Asha Bhosle is more than a legend to me. But at this hour, all I can say is that the legend cooked. She cooked for us. I tasted her cooking. I learnt some of her precious recipes. I cooked for her, or am I imagining things in my head? I did hear her sing. I sat with her. I talked to her. And the picture below belongs exclusively to me!
I did have the honour to spend almost a day with Asha Bhosle, the legendary singer of Bollywood whose career has spanned over the last six decades. Entering the Guinness World Records for the most single studio recordings, recording up to 11,000 solos, duets and chorus-backed songs in over 20 Indian languages since 1947, the lady is absolutely mesmerizing. Apart from her singing prowess, many celebrities in the film industry can vouch for her cooking prowess as well. An organic culmination of which has resulted in the award-winning chain of restaurants – Asha’s. From the time I’ve posted the pictures of my cooking lessons with the legend on my Facebook Page, the two questions that many of the readers have repeatedly asked are ‘Does Asha Bhosle cook as good as she sings?’ or ‘Does she sing while she cooks?’ Well, no. She probably doesn’t sing while she cooks, though she did sing her current favourite, Jab Se Tere Naina (a song from the film Saawariya) for us while she cooked. And yes, she does cook as good as she sings. If not better. The lady also looks as pretty in real life as she does in reel life. And she just didn’t pose prettily with pots and pans. She actually cooked all of the four dishes that she demonstrated, from scratch and as hands-on as it can possible be, at the hi-tech kitchens of the Miele Gallery. In Dubai, to attend a special cooking class which was conducted as a part of a promotion run at her restaurant Asha’s across the region (a few lucky participants flying down from Cairo as well), Asha Bhosle seemed like a small bundle of the highest intensity of atomic energy. I happened to barge into the select group at a very last minute, at the right time and at the right moment, following her tweet and perhaps tweeting her back (tweeting a second after she tweeted that she was in Dubai!). I owe big time to the wonderful Uma from Asha’s and Teodora from Wafi’s hospitality division to have sneaked me into the ‘lucky selected’ few to have attended this session.
Chatting and reminiscing on nostalgia while cooking, Ashaji reminds me of a pukka/experienced cook of the mum and grand-mum category, effortlessly tweaking recipes here and there, with her easy expertise and experience, while assuring all the while that the end result will only be a tasty fare. She would bite into her favourite ingredient – the green chilli (below right), to check whether it is hot enough and then ask ‘Do I have to use the spoon or do I put the spices according to my instincts?’ My dad still remembers that when she used to come and stay with a friend in Kolkata, the entire para/muhalla/neighborhood knew what was being cooked by Asha Bhosle. I have also heard that once she was in town in those days, cooking would start as late as past midnight and the aroma of her cooking would linger on in the para the whole day! She laughs when I tell her this and she shares my comment with her comrade of Chefs from Asha’s who hover around her as she cooks. Then onwards she would speak to me in Bengali, calling me the Kolkata girl. ‘Ei je Kolkatar meye… shudhu chobi tulbe naki ektu kheye dekhbe?/Hey, the Kolkata girl… will you only click pictures or you’ll be tasting the food too?’
Ashaji cooked four dishes – Chingrir Chaap/Prawn Chaap, Chicken Keema/Chicken Minced, Hare Baigan ka Bharta/Green Eggplant Mashed (her Mom’s recipe) and Shahi Tukda/Bread dipped in sweet syrup. The last recipe being the surprise. Chingrir Chaap (Rahul Dev Burman style) is a signature dish from Asha’s and she narrated how this dish is very special, hailing from the native region of Tripura in North East India. Panchamda or Rahul Dev Burman was a prince of the royal family of Tripura and he simply adored it. In Chingrir Chaap, jumbo prawns are marinated in spicy ginger onion paste for as long as 3-4hours, then breaded and deep fried. The picture to the left shows the Chingrir Chaap in their pre-frying state. Though she shared all the recipes with us, this was one recipe she asked us not to share – ‘Yeh recipe aap kisise share na karein/Please don’t share the recipe with anyone’! Surprised but I did find that the recipe published elsewhere. Not that it matters!
