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Friday, July 02, 2010

Interview with Kumar Mahadevan + win a $150 lunch for two at Aki's, Woolloomooloo

Chef Kumar Mahadevan

2010 is a big year for Kumar Mahadevan, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his Indian restaurant Abhi's in North Strathfield. Named after his first son, Abhi's opened in 1990 and soon developed a cult following who relished his lighter touch with new and interesting Indian dishes. A second restaurant, Aki's - named after his second son - opened on the Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo.

After recently dining at both Abhi's and Aki's, I was keen to find out more about the man behind the stove. Grab Your Fork asked him Ten Questions to find out more, including his advice for budding chefs and restauranteurs, Kumar's recipe for Goan fish curry and what he thinks of food blogs!

>> Don't forget to read to the end of the post to find out how you can win a $150 voucher to dine at Aki's, Woolloomooloo.

Kumar Mahadevan outside the Taj Intercontinental Hotel, Bombay
in 1980, where he completed his chef's apprenticeship

Ten Questions with Kumar Mahadevan, Head Chef and owner, Abhi's and Akhi's

1. What prompted you to become a chef?

My tongue! My taste for food – I have loved food since I was a child. I guess you could say I followed doing what I loved – and have been lucky enough to make a career out of it.

2. How much did food and cooking play a role in your childhood and upbringing? Is there a food or smell that instantly transports you back to your childhood?

It was an integral part of my early life. I have always loved food, my mother and grandma great cooks so I grew up around that and their passion for flavour and delicious food.

The ginger and tamarind chutney that we serve with our squid dish is in fact a childhood recipe. We also serve a sambar with the marsala dosa that is a traditional dish taken from my mother.

Chef Kumar in a 1980 newspaper ad for a product launch in India

3. You opened Abhi’s in 1990. What was that first menu like, and how has it evolved since then?

From day one, the Abhi’s menu was very different from the normal run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant. It was recognised as being revolutionary in the sense that it was so unlike the kind of Indian food around at the time – we had no samosas or the heavy kinds of dishes usually associated with Indian restaurants.

We were using contemporary techniques and dishes that no one had heard of before. I was brave enough to introduce new flavours and dishes right from the start – for example my Palaak Patta Chat - which has now become one of my signature dishes! The fish wrapped in banana leaf with mint chutney has also been on the menu since the beginning. I think this is why Abhi’s was so popular – people began to see Indian food like they had never seen it before.

Over the years, Abhi’s has grown and developed like a child, from infantry, toddler, and teen stages, and now proudly celebrating its 20th year. Abhi’s has changed with time, style, technology, decor, presentation and styling of food and service standards. As we have gained such a loyal following, our customers do not hesitate to try new things from the menu, which in turn has given me a greater license to introduce them to more bold and interesting flavours.

I am always trying to innovate and create modern dishes, bringing together Indian traditions with the most up-to-date contemporary techniques. I travel back to India regularly so that I know what is going on with the cuisine over there. And now there is so much more fresh produce and spices available to me, so I try to maximise the use of these as much as possible.

In the kitchen at the Iraq Sheraton Hotel in 1982

4. Your restaurants Abhi's and Aki's are named after your two sons. Do your sons have a good-natured rivalry about how each restaurant is doing?

No, not at all! The restaurants are quite different concepts so impossible to compare - just like my sons!

5. After twenty years in the business, have you noticed a shift in people’s palates for Indian cuisine or how they view dining out?

Definitely – people are now beginning to see that Indian can be a fine dining food rather than just a takeaway food. When I first began, there was a distinct lack of availability of ingredients, lack of variety of ingredients, lack of professionalism and professional Indian chefs. The cuisine was very basic and amateurish. As a result, it was regarded very much as a takeaway food rather than a fine cuisine to be enjoyed in a restaurant.

When Abhi’s opened, it was always a risk to introduce flavours and new dishes from different parts of India that had not been done before, but people accepted and enjoyed it to the extent that it gave me a challenge to keep research into the depth of Indian cuisine. This progressive process of education of Indian cuisine is validated by Abhi’s existence for 20 years.

Outside Mayur Restaurant, Sydney in 1985,
where Kumar first worked as in a Head Chef role

6. You appeared on MasterChef Australia, demonstrating the Madras prawn vendaki in the Friday night MasterChef MasterClass. What was that like?

