FR Thanksgiving Interview: Aliya LeeKong
Across the universe with the enchanting chef
Aliya LeeKong is one of our favorite chefs in NYC, which is why we asked her to stop by the Food Republic Test Kitchen & Interview Lounge last month, to talk turkey and more. This is the same Aliya LeeKong who we hit up this past spring to teach us how to make chaat, a delicious, crunchy Indian snack that would actually, come to think of it, be a good way to spice up your Thanksgiving hors d'oeuvres spread.
The culinary creative director at the excellent upscale NYC Indian restaurant Junoon — where Vikas Khanna is executive chef — is currently working on a cookbook, Exotic Table, that will play up her multi-ethnic roots: She's an Indian chef with Middle Eastern and African parents, and a thoroughly American background that includes growing up in the shadows of Disney World and attending Brown and Columbia Universities.
She's also really cool, which is why, after reading her take on Thanksgiving, you may be hitting her up on Twitter to ask for an invitation to dinner at her house! (Though it's worth noting, guys: Sorry, she's married.)
Turkey Time: What is your single pro tip for cooking a turkey for over eight people?
I did a heritage turkey this [past] time around, and I could talk about Thanksgiving forever because it’s my favorite holiday! Number one: brine it. I brine it the day before for eight hours, take it out and put it on a rack, uncovered, and let the skin completely dry out overnight. I like the skin to be super-duper dry in time to go into the oven, because that means you get crisp turkey that is still really moist. Also, butter under the skin. I did truffle butter last year.
I got the discount [laughs]. I laid it completely under the skin everywhere and it was phenomenal.
How many people did you cook for?
12. Plus a little child, so 12 and a half.
What is your favorite side dish that no one would think about?
When I was in South Africa a couple of years ago, I ate this dish called bobotie. I think of it like a South African shepherd’s pie: it’s with ground beef or lamb that is cooked with curry spices. There is a huge Arab influence in South Africa. They cook it down with curry spices, along with vinegar and apricot jam. You’ve got this sweet, tart, spicy thing going on. That’s the first layer and then they do an egg custard on top. I do that individually and in ramekins, so that instead of a thick, frittata layer of egg, I get like a soft cover.
And that'll be in your new cookbook?
How's your cookbook coming along?
My half-manuscript was due today actually!
Whoa. Are you going to meet the deadline?
Yeah [laughs]. It’s basically pulling from all of my travels and cultural experiences. My family is Indo-Pakistani and East African, from Tanzania. My husband’s family is from Trinidad, by way of Hong Kong, which is why my last name is LeeKong. I take everything and put it together in a way that I think makes sense for a home cook in the U.S. It’s taking exotic influences and putting them together. Last night, I braised West Indian–style oxtail, shredded it, and did a ragout for a pasta.
As a home cook, what is a tip to stay organized so that you are not overwhelmed in the kitchen?
Whatever day you have a couple hours – whether it’s a Sunday or if you’re off on a Tuesday or Wednesday – use that as wisely as possible. Well, first, get a label maker and label everything.
Especially spices, right?
Yeah. All of my spices are labeled and dated.
When buying a turkey, what is most important? You said that you used a heritage turkey — what was your experience like cooking with it?
It took a heck of a lot longer than I expected it to cook. It took longer than your typical one-hour, whatever per each pound. It’s not often that you’re roasting a whole turkey and you get to try it out. I happened to try it out that day because I figured I’d just keep checking the temperature. There was a good hour-and-a-half where we were all like, “Is this going to cook?”
How would you take one thing from Thanksgiving and spin it into a great leftover dish?
I shred the turkey, with skin, mix it with some gravy and leftover vegetables, pack the mashed potatoes on top and a little bit of puff pastry. I wrap it and freeze it and have little mini pot pies.
How do you shred it?
Just by hand.
What do you use for your shell?
Well, that is my shell. I don’t do a whole puff pot pie, but I use ramekins and stuff the mashed potatoes down. I always do individual portions because sometimes at night, you don’t want to take out a casserole. I love casseroles for Thanksgiving – they are kind of synonymous.
It seems like you’re traveling a fair amount. What is one of the most recent places you have been to and what was your experience like?
This year, I went to Peru, Brazil and Chile. For me, Peru was one of the most outstanding places. I visited from a culinary perspective. There is a huge focus on food and there is so much biodiversity and so many climatic differences across the country, that you see such different food in different regions. I travel a lot and go into markets all the time. This was the first time that I was like, “What’s this?” and “Can I eat this right here?” I was tasting things out of the market and taking chili peppers and having everyone eyeing me to see if I was going to freak out and just trying to take it calmly. It was a really fun trip and I learned so much. It’s a phenomenal cuisine.
What are some other places that you have visited over the past few years? Do you have any favorite cities?
Turkey is very cool because it’s a complete mash-up. They are very hardcore about their food and traditions: their olive oils, cheeses, the sort of artisanal processes are still very much there. I loved it – the markets were phenomenal to go into and it was very much like the French AOC designations. Everything is labeled by the city where it’s made and which area has the best — like the grape leaves from Tokat are the best, those kinds of things. You get a bit of a view of the geography by seeing where everything comes from.
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