chef Shahena Ali brings her own refreshing new approach
to the world of traditional Indian and Bengali Cookery
completely taking the myth out of what is generally
perceived to be a complex cuisine. Shahena transforms
basic ingredients into fabulous dishes and takes us
on a fascinating journey into the heart of different
cultures . . . . more
Whom do you most admire for their achievements?
I admire quite a few people, mainly people from
history, but if I were to choose one person in the present
day, I would say Richard Branson, for his innovative
and creative mind in his work, and his dedication to
bringing enjoyment and fun to services which are normally
staid and conservative.
Who is your favourite chef?
I actually have a few favourite chefs, namely Gary Rhodes,
whom I think is brilliant at explaining complex recipes
to an audience, in a clear and simplistic way, and James
Martin who has a natural flair for making marvellous
With whom would you most like to have dinner?
Very difficult to choose, but I would like to cook
a three course meal for David and Victoria Beckham,
because as has been quoted in the media, they, (particularly
David Beckham), enjoy cooking at home and, because they
both enjoy travelling to different destinations around
the world, they would appreciate the vast range of original
dishes that are available from diverse cultures around
the globe. I would combine dishes from three different
continents (the Mediterranean, the Indian Sub-continent
and the Middle East). Also, because they both possesses
the flair to combine and experiment with new and old
styles in the realm of sport, fashion and music, I'm
sure they would also enjoy experimenting with the fusion
of cuisines from around the world, which brings a quirky,
contemporary twist - where East meets West - to traditional
with one half of the couple being a sportsperson, and
the other a celebrity in the world of music and fashion,
David and Victoria Beckham each have their image to
consider; being conscious of how healthy and nutritious
their diet is, whilst also indulging their craving for
an occasional hedonistic reward in the form of richer,
more flamboyant delicacies. The meal would be tailored
around their lifestyle of sophisticated and extravagant
tastes combined with their figure conscious attitude;
it would consist of a combination of light, Mediterranean
dishes mixed with a selection of traditional, rich Middle
Eastern and Indian fare bursting with flavour. Firstly,
the meal would start with a mixture of unusual and tantalizing
Mediterranean and Indian appetizers, which awaken the
taste buds, leading onto a main course and a finale
of more elaborate dishes and desserts from India and
the Middle East.
meal would begin with a starter of Dolmades (stuffed
vine leaves) and Chicken Kofta with Paneer garnished
with mint, coupled with Tamarind and Date Chutney, and
a cooling drink of sweet Mango Lassi.
a main course of Chatni Gosht (Lamb cooked with sautéed
onions, tomatoes, yoghurt and a fresh herb chutney)
with Tamatar ka Salat (Tomato rounds with roasted cumin,
fresh coriander leaves, onion, chili and lemon juice),
Duck in Pomegranate Sauce accompanied by Jewelled Pullao
Rice and Khoubiz (seasoned flat bread).
a selection of desserts: Seviyan (a rich sweet vermicelli
pudding) and Baklava, with a cup of spiced Elaichi (cardamom)
and Cinnamon Chai or Cardamom Coffee.
What would be your desert island disk?
: Madonna's 'Immaculate Collection' - a great compilation
of highly listenable songs to indulge my craving for
80's music; I also chose this album primarily because
there is a tune to suit practically any mood.
What is your favourite British food?
: I do think that a traditional British Roast is
incredibly satisfying, especially on a cold winters
day. I would have to say that apart from the steamed
puddings, (yes I am a pudding lover) in terms of British
food, nothing beats a Roast chicken meal.
What is your favourite Italian food?
: Italian food, renowned for it's use of fresh ingredients
bursting with flavour, has to be one of my other favourite
cuisines in the world. I prefer the more simple fare
that this country has to offer, such as Spaghetti Puttanesca,
their wonderful variety of delicious breads such as
Focaccia and their delicate desserts such as Tiramisu.
What is your favourite French food?
I'm very keen on fresh salads and one of my favourites
is Salad Nicoise. Now that is definitely an example
of how a few basic ingredients can create a beautifully
simple yet satisfying dish.
What is your favourite World food?
