If you've tuned into Indian cuisine on #TheChefsLine this week, you've probably already met Anjali Nambissan also known at SBS Food HQ as the butter-chicken-eating-vegan - no butter, no chicken - of course. This 29-year-old home cook has even won over executive chef Dan Hong.
Born in Kerala, south India, Anjali grew up in New Delhi and moved to Australia in 2014. We talk butter chicken, her vegetarian upbringing, fearless cooking combos and how she retains vegan status without ever compromising on flavour.
"I learned a lot about cooking and eating healthy from watching my mother cook. I also grew up eating street food in Delhi, which is a city that takes its food very seriously. You can find mouth-watering chow mein, kebabs – you name it - at any time of the day or night in Delhi."
I also grew up eating street food in Delhi, which is a city that takes its food very seriously.
It was great to see your butter chicken - no butter, no chicken - dish on The Chefs' Line. What are some substitutions you've made for other Indian classics that favour a vegan diet?
I have recently discovered that chickpea fat (the liquid that comes off of canned chickpeas) behaves the same way as whipped cream, when whipped and blended. I use it as a yoghurt substitute in raita sometimes or as a topping for stuffed paranthas as it has that slight savoury fragrance and taste to it.
I use coconut cream instead of yogurt/buttermilk to make my cheelas (Indian chickpea pancakes). Whipped coconut cream or milk makes for fluffy, airy pancakes that melt in your mouth.
Also nut butters – almond and peanut – are great for baking cookies. I am currently experimenting with almond meal to make halwa and other Indian sweets. I’ll let you know how I go!
Has being vegetarian impacted your cooking and culture?
I am a lifelong vegetarian. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have attempted fish and chicken, but could not stomach either.) I think it impacts my cooking because of what I like to call my ‘cooking ethic’. I’m passionate about personal and environmental sustainability. I understand the impact that our food choices have on our planet and on our bodies. My cooking is conscious of the needs of our body, as well as, the needs of the planet we live off of.
Indian food yields a variety of vegetarian dishes, but there’s still a lot animal products in use such as yogurt, cream and good old ghee. It was a bit of a struggle to move away from these but nothing a little research and ingenuity couldn’t fix.
It is rather easy being vegetarian in India. Most Indians are vegetarians for religious reasons. Consuming meat and alcohol is not a very inherent part of India culture. Fun fact: Egg is NOT vegetarian in India. There is a commendable variety to choose from as a vegan / vegetarian in India. In south-west India, food is mostly cooked in coconut oil. Fresh, hot banana chips fried in coconut oil is mana from heaven! And since the land is fertile, you won’t be hard-pressed to find organic, seasonal produce. While coastal areas are known for their fish dishes, vegetarian dishes are no less diverse, and flavoursome.
Who taught you to cook?
I learned to cook from my mother (who is a phenomenal cook). My mother was a Science teacher, so we’ve always learned about the nutritious content in our food at the dinner table. I was not allowed soft drinks and processed foods until I rebelled in the first year of college! I can’t really stand that stuff. Growing up was always about eating healthy and home-cooked food. My mother learned her culinary skills from her father, who was a restaurateur. As a Botany Major, she combined that with her knowledge of nutritious plants. And the result was delicious!
Fun fact: Egg is NOT vegetarian in India.
Do you only cook Indian food?
Nope! I make a mean red sauce pasta, vegan pizza and Sri Lankan curry. For Christmas last year, I made a vegan cauliflower roast and vegan lasagne, which we carted to the beach and enjoyed with a few beers in the sun. I enjoy travelling and being inspired by the flavour palate of the place I travel to. I’ve drummed up some pretty interesting things with avocado in Australia like my avo smash dosai.
What are your go-to ingredients at home?
Cumin and coriander (seeds, powders, as well as, leaves).
I also experiment with cooking oils. I have everything - mustard, grape seed oil, avocado, coconut, canola, vegetable, sunflower, and sesame oil in my pantry right now. Each of these adds a different texture and flavor to food, depending on what you are going for.
Has your relationship with food and cooking changed over the years?
Everyone in my family is vegetarian. I was raised on a vegetarian diet. So you can say that that's where my ideas come from. From my upbringing and from eating my mum's cooking. There's such a wide variety of vegetarian food to eat that I was never left wanting. Indian food, particularly south Indian food, allows for a satisfying vegetarian lifestyle.
Breakfasts always had a "whole meal" component to them, with fresh fruits. Lunches consisted of a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. We always had a homemade evening snack (tri-colour sandwiches with home-made mint sauce; chickpea crepes stuffed with spicy paneer) to come home to after running amuck with our friends. And dinner was a simple and intimate family affair. We seldom ate in front of the TV. This was despite the fact that my mother worked two jobs! Whilst, my dad helped as best as he could, he’s a terrible cook!
New Delhi is not only the capital of India it is also the street food capital of the country. Old Delhi is the historical district of the city, which has remained unchanged for the last 100 years or so. The world-famous Paranthewaali gali (street of stuffed paranthas) is in Old Delhi as is Old and Famous Jalebi waalah (since the 1800s!) and the home of the best aloo tikki (fried potato cakes with a herbed and spiced filling of cashews and lentils). These establishments have existed for centuries and even today, sell out of their delectable fare in a matter of hours! In my early twenties, I worked as a lifestyle and city beat reporter. Not only did I get to roam the streets tucking into the varied street food, but I also got to sample signature dishes of top chefs from north India.
As a reporter, I’ve travelled across India – from Ladakh in the north to Kanyakumari in the south; from Jaipur in the west to Guwahati in the east. The diversity of the landscape, language, and people is matched only by the diversity of Indian cuisine. This variety of flavours, textures, fragrances, colours and emotions is what I attempt to recreate with my cooking.
During the filming of The Chefs' Line I was transitioning from vegetarian to strict vegan and have been fully vegan for the past 3-4 months now.
What is one word that describes your cooking-style?
Ethical. (Also, conscious and experimental.)
Oh, and the vegan butter chicken... get Anjali's recipe right here
Image via anjali.nambissan/Instagram.