Celebrity chef Ajay Chopra talks about his new venture, fusion food and the changing attitude towards Indian food.
A true Punjabi at heart, celebrity chef Ajay Chopra is quirky, funny and an absolute delight to interact with. He is quick to accept the prejudices Indian chefs still have to face on the world platform but at the same time, he is trying to break barriers by bringing authentic Indian cuisine on the global platter.
With his culinary creativity and immense passion for food, he has worked with some of the most prestigious names around the world like Gordon Ramsay and Angela Harn. But ask him what he loves to eat and he promptly says ‘Dimsums’, But when it comes to cooking, Galoti Kebab is his favourite.
The host of shows like Hi Tea, Chop Chop Chopra, and co-host and judge of MasterChef India season 1 and 2, Ajay was recently in Pune to launch Pandora Gastronomy and Bar, Nagar Road. While he has tried to maintain the authenticity of the cuisines, the menu is still very playful. To give you an idea they have experimented with Puneri Misal with Cheese Fondue on top. It is served as a Bunny Chao, red crust, loaded with cheese inside and farsan on top.
But he claims that the biggest USP is the portion sizes which are devised in such a way that everybody gets to choose from a variety of foods. So you can try out from an assortment of 10 dishes and not just limit yourself to one or two.
Besides his new venture, the chef also spoke about the emergence of regional dishes on the international platter and the changing perception toward Indian food.
Fusion or confusion
Ask Ajay about the ongoing fusion food trends and he is quick to remind you that he is not a great fan. He points out to the fact that there is a thin line between fusion and confusion. He explains, “That is where the whole concept of modern and progressive begins. So if I am a chef with a global perspective and I am in London and want to make an Indian dish with halibut, I have two ways to look at it: I take a piece of the fish, marinate it and put it in the tandoor.
Or, I take the soft and flaky fish and not put it in the tandoor but bake it and treat it like tandoori fish, and it comes out brilliantly. That way I can actually respect the ingredients and prepare a dish that is not fusion and call it Masala Halibut.”
He also finds the idea of putting tomato ketchup in everything and calling it schezwan sauce ridiculous. “If I want to use tomato ketchup in something, I must have a good reason behind it, probably to give a lift or twist to my dish,” he says.
Eye for food ?
With the rise of ‘Instagram food’, people are consistently flaunting their dishes on social media but does it taste good? Says Ajay, “It is a three-level journey. You eat with your eyes first and once your eyes have said ‘yes’, then your belly starts saying ‘wow’ and then your mind signals and allows you to have it. So the three things are in conjunction and coordination. Unless the dish is plated beautifully, it will not tell a story — the thoughts, finesse and nuances that go into the making of a dish. A lot of art and science is involved in it.”
However, a lot of good-looking food may not necessarily taste good. “If a food looks great, it may not taste equally good. I am okay sometimes to compromise on Indian curries with their look because I know you can’t experiment much with that. If it is Nalli Nihari, then I want piping hot Nalli with meat falling off the bones and I should be able to dip my Khammi Roti and relish it.”
Chopra, who is also a part of the show Northern Flavours which celebrates authentic recipes and cooking styles from the northern region of the subcontinent, says, “The idea is to bring out a lot of regional dishes which a lot of India eats but then it is very specific to that zone. So if I tell a Delhite about Puneri Misal, he wouldn’t know. But a lot of that is changing now. I personally feel that regional food will get a lot more importance. Chefs are already working hard to bring different elements to it. For example, grains like jowar and bajra are being widely used now.”
Telling us about the perception of Indian food abroad, Chopra says, “USA still doesn’t know much about Indian food because 50 years ago, some sardarjis went to the USA and with the little information they had they thought they could create a big menu. They heard from somewhere about Rogan Josh or other recipes but their menu was pathetic. There are very few places that serve proper Indian food.
But at the same time, if you look at the UK, the country has witnessed an evolution of Indian food in the last 15 years. So from that time to when Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and Cyrus Todiwala started telling people that this is Indian food, or that Rogan Josh is nice and comes from Kashmir, and there are two ways of preparing it (one made by the pandits and the other by Muslims) — Indian food has seen a lot of transformation.
The perception of Indian food is changing everywhere. People in UAE love Indian food and the quality has improved immensely. Ajay explains, “Now is the time when the world is opening to us. I recently heard that Ranveer Brar and Saransh Goila have been invited to Harvard Business School, which is phenomenal.”