I adore Indian and Middle Eastern Food (Lebanese
and Moroccan). The sheer diversity of dishes available
and the unusual combinations of ingredients used (e.g.
pomegranate in lamb dishes) in Indian and Middle Eastern
cooking means I can constantly experiment with new combinations
of flavours and love to create a whole array of healthy,
as well as indulgent, and deliciously different meals.
Because of the explosion of tastes and flavours the
dishes from these regions possess, I find it incredibly
interesting to combine the different recipes and create
delicious new variations, unusual flavours can be brought
to old classics by adding ingredients, which have previously
never been used before in those recipes. I enjoy making
creative and exotic desserts and adapting them to give
them a quirky twist, e.g. Gulab Firni, a contemporary
take on the traditional Indian sweet delicacy of spiced
rice pudding with cardamom and rosewater, which I like
to combine with melted white chocolate and fresh strawberries,
garnished with slices of Gulab Jamun (an Indian sweetmeat
dipped in a scented rosewater syrup).
What do you like most about your job?
The variety and creativeness involved in this job
means that there is never a dull moment!
How would you describe eating in the UK to someone who's
never visited it?
I would advise them to sample as many of the different
types of cuisine on offer in the UK, including the traditional
British favourite of Fish and Chips! You can't beat
the UK for providing excellent quality food from a huge
array of regions around the world.
Do you think food in the UK has changed for the better
since the days of Duck with Orange and huge helpings
of Black Forest Gateau?
I certainly do think that the variety and quality
of food available has vastly improved and progressed
dramatically in the UK over a short space of time. The
main factors driving this progress can be put down to
the fact that people in general are more aware and curious
about cuisine and have high standards and expectations
in terms of the food they eat. In my opinion, it is
an excellent sign that the majority of people crave
variety and are more knowledgeable about the food they
eat, from it's nutritional content to the origins of
a dish, as well as an increase in the appreciation of
different types of cuisine - this undoubtedly bodes
well for the future.
What's the best thing about eating in the UK?
I love the sheer variety of cuisines from different
countries that are available in any given city in the
UK; it's amazing, and wonderful, to see how experimental
and adventurous the people are, when it comes to dining
out and experiencing food from the different regions
around the world. I would say that the best thing about
eating in the UK would have to be the immense diversity
of the food on offer and the fact that more exotic fare
is readily accessible, as easily as traditional British
dishes, to the general public.
And the worst?
It would have to be rise in the amount of convenience
and junk foods that are eaten and which a lot of younger
kids seem to be raised on. This does appear to destroy
any natural curiosity they may have had in being creative
with ingredients and, in learning any basics about food
made from scratch in the kitchen, whereas in other countries
helping in the kitchen with food preparation and awareness
about fresh food in general is more prolific.
At what sort of place do you regularly go to eat?
I enjoy eating out at Levante for Middle Eastern
food, and also enjoy dining out for Japanese food.
Would you like to live and work somewhere other than
the UK and if so where and why?
I would choose to live and work in Italy if I were
to select somewhere other than the UK, mainly because
of the fact that the people in Italy know how to enjoy
life and they believe that food plays a major role in
their lives. With a healthy appreciation for cooking
and fresh ingredients from a young age, and an enjoyment
for living, you can't fail to warm to Italy and its
What's your favourite food?
My favourite dish is Fragrant Layered Mughlai Lamb
Biryani: an absolute essential of any Indian or Bengali
wedding feast, this is a wonderfully fragrant and hugely
satisfying meal. I love this dish because it is so versatile,
going well with almost any accompaniment whilst also
being a complete meal in itself if served on its own.
It's a deliciously satisfying and delectably tantalizing
dish, enticing the palate with the aroma of delicately
spiced meat enveloped in warm fluffy basmati rice. It
also never fails to impress everyone when brought to
When did you first get involved in cooking?