It was great – I was so honoured that I was given the opportunity to appear. It was exciting to expose my food to a such a wide audience, and to show that Indian food can be a gourmet cuisine.

7. What do you know or think about food blogs? Have you noticed more people photographing their food in your restaurants?

I am often seeing my restaurants pop up on these blogs! I fully support food bloggers, it really shows the popularity of food and dining these days as an entertainment activity, and I think it is wonderful that people dedicate so much of their leisure time to it. I am constantly impressed by the standard of writing and photos on these blogs also – it goes to show you do not have to be a trained chef to impart worthwhile knowledge on food.

Kumar Mahadevan in the kitchen at Abhi's in 1990, when it first opened

8. Do you have a favourite spice?

I love using fennel and green cardamom.

9. What's your advice for people looking to become a chef or start their own restaurant?

Understand your own strengths, and also the market you are entering into – this is essential. Do some research, isolate your point of difference, and go forward from there.

10. And finally, many people are intimidated about cooking Indian food at home without using pre-packaged spices or sauces. What’s a simple recipe or dish people can create at home?

You definitely don’t need to use packet foods – this dulls the flavour of the cuisine and the spices. Indian recipes can be surprisingly simple. For example, my fish curry is very straightforward and a great one for winter.

Goan Fish Curry

800g fish steaks eg. sand whiting
200g fresh grated coconut
8 dried kashmiri chillies
1 tbls whole coriander seeds
6 cloves garlic
Half inch piece of ginger
1 tsp peppercorn
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric
I small onion, sliced
4 green chillies, slit
5 small wedges of kokum or 1 tablespoon tamarind power

  1. Rub the salt on the fish and keep aside for at least an hour.
  2. Make a fine, smooth paste of the following ingredients with water: grated coconut, chillies, coriander seeds, ginger, garlic, peppercorns, cumin seeds and turmeric powder.
  3. Combine the marsala paste with two tablespoons of oil and boil for 10 minutes over medium heat, while stirring frequently. Add sliced onions and then the required amount of water until it comes to the boil. Add the fish steaks and simmer until cooked.
  4. Add the slit green chillies, wedges of kokum or tamarind powder and salt.
  5. Cook gently for a few minutes until done.


Keen to try the food of Kumar Mahadevan? Thanks to this week's Freebie Friday, one lucky Grab Your Fork reader has the chance to win a lunch for two at Aki's Woolloomooloo.


Lunch for two at Aki's Woolloomooloo to the value of $150.

This voucher is valid for six months only. Aki's is open for lunch Sunday to Friday.

All you have to do is fulfil the requirements below:
  1. Leave a comment on this post and tell us: What's your favourite Indian dish? Or which dish at Aki's would you most like to try? Check out the Aki's post for details on some of the dishes available.
  2. And then send an email to grabyourforkfreebiefriday@yahoo.com.au with the subject heading "Aki's" and include your full name and a copy of your published comment from this post.

The winning entry will be decided on honesty, creativity or entertainment value. Don't be shy! You gotta be in it to win it! Readers may submit one entry per day as long as each answer is different.

The Aki's competition closes on Sunday 18 July 2010 at 5.30pm AEST. The winner will be announced on Grab Your Fork on Monday 19 July 2010.

EDIT: This competition has now closed. Congratulations to the winner announced here.

More Grab Your Fork competitions to enter:
(entries close Sun 4 July 2010)
(entries close Sun 11 July 2010)

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
36 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/02/2010 12:59:00 am


  • At 7/02/2010 3:38 am, Blogger SemiNumerica said…

    I love butter chicken. It is very pedestrian. But I love a GOOD butter chicken.

  • At 7/02/2010 8:43 am, Anonymous giovanna mazzella said…

    Hi Helen

    Love your website and we happen to be in Sydney this weekend. After reading your article, this Saturday's lunch will definitely be at Aki's .....it sounds fabulous!



  • At 7/02/2010 8:50 am, Anonymous Betty @ The Hungry Girl said…

    I love dipping naan bread into everything! I'd would love to try the palak patta chaat, because it looks like a rainbow mountain and it sounds delicious!! :D

  • At 7/02/2010 11:17 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A confession to make, Ive only eaten Indian in a food hall. It probably was a bit fake so please I need to dine at Aki’s to educate.

