Food can solve every problem

Updated: 25 October, 2020 07:55 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A Mulund boy in Australia rose from the pits of lockdown to launch an Indian meal service that's reminding Indians of ghar ka khana, and telling the Aussies, 'mate, you ought to try desi thali.'

Nabil Ansari
Nabil Ansari

Australia began living under strict lockdown rules on March 23, as Coronavirus cases topped 1,600. As in wartime, streets in Victoria were deserted and supermarket, restaurants and pubs closed down. Melbourne-based Sunda Dining's sous chef Nabil Ansari found himself in the predicament that many temporary visa holders did—he was stood down with immediate effect.

At five, Ansari moved from Mulund to Dubai with family, and they'd be back every year for the holidays. He decided to return to India after high school in 2009 and completed junior college in Pune. "I wanted to become a pilot and had enrolled in an aviation school, but that did not work out. Later on, I joined a business school in Vikhroli, but that too did not interest me."

Mango, Fried Bread And Coriander Ice Cream
Mango, Fried Bread And Coriander Ice Cream

In 2014, he returned to Dubai, where his mother had just started a catering business. "I remember being picky about what I ate when I was little, but didn't quite have an interest in cooking. My mother's biryani and kebabs were famous among the neighbours, but we weren't really sure how a commercial kitchen worked," Ansari remembers. Learning by trial and error over one year gradually drew him into the culinary world. While his Lucknowi roots made him a pro at frying kachoris, he wanted to explore global cuisine.

In 2015, Ansari landed in Melbourne for a two-year course at the William Angliss Institute. "There was a huge difference between what I had been doing with mom and what they expected of me, but my mother had taught me to be patient and calm in the kitchen. But learning culinary skills from mom gave me confidence.

Spiced Tea Ice Cream
Spiced Tea Ice Cream

A lot of things can go wrong, and a chef ought to learn to keep his cool." Three months later, he landed a job at The European, where he worked for almost two years before a stint at the five-star, Windsor Hotel, one of Victoria's oldest hotels. "The owners were planning to open Sunda, a fine dine restaurant, and hired me as sous chef. It was a dream come true," he beams.

But, this new adventure was cut short after rising COVID-19 cases. It was in late March that Ansari resorted to the oldest trick in the book—launching a delivery kitchen. Ansari, who is on a de facto partner visa, says, "My partner and I left menu cards in open letterboxes in our building, exactly like mom had done when she started off. The idea was to deliver authentic Indian food to our neighbours. On the first day, we got three orders, and by end of first week, we did 130. It was surreal."

Nabil's Special Thali
Nabil's Special Thali

On Wednesdays, he cooked palak paneer, dal and rice. His most famous 15-hour butter chicken recipe [in which he uses French techniques to stabilise the sauce] made it to the menu on Thursdays. Fridays were dedicated to Kerala special fish curry, rice and papadam. "I know a lot of people in the industry; they knew I was out of job and was doing this to survive. They started spreading the word on social media, and soon, a local food reviewer covered my story. That is how Ansari Indian was born."

Ansari Indian is the Instagram page dedicated to his culinary pursuits that he launched during lockdown. Within a week he had 1,800 followers. "In June, the situation normalised and Sunda reopened. But I wanted to keep Ansari Indian going." Last year, he made a quick trip to Mumbai, Kerala and Delhi to learn more about local food. This "research" trip came handy to keep the brand going. "I love ice cream, and can eat it any time of the day. Inspired by Mumbai and Delhi's streetfood, I decided to whip up ice creams three days a week when I was not working at Sunda."

Dum  Biryani
Dum Biryani

These included guava, lemon and Kashmiri chilli sorbet, inspired by Mumbai's street vendors selling cut fruit plates with sugar and spice; and drawing on his father' special tea, he made ginger, star anise, clove and cardamom ice cream. "It was a hit. The plan is to start exporting the tubs across India too," he hopes.

In July, when the second lockdown was announced, Windsor offered him one of their kitchens. "From snacks like duck samosa, kheema naan and vada pav to mains like dum biryani, and elaborate non-vegetarian thalis, I serve everything. When I look back, I realise that a lot could have gone wrong. But I am grateful to those who helped me through. Support in hard times is everything."

Butter chicken

Butter chicken

Preparation Time: 15 hours

For chicken stock
2 kg chicken bones and water to cover

In a large pot, place chicken bones and cover it with cold water.
. Bring the water to a boil and skim the surface for impurities.
. Turn the heat down to simmer and cook for 2 to 3 hours.
. Strain through a muslin cloth and reserve.

For chicken tikka marinade]
Ingredients: 2 kg chicken thigh fillets, 200 g yogurt, 20 g ginger garlic paste, 1.5 tbs Kashmiri chili, 1 tbs coriander powder, 1tbs cumin powder, 1tbs turmeric powder, 1 tsp black salt, 1 tsp table salt, 1 tbs chaat masala, 50ml lemon juice, 20 ml onion oil

In a large mixing bowl combine all the spices with yogurt, lemon juice and onion oil.
. Check the marinade for seasoning. The marinade should be quite salty and acidic.
. Marinade the thigh fillets for at least 12 hours.
. After 12 hours, heat a large non-stick pan to a very high heat until you see smoke coming out of the pan.
. Sear the smooth side of the fillets till you get a char on one side, do not move the chicken.
. After a minute of searing remove from the pan keep aside. We will finish cooking the chicken in the sauce later on.

Ingredients: 1 kg Roma tomato, 750 ml chicken stock, 10 g Kashmiri chillies, 40 gm ginger garlic paste, 100 g cashews

In a large pot, place the whole washed tomatoes and cover with the chicken stock prepared earlier.
. In a muslin cloth place the whole spices and tie it up. This is the bouquet garni to be put in the pot.
. Add in the whole Kashmiri chilli powder and the ginger garlic paste.
. On the lowest heat possible cook the tomatoes until all the moisture is evaporated from the pot.
. This can take up to 5 hours if doing a larger batch it will take longer to reduce.

For Bouquet garni (potli masala)
Ingredients: 2 cinnamon sticks, 3 star anise, 5 cardamom pods, 3 cloves

Method: We want to cook it slowly as it helps to retain the colour of the tomatoes and when we blend the tomato paste the skin breakdown as well.
. Once reduced to a paste-like consistency, discard the bouquet garni and transfer to a blender.
. In small batches blend the paste for at least three minutes, add a touch of stock if required.
. It is important to blend it for long as we are not going to strain the sauce.

Ingredients: Brown sugar, fenugreek leaves, salt, butter and cream

In a medium pan gently heat up the blended paste with the par cooked chicken.
. Add in the seasoning ingredients and cook until the chicken is cooked.
. Serve hot.

Follow Nabil Ansari: @nabilansari; Instagram

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First Published: 25 October, 2020 07:10 IST

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