Two and a half hours of non-stop standing and cooking, Asha Bhosle at 80 years, is as vivacious as a teenager. ‘I started cooking at the age of ten. For my father’s shraad/death anniversary, my sister and I would start cooking at 11 in the night and finish at 11 the next morning, cooking a variety of Indian dishes like pakoda, puranpoli etc’ As she pours generous portions of Ghee/Indian clarified butter into the wok, she admits that her secret diet is Ghee. She tells me that she used to have Chappati (Indian flat bread) and Ghee every day at dinner. But now with a concert coming up, she plans to shed some weight. ‘Ghee and butter doesn’t make you fat, but eating junk food does (she does take a name!). Ghee is Amrut/Ambrosia‘. As we get curious about all the celebrities who have tasted her cooking, she goes on to say that Salman Khan came the other day to her restaurant and had a long list of things that he doesn’t eat. But the actors of yesteryears seem to have been very different. She recalled how RD Burman and she would compete in the kitchen to outdo each other. Famous lyricists like Anand Bakshi, Majnu Sultanpuri or actors like Dev Saab (Dev Anand) used to be regulars at her home. While Dev Anand was very particular about what he ate, she remembers the first time Rajesh Khanna came home for dinner. She was skeptical as what to cook as Rajesh Khanna was such a big star. But he came and told her not to restrain herself from pouring Ghee… ‘Ek kyon, aap do tin chammach bhi dal sakte hain/why one, you could pour even two or three spoonfuls of Ghee’! But the heroines – whether of yesteryears or of today, they would always be ‘on a diet or a fast’! Talking about fast, even Asha Bhosle seemed to be on a fast that day (Shivratri). Although she cooked everything, she didn’t even taste what she cooked. And even then, all the cooking turned out to be just perfect, the magical touch of a kitchen connoisseur!
Throughout the session, Asha Bhosle kept on talking. She stressed on the fact that ‘every woman should know how to cook’. Though she confessed that she hardly cooked once she got married because she had to leave home for work as early as 7am and would return at 2am in the morning. It was because of the children that she eventually started cooking so that they wouldn’t eat outside. Even today, all her children and grand children love her cooking. But what is her favourite food? Plain rice, Daal/lentils and Mirchi achar/pickled chillies, yes, it is as simple as that! Ashaji is particularly fond of spicy food and has her own *secret* proportions of spices going into her Garam Masala (below). Even the Chefs of her restaurants do not know the proportions. She personally sends them across to the restaurants – approximately 10 kgs/month for each restaurant. We were lucky to have got a small amount of Ashaji’s secret Garam Masala as a parting gift!
My chat with Asha Bhosle… it’s interesting that while I spoke in Bengali, she answered mostly in Hindi, breaking into Bengali once in a while.
I know everything about you, as much as one can know, from reading and studying the web. I don’t have any question as such. You can say whatever you want. (Oops, without having much to ask, we spent around 40 minutes talking. And did I just say I didn’t have anything to ask?) Well, Asha’s is an enterprise, it’s a business. How much of Asha, the person, is involved in it and how much of it is a brand? My involvement is absolute in the recipe creation of Asha’s – Curry, Gosht/Meat, Shammi Kababs, many Sabzi/Vegetables dishes, Daal/Lentils. I am not involved in the Tandoor part of the menu. This is because, at home also, food is cooked mostly on a char-coal Sigree but not on a Tandoor. I have personally overseen the creation of the rest of the Menu. Makhni/Butter Chicken and other North Indian popular dishes are my Chefs’ specialities. These are dishes where I feel they know much better than me. The Menu also has my style of cooking – Chicken Curry, Chicken Kabab, Chingrir Chaap/Prawn fry, Prawn Pattice etc. I saw a few Bengali inclusions… Yes, there is Chingrir Malai Curry/Bengali Prawn Curry in coconut milk is an authentic Bengali dish. Kishore Kumar challenged me to cook this dish in the most authentic Bengali way. And I took up the challenge and did learn it the traditional way from RD Burman’s grandmother.
The new menu of Asha’s. Is it your creation? Yes, a lot of it is mine. For example, Chicken Chote Kabab, Baigan with Keema… How did you come up with these recipes? Well, I’ve invented a few of these to feed my children. For example, they hate eating Baigan/Eggplant. So I’ve cooked it up with Keema. Clearly, food is a passion for you, isn’t it? Food is definitely a passion. You can create different preparations of food by thinking about all the ingredients that would go into the food, in your own mind. You think what you want to do. Whether you are going put more of one ingredient and less of another ingredient, don’t count so much. I don’t think anybody who’s cooked with numbers in mind, has ever cooked up a great dish. See how a dish is cooked, feel about that particular dish and cook with all your instincts and feelings. And the last but not the least – Feed with love! (It’s just a coincidence that I came across another lady recently, who believes in the same)
Asha’s, the chain of restaurants, is all outside India. You do not wish to open one in Bombay? It is very difficult to open a restaurant in Bombay. Getting a good location, space, managing the permissions, the task is pretty daunting. If you ask any non-Indian about a good Indian restaurant, Asha’s would be one of the two or three names that would come to mind. You like your food to be spicy. But how do you manage to keep the spice factor of your dishes in the Asha’s neutral? My Chefs are there who are continuously planning the recipe along with me. I personally check every dish offered in the Menu. Once the perfect taste of a dish is finalised, the proportions of the ingredients is computerised and this standardised recipe goes across all the restaurants.
