Sitting down to dinner on a cognac-coloured leather banquette at European-trained chef Opel Khan’s slick contemporary diner in Surry Hills, it’s hard to imagine the dishes originated in the kitchens of homes across Bangladesh. At Khanaa, singara and double-breadcrumbed shami kebabs – recipes passed down through generations and cooked intuitively – are served deconstructed and precisely plated. Khan’s Bangladeshi heritage is put through a contemporary lens by his daughter Lucinda Khan, who’s heading up the kitchen.
“Through my dad’s career, he’s often put a Bangladeshi twist on his cooking, but he never focused solely on that cuisine as he felt Australia wasn’t ready,” Lucinda tells Broadsheet. At 14 Lucinda joined her father in his Pizza Boccone kitchen, and at 21 was appointed head chef at Opel’s French degustation restaurant Métisse. With Métisse on hiatus until June 2024, Lucinda is focused on the family’s other venues: Acqua e Farina and, now, Khanaa. “I think we’re at a time when people are more interested in other cuisines. Khanaa is in the right spot at the right time.”
It’s easy to see why Australia might be ready to embrace Bengali food – the cuisine from Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura – particularly with Opel and Lucinda’s avant-garde bent. “For every dish on the menu, we go through a process of taking a traditional food and deconstructing and modernising it. But there’s always a link to the original food – a flavour profile, an ingredient – there’s always a connection to Bangladesh,” Lucinda says.
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The singara, a savoury filled pastry similar to a samosa, is a good example. At Khanaa, the singara pastry is open, filled with duck spiced with panch phoron and topped with a pickled radish for balance. There’s also a glazed beef rib so tender it falls off the bone, much like the chicken in the biryani. Instead of rice, the biryani is served with aloo bhorta, a garlicky mashed potato made with ghee. A riff on a shami kebab – which are typically served with rice – sees confit chicken leg rolled into balls and twice coated in fine breadcrumbs, then fried and topped with mint chutney.
Lucinda and Opel’s food gracefully balances the measured, precise style of European cooking with the intuition and personal touch of Bengali cuisine.
“My favourite dish is morog pulau,” Lucinda says. “Most families will have their own kind. I have an aunty who is constantly making food for everyone and her pulau is to die for, and it’s completely different to anyone else’s. That’s the beautiful thing about this cuisine. It’s not step by step with a recipe, it’s intuitive.
“So as a chef, you have to pay attention and do the maths in your head. If I’m being taught a dish by an aunty, I need to think: how big was that pinch? I need to think of the sensory cues. People in Bangladesh cook by looking at the colour, the smell, the taste.”
Khanaa is a family affair. Lucinda’s mind is in the kitchen and her sister Jasmine’s on cocktail development and running the floor of the 100-seat venue. The polished breezeblock bar serves Australian wines as well contemporary cocktails that incorporate Bengali ingredients (such as the punny Mango G&Tea). With huge picture windows looking out to Crown Street, Khanaa fits perfectly in Surry Hills – and it fits with the family of culinary stars, too.
“Khanaa is a play on words. It comes from our name, Khan, and khanaa is also the Bengali word for food. We were trying so hard to come up with a name – we realised Khanaa was staring at us all along. It’s a reflection of our family in the most perfect way.”
Tue to Sun 5pm–10pm