Chef Aanal Kotak’s adventure is the stuff of big dreams, starting with her cooking competition audition on the day of her engagement and ending with the launch of her restaurant in Australia. The Secret Kitchen restaurants, which have locations in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and now Sydney, use handcrafted masalas to convey the tale of the nation’s traditional cuisine while incorporating a contemporary touch. She tells us about reimagining classic dishes and the reasons for her decision to make her kitchen’s seasonings from scratch.
What started your relationship with food?
We used to put together the plates on the weekends, but I was simply too tiny to use the kitchen while I was in kindergarten. I fearlessly ventured into cooking them myself on Saturday, though, while my mother was away visiting a temple and my grandmother was asleep. The result was disorganisation, both in the kitchen and in the way the table looked. Mom disapproved of my effort but discouraged me from going on solitary kitchen excursions. My love of cooking officially began after this. My enthusiasm for cooking eventually intensified as I started spending more time in the kitchen with my mother.
Do you use your early years as a source of culinary inspiration?
My travels were mainly concentrated on gastronomic exploration because I am a young food fanatic. While travelling, discovering regional foods has become a beloved tradition. These gastronomic encounters gave my menu its structure when I stepped into the world of the restaurant business. For instance, a shop at a century-old bus stop in Anjar, Kutch, caught my taste buds while I was there. They offer customized ghughras in the shape of samosas and are run by the third or fourth generation of a family. I was so taken with its flavours that I decided to add this dish to my menu and give it the name “Caged Samosa” to represent how it went from being a small-town specialty to becoming an international sensation. One of the most beloved dishes is this one.
Give us a few lines about each of the traditional recipes that you have updated for your restaurants.
The Southern Undhiyu served with Malabar Paratha is only one example of the many meals that meet the bill. This meal, which is an updated version of the traditional Gujarati Undhiyu, adds South Indian tastes by using local veggies. This delicious dish is made by employing the Gujarati Undhiyu cooking method to prepare the marinated vegetables. The peanut halwa with rabri is the next dessert. My nani’s creativity served as the inspiration for this cuisine, which has roots in my early years. She created a special blend of halwa with 50% peanuts and 50% badam (almonds), which has since become a monopoly, in order to feed her large family on a limited budget. Today, we provide these treasured memories along with Rabri.
What makes your restaurant unique compared to other players in the sector?
Undoubtedly, the handmade masala is the first item. No kitchen in any of our homes uses even a single ready-made masala. Even in ancient times, maharanis would prepare their individual masalas and then present these spices to the head cooks to be used in the royal kitchen. However, because of the poor quality of the ingredients employed in modern Punjabi cuisine, unpleasant side effects like burping or acidity are frequent. But as our reviews indicate, we guarantee a distinctive experience because we use homemade masala and ingredients. Additionally, everyone, including clients, is welcome to visit our kitchen whenever they like. They can wander around and observe the entire preparation procedure that way.
What challenges does running an Indian restaurant overseas present?
The hiring of qualified employees presented the biggest hurdle at first. In addition to being prohibitively expensive, teaching foreign workers to prepare our varied menu proved difficult because each item at our restaurants requires careful consideration. An additional obstacle was teaching them proper plating and dressing skills because foreign restaurants frequently disregard this area. In order to resolve this, I spent months on the premises educating those working there myself and have since continued to offer instruction via the Internet.
The reason underlying opening a Sydney location for your restaurant What has been the reaction?
Sydney is Australia’s top gourmet metropolis, and there are a tonne of Indians looking for restaurants serving traditional cuisine. Despite the fact that there are numerous Indian restaurants, the food they offer does not honour the traditions of Punjabi cuisine because they all use the same gravy. Therefore, the inhabitants of Sydney never truly experimented with different cuisines. When I became aware of this gap, I was motivated to create a varied menu to satisfy Sydney’s desire for a genuine diversity of foods, gravies, and stews.