When you get her talking on a topic close to her heart, there’s simply no silencing the irrepressible Ashanti Omkar. Lucky, then, that this wonderful whirlwind of a woman is a regular on the BBC Asian Network airwaves; hosting the channel’s first-ever show dedicated to myriad elements of diverse South India and Sri Lankan culture.
You might catch her waxing lyrical about music, film, arts, theatre or more besides; but it’s always a safe bet that food will feature somehow. Ashanti cooks, eats, and isn’t afraid to say what she thinks when it comes to pleasing her palate…
What exciting foodie projects have you been working on?
Hosting a Sri Lankan supperclub called Virundhu (now known as Saapaadu, meaning ‘food’ in Tamil) together with half-Jaffna-ite, half-Keralite sisters Suhanya (our chef) and Veena (our mixologist). I provide the music, which plays along in the background! We wanted to showcase the authentic regional cuisine of both Jaffna and other parts of Southern Sri Lanka, plus some specialities of Kerala.
In autumn, we delivered a wonderfully-received Onam feast to celebrate Kerala’s harvest festival, with 27 items on the menu. The intimate supperclub is based in a Royal Victoria Docks apartment with a stunning view, and, in the space of just four events, Saapaadu has heralded many food fans.
Any Indian restaurants you’d love to pour praise upon?
Without doubt, the Curry Leaf Café in Brighton, where the team serve authentic Andhra cuisine that’s received by the British palate with aplomb. The menu changes with the seasons, and I love every morsel I’ve eaten there, from the starters through to the gelati and sorbets that local company Boho Gelato are custom-commissioned to create. Chef Kanthi Thamma’s beetroot rasam lingers in my psyche as a taste sensation!
… And what about non-Indian establishments?
Outside of the Indian subcontinent, I love the ribs at Bodeans in Soho, and the gluten-free fried chicken at Joe’s Southern Table in Covent Garden. For West African food, Peckham’s Lolak is a hidden gem. The Nigerian dishes are delicious, authentic, and mighty fiery – there are even warning sign posters on the walls of the eatery!
The fellow South Asian foodies you think have done great things?
Suji Ramakrishnan (My Kitchen Adventures) and Rekha Shiva for their Tam Bram (Tamil Brahmin) vegetarian food posts, and Nessy Samuel for her Keralite dishes and excellent photography.
I also must namecheck Asma Khan for all the amazing work she’s been doing with Darjeeling Express, bringing her heritage cuisine to the capital’s foodies. Her food is the sort that one cannot get in restaurants in London – or, dare I say, anywhere in the world.
The Indian dish you cook the most?
The year’s only just begun – what are your plans for 2017?
There has been a lot of demand for the Virundhu supperclub, and the 2016 event were certainly a very promising ‘curtain raiser’. So we hope to host more next year, and welcome more to try the authentic cuisine we’re serving.
Which Indian chef would you crown your culinary king or queen?
I’m showing my bias by saying Suhanya of Saapaadu, but she has single-handedly changed the way I see a lot of food I’d previously taken for granted. She’s a stickler for using only the best ingredients, and is very focused on the minutiae of flavours and textures.
After working on so many taster sessions of the dishes prepared for Saapaadu, I started to cook more myself. Very few restaurants deliver the kind of Sri Lankan and Keralite food that I remember from memories of my travels to those regions, so I began creating my own.
Any hopes for London’s Indian food scene?
I am awaiting the food of Karnataka to hit London at restaurant level. I was in Bengaluru in late 2015, and ate at Kanua – one of the places to eat seafood-rich Mangalorean cuisine which I hope I’ll soon be able to find in London.