Who are Sanjay and Sunita Kumar? We’re the chefs and co-owners of Daana Indian restaurant in Curtin.
Best recent dining experience: Morning Glory in New Acton. We sat outdoors and loved the freshness and greenery around us. Their sumptuous chicken burger was cooked perfectly. We also love every family’s favourite spot – Snapper on the Lake at the Yacht Club in Yarralumla – for its ambience and, of course, the sinful fish and chips. It’s nothing fancy, but the fried fish and seafood is oh so good! The other place we like as a family is Belluci’s in Woden for its great spaghetti alla marinara.
Most embarrassing pantry item: Given that Daana’s food is loved by so many families and kids, it’s embarrassing that our two kids would rather have the ready-made mac and cheese and instant noodles that you’ll find in our pantry at home.
Must-buy ingredient: Green cardamom. We use this spice in so many of our dishes, and love the flavours and aroma it imparts. Also, fresh herbs, cumin and green chillies for food that is hot and packed with flavour.
Next big thing: A lot more people are going back to their roots – more homely, rustic food, with earthy flavours. Growing our own food and becoming more sustainable is also becoming more popular. At Daana, we are exploring how we can use our unique location to grow some of the ingredients for our menu – if not farm to plate, it can at least be from restaurant garden to plate.
Favourite place for breakfast in the ACT: Coffee Café in Phillip ticks the boxes – it’s neat and clean, close to work, has a nice and easy menu to choose from, and owner Lucky offers great service. Their croissant sandwiches are really good. Also, Stand By Me cafe in Lyons. They have amazing and quirky French toasts.
My Canberra food secret: When we started using Australian native herbs and spices, we met Fiona Porteous from Bent Shed Produce, who specialises in native Australian ingredients, including herbs, spices and berries. It is really great to see some of the stuff she has, and we’re still learning about herbs we’ve never heard of before. Two other enthusiastic and enterprising women are Amrita Burman and Manjula Mishra, who have started a food business called Simply Lentils from their home. They sell online and also at local markets. Their aim is to make cooking lentils accessible and fun for Australians of all ages.
Biggest culinary influence: Sanjay: My maternal grandfather was a wedding caterer and his specialty was Indian sweets – he was a true master. I remember watching him planning his work and taking care of his team. Sunita: My grandmother and my dad loved to feed people – I think my love for food and cooking comes from my dad. There are many professionals who have influenced us too, in particular Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star, and the late Floyd Cardoz. Their love of showcasing regional cuisine in a fun and vibrant way was inspiring.
Favourite cookbook: A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey. It is an old book, but it takes you on a journey through India – following its history and culture, with pictures and some beautiful narratives on the regional cuisines. Also, Tarla Dalal’s New Indian Vegetarian Cookery, a cherished book gifted to me (Sunita) in 1988 by an aunt who saw my love for cooking early on and encouraged me to explore my passion. It was my first cookery book and I still go back to it occasionally.
Who I admire on the Canberra food and wine scene: Chef Nikhil Jain from the Canberra Convention Centre and Chef Christophe Gregoire from Le Tres Bon in Bungendore. Both are known for their work in their own unique spaces. Chef Nikhil helped us with large-volume catering, and Chef Gregoire helped us understand cooking with truffles. Both were so generous with their advice. Also, Chef AK at XO in Narrabundah for the passion and creativity reflected in all his menus … clean, distinct, authentic yet innovative and contemporary, which is a tough combination to crack! And Frankie Bodel from Necessity Kitchen. It is amazing to see how passionate she is about her breadmaking and how she pivoted during lockdown to sourdough starter kits – a brilliant from idea to execution.
What’s on the menu this week: Our popular India-inspired cocktail range, which we call ‘Inditails’, has some lovely concoctions. The house favourite is Tamaritini, with tamarind and Canberra Gin.
Death row meal: Sanjay: I love simple food, so it would be rajma chawal – spiced red kidney bean curry with steamed rice and ghee and onion salad. Sunita: South Indian soul/comfort food wins hands down. I’d have tomato rasam (a tangy broth), overcooked soggy rice, okra peratal (peppery stir-fried okra) and pappadams.
Our COVID-19 response: During shutdown, we introduced weekly take-home menus, ready-to-use spice blends and frozen basic curries. All were really popular and it meant we could retain our staff on a rotation basis, which was important for us as a small family business. Sanjay also did all the deliveries and got to meet so many of our guests at their homes. We are now working on a new business line, Daana’s Pantry, and hope to launch it soon.
Our really simple recipe tip: This is an easy Indian marinade for chicken or vegetables (capsicum, mushroom, corn on the cob, zucchini, onion, tomatoes) that packs a lot of flavour, especially when you are short of time. Blend or grind one cup of coriander leaves, one cup of mint leaves, one green chilli, half an inch of ginger and 2-3 cloves of garlic, then mix in 1-2 tbsp of lemon juice, 3-4 tbsp of yoghurt, half a teaspoon of chilli powder or smoked paprika and salt to taste. Use this to marinate about 400 g of chicken thigh or 300 g of mixed vegetables. Serve the grilled chicken or veggies with rice, bread or roti. It can be eaten for brekkie, lunch, evening snacks, in a sandwich or for a late supper!
Daana Indian restaurant offers Bhoj experiences – traditional thali plates featuring a different regional cuisine – every Friday and Saturday. In May, the restaurant will celebrate its 200th menu with an ‘India on a Plate’ series, in which each of the 29 Indian regions will be featured at least once on the Bhoj menu that month. To learn more, visit Daana.