I started my fascination (or should I say obsession)
with food during my early years in my parents' kitchen,
taught initially by my mother and later, experimenting
by myself and learning tips and techniques from friends
who lived abroad (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Chinese,
Indian). I learned to cook food at home at the age of
nine, starting with the basics and helping my mum in
the kitchen, and have never looked back. From that moment
on, I was hooked, trying out both classic recipes and
my own adaptations of recipes at home. Having been a
recipe addict from an early age, I like to mix and match
recipes to create unique dishes with a personal touch.
from a food loving, not to mention travel-orientated
family, (my father is a restaurateur and my mother is
an oracle of knowledge when it comes to food from the
Indian sub-continent), I have grown up tasting and learning
about cuisines from all continents and therefore have
a keen interest in finding out about the background
history of dishes. I love organising lots of dinner
parties, exhibiting my creations to my family and friends,
which I have done from a young age. I am also the creative
director for an Indian restaurant group, researching
and developing and (prototyping) contemporary and fusion
dishes as well demonstrating and cooking, centuries
old Indian recipes; in the recent past, the group has
been selected to cater for the launch of the Bangladesh
Food Festival at the Houses of Parliament.
some years now, I have been involved in introducing
and demonstrating new and original dishes on the menu
for an Indian restaurant group, as well as researching
into, demonstrating and cooking, centuries old Indian
recipes. I love to experiment with contemporary and
traditional recipes, often combining East and West flavours
to produce fusion food at home. As well as this, I have
a keen interest in health, and am interested in how
certain more indulgent 'comfort food' dishes from Indian
and Middle Eastern cuisines can be adapted or modified
to fit into the healthier categories of food, by substituting
I have focused on Indian cookery due to my background,
I tend to experiment with cuisine from across the globe
and also love to bake. I love cooking food from all
countries, especially the more unique, exotic and unusual
dishes, regularly cooking and entertaining friends and
family at home, with all types of cuisine focusing on
Mediterranean, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian food.
My forte would have to be Indian and Middle Eastern
food; I enjoy cooking these cuisines because of the
subtlety of spices which are used in a huge variety
of ways, in both savoury as well as sweet dessert recipes,
completely changing a dish depending on the type of
spice and cooking technique used.
What sort of people have you cooked for during your
career. Most memorable or most forgettable?
I recall the time I was involved in cooking for
a Parliamentary member, Conservative MP Bob Spinks,
during the time the restaurant group I was Creative
Director for was also selected to cater for the launch
of the Bangladesh Food Festival at the Houses of Parliament.
It was great fun to be involved in that and I would
definitely say that it was an experience from which
I learned a lot about food and its way of transforming
and bringing people from different backgrounds together.
aspect of cooking that I love is the way in which fine
food brings together people of all backgrounds and the
fact that there is always an ingredient or dish available
from around the world, which will appeal to even the
fussiest of individuals.
Do you ever have regrets that you chose to become a
I don't have any regrets about being a chef, I think
it's a fantastically interesting and hugely entertaining
role, and provides me with the opportunity to combine
my interest in food with my creativity to the best effect.
What do you think you would have been if you had not
become a chef?
As cooking has always been a major part of my life,
and a major interest, I consider myself very lucky to
be able to pursue one of my main passions. Whilst working
in asset management, I still yearned to pursue my main
interest of cooking and finally resolved to veer towards
that field, as that is where my main interest and skills
lay. If I hadn't done so, I would still be working in
Bond Asset Management.
What would be your advice to someone who is thinking
of training to be a chef?
I would say stick to it, you need to stay committed,
focus on the positives and maintain your fascination
and curiosity for it, to survive the bad times. It is
definitely a rewarding field of work and will undoubtedly
provide you with a creative outlet too.
The career of one famous chef only came about because
his professional football career came to an early close
through injury, and one chef's plans to open a restaurant
never happened when he became football manager of Aberdeen
and later Manchester United. Has fate ever played a
part in your career?
I think the way fate has played a part has been to open
my eyes to the many different cuisines around the world,
whilst travelling, in my previous career in asset management;
it pushed me to pursue my main interest, which was to
be involved in cooking these cuisines, and gave me the
motivation to pursue a culinary career.
What are your hobbies, spare time interests, what do
you do to relax?
Apart from my passion for food and cooking, my other
passion is travelling abroad. I love to travel and learn
new languages (at the moment I am learning Spanish).
I have been abroad to many different places around the
world and really enjoy discovering new aspects about
other cultures and their cuisines. I also love to watch
and play sport (watching football, playing tennis, swimming,
running, roller-blading). I enjoy socializing, nightlife
and also I enjoy regularly cooking and entertaining
friends and family at home, with all types of cuisine
including Mediterranean, Chinese, Middle Eastern and
find out more about Shahena
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