  • At 7/02/2010 11:34 am, Blogger Phuoc'n Delicious said…

    To tell you the honest truth. Indian food is not the cuisine on the top of my list of favourite cusines and one that I am not too familiar with. The reason being so is because I'm afraid that the food has been sitting around all day long (probably in the case of the indian outlets at food courts). However, I'm sure that this is a different case with restaurants. I would like to win this lunch for two to give myself an opportunity to sample good Indian food. I would love to try the Madras prawn vendakai dish because I love orka and it seemed very interesting when Kumar was making it on Masterchef.

  • At 7/02/2010 11:49 am, Blogger MelK said…

    My favourite Indian dish is Palak Paneer. Not only do I love the colour, but nobody else ever wants to eat it - so I can have it all to myself!

  • At 7/02/2010 11:56 am, Anonymous Michaela James said…

    I want to try the palak patta chaat. My daughter has recently become a vegetarian and I would love to take her to Aki's to try this dish.

  • At 7/02/2010 1:13 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Intriguing - I've never cooked a curry before that uses grated coconut instead of coconut milk or cream. The textural contrast must be rather nice! I'll have to bow out of entering this competition, though - sadly, Woolloomooloo is not an upcoming destination for this Canberra!

  • At 7/02/2010 1:23 pm, Blogger David said…

    Goan Fish Curry has always been my favourite Indian dish. Fishy, spicy, delicious. I have fond memories of long lunches eating this when my curry lunch mate Greg is visiting Sydney. But I have never cooked it! As a keen cook, I was delighted to find a recipe here, and will be giving it an outing soon. And Aki's is just a short stroll from my home, so I'm looking forward to a lunch there, soon!

  • At 7/02/2010 2:27 pm, Anonymous Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said…

    Despite being a devout carnivore, I love palak paneer, or spinach and Indian cottage cheese curry. The smoothness of the creamed spinach is amplified by the addition of cheese. Then there's the alluring vibrant green colour too. If that's on the menu, I always order it and I don't even complain there's no meat in it!

  • At 7/02/2010 2:31 pm, Anonymous Mel K said…

    I love Aki's, and am now keen to try Abhi's, as I hadn't previously known about it - thanks for a great interview/post. At Aki's, I am obsessed with the spinach chaat - I've steered dinners-with-friends there often just so I have an excuse to eat it!

  • At 7/02/2010 4:56 pm, Anonymous jR said…

    I'm feelin' the luurve for the goat to get through the cold nights.. (which can sound so wrong).. so, 1 vote for the "Patiala Goat Curry".

    :) ~mmbaa

  • At 7/02/2010 8:25 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Can't go past a really good masala dosai, though I prefer the nice big crispy ones - paper masala dosai, as it's sometimes called - to the smaller version, which is what you get at Abhi's (and presumably Aki's).

  • At 7/02/2010 11:11 pm, Anonymous Adrian @ Food Rehab said…

    Loved his comment as to why he became a chef 'My tongue!' LOL Great interview!

  • At 7/02/2010 11:54 pm, Anonymous E! said…

    Wow i'm so excited about this competition! I really want to visit Aki's, the food looks amazing!!

    My favourite Indian food has to be onion bhajis. My boyfriend introduced me to these a few weeks ago and they are sooooooo good! As for which dish at Aki's I would like to try the most, this is a difficult decision. I want to try everything! If I HAVE to narrow it down though, I'd like to try the Palak patta chaat. mmm deep-fried!

  • At 7/03/2010 7:06 am, Blogger amandajane said…

    Your photo of the Palak patta chaat looks amazing!! I love your blog. thanks.

  • At 7/04/2010 1:34 pm, Blogger Karina L said…

    I just love love LOOOOOVE butter chicken. It's cliched and typical but I just love the taste of the sweet buttery goodness.

  • At 7/04/2010 1:47 pm, Anonymous Andreas@MyGourmetFeast~> said…

    what a gorgeous post. nice job Helen :) I love Kumar, dining in his restaurant soon

    - Latest post : Interview with Peter Gilmore.

  • At 7/04/2010 9:08 pm, Blogger Unknown said…


    I love Indian food (I have done an Indian cooking class, and am doing some at home), but I would love to try Kumar's individual approach to Indian. I'd like to try all the vegetarian dishes (I'm eating for three) :)

  • At 7/04/2010 11:02 pm, Anonymous Peter said…

    Chicken Biriyani is the best indian dish. Especially when its packed full of spices and has tender succulent pieces of chicken throughout the rice. It also goes down particularly well with a nice cool mango lassi on a lazy summer's day!

