There aren’t many bigger names in Indian cooking than Patak’s. They’re an absolute institution here in the UK, and they’ve popularised Indian spices and cuisine across the world.
So you can imagine how excited we were to speak to Anjali Pathak herself. Growing up in the legendary family kitchens of the Patak’s brand - she is taking her skills and knowledge and creating Indian cuisine for the next generation.
It’s not everyday you get the chance to speak to a legend of the Indian food scene. Here’s how it went down.
What is your earliest memory of spice?
My earliest memory of spice was sitting at the kitchen table and smelling some strange scents that I soon discovered were the aromas permeating from my mum’s spice tin that was opened for nearly every meal we ate at home. I was only a toddler and my senses were immediately lifted. They’ve never been the same since.
Managing spices can be intimidating to the uninitiated — do you have any tips to demystify this gorgeous art?
I recommend buying only small packs of spices as their beautiful flavour begins to change the second they are picked and ground. As tempting as it is to buy large packs, if you don’t use them quickly, you will notice they won’t taste as fresh as they should.
Spices should be kept in an airtight container, which is why spice tins like the ones from Spice Kitchen, are wonderful and ideally you should keep them in a dark cupboard or pantry as sunlight also changes their flavour.
When cooking with spice, a little goes a long way, and always keep some water nearby for when you need to cool down your pan as ground spices are very delicate and will burn easily if their essential oils are not protected.
If there was a bhel puri explosion in your kitchen, what would be the one spice you would salvage?
It’s not a spice but is a spice mix - Chaat masala. It’s one of my favourite spice blends and is full of sweet, sour and salty flavours such as amchoor powder (dried mango powder), black salt, asafoetida and many more. It’s utterly delicious.
Patak’s is an institution in the UK — what lessons have you learnt from the success of your family business, and how have you carried this over into your new, more personal venture?
Patak’s has taught me more about food and business life than I ever thought it could. From the time I spent in product development working on recipes that sit on our supermarket shelves, through to the working closely with the media ensuring we were educating the nation on the best dishes coming out of India, all of the learning’s have been invaluable.
My parents taught me how important a good reliable workforce form the backbone of your business, and delegation is one of the key factors of growth. Highlighting your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses allows you to perform better and more efficiently. All these lessons have allowed me to build a food consultancy that highlights my skills and enables me to get the best out of the industry.
I saw that you 'got into cooking as soon as your senses came alive!' Can you tell us about how family and upbringing impacted on your food today?
My family are the ones that taught me to love food. I grew up with some fantastic cooks, my mother and late grandmother and everyone in my family including my brothers, father and late grandfather, could cook. Every meal was full of flavour and without me realizing, my taste palate was being trained for my life in food.
My parents always wanted us to learn where our dishes came from and how food wasn’t just fuel. They always ensured we ate dinner together and they emphasized the importance of social family dining. Not only was food at the heart of our business, but it was the soul of our family life.
My new cookbook brings all this together and I share recipes I’ve learnt growing up and recipes I love to eat. My take on old classics taught to me by my mother and grandmother and modern spice creations using the knowledge from my childhood and techniques and ingredients I’ve learnt along the way. There’s something for everyone and I hope it will be a cookbook loved by generation upon generation.
You’ve studied diet and nutrition — how do spices play into a healthy diet?
Spices are wonderful ingredients with incredible healing properties that allow us to bring life into sometimes a boring healthy diet. They help with internal healing such as brain development, blood purification and digestion as well as providing flavour to food allowing us to reduce the amount of fat and salt in our dishes.
How often to you chuck out your old fusty spices. Are there are good tips you can give our readers for managing and maintaining their own spice kitchens?
I never need to throw out my old spices as I buy little and often and always use them up, but I will typically keep my whole spices for around 6 months (unless it’s saffron which will last much longer) and I always grind them myself to create spice powders. These ground spices will last around 3 months if they were fresh to begin with and are stored properly. Once they are ground they release their essential oils and lose their aroma and deep flavour quickly.
If you do find you have spices that need using up, you can make your own spice pastes by mixing together your favourite dry blend and then stirring in some flavourless oil, and some salt and acid (such as lemon juice) for added flavour. This will prevent them from oxidizing which leads to fresher tasting spices for longer.
Experimentation is part of the beauty of Indian food. But experimentation generally leads to disaster for us mere mortals, are their any guidelines you can give?
Experimentation is my favourite style of cooking and was the inspiration for my new cookbook. I love playing around with flavours and ingredients and seeing what I come up with.
Start your spice cooking off with some whole spices and after they start to release their aromas you can think about adding in any onions and allow them to cook to your liking, remembering the longer you cook them, the sweeter your final dish will taste.
Then it’s time to add in the much loved holy trinity – garlic, ginger and fresh chillies. Make sure you test every chilli before using in fear of adding too much heat, and then you are ready to add your ground spices. Add a little water to prevent them from burning and turning bitter, and then you are ready to add any liquid ingredients and or your meat and veggies.
Always season right at the end, as spices are a great salt replacer and don’t forget the all-important sprinkling of fresh coriander to add that last touch of fragrance and flavour.
Today seems to be the age of the twitter chef, how do you use social media as a chef, and how can our readers connect more and learn more online?
I’m as active on social media as my busy diary allows and I love that Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allows me to learn and connect with other foodies across the world. Discovering new ingredients, dishes and restaurants and hearing how my favourite chefs spend their days is one of the reasons to get on Twitter and Instagram.
You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to hear about what I’m up to. You can also I hope find some recipe inspiration on www.anjalipathak.com and in my new cookbook ‘Secrets from my Indian Family Kitchen’, which is available in all good book stores, and on Amazon.