If you've heard of 'Haute Sauce', then you've definitely heard of Ambika Rajgopal, the lady behind the artisanal hot sauce that's currently firing up Dubai's taste buds. We caught up with her at her apartment in Downtown Dubai to talk about her roots, love for art & fine food and why Dubai's culinary scene is like no other. Towards the end, Ambika shares one of her favorite recipes with Haute Sauce - a Thai peanut noodle soup.
Q: What do you do when you're not making Haute Sauce?
Ambika: I studied contemporary art theory in London and then moved to Germany to work in an art gallery that specialized in modern and contemporary European art, where I worked on expanding their Indian art network. After that, I returned to London where I worked at galleries and auction houses, before starting to write for art publications. I wrote for Aesthetica, Freize, Art Asia Pacific and the Asian Art Newspaper, among others. My focus while writing was very strongly on Asian art. I also worked very closely with a Korean curator and got a chance to work with a lot of artists with her - so a very strong focus on Korean art. I moved to Dubai in 2016 and am currently working in the curatorial department of Sharjah Art Foundation.
Q: What made you gravitate towards art?
Ambika: My father is an art collector. He's a surgeon by profession but many moons ago; he had operated on a patient who was an artist. This particular artist also happened to be one of India's most prolific ones. As a gesture of gratitude, post the operation; he gifted my dad a painting that sparked the beginning of an almost four-decade-long affair with art in him. Now, he has a significant collection of artworks from some notable Indian artists. He's very fond of the Bengal School of Art and has a few standalone works by other artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall and George Grosz.
Art is what I've seen and what I've known from a young age and it embedded itself deeply into my subconscious. I'm no artist, but I think in my family, all of us have a very strong leaning towards the arts. Of course, I work in the Arts, but I also play the piano and I've been very closely involved with music. My brother and dad also both play the piano and my dad in addition also plays the harmonica and is part of a band. My mother's a huge appreciator of Western classical music and took me to so many recitals while I was growing up. We have always had artists and musicians as visitors in our home.
Q: How did you develop a love for food?
Ambika: My love for food is definitely from my mother's side of the family. My maternal grandmother published a cookbook at the age of 83 - it was such a labour of love. She had been writing recipes throughout her life in a notebook for her own personal reference. When my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, we decided to collate these recipes into a cookbook to take my grandmother's mind off things and this became a great big family project. It really got our family together. All of us added in different elements - I did some of the photography, my aunt did some of the editing, my cousin some of the texts.
Eventually my grandfather passed away, but we released the book on his birthday as a way of remembering him and his deep love for food. I firmly believe my grandfather served as my lead into food because he was just such a great eater! He couldn't cook to save his life, but he had such a way of appreciating the subtlety and nuances of the food he ate.
I feel like I found my love for food much later in life. When you're living with family, you're not really as involved in what to make for dinner, as you would be when you live by yourself. I think it's only when I moved to London, did I take a very active interest in what I was going to eat. It’s only here that I started craving and running after food the way I do today. A part of it was homesickness. If I craved samosas at home; I could just ask my mother to make them for me. But that was not possible in London. If I went to the Indian restaurant in my neighborhood, the samosas would be awful!
For me food is more than just sustenance. Food is memories; it’s recollections. The mere smell of food from your childhood has the magical ability to transport you to a different time and place in your life. I realized, in London, there was a need to create my own recollections and food memories and create what I'm craving because they didn’t exist at that time in that place. Cooking is not just throwing things together hoping it'll work out. There's a lot of technique and nuances to making tastes come together, understanding flavors,. That took me some time to figure out. I messed up so many times before I was able to say - this is a dish I want to eat.
But I also think, understanding flavors is something that's very inherent - it's something that you're born with. When I'm cooking, I don't use recipes or cookbooks as I never tend to stick to them. I like to say recipes inspire me but I am unable to follow them to a T.
Q: Tell us about the culmination of your 'Haute Sauce'.
Ambika: Haute Sauce was completely incidental. I couldn't find the hot sauce that I used to buy in the supermarket anymore. All the other options available were chock full of stabilizers and additives and ended up tasting unnatural. So I ended up finding some habaneros and made my own hot sauce for my own personal use. I gave it to some friends to try and they ended up giving it to some of their friends and it just kind of grew out of that. Before I knew it, I was getting people saying 'Can you make us some?' The Original was literally a combination of ingredients that I added for the first time - it was a really happy accident that worked from day one. I think it goes back to what I was talking about – an innate understanding of flavors and knowing what combination works. But the rest of the Haute Sauces – Puckering (Raw Mango and Habanero) and Mellowing (Bird’s Eye Chillies) - took me some time to get right.
I think that Haute Sauce has become my creative outlet and the canvas on which I unleash all of my energy. I have to start every single day with Original Haute Sauce and eggs as part of my breakfast. And I think that’s the crux of it. Don’t ever sell anything that you’re not obsessed with.
Q: What do you think of Dubai's culinary scene?
Ambika: : I think, in Dubai, we are spoilt for choice. If I want to eat Ethiopian or Afghani food, there are a plethora of options that exist. And it's great. There's more representation and diversity in the foodscape here than, say, in other metropolitan cities.
The foundation of so many of my friendships and relationships here have been through food. I feel really privileged to be a part of this food community in Dubai, where there's so much love for food and understanding flavors.
AMBIKA's Thai Peanut Noodle Soup
2 carrots diced roughly
100 grams babycorn diced
100 grams sugar snap peas halved
200 grams button mushrooms sliced
1.5 teaspoons Thai red curry paste
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon Original Haute Sauce
1 can full fat coconut milk
1 cup Brown rice noodles
Toppings: (Quantities as per your individual preference)
Finely chopped Bird's eye chillies
Dry roasted peanuts
Dry roasted finely minced garlic
Finely chopped coriander
Soft boiled egg cooked for 3 minutes (optional)
- Add oil to the pot and heat on medium high heat.
- Once the oil has heated add in the Thai curry paste. Add in your vegetables and give it a good stir.
- Add a bit of boiled water to ensure your veggies don’t burn. Add peanut butter and salt. Give it a vigorous mix until the peanut butter mixes with the water to form a thick slurry. Add in a bit more water if it’s too thick.
- Add your Original Haute Sauce. You can adjust the amount according to how spicy you like it. Add some more hot water and give it a good stir.
- Cover the saucepan and wait for 5-6 minutes until the veggies are tender.
- Add in coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Next add in rice noodles to the soup and cook for 3-4 minutes until the noodles are done.
- At this stage you can add in more water if you prefer the soup to be more liquid.
- Add the toppings of lime slices ,chopped coriander, dry roasted peanuts and garlic. You can add more chillies if, like me, you like it hot. A 3 minute soft boiled egg is optional but delicious.