  • At 7/05/2010 9:36 am, Anonymous Audz said…

    anything with deepfried spinach...you definately can't go wrong with that :D

  • At 7/05/2010 9:10 pm, Anonymous Johnathan said…

    Definitely mutton briyani. The refectory in my High School back in Singapore had an Indian stall that served a really good plate of it for $2. Haven't eaten briyani in the last 3 years since I came to Sydney though.

  • At 7/05/2010 9:28 pm, Anonymous Loz said…

    I'd love to try the Patiala goat curry at Aki's. When backpacking around India, as the guest I was bestowed with the honour of cutting the head off the goat for the meal, something I'd definitely never done before... but atleast I knew it was fresh!! It would be great to dine at Aki's on what looks like an amazing curry, and to not know the goat I'm about to eat!

  • At 7/06/2010 8:39 pm, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Thanks for sharing this! It's definately an eye opener for me, havn't had many Indian experience yet and that goat curry sounds absolutely tantalising, and I've never tried goat before so being able to go to Aki's to try it would be awesome!

  • At 7/08/2010 9:30 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The Patialia Goat Curry, Looks a definite try for me, But I also am impressed by the spinash Palak Patta Chaat dish, It looks delish !
    Judi Adams

  • At 7/08/2010 2:10 pm, Anonymous Anita said…

    I love love love paneer and when it is inside a nice crisp dosa I am in foodie heaven.

  • At 7/10/2010 5:34 pm, Blogger David said…

    Hi Helen - I entered the competion, above (7/02/2010 1:23 PM). And now I have cooked the Goan Fish Curry using Kumar Mahadevan's recipe that you provided!

    It made a great meal, which I really enjoyed cooking and eating.

    You can read about it on my cooking blog, here: http://cookinggene.blogspot.com/

  • At 7/12/2010 2:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Helen

    My favourite all time Indian dish is Dal Makhani. The first time I encountered it was is in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I fell in love with it and have had it many times since. I have recently started making it at home - just last week actually. It was pretty good the first time - but amazing the second time around. I'm thrilled to be able to replicate such a delicious dish at home.


  • At 7/13/2010 8:54 pm, Blogger Mango79 said…

    I would love to try Aki’s ‘Duck Milagu Masala’ because in my native region (South West of France) duck is the most popular meat (confit de canard) and I wish to discover this noble meat in a different context.

  • At 7/15/2010 1:11 pm, Anonymous Yummm said…

    I was born with a silver-plated spoon in my mouth which means I was always drawn to most expensive dishes on the menu though I didn't always get to order them. Kerala Lobster Moily. Hands down this would be the dish I want to try at Aki's. Meaty, succulent, melt in your mouth goodness. Oops. Just spilled some sauce on my blouse. No worries. I'll just lick it off.

  • At 7/16/2010 2:50 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Tandoori chicken gets my vote!

  • At 7/16/2010 2:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    mmmmm goan fish curry!!

  • At 7/16/2010 3:47 pm, Blogger The Pied Piper said…

    The prawn vendakai he produced on MasterChef looked mouthwatering on TV, I cooked it at home and it was even better...I can't imagine how could it would be to eat it at Chef Kumar's restaurant!!

  • At 7/16/2010 9:25 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm a vegetarian and I LOVE Rajma (red kidney bean curry): wholesome, tasty and very, very popular, Rajma tastes great even when served with just plain rice!

  • At 7/18/2010 10:24 pm, Blogger Tessa.t said…

    I love a crispy, flaky roti canai soaked in goat's curry,
    Enjoyed slow and warm when you're not in a hurry.
    I always use my fingers not my fork or my knife;
    Fingers lickin and lips smackin, that's the life!

  • At 7/21/2010 5:32 pm, Blogger AnonymousAngela said…

    When my Indian boyfriend saw Chef Kumar on MasterChef he remarked how he missed the lipsmackingly tasty street food of India like chaat, that are impossible to find here. Therefore the dish I would most like to try would be palak patta chaat. I can nearly taste each crisp besan-coated spinach leaf drenched in a rainbow of sweet, refreshing tangy sauces!!


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