Natalie Manning chats with chef owner Kumar Mahadevan of Abi’s and Aki’s Indian restaurants in Sydney.
What prompted you to become a chef?
My tongue! My taste for food – I have loved food since I was a child. I guess you could say I followed doing what I loved – and have been lucky enough to make a career out of it.
How much did food and cooking play a role in your childhood and upbringing?
I got my first taste for Indian cuisine in my mother’s kitchen when I was a child, and I simply loved it, so food always played a huge part in my childhood.I grew up in the city of Chennai, and my family especially my father encouraged me to chase a dream that I was passionate about. I have always had a knack for balancing food flavours and spices.
Who was the biggest food influences in your life and why?
I take a lot of inspiration from traditional Indian dishes, which I put my own modern spin on. I travel back to India regularly so that I know what is going on with the cuisine over there. I also love going out to spice markets – the smells and colours always inspire me to create new and interesting dishes.
You appeared on MasterChef Australia. What dish did you choose to showcase and why? And what was it like to be on a the front page of a Mumbai paper after your first appearance on Masterchef?
I was on Masterchef last season, and I was honoured that I was given the opportunity to appear. It was great to expose my food to a such a wide audience, and also show that Indian food can be a gourmet cuisine. I chose to make my Chennai Prawn Vendaki (a Prawn & Okra Curry) which is from my native Chennai.
I was very proud to be an international representative of Indian cuisine!
What is your favourite spice?
I love using fennel and green cardamom. I like to use Fennel and green Cardamom as they both give a great flavour, quite a strong flavour, which gives a dish a distinctive quality. I also love fresh coriander – it gives dishes such a vibrant colour and its flavour is very complementary to Indian food.
What is your favourite local ingredient you can get in Australia?
I love the abundance of fresh seafood we have available at our fingertips. Snapper, Barramundi and Whiting (when I can get it!) – I love using a lot of seafood in my dishes.
Why did you decide to call your restaurants Abhi’s and Aki’s, and how do they differ?
When I had my first son, Abhi, I soon after opened my first restaurant in North Strathfield which I named after him. Six years later, when I had my second son, Aki, my wife Suba was very vocal in her desire to have another restaurant named after Aki to avoid any perceived favouritism between our sons. Luckily I had my eye on a Woolloomooloo site and Aki’s opened in 1994. Needless to say, I am not in a hurry to have any more sons!’
My restaurant Abhi’s in North Strathfield showcases my brand of contemporary Southern Indian cuisine, but in a casual, family friendly environment, with affordable prices. I opened Aki’s in Woolloomooloo to provide Sydney with a truly fine Indian culinary experience. From the immaculate table service, award winning local and international wine list, to the modern interpretations of traditional Indian recipes, Aki’s reflects the finer aspects of Indian cuisine.
What would you recommend for someone interested in learning to cook with Indian spices. Is there an easy way to start?
I would like to stress that you definitely don’t need to use Indian packet foods – this dulls the flavour of the cuisine and the spices. Indian recipes can be surprisingly simple. For example, my fish curry is very straightforward and a great one for winter.
What is your favourite dish?
For winter, I really like the Prawn and Okra Curry I cooked on Masterchef. But one of my all time favourites is the Palak Patta Chaat – spinach leaf in crispy lentil batter, on a bed of potatoes and chickpeas, topped with yoghurt, date & tamarind and chilli & mint sauces. This is one of my signature dishes that has been on the menu since Abhi’s opened over twenty years ago, and is still on the menus of both my restaurants. The reason being it is very traditional dish with a beautiful and colourful presentation, and is full of flavours and texture.
Abhi’s Indian Restaurant
163 Concord Road,
North Strathfield NSW Australia
+61 2 9743 3061
Aki’s Indian Restaurant
6 Cowper Rd
Woolloomooloo NSW Australia
+ 61 2 9332 4600
or you can follow Chef Kumar Mahadevan on twitter.