Getting to Know You: Harshal Shah
Updated: Mar 16
A new series of Q&As with members of the vibrant Irish international community to share their cultural heritage, food memories and stories.
For the first in the series, we chat to Harshal Shah, general manager of Pembroke Wines.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I’ve had a varied upbringing, having lived in four countries, worked in five, and born in a sixth! I was born in Kenya (like quite a few Indians of Gujarati extraction), and very shortly thereafter, my parents moved to Zimbabwe, where I spent about 15 years. My sister was born here. Sydney was next, where I finished high school and completed my two degrees at the University of Sydney, where I read Law and, of all things, Information Systems. I discovered my love of wine and food in Sydney and jumped ship from corporate to work as a sommelier full time. In this time, I received an opportunity to move to New Delhi, India to work for a large wine importer. I did five years in India, travelling all over the country, training food and beverage staff about wine, learning more about the cuisine and the ingredients and the cultural approach to the food there. I also was Contributing Editor to India’s only wine magazine, Sommelier India, and had a number of columns in newspapers and lifestyle magazines, writing about wine. The most enjoyable part of my years in India was producing and presenting a TV show about wine for a luxury lifestyle channel.
Three years back in Sydney followed and then the move to Ireland in 2016 for... what else, but love!
I was a very fussy eater. My mother is a very good home cook. She has a deft touch with spices, and has always managed to make breads and rice fluffy, and pastries perfectly crisp. Nevertheless, I never took to Gujarati food and so my earliest food memories involve my parents getting very frustrated with me eating/chewing VERY slowly so that they could finish their meal and I didn’t have to endure any more of it.
On the other hand, Sunday lunches out at the local hotel brasserie were a tradition and a highlight. Until I was in my early teens, my parents never cooked meat at home – my mother is still quite a strict vegetarian: no eggs or fish cross her lips – so going out for a meal always entailed a meat course and sometimes a sip of my father’s wine.
Do you cook?
I love cooking now. I gained an understanding of the basic techniques of cooking whilst working at Abhi’s and Aki’s Indian restaurants in Sydney, probably the best Indian restaurants in Australia. Aki’s had the equivalent of one Michelin Star, and I still maintain that Kumar Mahadevan, the chef/patron of both restaurants is one of the best (Indian) cooks in my life. He has a great cooking pedigree, having trained with the Taj group in India, and has cooked for the likes of Prince Charles and Mick Jagger in Sydney, before Indian cuisine was popular or refined. He is a very dear friend, mentor and surrogate father to me.
In Ireland, I really enjoy the cooking of Ross Lewis, Kieron Glennon and Graham Neville, as well as Gearoid Lynch’s game, and Karen Smith’s’ desserts.
Funnily enough, I never attempted to cook Indian food until very recently, when I discovered amazing spice mixes from bitspicy.co.uk, recommended to me by friends. Andrew Anderson, the young man behind this company has a very relaxed yet authentic approach to achieving typical flavours of sub-continental dishes, and he prepares/roasts the spice mixes for you. So that’s what I’ve been cooking lately.
What is your favourite dish?
It’s hard to choose a ‘favourite’ dish – rather I have favourite ingredients. Nothing beats top-endJamon Iberico a sweet, ripe tomato always brings a smile in the same way a delicious salty anchovy does. Aged parmigiano has the perfect balance of umami, sweet and salt. And I’m a sucker for good, deeply-flavoured, complex sauces and gravy. In fact, I’m known in certain circles as Mr. Gravy. Fish and chips. With gravy, please!!
Where do you shop and do you have favourite products?
I miss the sweetness of Australian Yamba prawns; the richness and spice of Nihari curry in Old Delhi at 8am on a Sunday; the fun of traditional Chinese ‘Yum Cha’ and the hair-raising heat of Mexican moles and hot sauces.
I always learned to buy meat at a butcher’s, fish at a fish-monger’s – so I go to FX Buckley and Lawlor’s butchers, and Peter Caviston’s Emporium for seafood. Agata at The Gourmet Pantry in Dun Laoghaire has many of the classic pasteurised and unpasteurised cheeses so I always give her my cheese business. For anything else exotic, I am lucky enough to be able to purchase from Redmond Fine Foods, who I share offices with.
Are you particularly excited about the cuisines of other cultures?
Speaking quite generally, I really adore Japanese cuisine as a whole (with the exception of ramen, which I find quite messy); Spanish, Mexican and Indian. I think innovation in any cuisine is exciting. I have heard amazing things about the food/ingredients of Peru, but have not tried enough to know about it. Likewise, Ethiopian food has a resonance with me – my mother was born in Ethiopia, so whenever there was an opportunity to visit an Ethiopian restaurant growing up, we took it. I had a great meal in a very simple Ethiopian eatery in Kings Cross in London in 2019.
Here are the ingredients I don’t like (remember, I was a fussy eater as a child): aubergine; pulses in general; bell peppers; squash and squash-like vegetables; kidney; tripe… shall I go on?