by Anjum Choudhry Nayyar
Whether you’re South Asian or not – bland is always boring, and spicing it up is key to a good meal. I know this because I eat those meals. But ummm, I’m not so great at creating those meals. But there’s one man who has made it his mission to crusade against blandness and mediocre food.
Enter Chef Ali Hassan. As a young boy, he told his mother he hated her Kraft Singles and tomato sandwiches and she yelled back that he could make his own if he was going to “act like a jackass”. The next day he made his first feta and olive omelet sandwich. It was a disgusting, soggy mess. But the seed had been planted.
That seed turned into his own online cooking channel called “Bland is Boring”. The show is a delicious web creation of food blogs, how-to’s, recipes and webisodes all hosted by Hassan. Chef Ali has been cooking for friends, family and clients for the last 20 years. Ali is not just a chef, he’s also a stand-up comedian and actor, who’s latest film was “Breakaway” starring Rob Lowe and Russell Peters.
“I used to come to Toronto and do stand-up and stay with my friend Rohit,” said Hassan. “I would see that he would have horrible excuses for food in his fridge and I would tell him that a grown man should not live like that. So he would take my abuse in the spirit in which it was meant. I guess all my abuse didn’t have the effect I thought it was. I thought he would change, and he would start cooking for himself no instead it was the complete opposite. He told me ‘we should record this, this is good! When you come here and abuse me and teach me how to make things. I think other people can use this.”
One year later, they now have videos and recipes on the site. Ali who is now married with children says he keeps recipes simple and family friendly.
“The basic thing about the recipes is that I make things I love to make,” said Hassan, who also once owned a Malaysian restaurant in his past. “I used to teach Mediterranean classes and Indian cooking classes.”
As a dad, he says he doesn’t believe in giving his kids choice. “Choice? What is choice? We didn’t have choices when we were kids Your mom (or dad from time to time) made food and you were expected to eat it. That’s my cooking philosophy at home. They don’t have to eat a lot, but my kids have to try everything.”
Planning ahead is key, Hassan says.
“I’m no expert on parenting but to not plan ahead and to think it will all come together when you get home is a mistake. That leads to just doing whatever is easiest, often frozen pre-made foods. I’ve also noticed the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ concept in the kitchen. If things are in front of kids, it’s so much easier for them to eat it.” He’s referring in particular to fruits and vegetables, and not cakes and cookies, although the philosophy applies there too.
Ali says he finds much of his inspiration from familiar dishes.
“I was at a restaurant in Chicago with a friend and I asked the waiter, ‘what are the quesadillas like?’ He replied, ‘they’re good as hell!’ and we looked at each other and decided to order them. With that kind of recommendation, how could we not! Sadly he came back with basically mozzarella cheese and wilted spinach, like saag with zero flavour! They were the worst quesadillas ever.”
CLICK HERE FOR “BLAND IS BORING” EPISODE ON MAKING QUESADILLAS.
Inspired by that horrible meal, he now makes his own quesadillas adding his own flavour to them. He adds roasted chicken, with mango, red onion, fresh coriander and a homemade salsa. He says his South Asian roots play a role in his cooking.
“My dad had heart disease in the 90s and my mom had high blood pressure. So in the Hassan house there was an overhaul in the kitchen. So – no spice, no salt and no oil or fat. My food went from exciting to really bland in literally a few weeks.” Hassan said that’s when he started searching for other recipes and options. He would cook with his friends’ mothers and grandmothers.
“You’re able to watch me make a meal in 5 minutes, I do the prep beforehand. The goal is to demystify cooking and make it more accessible and plausible. I get a lot of gratification from people who make my recipes and say they did it themselves. Online you can engage with people and I get to do it in a fun and engaging way.”
For more on the show and Hassan visit: http://blandisboring.com/about-bland-is-boring/
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