“Global chef with a desi heart” is how chef Ajay Chopra likes to present himself, at least on Instagram. But the culinary assistant wears more than one hat since he is also a restaurant consultant, host of MasterChef Indiaa judge from Zee Cafe’s Chef Vs Refrigerator Season 2and the European Union Ambassador of the “More Than Food” campaign in India, which aims to raise awareness of the diversity and richness of EU agricultural ingredients and products.
In exclusive interaction with indianexpress.comthe boss talks about sustainable food practices in India, changing eating habits, Indian cuisine on the world map, and also shares her favorite condiments along with some culinary tips and tricks! Continue reading:
In recent years, sustainability has become a buzzword in the hospitality industry. What exactly does the term mean to you?
Sustainability in the hospitality industry has come a long way from simply reusing towels and saving water. The hospitality industry is now taking a broader approach and incorporating sustainable practices into their food to limit their negative impact on the environment and the communities that produce them. I believe sustainability is no longer just an added feature, it has become a way of life – from the specific ingredients that go into preparing meals to the final plate that customers taste. Everyone should be and is becoming more and more responsible for sustainable development and eco-friendly way to eat. It is important to source sustainably grown or produced food.
Sustainability also means many things, many parameters. To give you a quick example, we use onions but discard the onion skin. However, the skin is an excellent colorant for soups. So, if you want to give a nice golden color to your soup, you can use onion skin. In many international restaurants, there are no bins available as they use every part of the ingredients.
What do you think is the best approach to sustainable food consumption, and how popular is the farm-to-fork strategy in India?
The availability of a diverse and versatile range of food products, while bringing authenticity and quality to the table to create a transformational taste experience. Farm-to-table strategy has become increasingly popular in India in recent years. This concept has not only nutritional benefits but is also environmentally friendly and in tune with the global healthy food revolution.
Tell us about European Union agri-food products and their USPs?
EU agricultural products are much more than food and drink. They are a collection of flavors full of character, dating back to their origin. Each ingredient has a unique story to tell, which is a legacy passed down from generation to generation. Products are built around quality and tradition, with an emphasis on authenticity and unique ingredients subject to rigorous regulations at each stage of their production, processing and packaging. Food and agricultural standards of EU food are high quality, authentic, sustainable and safe products, resulting in huge demand around the world. Their ingredients are a clear example of authenticity, safety, sustainability and quality.
Do you think eating habits have changed in the last two years? If so, how and in what ways?
The pandemic has caused people to become more aware of their health, hence, over the past couple of years, their food consumption habits have changed to a large extent. Staying indoors has also pushed people to experiment with their cooking. In the last couple of years it has become a way of life for most people so if you ask me it’s a nice change and it looks like it’s here to stay.
What do you think is the most complex thing about Indian cuisine?
The most complex thing about indian cuisine is its flavors. Indian cuisine, in general, derives its flavors from no more than 15 to 20 ingredients, but each dish changes in flavor due to how the spices have been used, how the meat has been processed – which, I think, is the most complicated part to achieve. Other than that, maintaining the sense of balance of spices and cooking to completely change the texture and flavor can also get a bit tricky.
Which Indian herb/seasoning/condiment/spice would you say is more versatile, and why?
An herb that complements every dish is coriander. I think one of the reasons we can’t do without it is that it’s great for decoration. It also adds great flavor to the dish when undercooked, either at the beginning of the process or at the end. There are different recipes that call for different steps in different ways cilantro can be used in and for me, I think it’s pretty versatile. The most versatile spice, for me, is cinnamon. The world uses it in many ways. Our curries are bland without it, and it can even be used for desserts and soups. It has good health benefits and is helpful in lowering cholesterol. At the same time, it completely transforms the dish in which it is added.
A culinary tip you swear by…
That would be cooking with patience. I’m a big believer in the teachings of the Bible, and it says, “Love is patient, love is kind,” and I bring that sentiment into my kitchen. When you cook for your loved ones, you want to do it patiently and that is reflected in the final dish. The older generation, like our mothers and grandmothers, showed immense patience while cooking. A simple process of sauté onions would take 20 minutes, but would bring out the flavor in any dish or cuisine. To sum up, yes cooking is passion, but it is also patience.
How do you plan to approach the show and experiment with the mystery ingredients you will have to work with?
Chef against refrigerator is to bring the the best of chefs. The show is designed to showcase the excellent chefs from some of India’s finest restaurants. On the show, audiences can see the very best Indian chefs compete for the title of “Culinary Champion of the Week” and unless we give them great challenges, great dishes will not come out. Mysterious ingredients will force them to think outside the box and inspire them to show off their intrinsic creativity. But the boss chiller, the fridge, was very mean to me (laughs), always issues a challenge that I want to run away from, but all challenges must be accepted. And cooking becomes exciting when it involves many challenges.
Do you think Indian cuisine has earned its credit on the global culinary map?
Now is the start for India. indian cuisine finally began to be credited to the world map. You know, in the latest books that rate restaurants around the world, people have started to understand that India has great restaurant chefs. Previously, we were confined to the same dishes, the same menu, but now things have changed. We are not only butter chicken or biryani but much more than that. Thus, the chefs offer more regional delights with their twists that recreate the magic on international plates.
How often do you use leftovers to create magic in the kitchen? In your opinion, which leftover dish is the easiest to work with?
I think every house in India uses leftover food to recreate new dishes, each day. From my childhood, I saw my mother using leftover dal to create parathas or puris or leftover saag to make a kind of wrap. For me, leftover food isn’t just something you have to finish, but I think it’s something that lets you think creatively. I like to take leftover food and give it a new one. tadka, thinking completely fresh about it. I could possibly make a aloo gobi salad from leftover aloo gobi by adding fresh and cooked elements to it, creating a crunch and soft feel. So I think very differently when it comes to food and believe in giving it a whole new twist.
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