A food connoisseur and talented chef, Poppy Agha has followed an unconventional path to professional cooking. Before becoming a celebrity chef with a food show, A Taste Of Fusion, on DawnNews TV, she dabbled in software development in London and also ran the family import business for electromedical equipment for seven and a half years. Currently in its ninth season, the show has given Poppy the platform to churn out innovative dishes that defy Pakistanis’ traditional concept of cuisine. This month, she will also launch her cooking school, Poppy’s Culinary Institute, set up in collaboration with entrepreneur Zahir Rahimtoolah. Here, she talks to the Herald about her earliest memories of food, the oddest combination of ingredients she has put together and how she ended up with the moniker, Poppy.
Q. How did you learn to cook?
A. My grandmother’s household was very proper and we had very good cooks, not just khansamas but true chefs who had gastronomical insight and knew how to develop recipes. These were cooks who had trained abroad or Hyderabadi chefs who had worked in Saudi Arabia. When I was eight or nine years old, my grandmother’s chef at the time, Zahoor sahib, told her that he was interested in teaching me how to cook. He taught me everything and all the different cuisines — the man could make amazing ginger snap sugar pumps off the top of his hat. He will always be my inspiration for everything and I will credit him for everything that I am today. The way I cook today is because of his mentoring me.
Q. What drew you to cooking?
A. The first day that I was in the kitchen with Zahoor sahib I learnt how to make a crème caramel. An hour and 45 minutes later I turned out the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen in my life. He made me serve that crème caramel at a dinner party that night and I was truly excited that everyone liked the dessert I had made. Zahoor sahib made me understand what cooking was all about: it is the potential to create something which I never thought I could and that food in itself is a creation.
Q. Tell me about your first experience as a professional chef?
A. I quit running the family import business almost five years ago because I finally realised that you have got to do what you love to be truly happy and I want to do something with food because that is when I am truly happy. So I started a catering business but I didn’t enjoy it as much because it was so restricted. People want one entrée or five variations of that one dish but with a different name. I think you should think beyond your white sauce, beyond snapper with balsamic vinegar, beyond prawns with chili and basil. It is very basic bistro cuisine.
Q. What is the best dish you can whip up in less than 15 minutes?
A. There are so many but I would go with prawn curry. It takes eight minutes to make: all you need is milk, desiccated coconut, onion seeds, coriander seeds, green chili, salt, garlic, ginger and prawns.
Q. What is that one traditional desi dish that needs to be made more modern?
A. Mutanjan, one of the most traditional Mughalai dishes. It is a classic Hyderabadi sweet and salty dish and it has about seven different colours in it. I would love to update it but I haven’t got around to doing that. It would be a killer update.
Q. Your favourite ingredient to work with.
A. Fresh green chilis.
Q. Your favourite restaurant in town.
Q. Your favourite restaurant in the world.
A. This South Indian place called Naivedyam in Hauz Khas village near New Delhi.
Q. One thing lacking in the food scene in Karachi.
A. The food scene is just lacking in Karachi and for that matter in Pakistan. The essence of cuisine hasn’t developed here. There should be 800 restaurants in Karachi that you can pick and choose from but there aren’t.
Q. The oddest combination of flavours you have ever tried.
A. Kachnar [a flower] and aubergine [eggplant] — it wasn’t that bad but I have to work on it more.
Q. The most challenging ingredient you have worked with.
A. Using truffles in desi cooking. You just don’t know how to use them, too much heat and they get ruined and right now they are used in very Westernised ways such as shaving them on top of dishes. We have forgotten but truffles have been grown in Pakistan’s northern areas for a very long time. I have tried truffles with a lot of spices — but in a curry they lose all potential because of the excessive heat.
Q. What do you enjoy and hate about cooking?
A. The one thing that I love is being able to express thoughts in my head and that is also what I hate about it; I hate it when it doesn’t happen. When it does go wrong I am in a bad mood for days. When I create a recipe and it doesn’t fly the way it is supposed to, it is bad news for everyone.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. The Art of Eating by M U Fischer.
Q. What do you do to unwind?
A. I like silence and being in quiet spaces, and to be able to read or watch some useless movie.
Q. A pet peeve of yours.
A. Unironed clothes.
Q. The strangest thing you have ever eaten.
A. Octopus balls covered in mayonnaise at Village Yokocho in New York City.
Q. Your earliest childhood memory of food.
A. Bread dipped in chicken curry.
Q. One dead chef you admire.
A. Marie-Antoine Carême.
Q. One living chef you admir.
A. Anthony Bourdain.
Q. The most difficult dish you have made.
A. Ginger Snap Sugar Baskets.
Q. The three ingredients one must have in their pantry.
A. Pasta, olive oil and salt
Q. How did you end up with the moniker Poppy?
A. I love Chinese food. When I was really young, I was in the car with my uncle and my brother and I saw this Chinese food restaurant and I said “Chop suey, Chop seuy” but because I was a child and didn’t have any teeth, it came out as “poppsy, poppsy”. My mother thought it was cute and she began to call me that. When I went to school everyone there also called me Poppsy. Eventually from poppsy it became Poppy. So, very few people actually call me by my real name, Amina.