May 3, 2018
We’re big fans of Indian food, and the spicier end of Asian cuisine in general. It’s thus disappointing to report that this aspect of the dining scene in Ljubljana remains rather undeveloped, although more due to a lack of local demand for heat than the efforts of providers, as a growing number of cooks, chefs and entrepreneurs are working to expand the capital’s food offering, in the face of a high possibility of failure and little pay-off for their efforts, no matter how good or “authentic”’ the dishes on the menu.
All photographs of the food by Ziauddin Ahmed
One Indian restaurant, among several, that still manages to produce far better curries than we can make at home is to be found in the unlikely location of the Hotel Park. Here, not far from cultural quarter that’s home to the Ethnographic Museum, the smaller branch of the Moderna galerija and Metelkova, you’ll find an Indian menu alongside the standard one in the hotel restaurant. It seems out of place and unpromising, but prospective guests don’t need to worry. This is not a gimmick based on a few jars of “curry powder” or bottled sauces, or one cook’s summer spent dancing in Goa, but a serious project led by a serious chef, Mr Ziauddin Ahmed.
After having enjoyed several meals with friends and family we finally got in touch with Ziauddin the other week, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his life and work here, so far away from home.
How did you end up in Ljubljana?
I’m from Kolkata, West Bengal. I did my master’s degree in the hotel industry. After that I got a job in a five-star super-deluxe hotel, the Hyatt Regency Kolkata. So I started my career from there, and I worked there four and a half years, then I got a chance to come to Ljubljana as the head chef of Figovec, when it was an Indian restaurant, called Currylife Figovec.
Was coming to Slovenia an easy process?
I’d say it’s very difficult if you try to get work visa by yourself.
For example, after Figovec changed there were some problems with my visa, so I had to go to India for about nine months. It took a lot of time to come back here, although I had qualifications, experience and a job lined up, with the company helping the process. The government also had my records, my fingerprints, and I’d already been working here. I don’t know why it took so long, but eventually I came back about one and a half years ago, the end of 2016.
Where do you live now?
Here, in the hotel. That’s good for my job, because I don’t spend much time on public transport.
Are people here open to trying Indian food?
Yes, many people in Ljubljana love Indian food– but still many of them are scared of trying it because their perception is that it’s very spicy , maybe there’s no option for vegans, and the like.
Slovenia is still a young country, so I feel it will take little more time for people to get used to Asian flavours, dishes and spices. That said, recipes are not written in the Bible, so you can change them and make good food according to a customer’s taste-buds and choice, they just need to let me know before I start cooking.
To my mind, that’s the real difference between a chef and a cook. A cook just follows the recipe, but a chef can adapt it and always make something that pleases all of the senses, no matter what needs to be changed.
Who are you customers?
Mostly Slovenians of all ages, tourists, and a few very regular guests from across the border, like Austria, who frequently come to town and usually visit our restaurant. I have very good number of guests, because I try my level best to keep the quality, the taste, as high as possible.
How do you like Slovenia?
I like it very, very much. That’s why I came back. It’s a really beautiful country. I like nature and I am not a person for very crowded places, so i can say it’s perfect for me.
You also have a mixed culture. Most of the year the city is dominated by tourists from all over of the world.so you can also enjoy the different cultured people here. And that’s a very beautiful thing about this country. Not overpopulated, very nice people, very friendly.
What about the winters?
Honestly, I’d never experienced that kind of temperatures in my entire life . At my birthplace temperature goes maximum 10 degrees Celsius, and we think “oh, it’s too cold”.
When I came here it was minus 15. I was scared that I’d die. But the human body can acclimatise very quickly. Now it’s become normal.
What about Slovenian food?
Well, as a Muslim I can’t eat pork, so when I go out I’m always a little bit scared, because most Slovenian traditional foods are dominated by pork or use pork fat to enhance the flavour. But I like štrukli, žlikrofi, prazen krompir, pasta, although bolognese, again, I worry there’s a little pork fat in there, because fat always gives a good taste.
What do you do in your free time?
I go to cafés sometimes, but I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I’m not really a party type of guy, so I don’t go out at night. In my free time I just relax, go to the castle, and roam around here and there .
When I have a longer vacation I like to go back to Indian and spend time with my family. I’m a lucky guy because my mum and dad are still alive, and they always pray for my improvement.
If you’re a fan of Indian cuisine, or are curious to try it, then you can sample some of Ziauddin’s work, as shown in the pictures illustrating this story, at the Hotel Park (Tabor 9, 1000 Ljubljana). If you have any special requirements in terms of vegan, allergens, or level of heat, then be sure to make them known when you order.