About the Garam Masala, there are many regional variation. Obviously, you are not going to share the secret, right? (She laughs heartily. I thought there was some Methi/Fenugreek in it, but I was told NO!) (speaking in Bengali now) Yes, I go to the spice market, sit down and mix the different spices going into the Masala according to my own proportions. I send them to all my restaurants. But the Chefs need to know what goes in, right? Why? I’ve got them with me. I make around 10 kilos of Garam Masala for each restaurant and send them across. It lasts them a maximum of 2 months.
What is your favourite food? When I was young, I had different favourites. But now as I’ve told in the cooking session before, my favourite is Rice, Daal and Mirchi Achaar/Chilli Pickle. Do you like any other type of food apart from Indian food? Well, I’ve tried many different kind of food. But I prefer to eat Indian food. Your favourite Bengali food? Shorshe bata Maach/Bengali Mustard Fish, specially Parshé Maach (Parshé is a very, very bony fish, so this surprises me to no-end). I also like Ilish/Hilsa (another traditional bony Bengali fish) When you fry the Ilish/Hilsa, the oil that is left behind. Squeeze into it some Dhani Lanka/Green Chilli, sprinkle some Salt and eat it with white Rice.
What about the daily cooking at home? I have people who cook for the family. I don’t cook daily meals anymore. My daughter-in-law is there to supervise. But if there’s some special dish that has to be made or people are coming over, I can cook up everything within 2 or 3 hours. Special dish or a new dish – do you read recipes or cookbooks? No, I just remeber recipes from experience. Even if I don’t remember, and I end up adding something new, the dish just becomes a new dish. Which, I would say is more desirable. A bit like a Remix? Yes!
My Mum and my Mum-in-law, they don’t like experiments. They like everything to be traditional. What about you? Well, I’m pretty much like that. I believe in being traditional. I like traditional clothing, traditional food. I was expecting that you are going to wear your trademark white sari with the very famous bracelet that you wear. Well, that is only for my shows. I am wearing the jewellery which I believe is lucky for me.
You look incredibly young. How do you manage that? Will power. Many times, one is faced with major difficulties in life. This can only be overcome with immense faith in oneself and sheer will power. What gives you strength – Music? Or Cooking? Definitely, Music. I listen to the chanting of OM for 20 minutes and then I start my Riyaz/practice. And I believe in hours and hours of practice – classical music. And if someone doesn’t have Music in his/her life, then? Do Pranayam (where Pranayam is an ancient Yoga practice concerned with breath control) and other breathing techniques. You just think about your God, whether it’s Christ, Allah, Shankar etc. and breathe (she demonstrates holding her fingers in the Sahaj Mudra).
Coming back to Music, do you believe in remixes? Do you think it’s okay to have remixes as long as the younger generation listens to your songs? I don’t like remixes. Even when I sing my own remixes. I like listening to the original songs, in the purest form in which they had been created. But as long as new music is not getting created, remixes of old songs will keep on happening. New music will be created perhaps, only when another RD Burman is born!
Most of the signature dishes at Asha’s Restaurants are tried-and-tested recipes from Ashaji’s personal kitchen. For instance, the Chicken Kheema or Keema, where the chicken has been hand-chopped and then cooked with potatoes, onions, tomatoes and garnished with her *secret* Garam Masala. This dish originated when her children refused to eat meat with bones in it. ‘This is a recipe by the six foot plus actor, Shaikh Mukhtar. I was intrigued when I had this at his house because usually kheema is made with mutton mince. This was chicken and I immediately copied it down, with his permission of course.’ She laughs about how she had to learn to cope up with noting down the amount of ingredients that goes into each of her cooking, instead of just cooking by her instincts, so that she could offer her signature recipes in Asha’s. Also, the fact that after each dish has been cooked, requires ‘usko kya kehte hai/what is that called?’ – garnishing! Here, I am sharing the recipe of Ashaji’s Chicken Keema, after having tried it at home with minor modification. The ingredients in the recipes were given according to grams and I’ve tried to actually quantify each one of them as I cooked. So here’s Asha Bhosle’s recipe of Chciken keema along with my two-pence worth of cooking tips!
