Opheem is a new Birmingham restaurant that reflects the heritage and upbringing of chef Aktar Islam, says Neil Gerrard
A ktar Islam doesn’t beat around the bush when describing his new Birmingham restaurant,which opened last month.
“Opheem is me,” he declares.
The former chef-director of restaurant company Lasan Group, Islam is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants and worked in his father’s restaurant as a young boy before eventually partnering with friend Jabbar Khan in 2002.
An appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s TV show The F Word shot Islam to prominence in 2009 when Lasan was the first Indian restaurant to win ‘best local restaurant’ in the series.
The fame helped Islam and Khan expand, and Islam’s culinary knowledge of other cultures aided a number of openings, from Argentine Fiesta Del Asado to Indian street food venue Raja Monkey and North American Nosh & Quaff (since transformed into Jailbird).
But last year, Islam decided to leave Lasan Group and start his own venture. The thirst for knowledge that had led him to explore other cuisines prompted him to question Indian food, and Islam had come to feel Lasan Group was “stifling my passion”.
The idea for Opheem formed while Islam was reading Ni’matnama, a late 15th-century book featuring the recipes of the Sultan of Mandu, Ghiyath Shah. In culinary terms, the period was something of a riot and Islam was struck by how avant garde the chefs of the era were. Not only was each region run by groups descended from Turks, Persians, the Mongols and Indians from Tamil Nadu, trade was also bringing European, African, Arabian and Chinese influences.
Islam points out, for example, that two core ingredients in today’s Indian food – tomatoes and chilli – came from South America, while biryani was introduced by the Persians.
“These guys took influences from everyone. So why has Indian food been sidelined to this weekly staple of a bowl of meat or vegetables suspended in an onion-based sauce?,” he asks.
Hence, Opheem is all about exploring India’s culinary heritage and moving it on a level. Take Islam’s akbari dopiaza (£19) as an example. ‘Dopiaza’, traditionally chicken or meat in an onion sauce, means ‘onion twice’, he explains. “We have taken it to the next step.”
The bird is broken down into parts: the legs and thighs are marinated and cooked over charcoal in the tandoori oven, while the breasts, which dry out more easily, are cooked separately, wrapped in the bird’s fat. Trim from the bird is turned into shish kebabs, with an onion-based chicken gravy from the carcass.
Taking up the idea of “onion twice”, Islam has brought other members of the onion family into play, adding slowly roasted leeks and a leek oil, as well as shallots roasted in lemon.
Elsewhere, he has created his own take on vindaloo (£20), exploring modern-day misconceptions about the dish.
“Traditional vindaloo is cooked with pork, wine and garlic. People think ‘aloo’ means ‘potato’ but it’s actually from the Portuguese word for ‘garlic’,” he explains.
Islam takes traditional vindaloo spices (garlic, chilli, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and star anise) and pickles them for several days in rice wine vinegar, which is turned into a paste and sweetened with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar).
The pork loin is paired with smoked ham hock and trotter, as well as heritage carrots, which Islam contends go well with star anise. Islam has also made allowances with a “traditional” section, featuring a classic bhuna with mutton and jalfrezi with chicken. The variety seems to have worked: the 68-cover restaurant is fully booked “for the foreseeable future”.
When it comes to desserts, he is back to offering twists on Indian cuisine, including his take on the traditional Bengali dessert rasmalai, which generally consists of dumplings made of milk curd immersed in a milk syrup. In doodh odisha (£7), he has come up with different ways of using milk by preparing a milk sorbet, milk skin, granité and a yogurt shard.
And then there’s a dish that Islam happily admits isn’t Indian at all – Wigmore cheese with cardamom honey and figs.
“It’s on the menu because I like cheese,” he explains. “That is what Opheem is about. It is food that harks back to my heritage, but I was brought up in Birmingham and I am a product of modern society. It is all about the experience.”
48 Summer Row, Birmingham B3 1JJ
From the menu
- Parai (Goa): Fjord trout, cumin and pomegranate crust, Tokyo turnip £9.95
- Kukkut (Punjab): Goosnargh chicken, basil, coriander, marinated heritage tomato £10
- Allepy (Kerala): Cornish turbot, sabji, choi sum, tempered coconut milk, mango £21
- Qormah (Rajput): Roasted Norfolk quail, confit leg pakora, wild garlic couscous, fennel qormah braising liquor £19
- Bhuna gosht: Mutton, slow-cooked with whole spices in reduced onion sauce £16.95
- Palak paneer £13.95
- Chai (Bengal): Parfait, roasted pineapple, coconut sorbet £7
- Firni (Bengal): Bengali rice pudding, Yorkshire rhubarb, basil £7