If her food were like her music, we’d all be on a sugar rush. When Love Today Hai Nahin Asaan and Hoo Halla Hoo crested the charts on the wave of Indian pop music that provided an alternative soundtrack to Bollywood for Indian youth in the nineties, they were heady, syrupy confections whose tunes burrowed insidiously into your brain — and stayed there.
As Anaida embraces yet another career — after a foray into art several years ago and training as a yoga teacher more recently — she hews much closer to her roots. Perhaps it’s because, at least to those who aren’t formally trained, cooking and serving food is a cultural expression as much as it is about emotional satisfaction.
“I was 16 when I started out. I didn’t speak Hindi and I wasn’t supported to do my thing,” she tells Gulf News tabloid!. “So when this project came about, I insisted on keeping it authentic.”
The singer signed up four-city restaurant pop-up food concept early this year.
The project in question is a collaboration to showcase Persian food at the Mumbai outpost of Sodabottleopenerwala, an Indian chain of old Bombay-style Irani cafés. India’s tightly-knit Irani and Parsi communities trace their roots to eighth-century Persian immigrants, who settled in the princely states along the subcontinent’s west coast.
Anaida’s own family moved to India in the ’80s; she followed a few years later after finishing primary school in Abu Dhabi. As a teenager, she was snapped up by a record label eager to exploit the escalating demand for pop music. She has since expanded her oeuvre artistically and in business — in addition, she turned her hand to spiritual music and consults to hospitality brands across India.
Now 37, the singer teamed with the restaurant impresario AD Singh and his Sodawaterbottleopenerwala chain for a four-city restaurant pop-up concept early this year. Each run was meant to last two weeks, but were extended on demand to nearly two months each. The dishes are now a fixture at the brand’s Mumbai cafe. “I am having such a creatively enriching time that I postponed a music project for four months to focus all my attention on this project.... It’s driven one of my managers pretty angry because delay in money,” she trills. “But the important thing is I have discovered a new medium of art and creativity on another level. Although I’ve always thought chefs are artists, I still didn’t realise what a powerful art medium cooking is. People literally consume your art!”
In an extension of the cafe chain’s Parsi concept, her menu features classic Persian dishes, such as Baghali Polo, a rice pilaf with fava beans and dill and Ghormeh sabzi, a vegetarian stew, and Khorak-e-ghoost or lamb shank slow cooked with onions, chickpeas and Persian black lime, as well as family recipes, such as Anaida’s Soop-E-Jadooi. The singer calls it her magic soup, a concoction of either chicken or shiitake mushrooms with pearl barley, sprouts, turnips, coriander, carrots, corn and roasted vermicelli.
Equally intriguing is her Esfahan Beryani, a grilled burger of minced lamb and mint served on a flaky oven-baked naan, bursting with cinnamon and black pepper. It’s also served without rice. “The original Persian recipe for biryani has no rice. Biryani literally means roasted in fire. The rice was mixed in to stretch the dish so it could provide more carbs for the Mughal army,” she says. It’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu, she adds, along with the joojeh kebab, a skewer of chicken marinated in saffron and mild spices.
Many of these will be familiar to UAE residents. “Dubai has some seriously wonderful Persian restaurants. In India however, although there is one authentic Iranian restaurant in Bengaluru, this is the very first one in Mumbai — which is crazy given that it’s home to the Parsi community,” she declares.
Putting the menu together and trialling the dishes with the chefs at Sodawaterbottleopenerwala took close to a year, but now that she’s tasted success in this new venture, she’s eager for more. Though she isn’t a formally trained chef, her name and achievements so far, as well as her work in hospitality, have seen her approached to open restaurants in Delhi and Dubai.
“The pop-up in Delhi went through the roof and led to quite a few restaurant offers. I chose not to go with them, but there is another offer from Dubai that is exciting. It’s based on my own idea of creating food based on a theme,” she tells us. “The idea is to create food and to share dishes that have stories.”
She reveals it would play in the fine dining space and would take another year to open. Expect it to have a strong art element, and in some way, tie into new-age trends and beliefs (“There are energy-work related components that go towards cooking in my world.”).
So — I have to ask after that notorious series of Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao (the Indian version of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here), where she was forced to eat bugs on camera — does she think creepy crawlies might feature on her restaurants’ menus any time soon? After all, the United Nations advocates incorporating insects into our diets as a solution to the global food shortage.
“I would advise against it. Specially scorpions. They taste like fibreglass with some kind of bitter poison in them!” she says at once. “For me the hard part is removing the mental block I have since childhood and not wanting to touch them, leave alone eat them. Logically, if you eat one creature, it’s utterly silly to discriminate against another; yet I have a hard time thinking of it as my food ingredient. How about solving the world food problem by starting to consume responsibly...? No bugging the bugs!”
New album due soon
Anaida’s newfound authenticity also extends to her music. After a decade’s hiatus, the Oova Oova singer hopes to make a comeback with an album. Inspired by Rumi’s poetry and recorded in Farsi, she says it’s currently being mixed in Los Angeles. “It’s so funny that of all the languages I sing in, the hardest phonetically for me is Hindi and I got my maximum success in that language, while, ironically, the language I am best at, besides English, is Persian and this is the first time am singing in it!”
She says she hasn’t decided a release date yet, but will put it out when she’s happy with it. “It’s my most favourite album, which is why it’s taking time,” she adds. “And it’s the most expensive one yet.”
As her Meditations album proves, she hasn’t stepped away entirely from music, but she says she’s choosing projects more carefully. “I only stopped the mainstream Hindi projects because I don’t want to continue doing the same thing all my life,” she explains. Other projects she’s worked on include progressive and trance tracks with Swedish and American producers. A bilingual English-Hindi duet with Apache Indian is also being readied for release.
A cucumber and yoghurt dip that goes well with bread and chips.
1 packet hung yoghurt
Ground mint (as much as desired)
Crushed rose petals (as desired)
Himalayan rock salt (to taste)
1. Chop the cucumber in small cubes. Add yoghurt, mint powder, salt and mix well.
2. Garnish with a healthy amount of rose petals before serving.
A cooling summer dip that’s packed with iron and antioxidants
3 small beetroots
1 packet hung yoghurt
Sea salt (to taste)
Crushed rose petals, for garnish
3 tsp organic sugar
1. Peel and halve the beetroots.
2. Fill a pan with three or four cups of water. Add the beetroots, sugar and salt and bring to the boil. Once the water has evaporated and the beetroot is cooked but still has a bit of bite, remove from the flame and chop into medium-sized cubes.
3. Add to the hung yoghurt and stir well. Garnish with rose petals and slices of beetroot before serving.