Exclusive: Chef Tala Bashmi On Culinary Collaborations, Thoughtful Reinterpretations And Current Food Trends

“If you’re going to change something from old to new, it has to be better,” says Chef Tala Bashmi. The celebrated Bahraini chef was recently in Mumbai for a special pop-up at Taj Land’s End. Back home, she helms the restaurant, Fusions by Tala, at the Gulf Hotel Bahrain Convention & Spa in Manama. It was ranked 3rd among the list of 50 Best Restaurants in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2023. Chef Tala was also crowned MENA’s Best Female Chef in 2022.

She has since emerged as one of the leading young chefs spotlighting Middle Eastern cuisines in innovative ways. We had the opportunity to taste some of her innovations ourselves, as part of the pop-up at The Chambers at Taj Lands End, Mumbai. The multi-course meal was a celebration of Bahraini ingredients and flavours with unique twists that left us curious to know more. Here are some highlights from our candid conversation with the inspiring chef.

Excerpts From NDTV Food’s Interview With Chef Tala Bashmi:

1. According to you, how important it is to understand the cuisine in order to enjoy the food?

I think it’s quite important. If there is no reference, it is just a normal dish. When I know guests are coming for a tasting at my restaurant, I sometimes try to give them references for other places they should visit. For example, I may recommend a local hole-in-the-wall place for tikka, and encourage them to try the original there. In this way, when they try my version at the restaurant, they will understand how far it’s come. I believe context and background give the food much more value.

2. You love to present reinterpretations of Bahraini favourites. What is important for you when coming up with such dishes?

All of my dishes are not reinterpretations. But there are some dishes that I feel are Bahraini to the core and that represent our country. Those are the dishes that I choose to innovate on. At the end of the day, I want to retain the soul of the dish. I don’t want to take that away or change it. I believe that, if you’re going to change something from old to new, it has to be better. It cannot just be me coming up with another version for the sake of it being a new version. If I feel that the original is great as it is, then I will make very minor changes. But if I feel like there is room for growth, then, absolutely, I’ll take it to the next level with technique, but flavour has to be there too.

3. What is your favourite cuisine while dining out?

I really enjoy street food in whichever country I visit. I love simple dishes done well and seasoned well. I don’t go to fine-dining restaurants. When you cook this type of food, you want to go out and have something super simple. I love Thai food, Filipino food, Indian food, Chinese food, and Japanese food. If we’re going to generalise, I would say that Asian food is my favourite.

4. When you’re cooking at home, which cuisines do you enjoy experimenting with?

There is no specific cuisine. But I love experimenting with different ingredients. When I had just returned from Mexico, I had brought back some dried chillies native to the country. I began to use them in ways that I know how to cook. I don’t like to limit myself and I don’t like to say I’m doing fusion, at all. I’m using techniques that I’ve learnt from chefs from different cuisines.

5. There are a lot of buzzwords and trends in the culinary industry. What excites you personally about cooking in 2024?

What has excited me most recently is collaborations with other like-minded chefs from different cultures and the connectivity in the culinary world. I love how travelling and events like these pop-ups bring us together. I’ve met some amazing chefs recently. For instance, I recently bonded with a chef from Guatemala over a shared love for native ingredients and how they were used traditionally. It’s those connections and the human element that matter to me. Buzzwords and trending techniques don’t excite me.

6. What’s a food trend you find overrated?

There are so many! Where do I start? I’ll begin with the ingredients: caviar and truffle. I think it’s very easy to create amazing dishes with luxury ingredients. It takes much more hard work and effort to create dishes that are elevated using very humble ingredients. When I curate my tasting menu, I use simple ingredients that grow locally: okra, potatoes or local seafood like clams or sea snails. I believe that true luxury doesn’t come from an ingredient, it comes from preparation. It seems that almost every restaurant wants to have caviar and truffles on their menus. For me, that kills the rarity of the ingredients. I love them – they are beautiful. But they shouldn’t be on everything. It dampens their charm.

7. What are you fascinated about when it comes to Indian cuisine?

I feel the similarities between Indian and Arabic cuisine are very visible. The palettes are also very similar: in terms of doneness of meat, in terms of texture preferences, level of sweetness, etc. I always find connections and similarities between cuisines interesting. What I’m looking forward to is discovering more about the aspects of Indian food that I didn’t know about earlier. I’m aware that it’s not just “Indian cuisine,” but a variety of regional cuisines in this country. And even within those regions, you can go and find specific ingredients and practices that only exist in certain villages. For me, that’s a beautiful and exciting aspect. I’ve been talking to the chefs in the kitchen who are from different parts of the country. They have been sharing what kinds of dishes their native places specialise in. I think that’s why we’re in this industry. We’re constantly learning from each other and should always be doing that.

8. Do you have any advice for budding female chefs?

Firstly, I believe we need to stop differentiating between female and male chefs. The more we say it, the more we give it power. Such distinctions don’t exist for professions like doctors or lawyers. But it is still there in this industry. Most of the women in kitchens whom I know work twice as hard, show up early, always super motivated.

My advice to chefs from younger generations is, “Don’t be in such a hurry”. Everyone is in such a rush. Everyone wants to be a superstar. I didn’t get into the industry to be a star or a celebrity. I did it because it’s the way I showed people I care. It’s the way I can tell my story.

I also believe it’s essential to be humble. Leave your ego outside the door. It doesn’t matter how big you get. The only people in the industry I can connect with are the ones who have no ego. It’s really important to work hard and have respect for your fellow workers. These are all values I have in my kitchen that I apply to everyone, from the dishwasher to the General Manager. Everyone should be treated the same. Create that positive environment.

9. What’s a cooking tip or hack you swear by?

It’s a simple one about poaching eggs that I learned during my internship. Everyone thinks that you should put vinegar in the boiling water and stir it. You don’t need to do that. Take a small cup. Put the vinegar directly in it and break your egg into it. Leave it as it is and you’ll soon start to see the egg white forming a film on top. Then, when your water is at the right temperature, stir it slightly and drop the egg into it. And that’s how you’ll get the perfect poached egg!

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