When I tucked into my epic meal from Aktar Islam – he of Opheem and Pulperia fame – I thought by the time I wrote about it there wouldn’t be much point because everything would be back to normal. After all, why would you want to try to mimic restaurant food at home when we’d all be back in restaurants?
As with so many things in life, I was wrong.
And while there may be a small light at the end of the tunnel for some restaurants, the way we do food has undoubtedly changed forever. We may have thought ‘dine at home’ kits and restaurant food at home was but a short chapter that would close before the end of 2020 but it seems it’s here to stay.
Whether that’s because some restaurants still can’t open their doors, or because it’s a good way of supplementing the business of a sit-down establishment, for plenty of places across the country this avenue is now a permanent fixture. And while the circumstances that saw it start are awful, there are some benefits.
After all, when in the past have you been able to enjoy a meal from a restaurant across the country without leaving the house, or finally taste the handiwork of a chef you’ve admired from afar, even if it’s not quite the same as the full restaurant experience?
We tried Aktar at Home back in the summer but lucky for you, it’s here to stay and remains widely lauded by people whose opinion matters far more than mine. It was always a given that anything produced by Aktar, who continues to wow even the harshest of food critics with his endless talents, would be great. Just read any review of Opheem and you’ll see what I mean.
The concern, however, was that when it was left to me to execute the final stages of the meal it would render any preparation by his team null and void, given my ability to ruin even the simplest of meals. Fortunately, the at-home offering is carefully designed so even an idiot like me can’t mess it up, making it the perfect way to enjoy his food if you can’t actually make it to the restaurant.
We started with samosas and pakoras, prepped so all they needed was deep-frying – something that puts the fear of god into me and is usually left to Jamie. But since he was absent, I armed myself with a fire blanket and braved a pan of hot oil.
Obviously it was fine, turning out golden triangles of crispy, spice-filled pastry and delicate pakoras served up with more refined versions of the chutneys and raita you’re used to tucking into with your Indian takeaway.
The starters were good, but the main event is something my mum and I still wax lyrical about months on. While the Aktar at Home offering usually offers a whole range of different curries, we picked the week where the main was Sikandari Raan to celebrate Aktar’s success on Great British Menu.
A marinated leg of lamb that could easily have served a full banquet of guests, it proved another nerve-wracking experience to make sure I didn’t ruin it, but I’m told by the man himself that I did it right (he may have been humouring me but I’m taking it).
Tender lamb, infused with the spices it had been marinated in, and caramelised on the outside to make for a rich, potent flavour, it’s the kind of meat you can grow an extra stomach for. Or alternatively eat for several days in a row, which is what we did.
The spiced pumpkin side dish it came with was sweet and fresh, while cauliflower with shallots and nigella seeds added a sultry smokiness. Dhal Makhni, one of my favourites, was a creamy delight that elicits the almost-automatic shoulder-shrug of delight that comes with only the most satisfying of dishes. And the pilau rice somehow turned out as light and fluffy as if it had been cooked fresh in their kitchen that night, rather than being shipped across the country and reheated. A feat in and of itself.
I’m not an expert in Indian food. I can barely master simple flavours, let alone the complexity and nuance that comes with balancing spices and ensuring they enhance the foods they are cooked with and add to rather than overpowering them. But I know when something is good, and this food is indisputably some of the best out there.
It’s no surprise that a kitchen that gained a Michelin star so early into its life is turning out amazing food. But to do so in a way that allows it to be packaged up and finished off at home, whilst still retaining that complex, undiluted flavour, perfect texture and all-round excellence is no mean feat.
It’s also an absolute bargain. At £70-85 for a meal that easily feeds four – or two for several meals – it’s one of the best value meals at home out there.
Thank goodness it seems here to stay.
[Disclosure – I paid in full for my Aktar at Home box earlier this year]