Chicken Kheema/Chicken Minced
Chicken – 300gms, boneless, hand chopped into small bite-sized strips
Bay Leaf – 1
Onions – 2 medium, chopped into small pieces
Ginger-Garlic Paste – 2 tbsp
Tomatoes – 2 medium, chopped into small cubes
Coriander Powder – 1 tsp
Cumin – 1 tsp, roasted
Red Chilli Powder – a pinch (My tip: If you are using Kashmiri Chilli Powder, you could be more generous as this lends a rich colour without making the dish more hot)
Turmeric Powder – 1/2 tsp
Asha’s Garam Masala – 1 tsp (Well, for those who can’t bag this *secret* Garama masala, you’ll have to do with regular Garam masala, but dry roasted before grinding)
Fresh Coriander leaves – a bunch, finely chopped
Green Chilli – 1, finely chopped
Potato – 2 medium, chopped into cubes with the sides measuring 3/4inch each and deep fried till crispy
Salt – As per taste
White/Corn Oil/Ghee – 1/2 cup
Vegetable Oil (To fry the potatoes) – 1 cup (My tip: I’ve air-fried the Potatoes after rubbing the cubes with a bit of Salt, I don’t think that the taste was drastically different but I felt less guilty!)
Ginger – 1 inch piece, julienned
Coriander Sprig – 1 bunch
- Heat the Corn Oil or the Ghee in a Wok and add the Bay leaf (if you are using Ghee, please don’t leave it in the heated Wok for long as Ghee becomes burnt very easily and starts to smell)
- Add the finely chopped Onions and sauté till they turn golden brown
- Add the Ginger-Garlic Paste
- Add the chopped Tomatoes and sauté well
- Add the Coriander powder, roasted Cumin Powder, Red Chilli powder, Turmeric and Asha’s Garam Masala and cook till the oil starts releasing
- Add the Chicken and sauté till the Chicken is cooked
- Add the freshly chopped Coriander leaves and green Chillies and cook well
- Fry the diced Potatoes towards the end and add this to the Keema towards the end of the cooking (Otherwise the potatoes will turn soggy)
- Garnish with freshly chopped Coriander leaves, julienned Ginger and sprinkling of Asha’s Garam Masala (the last part was my own addition)
Tel: +971 4 3244100 (Pyramids at Wafi) and +971 4 3951231 (Ground floor, Fashion Dome, Mall of the Emirates); For more information, visit the official website: Asha’s Restaurants
While Asha’s in Birmingham UK has been included in the Michelin Guide for the last successive years – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and the only Manchester Indian restaurant to ever feature in Michelin Guide 2017, the one in Dubai has also been shortlisted and won many regional awards. Having launched the first restaurant in Wafi, Dubai, in December 2002, with a huge expansion plan brewing up over the near future, going back to the original Asha’s always seems like a deja-vu to me. Very recently, a new food and cocktail menu was launched at Asha’s (read rose jam-curry leaf infused Maharaja’s Mistress), with renowned mixologists flown in from the UK. My fellow blogger, Sally (@mycustardpie), describes as ‘The flavours were beautifully balanced in every cocktail some of the best I’ve ever tasted!’
I asked Ahshaji, whether there was something that she still wished to do. Yes, she said – walking the ramp! ‘Lekin maine Malhotra ko bola hay, woh bhi kar loongi/I’ve told Malhotra that I want to walk the ramp, I’ll do that too!’ And yes, Ashaji, it was just 2 days back that I saw your tweet and saw a picture of you walking the ramp for Lakme Fashion Week 2013, looking ravishing in a white Manish Malhotra sari! What next? A celebrity cooking show on Television? Oops! She quips in, ‘I don’t mind doing a show called Asha’s MasterChef, teaching people the art of cooking (specially Biryani!) along with my chefs.’ I can only say that while she blessed me as I touched her feet, I hope that Ashaji has also transfused some of her vigour and energy into me. As I was leaving, she just reminded me of my Mum, ‘Phone lete jana/Remember to take your phone along’ (as my phone sat beside her, recording all that she spoke). It must be a sheer coincidence that I met the lady on Mother’s Day!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Pssst: I have been shortlisted for the BBC GoodFood Awards ME 2017 under the ‘Food Influencer’ category. Do cast your votes for me!
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