As a youth, I started out with the daft innocence most of us do, unaware of the cultural origins of even the most basic of foods placed before me. Mom brings home fast-food tacos; okay, that’s tacos. Burns the blood (fine, the myoglobin) out of a burger; okay, that’s a hamburger. Years later, I’m driving a car and doing the Bruce Springsteen thing as a gangly blob of overconfidence happening upon a Mexican food vendor in Longmont, Colorado, and he turns my world of taco upside-down. Then I learn how to make a burger, a real burger, and my food horizon started to look less like a straight line.
Chapter Next: Ember Foods reinvents my understanding of Indian food. Yakub Kazi and Nausheen Qureishi’s offerings combine the flavors of India, Australia, Indonesia, America, and the Middle East, and through samosas, pakoras, tandoori chicken, tamarind chutney, rice pudding, and mango lassi, I found myself discovering how each dish enriched the next—ensuing bites capturing more and more of that authentic flavor, striking balance with spice and texture.
One of the keys to getting those flavors is accounting for the time needed to get it right. On the tandoori chicken, Yakub says, “We have to marinate this overnight, keep it in the cooler, and get the spices right into the meat. When you bite into it, you get that flavor, and it’s so good.” As I see it, that’s only half the battle. Yakub and Nausheen still have to cook the chicken perfectly to get the right texture. Yakub used to be a fabric designer in Mumbai, India, and his designs were block printed, a very time-intense process, in Jaipur, so doing things carefully over time is already in his nature. The effort always pays off, and the result is soft, flavorful chicken that almost feels like it’s melting in your mouth, the spices rolling, as opposed to crashing, over the tongue.
Yakub also spent 23 years in Sydney, Australia, where he learned about garlic sauce. You know how you dip hot wings in bleu cheese, and the flavor just explodes? It’s the same concept with taking that tandoori chicken and dipping it in that garlic sauce. You get this sweetness right up front, but it all culminates into this salty garlic punch—addictive as potato chips.
That’s something Yakub found throughout his research when deciding what to make next: use fresh ingredients and pronounce them. He tried to tone it down for Western tongues, but when he took it to Willy Street Co-op (one of the places you can find Ember Foods products), “they said, ‘No, it’s bland. We need some spice in it. Chilis or whatever. Make it hot. Make it spicey.’ And then we introduced some spice, and they are loving it.”
The spiciest dish I had the pleasure of tasting was the tamarind chutney, a fantastic complement to the pakoras and samosas, but we’re not there yet. With fresh tamarind pulp, ginger powder, cloves, red chili powder, and salt, the immediate thing that hit me was the sweetness. I just love how that flavor played up the chili powder. With a lot of Indian food that I’ve had, I feel like the focus is on the spice, but here it’s the mixing of textures. Nothing is getting muddled; each ingredient is identifiable and feels equally important to the final taste.
It’s almost mindboggling that these fantastic flavors are coming from a clothing designer, but then Yakub told me how he’d learned it all from his mother. “My mother was the inspiration. Back in India, usually the daughters are given all the cooking skills, but we didn’t have any sisters. I was the lucky one to learn all the skills from my mom at a very young age.”
I think it’s both Yakub’s love for his mother and his love for Indian street food that inspired him to perfect Ember Foods’ biggest seller: the samosas. After breaking through the flaky wheat flour shell, you’ll find a lot of exciting spices hitting your nose. The potato is really keeping beat to the pop of green peas and crunch of onions as these wonderful textures work with the asafetida, dill, carom seeds, and green chilis. Bonus points if you dip it in the tamarind chutney.
Same with the pakoras. I just dipped them in the chutney and appreciated the crunch of each bite. Though similar to the samosas, the lack of potato, onions, and green peas really made it easy to just keep tossing them back. Thanks to the asafetida and healthy benefits of the other ingredients, the indulgence is almost guilt free.
While I’m enjoying all this food, I’m occasionally taking drinks of their mango lassi, so satisfying and rich thanks to the alphonso mango (considered the king of mangoes). With that pulp, sugar, cardamoms, yogurt, and milk, I almost prefer this to biting into a fresh mango. Everything is coordinated to deliver a flavor easily missed in a simple smoothie. Mango lassi is distinctly Nausheen’s contribution to the menu, and it’s something people eagerly seek out at food events.
Finding Ember Foods is as easy as going to your local Hy-Vee, Metcalfe’s, or Willy Street Co-op, where you’ll find a selection of frozen favorites, but Yakub and Nausheen agree that fresh is best. You can go to their website ( embermadison.com ) to see what events they’ll be attending.
“My main goal is to open a restaurant,” says Yakub. “We are one of the participants for the Madison Public Market, hopefully opening in 2023. That’s where I want to make charcoal grill chicken. … That particular chicken is not sold anywhere in the United States.”
Yakub also shared his wish to introduce börek to his menu. “It’s a dish from Greece and from Turkey. It’s like a pastry filled with spinach, and the other one is cheese. … My concept of food is to give something new, which always has been my principle from my days of working as a fabric designer.” As Ember Foods continues to seek evolution in their venues and offerings, I can’t think of any reason not to be excited about what they’ll offer next.
Be on the lookout for Ember Foods’ Sweet Corn Chicken Soup at this year’s Soup’s On! Yakub and Nausheen are grateful for the exposure the event gave them through the worst of the pandemic, and hope everyone continues their support again this year.
Kyle Jacobson is the lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.