A hearty, Punjabi boy from a small town would have probably not imagined that he will be serving the First Ladies of the prominent nations of the world someday. But that’s what Chef Ajay Chopra did a few days ago. “You are right. This was something that I never thought I would be doing,” Ajay humbly admits. Sitting at his office cum studio, we have a chat over some good old chai and daal-mooth from his native town—Faridabad.
Ajay has come a long way from OCLD (Oberoi Center for Training and Development), a chef at varied chains, judge at Master Chef India, to the celebrity chef that he is today. “Not really a celebrity, but yes, it’s been a long journey with many lessons on the way,” he says.
Being the judge at the Master Chef India show kind of changed career path for Ajay. He relocated to Mumbai from Goa, where he was Executive Chef at a prestigious hotel. The move and the show introduced Ajay to people who encouraged him to think of going solo. “Though I must confess that the first business venture was not a great success for various reasons. However, it did teach me what not to do.” Ajay went on to launch his own company that helps people set up stand-alone restaurants from scratch. He helps plan menus, recruit people, just about everything that goes into launching a restaurant.
It was a delightful surprise for Ajay when he got a call to present a dish to the First Ladies of the G20 delegation. “I am not sure who recommended my name and why. But I was thrilled to be a part of the team who was to cater to the First Ladies,” Ajay informs.
The theme for the day was Millets, thanks to 2023 being the Year of the Millets. Ajay, who has been a fan and promoter of millets for some years, was excited about it. “Credit goes to Amrita, my wife. She is very conscious of what we eat,” Ajay says. “Especially of what I eat,” he quips. “She introduced millets in our diet during the pandemic, or probably just before. It made me realise that millets were an integral part of the Indian diet before capitalism promoted wheat to be one. Indian meal, any part of India, is the most balanced meal in the world. It provides all essential nutrients.”
Ajay chose Thekua as his dessert base because he feels that lesser-known food from interiors of India should be promoted. “And I was pleasantly surprised when Akshata Sunak, UK First Lady, said ‘thekua!’ after the first bite!”
Ajay used thekua as base and dressed it up with the shrikhand (known sweet from Gujarat and Maharashtra) and seasonal berries to create his dish. “Apart from UK, the Turkish First Lady too came up to me and had a conversation about the dish. She was quite intrigued with the way millets were used to make a healthy dessert.”
How should one incorporate millets in one’s regular diet? “Millets should be introduced slowly and steadily,” Ajay advises. “Our systems, especially of urbanites, are not strong enough to have millets in all meals. Therefore, have millets thrice a week to begin with. Make sure they are accompanied by vegetables, curd, dal, salads etc. to make it a complete meal.”
Ajay also mentions that experimenting with the millets to create interesting meals is important. “Millets are not boring. And rotis are not the only option with millets. There’s a lot that can be done. For example, if you boil whole barley and drink that water, it’s helpful in curbing diabetes and the boiled barley can be used to make a salad. Ragi flour can be used to make pudding,” tells Ajay.
What next after G20? “Whatever is HIS wish. I believe that everything is HIS wish and HE does everything, not me,” concludes Ajay.
Thekua millefeuille with lemon curd and berry coulis
60 gm Barley (jau), 20 gm Pearl millet (bajra),
20 gm Finger fillet,
30 gm Ragi flour,
A pinch of Salt, 2 gm Cardamom, 60 gm Water, 20 gm Ghee
For lemon curd:
25 gm Lemon, 50 gm Sugar, 70 gm Hung curd, ½ tsp Agar
Berry coulis: 40 gm Indian mulberry, 10 gm Sugar, 2 ml
For garnish: 2 gm Icing sugar, 1 pinch Matcha, 1 Melon scoop, 1 Mango, 1 Dragon fruit
In a mixing bowl add barley, pearl millet, finger millet flour and ragi flour. Add sugar salt cardamom powder and mix well. Add ghee and shortening flour. Mix with hand and add luke warm water, make tight dough, let it rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven at 190*c. Make dough balls of 150 gm, roll them thinly, then cut it in rectangular. Shape and bake for 10 minutes till they turn light golden and crispy.
In a heavy bottom pan add lemon, sugar, lemon zest agar, and saffron. Simmer it at low flame for at least 45 minutes until a thick consistency like toffee sauce is achieved. Keep it aside and let it cool. Once the lemon sugar sauce base cools down, add hung curd and mix well with the help of spatula. Store in piping bag.
Mix berry coulis
In a heavy bottom sauce pan add frozen mix berries, red wine, sugar, and white wine vinegar. Let it cook at slow flame for 30 minutes. Cool and blend it into a fine purée. Sieve it through a fine strainer.
In a tray spread thekua cracker and dust with, icing sugar, matcha, fennel and cardamom powder. Assemble layer by layer by adding a dollop of lemon srikhand on top of the thekua cracker. Add Brunoise and cut fresh fruits. Garnish with microgreens and edible flower.