Meet a man who turns to his faith to whip up dishes that delight beyond expectations. Afia R Fitriati finds out how the business of halal food is keeping Chef Akber Ali busy these days.
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Some youngsters dream of becoming doctors or lawyers. Others imagine themselves as actors or musicians. Chef Akber Ali carved out a culinary career during his childhood. At the tender age of 10, the Singapore-born chef began working at a restaurant while schooling to support his family. Entering adulthood, he opened a food kiosk selling roti prata (fried Indian flatbread), one of Singapore’s signature dishes, using his savings.
‘I believe I’ve had culinary passion infused in my blood since the day I was born,’ Chef Akber Ali says.
His entrepreneurial venture sparked an interest to further his culinary studies; after three years he sold off his business and stepped into the hospitality industry as chef de partie at Gardemanger Kitchen. A couple of years later, he was headhunted to work at the Raffles Hotel, one of the finest in the city-state, and became a protégé of Peter Knipp, a prominent chef. Chef Akber Ali’s impressive resume also includes several achievements, such as Asia Pacific’s Outstanding Chef of the Year in 1998. Nevertheless, Chef Akber Ali views his profession in a more spiritual light.
‘My culinary profession is purely for the deep love towards the most complex creation of Allah: humankind,’ he says. ‘Anywhere in the world there are always people to be fed. This is where I come in, with this unique God-given knowledge on culinary techniques and methodologies.’
Lately, Chef Akber Ali has been a fervent evangelist of halal food. In Singapore, he serves as chairman to the Singapore Halal Culinary Federation, an organisation that aims to share and spread knowledge of halal food. He also wears a hat as a culinary advisor to the Health Promotion Board of Singapore to promote and disseminate food preparation techniques to foodservice operators. Earlier this year, he was chosen to be a keynote speaker at the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) in Daejeon, Korea. He used the opportunity to speak about the principles of halal food.
- One whole chicken (approx. 1.4kg or 3.1lbs), cleaned and cut into 8 pieces
- 2 carrots (approx. 450g or 1lb), diced
- 250gm or 0.55lbs mango, diced
- 3 large shallots, thinly sliced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- A handful of celery leaves
- Salt to taste
Sauté all these ingredients in olive oil until the shallots turn golden yellow
- 7 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 large shallots, thinly sliced
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 inches galangal, crushed
- 5 cardamom seeds
- 5 star anise
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- In a container, mix the chicken with the powdered spices and salt. Leave in the fridge for 15-20 minutes
- Add the chicken and tomatoes into the sautéed ingredients. Stir slowly until fragrant
- Add water, mango and carrots. Reduce the heat and let boil for 7 minutes until the tomatoes are wilted
- Add celery leaves, stir, and let simmer until the sauce thickens
- Serve with French bread or chapatti (flat unleavened Indian bread)
- 1.5kg or 3.3lbs veal ribs (cut into 15 pieces)
- 2 coconuts, grated and squeezed to make approx. 120ml or 4oz concentrated coconut milk
- 1 calamondin (calamansi) or lemon, squeezed
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 pandan leaves, tied into a knot
- Beef stock
- 4 tablespoons of ghee or oil
- Salt, to taste
- 10 dried chillies
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- A handful of mint leaves
- A handful of coriander leaves
- 2 inches ginger
- 2 inches turmeric
- 5 cloves garlic
- 16 small shallots
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 15 almonds
- Add water into the concentrated coconut milk to make 250ml or 8.5oz of diluted coconut milk
- Heat the ghee (or oil) in a pan and sauté the milled ingredients until fragrant
- Add meat and salt, and stir fry for another 5 minutes
- Add the coconut milk little by little until it mixes well (save a little coconut milk for the next step). Cook until the meat is tender
- Add the remaining bit of coconut milk. Cover the pan and let the dish simmer slowly over a small flame until the sauce thickens and the oil from the coconut milk separates. Continue to stir, and do not let the dish bubble after adding the coconut milk
- Pour in the lime or lemon juice and leave for 5 minutes. Sprinkle fried shallots and celery leaves on top
- Serve hot with white Basmati rice
‘The reason why I chose this topic is to diffuse major misconceptions about halal food and to help Muslims in Western countries, who have been misguided into believing that the food they eat is truly from halal sources,’ he says.
Chef Akber Ali believes that halal food culture is the basis of a sustainable future. During his presentation to the WACS congress, he went into detail to explain the realm of halal food. Its definition, he said, isn’t restricted to food that contains haram (forbidden) ingredients like pork products, alcohol, or meat from improperly slaughtered animals. The definition of halal food, he explained, also encompasses a safe, healthy and sustainable food production process. For example, sustainably halal meats should come from healthy, well-nourished and stress-free animals that are raised in sustainable farms. These animals, when slaughtered properly according to Islam, not only produce meats that are superior in nutritional content, but also taste better, he argues.
‘The health of the ecosystem and the vitality of the animal create healthy and delicious meat,’ he says, adding that a study to measure animals’ pain levels from slaughtering methods concluded that the halal way was the most humane.
While championing halal food, in his day-to-day life Chef Akber Ali is constantly busy with various professional positions and representations in the culinary world. These days, he is settling himself into a fresh role as culinary advisor at Mamanda, the latest, most stylish Malay restaurant in Singapore. And although he is always on the lookout for new opportunities, he insists that his chef hat will remain firmly atop his head.
‘Like a doctor, whatever position in an organisation he might hold, as a professor, CEO or researcher, his skill set will still be there. And it’s the same with being a chef. No matter the title or post I’m sitting on,’ he concludes, ‘I will always be a chef.’
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 Happy New You Issue of Aquila Style magazine. You can read the entire issue free of charge on your iPad or iPhone via the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone via Google Play