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Ajit Bangera’s magical food draws from his mother’s cooking

The chef’s mother tried to make idlis softer, exchanged recipe ideas with neighbours and signed up for a catering course to fulfil her quest to learn

Chef Ajit Bangera
Chef Ajit Bangera

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In Chennai, flying idlis could mean only one thing—ITC Grand Chola. The man behind the ‘light as air’ idlis is the revered chef, Ajit Bangera. “I know how good idlis can be because of my mother. She would continuously experiment to make them lighter and fluffier,” he says.

Earlier this month, the senior executive chef at ITC Grand Chola, moved to Sri Lanka to oversee the opening of a new ITC hotel in Colombo. His new designation is Area Chef for the ITC group in Sri Lanka. In an interview with Lounge, Bangera recalls growing up in Mumbai, and learning to reimagine food by observing his mother, Leelavati, who never shied away from the pursuit of culinary wisdom.

Edited excerpts:

Describe the food from your childhood.

I was privileged to eat really good food, thanks to my mother and grandmother. We are Mangaloreans, and I grew up in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Santa Cruz surrounded by Punjabis, Sindhis and Goans. My mother was curious to learn something new when it came to food and would exchange recipes with the neighbours. Infact, she was so keen to learn more that she signed up for a housewives’ cooking course at the Dadar catering college. She picked up cooking, baking and food preservation, and brought home ‘western’ dishes too. It was because of her that I joined the hotel management graduate course in the same college. I imbibed her lifelong curiosity to make better food.

Did you always want to be a chef?

I didn’t. At the hospitality college, like everyone else, I wanted to be the general manager of a prestigious hotel. But, as time passed, I realised food is my calling. Being a general manager, restaurant manager or food and beverage manager—all coveted roles—didn’t excite me too much, but I enjoyed being in the kitchen. Our profession is so demanding that if we really don't enjoy what we do, it is a waste of time.

What are the foods that make you nostalgic about childhood?

Being from a Mangalorean family, it has to be fish. I learnt very early on that the foundation of our cuisine lies in its simplicity. For example, in a simple fish fry, there is nothing beyond salt and chilli powder, and a little bit of atta to coat it. This accompanied by sambar and rice is pure heaven.

How does simplicity reflect in the food you cook for a restaurant known to reimagine South Indian food, like Avartana at ITC Grand Chola?

We have a dish called fish with coriander broth at Avartana. All we do is take a good quality fresh fish, like sea bass, marinate it with salt and chilli powder, and fry it. Then we make a broth of blanched coriander and chilli, and extract the juice. To plate the dish, we create a base with a mini fluffy uttapam, place the fish and pour the juice around it. The green of the juice with the white of the uttapam and fried fish is a vivid medley of colours, while the flavours are nostalgic and familiar. The idea is so simple for this beautiful dish.

Fish with coriander broth at Avartana. (Photo: Screen grab, ITC hotels, YouTube)
Fish with coriander broth at Avartana. (Photo: Screen grab, ITC hotels, YouTube)

What is unique about the sambar that you make at home?

It’s Mangalorean sambar and my mom did her own thing. It has the standard sambar masalas like dhania, jeera, chilli and hing. But, my mom adds a bit of saunf which is a bit different from what others do. We add a bit of jaggery, as Mangaloreans do, just for a mild hint of sweetness; nothing overpowering. The slight sourness comes from tamarind, and she would replace it with kokum as well. You can pair it with fried fish and rice, and it’s a mind-blowing combination. Hope I can give you that meal one day.

Fried fish from Bangera’s home

Ingredients

2 medium sized fresh pomfret

1 tsp salt

One and quarter teaspoon of Kashmiri chilli powder

One-fourth tsp turmeric

2 tsp of wheat flour for dusting

Oil for cooking

Method

Marinate the fish with salt, chilli powder and turmeric for 15-20 minutes. Dust it lightly with atta. Heat some oil in a pan. Lightly fry the fish. Make sure it is pan fried and not overcooked so that the fish remains juicy. Serve. 

Notes: Use Kashmiri chilli powder for the flavour and don’t replace atta with maida. The atta needs to be lightly dusted to hold in the masalas. Also, pick a light flavoured fish like sea bass or pomfret. Don’t serve with a wedge of lime or onion. It’s best enjoyed as is.

Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.

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