By Tami Ganeles-Weiser
Spicy has many definitions. Chef Aliya LeeKong personifies them all. She is savory, piquant, warming, and exotic in a soft, addictive way. Meeting her leaves a lingering memory. Chef LeeKong could have any number of careers, yet she has chosen a most creative path within the food world. Perhaps it has chosen her. Her striking beauty and charm could make her a broadcasting star. Her keen intellect and Ivy League Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Neuroscience from Brown University and her M.B.A. from Columbia University could make her a success on Wall Street. Her culinary skills, beginning with a classical training at the French Culinary Institute and honed at the back of the house at Per Se and Jean Georges could have led her to a Chef De Cuisine position at a fine dining temple of classism in Manhattan. Instead, she is a Culinary Creative Director at the upscale, flatiron district restaurant Junoon, which the New York Times recently complimented, calling it “elegant…opulent (and) warm.” It is a unique restaurant, fresh , innovative, exotic and exciting, very much like Chef LeeKong. She merges traditional Indo-Pakistani regional, seasonal foods with French techniques and her own special world of know-how.
Visit Aliyah’s website at aliyaleekong.com
Read on for the next installment in the series: the Chef Diaries: Chef Aliya LeeKong – Goa, India.
Aliya Leekong was born into an American immigrant dream. She is the only child of successful, professional, well-educated parents. Her father is an entrepreneur originally hailing from Tanzania and her mother is a prominent surgeon originally from Pakistan, but of Indian roots. Even her grandfather had been a prominent surgeon, who the government asked to relocate during the post World War II partition to Karachi from Mumbai to help the population.
Aliya was raised in suburban, central Florida and was an extraordinary student. On the surface she had a suburban childhood like many others. In reality, she spent her summers traveling to her parents’ homelands. Exotic locales like Karachi, East Africa and Thailand were so familiar that they “…were just places (she) went in the summers.” She travelled to Hong Kong and Beirut. She explored Singapore and China. She visited much of Western Europe and Canada. She started traveling within the U.S. as a teenager. She still travels extensively. She’s recently been to Bahrain and St. Lucia and visits her husband’s homeland in the West Indies and explores his Trindadian and Chinese roots. Her theme music could be “These Boots Are Made For Walking.”
It is no wonder that she loves “…places that are cross-cultural points.” It’s woven into the fiber of her being. Even after a few minutes, it’s clear that she is very special.
It was no surprise that she chose to spend two weeks investigating the cuisine of Goa. Goa is a tiny province on the central west coast of India. It has sixty three miles of coastline on the Arabian Sea, much of it soft sandy beaches. It has been famed for its secluded port with solid defensive potential, for its 90′s hedonistic, all night, Bollywood-style dance parties and for its 1960′s hippiedom. The beach culture, spice plantations, the Portuguese and Goan restaurants all create a tourist draw. But Goa and its food are unique because of its history.
Before 1500 Goa was a tiny trade port city with travelers from around the globe with seafaring capabilities. It was run by the same overlords as its neighbors. By 1512 Portugal’s leader, Albuquerque, had securely garrisoned Goa and renamed it “Lisbon of the East.” Goa has a strategic geographical importance, as seen in this picture that Chef LeeKong took of the lush hills surrounding the coastline. The hillside provides a perfect 360 degree view. In the ancient world, as now, geography and security trumps everything.
Goa became important in the spice trade route to the Portuguese.
Goa remained under Portuguese rule for almost four and a half centuries, even after the India- Pakistan separation after World War II, even after the French small Indian provinces like Ponicherry had come under Indian rule. Goa came under Indian rule in the 1960′s.
Today Goa is predominately Catholic, not Muslim or Hindu like much of the surrounding subcontinent. The food reflects the mix of cultures. Chef Aliya did what she does when she visits any new place. She stays with friends and family. “When I go any place I cook in people’s homes and in restaurants to learn the local nuances of the food. True home cooking,” she said.
In Goa she stayed with family who has retired to the Bardez district near Anjuna and Baga Beaches. She taught cooking at a culinary school in Vasco de Gama and visited a famous spice farm in Ponda.
The fields were lush with peppercorn bushes and vanilla vines and intercropped with coconut and mangos.
She took many trips to the markets and found fruits and vegetables of incredible beauty. “Indian food is regional food,” Chef Aliya said. “I take that as an inspiration here in terms of how I look at food and what is local for us to use…I go to the market and see what’s there.”
She was introduced to the local liquor, fenny, a liquor made from coconut or custard apple.
Chef Aliyah visited Goa during the festival of DiWali, the festival of lights. It is a major holiday in Hinduism and is a minor holiday in Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism and has many local rituals. In Goa they eat special sweets. Throughout the region there are special farmers market and fairs.
Chef Aliya studied Goan specialities at local restaurants.
She made traditional Goan dishes like fish recheado or reshad, Goan xacuti (pronounced shakuti) and Goan fish curry and the ever present fresh fried fish and curried crab.
Recheado or reshad is often made with local mackerel or pomfret and it is stuffed with spice paste of fresh coriander (cilantro) turmeric, red chiles, cloves, black pepper cumin seeds, garlic and ginger with malt vinegar. Chef Aliya noted that the pungent, vinegary bite and tartness that was ever-present, in Goan cuisine differs from other Indian regional cuisines. In the Goan fish curry, the tartness comes from mangos and kokum or tamarind, the Indian curry flavor profile from Kashmiri chilies and green chilies, along with coconut, ginger and coriander.
The most famous dish from the region is of direct Portuguese descent – vindaloo. In the U.S. and Britain it appears on virtually every Indian restaurant menu and marks the fieriest dish. It originates from the Portuguese word “Vinha De Alhos,” which means “wine (or wine vinegar) of garlic.” It was a Portuguese beef or pork stew pungent with vinegar and garlic. It had a total makeover through its years in Goa and became a tart, thick curry. It is traditionally thicker than most curries but not as solid as a korma. It requires a copious amount of oil and benefits from being made at least a day before so that the spices can penetrate the oil. The time also allows the strong vinegar taste to develop fully and become assertive. The key to a Goan vindallo is the distinct tartness of the vinegar and the full marriage of the intense flavors.
Goa has unusual souring agents like kokum and and thickening agents like poli (ground wheat). These are kokum fruits, partially dried.
Chef Aliya used the traditional cooking vessel,the tava, to prepare flatbreads. A tava is a large flat griddle used extensively from South Asia across the Middle East, throughout Anatolia and the Balkans.
Xacuti another famous dish. The word is also derived from a Portuguese word, chacuti, although the Portuguese version, like with vindaloo, has significantly evolved in India. Goan xacuti is rich with white poppy seeds and kashmiri chilies and is a vibrant red. Unlike the other dishes, it is not particularly tart.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in her travels, as we follow her to rural Turkey.Goa was a culinary trip Chef Aliya relished. She visited spice plantations and learned about a unique flavor profile and added it to the tool box of palates at her command. For a woman whose dream as a little girl was to have her own stainless steel spice dhabba – her own spice box filled with compartments of multicolored, fragrant magic – this was a rich and satisfying experience. Would she return to Goa? “There are so many places to go in India. So many places all over the world I want to go to,” she said.