love, for people as well as food.

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Image: Chef Ajay Chopra tosses up a mean feast on FoodFood Channel's show Hi Tea
Photographs: Courtesy Ajay Chopra

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'Those in the food industry are enjoying the spotlight'

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How has the Indian food and culture changed over the years?

India has evolved in every possible way -– in the way we live, think, dress and eat.

I remember Chef Sanjeev Kapoor saying if there was no food, there would be no fashion.

Food and fashion are interconnected; you dress up to go out for dinner/lunch. They are integral to each other.

Secondly, Indians today are well-travelled so they are willing to explore new food. They don't stick to what they are familiar with; they want to try different things.

For us as chefs, that is a huge change.

Even within the country, cooking styles are crossing borders -- from Goa to Maharashtra to Mangalore to Delhi…

People are incorporating cooking styles of different regions in their homes.

When it comes to programmes, everybody wants to cook something new everyday. That's the biggest change.

What advice would you give someone interested in the food industry?

Consider becoming a chef only if you passionately love cooking.

That's what you need to become a good chef.

We come from a generation where our parents wanted us to become A, B and C only. Today's parents are more open and realise that being a chef is a good career option. It's not just a behind-the-scenes job; it can be glamorous as well.

Do you think more and more of people are considering becoming a chef because of the glamour that is increasingly being associated with the profession?

It's a phase.

Today, the food industry is popular and everyone's interested in it.

Three years ago, I did not have a television programme. Did that mean I was a bad chef?

This industry too will see its peak before it goes down. Everything has a bell curve.

As of now, those who are in the food industry are enjoying the spotlight.

Unlike the West, where there are many celebrity chefs, India only had Sanjeev Kapoor for 14 years. Today, there are so many.

Indians now respect the fact cooking good food is not everybody's cup of tea. Besides, they eat out a lot more these days.

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Image: Today, the food industry is popular and everyone's interested in it, says Chef Chopra.
Photographs: Courtesy Ajay Chopra

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'I admire Jamie Oliver because of his cooking technique, style and thought'

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If you were to invite a famous person to your house, who would it be?

Actually, I would invite my family – my mom, dad and my brothers.

My speciality is Chilli Pepper Crab and Goan Fish Curry. When I prepare these dishes, everybody is happy and I get kisses.

Who has been your inspiration?

When I was learning, I came across chefs who held on to their secrets. Nobody was there to share their experience or train us. I had no choice but to push myself.

I remember, when I was training at the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai, one of the things I was trying to master was the art of making a roomali roti. Every night, I'd practice with the roomali dough till I got it right!

I admire Jamie Oliver because of his cooking technique, style and thought. There are many chefs who have influenced me at different times; but I am my biggest inspiration.

Any cooking disaster when you were doing the course?

Many.

I was clumsy and, in my last year, I managed to ruin the rice I was cooking three times in a row. The first time, I burnt 60 kgs of rice because I had not used enough water. The second time, the rice was undercooked. The third time, everything was okay but someone came and poured water thinking the vessel contained dal.

Even today, my seniors tease me, 'You were so bad in college. How did you become a celebrity chef?'

I can't help laughing when I think of those days.

What's the one kitchen item every cook should have?

A sharp knife. It gives you better control and precision.

Kitchen tips

When making yellow dal, add freshly chopped ginger and green chillies after giving the tadka (fried garnish). This will give the dal a nice, aromatic, fresh flavour.

To keep green vegetables fresh for longer time, cover them with a wet cloth.

My wife keeps lemon slices in the fridge. It removes the odour that tends to gather because we store so many things in our fridge.

If a recipe calls for ghee but you are health conscious, replace half the ghee with oil. This way, you can retain the flavour that ghee lends any dish.

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Image: When making yellow dal, add freshly chopped ginger and green chillies after giving the tadka says Chef Chopra
Photographs: Southofindia/Wikimedia Creative Commons

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Recipe: Japanese Tempura

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If there's one dish that people should try (to cook at home) from your show, what would that be?

Japanese Tempura

Ingredients

  • 1 medium brinjal
  • 8-10 spinach leaves
  • 1 small green zucchini, cut into fingers
  • 1 small yellow zucchini, cut into fingers
  • 1 small red bell pepper, deseeded and cut into fingers
  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup cornflour
  • 1/2 cup refined flour + for dusting
  • 1 tsp black pepper powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup drinking soda
  • Oil for deep-frying

Method

  • Cut brinjal into thin slices.
  • To make batter, combine rice flour, cornflour, refined flour, pepper powder, salt and 1 cup ice cold water in a bowl. Whisk well ensuring that there are no lumps. Add drinking soda and whisk well into a pouring consistency batter.
  • Heat sufficient oil in a wok.
  • Dust spinach leaves in refined flour, dip in batter and coat well and deep-fry in hot oil till crisp. Similarly, repeat the procedure with brinjal slices, zucchinis and bell peppers. Drain on absorbent paper.
  • Serve hot with sweet chilli sauce.

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Image: Japanese Tempura
Photographs: Courtesy Ajay Chopra
Tags: Tempura

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Recipe: Stuffed Mushrooms

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Could you share some more high tea recipes?

Stuffed Mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 12-16 large mushrooms, cleaned and stalks removed
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp finely chopped fresh red chillies
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tsps vinegar
  • 2 tsps olive oil
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh celery
  • 1 small red bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
  • 1 tsp chopped and fried garlic + for garnishing
  • 11/2 tsps chopped dill leaves + for garnishing
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup cream cheese
  • 2 tbsps hung yogurt


Method

  • Marinate mushrooms with garlic, chopped red chillies, salt, vinegar and olive oil. Mix well and set aside.
  • Heat 1 tsp oil in a non-stick grill pan. Place mushrooms upside down and grill for 2 minutes. Flip and grill for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Combine cucumber, celery, red bell pepper, fried garlic, dill leaves, onion, cream cheese and hung yogurt in a bowl and mix well. Add salt and mix again.
  • Stuff the grilled mushrooms with the cream cheese mixture and place on a serving plate.
  • Garnish with some chopped dill leaves and fried garlic on top and serve immediately.

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Image: Stuffed mushrooms
Photographs: Courtesy Ajay Chopra
Tags: Marinate

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Recipe: Chicken Tikka Spring Rolls

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Chicken Tikka Spring Rolls

Ingredients

  • 6-8 cooked chicken tikka pieces
  • 4 spring roll sheets
  • A few fresh mint sprigs
  • A few fresh coriander sprigs
  • 1 green chilli, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsps finely chopped ginger
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tsps lemon juice
  • 3 tbsps mint chutney
  • 3 tbsps mayonnaise
  • Refined flour paste for sealing
  • Oil for deep-frying

Method

  • Cut the chicken tikka pieces into small dices and put in a bowl.
  • Finely chop mint and coriander sprigs and add in the bowl along with green chilli, ginger, onion, 2 tsps lemon juice, 1 1/2 tbsps mint chutney, 2 tbsps mayonnaise and mix well.
  • Place a spring roll sheet on the worktop. Put generous spoonful of chicken tikka mixture on one end of the sheet and tightly roll it sealing the edges with refined flour paste. Similarly make the remaining spring rolls.
  • Heat sufficient oil in a wok. Deep-fry spring rolls till golden and crisp. Drain on absorbent paper.
  • Combine remaining mayonnaise, remaining mint chutney and remaining lemon juice in a bowl, mix well and transfer into a serving bowl.
  • Halve the spring rolls and serve hot with the mayonnaise dip.

Image: Chicken Tikka Spring Rolls
Photographs: Courtesy Ajay Chopra

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