March 5, 2012

The Spice of Life

The Spice of Life

Sister MAG talks to Anjali Pathak about food, life and family.

All the good stories begin with a cold winter morning – as does this one about chef Anjali Pathak who today lives in London, her family originally coming from India. When sisterMAG arrives a tad early on her doorstep, the lively woman with long black hair, dark eyes and a wonderful velvety voice is not quite ready for us. After a very warm welcome off she is again, a whirlwind of energy in a vibrant pink dress.

Anjali Pathak is the brand ambassador of Patak’s Foods, a brand of curry spice pastes, sauces and ready meals. The company was started in 1957 by Anjali’s grandfather L.G. Pathak and his wife. Today Patak’s is over 50 years old and has expanded heavily, exporting to about 45 countries and pioneering the advent of Indian food across the world.

Food has therefore always played a huge role in Anjali’s life. I started from a super young age, because my family are in the food profession. I decided that I wanted to go into that field too. It is all I know, I grew up in this amazing kitchen full of spices; all of these wonderful things my mom would be experimenting with at home. Although the life of my mom seemed so tempting I was very much drawn to the profession of my dad, travelling the world, bringing home exotic gifts for his children. So I ended up taking a lot of business choices for my university. I had always wanted to join the family business, whether it was in management, strategic planning or product development. However after university I went backpacking around the world and noticed how obsessed I was with food. I needed to go into food and I needed to do it right away. So I started doing food journalism in London, which was a great experience, but I didn’t work closely with the food. I didn’t feel I was in the kitchen enough and that’s when I realized I wanted to do more cheffing, so I began working for product development in our family business. This was really exciting – working on every single thing that goes into our jars. Over the years we have developed certain concepts and structures, and after working in development for a while it felt like I was only changing flavours and I wanted more. So I moved into Public Relations involving a lot of travelling and promoting our brand. This is when I decided I needed to get a formal chef qualification – I attended Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, where I learnt about French and British cuisine. I think you need to perfect the basic skills in school, and be taught by a professional. All my Indian skills I picked up from home – learning in our own kitchen ever since I was a little girl.

Moving on to her Indian heritage, Anjali tells us about her favourite memory which includes her very first kitchen gift she received from her grandmother. A little child-sized rolling pin. At the age of four years she was in the kitchen helping to roll Indian breads – chapattis – for dinner. She was told: “If you can roll a round chapatti, you’ll get a good husband!” It took Anjali about 15 years to roll a round one! She laughs and tells us that she is now 30 years old and still not married, so she doubts it means anything.

Her kitchen, we are sitting in during the interview, does not have any of the ste- reotypical purple walls with Indian ornaments – on the contrary we see blank white surfaces and techy equipment. However as soon as Anjali puts on the fire and kindly offers us a home-made Chai Tea, the room changes a bit. The little pot instantly effuses the flavours and aromas of cardamom, cinnamon and ginger. You can now imagine her experimenting with flavours and recipes in this space. Properly trained in British and French cuisine we want to know which foreign cuisine she likes best. Hard question to answer! Oh, too many! It’s all of them … but I truly love Asian cuisine. I love Thai food, Chinese food, Malaysian, Vietnamese … I love all of those cuisines because the flavours are similar to Indian ones. I recognise them, they are from my palette. Furthermore we often went to Asian countries on holidays when we were growing up.

It is only since I’ve grown up and started experimenting with food that I understand the nuances of French cuisine more. I’ve started to cherish British cuisine as well. I think it has changed so much over the years and is finally starting to get its fame again. I always got a very negative response when I told people that I cooked something traditionally British. But it really isn’t that boring, because it is mainly about seasonal produce and getting the best out of the ingredients. As an example, making a slow-cooked roast and maximising those fantastic meat and roast flavours. In London you can experience some amazing British restaurants. I like to eat there, learn and come home and experiment. With my training from cook school, I can bring home the experience and think about how I can do the recipes in my way, with the ingredients that I have. But in the end I always do an Indian twist! Even if I borrow cuisines from other parts of the world, I usually stick a bit of Indian-ness in there!

Of course we have to ask Anjali for some of her twists and turns. She tells us about Christmas in Manchester with her family, where she is responsible for cooking and preparing the big feast. Our eyes become big and our mouths water when she enthuses over Indian-inspired meats, gravies and side dishes. Her family needs a bit of flavour in every dish, they expect spices in their food, because the palette of their mouths is trained to have a little bit of excitement going on. Finally she jumps off her chair to get the so-called ‘spice tin’: an unimposing silver round box. Only when she lifts the flat lid, we suddenly see the colours of Indian spices, whole cinnamon sticks and unknown powders. These tins, she tells us, always come with an upside down lid to store all the bigger spices, such as bay leaves, whole dried chillies, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom or star anise. These will last about six months or even longer depending on how fresh they were when you bought them.

Beneath this upside down lid we spot seven round tins – only about half full with powders and seeds. That’s because spices actually don’t last very long at all. After you buy them you should only grind as much as you need. They’ll only stay fresh for maybe three to four months, having the maximum flavour. Then they start deteriorating, losing a lot of aroma. I usually keep my spices as whole as possible.

When cooking I just open up my tin and think to myself – ‘What could be interesting in here, what am I feeling like, what didn’t I have for a while’ – and just play with the whole palette of spices. Of course you need an understanding of flavours and spices to know what to use. For example coriander seed – this will taste very different to the coriander leaf, which is incredibly fresh. When the seed is cooked through it adds a bit of nuttyness, has a lovely texture and adds quite a strong vibrancy to a dish. That’s why I like to add coriander even to something that isn’t Indian, because it is the one spice that will transform that flavour.

