She looks delectable; probably as much as her food. She enchants with her fingers; probably as much as she does with her tongue — meet Pakistani chef Poppy Agha, who was in the tricity to push-start Kebab Khan’s (Page 3, Panchkula) new menu on Wednesday.
Her familiar looks are thanks to NDTV Good Times’ food battle, Foodistan, where she emerged as the first runner up, after being up against Indian chef Manish Mehrotra, whom, she says, she admires till today.
One addresses her as ‘chef’ out of respect, and encounters her pat reply, “Call me Poppy. It’s more personal.” The name, however, was definitely not what she was born with. “It is a cute anecdote — I exclaimed ‘poppsy’ instead of ‘chop suey’ as a toddler, and the name just stuck,” says chef Amina Agha, who learnt to cook at the age of eight.
She starts to talk about rustling up a storm in the kitchen just because she dreamt of that peculiar concoction the previous night. But, wait; only read on if what two women in love with food talk about interests you!
Though it’s worse in Pakistan, why do women, in general, not take over professional kitchens as much as men?
That is not a trend limited only to professional kitchens; all professions, all over the world, are male dominated! Excuse me for being touchy about this, but it bothers me that women are still breaking through this profession when should rightly be ruling it!
Does that mean you too faced opposition when you broke your profession of choice to the family?
“You want to become a khansama?!” was my father’s first reaction. But at the end of the day, when you love something with all your heart, you have to shut your ears to the world and do what gives you true happiness. I started catering first, then went on to teaching food; but the true pleasure lied in creating something of my own everyday. And when I found my ground, my family was super supportive.
How did it feel cooking side-by-side Indian chefs at the show?
My style of cooking has changed drastically post the show. I’ve learnt to cook under tremendous pressure, thanks to our time restrictions and the critical eye of the judges [Vir Sanghvi, Merrilees Parker and Sonya Jehan]. And I saw immense talent; admire chef Manish Mehrotra to this day.
How is Indian food perceived across the border?
In Pakistan, people don’t realise that what they eat on a regular basis — dal makhni, aloo palak, biryani, chicken curry — is also Indian food. It’s maybe because of what they’ve seen in films that they have come to associate Indian food essentially with idli, sambhar, dosa! Pakistani food, in essence, is very similar to north-Indian food.
What’s your take on the recent innovation Indian food has seen over the past decade?
The best take on Indian innovation that I experienced was at this restaurant called Tabla in New York. They served bite-sized pappads, topped with kuchumber salad in westernised flavours as amuse bouche (appetisers). My aim of innovating with food is to play around with traditional recipes, introducing them to western flavours, while keeping the traditional ethos of the dish intact.
What’s the wackiest — best and worst — innovation you’ve tried your hand at?
Best: Chicken tikka with strawberry reduction — thanks to my profound, childhood affinity with the combination of meat and fruits.
Worst: Besan biscuits with plum sheera – something I tried for the finals on the show. The dish didn’t set in time; the ingredients weren’t wrong though, you know!
If I may add, I’m also trying to perfect my curried scallops with mango salsa (basil flavouring)
Her advice to foodies world over?
Don’t get so engulfed in innovative food that you forget the basics. Try the traditional offering first before treating your palate to complex flavours.
Amina (Poppy) Agha is at present a consultant for Alchemist Foods Limited.