I love black pepper as well – an amazing spice! In India it is one of the oldest spices, which was used for trading. You use it at the beginning, unlike in the west where it is used to season at the end often accompanying salt. Another tip Anjali shared was that salt, sugar and even a bit of lemon juice is how you lift a lot of the flavours.

Cumin seeds taste fantastic in breads. In Europe it is used a lot in cheeses as well. I always have roasted cumin seeds in my tin. They are lovely to just sprinkle on top to give a little bit of extra warmth in your mouth. It has a fantastic flavour if added to salads, in snacks … just in anything you need a little extra something and are not quite sure what you’re looking for! Turmeric is also one of the most important spices medicinally . I call it a wonder-spice, since it is said to have fantastic healing properties, for example helping in the cure against cancer. If you need to be healed, have some turmeric in your diet – it works inside and out!

And finally chilli – of course everyone knows chilli. One recognises it with Indian food. But before chilli was imported, black pepper used to be the main source of heat. Thus chilli is quite new to the Indian palette, it only came into the country in the 16th century which is not that old considering how long Indian food has been around.

Our thoughts are spinning with all these familiar names, but at the same time unknown flavours and we ask Anjali to point out her favourite ingredient. After emphasizing the qualities of Coriander – both seeds and leaves – again, she talks about garlic which is definitely not a just an Indian ingredient but is internationally known. Although it doesn’t belong in many dishes she uses it to spice up things a little bit. However spices and flavours should accommodate different situations. Being able to do that, Anjali says, characterizes a good chef. What else is typical for a leader in the kitchen we wonder. The character of a chef, having a good temperament, is incredibly important. And we shouldn’t forget the food aspect {laughs}; he or she should be able to cook for all different kinds of palettes, use seasonal products, be versatile and most important be eager to always learn more. I have met chefs who think they know absolutely everything. But there is always a new ingredient! Especially with today’s possibilities of the internet, communication and globalisation, we can access the whole world, borrow ideas and make something amazing. A good chef should be open to that concept and willing to push their boundaries. Last but not least I think it is important to be kind to other people in – and out of – the kitchen! Respect for one another goes a really long way.

We cannot help but wonder whether she has idols or role models who stand for these ideas. Laughingly she admits that from a chef’s perspective she admires Jamie Oliver, because of what he has done for food, because of his inspiration for modern British cuisine and his easy- going attitude. She then speaks highly about her own mentor Grand Masterchef Hemant Oberoi, an Indian chef who took her under his wing, offered her great restaurant experience and taught her a lot about regional Indian cuisine.

All this experience now helps her working as a chef and food consultant. As brand ambassador for her family business she can combine her outgoing and lively character with being creative, cooking and telling people about the flavours of India. Much more her thing than working in accounts, although she did a Maths, IT and Business major at university. Today she loves the creative sides of her life, for example when thinking about new recipes. But where does she take her inspiration from? How does she come up with new recipes? Like most creative people I need to be in a certain mind set to come up with new ideas. However I am surrounded by food all day, in my stocked pantry, in front of my fridge, at the office. There are so many ways to get ideas; things I’ve seen on business trips, on TV, in food magazines or on the web spark inspiration. I do a lot of research, go to local markets and try to use products that are in season. Sometimes I use an ingredient I have never used before, sometimes I experiment how I can do things a bit more Indian or incorporate a new spice. Afterwards I try it out on my partner. Since my palette is quite trained, I want to be sure that everyone can pick up my creations. In her food she easily combines her family heritage with the modern world. And you can tell, that her family means the world to her. They are my life and the soul of everything I do. I owe everything to my grandparents and parents. My dad is still involved in the business and so my mentor isn’t too far away!

Since we are brand leaders in many countries we are able to show our passion for our business and our brand, and share our Indian family recipes with them However, as much as we still want to be authentic, I spend my time thinking about how we can bring classical food into the modern era and make it more exciting. My parents have been incredibly supportive of all of my ideas, which I think is great for a generation that isn’t used to being like that. Most people find it difficult to get their parents to change but mine are very adaptable. I love them for being as kind and as open as they are with me.

You can tell how deeply Anjali feels, when she tells us about growing up and we have a lot of laughs when Anjali starts talking about her two older brothers, one living in London at the moment, the other one far away in Dubai with his family. No sister, perhaps a sister in spirit, we ask. Indeed she tells us about a dear friend in London who is as foodie as she is, although not professionally involved with the food industry. However they go out to dinners, are both into wine and cheese, know the same chefs – hence their personal lives are very much intertwined because they spend so much time together. As slim and lean as Anjali sits in her kitchen, we cannot believe that her world so heavily evolves around eating and food. She laughs and admits that she is lucky she can enjoy even the delicious, but super heavy meals of Rajasthan, one of her favourite places in India, which makes you feel like a princess. Perhaps it lies in her genes. Her mother used to be a model, was the face of Coca Cola in India, and you can just see how her daughter got some of the potential in her as well. Anjali however admits that although she is proud to be compared to her mom, she doesn’t aim to be the same. I like to be individual and do things nobody else has done before. So perhaps it was good to have brothers who also did very different things in life. Perhaps there would have been too much competition with a sister!

Ruben| May 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was totally right. This interview made my day. Thank you!

Omary| May 15, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Great work! This interview and the stuff on your site is exactly what is supposed to be shared across the net. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this publish higher!

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