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Cooking their way back to roots

Enterprising young home-chefs in metropolises are promoting their regional cuisine by opening their homes to complete strangers and showcasing their regional delicacies at pop-up events18 Nov 2018 | 5:02 PM

There is something strangely comforting about the food of one’s homeland. The nostalgia, the memories, the familiarity of flavours — when you uproot yourself from the culture you were born into and the land you grew up in pursuit of dreams and a better life, this food becomes more than a way of satiating hunger.

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Arushi Chaudhary

There is something strangely comforting about the food of one’s homeland. The nostalgia, the memories, the familiarity of flavours — when you uproot yourself from the culture you were born into and the land you grew up in pursuit of dreams and a better life, this food becomes more than a way of satiating hunger. It becomes a soulful connection to your heritage.

Lasagne and steak, pasta and ravioli, Nargisi kofta and biryani may get your gastronomic juices flowing but even the most exotic foods fail to evoke the same emotions as the humble urad daal khichdi and til ki chutney, the rich Maagh meat, the unique askali and ghee or succulent patrode ki sabzi, litti-chokha, even the humble daal-chawal with bhaja — every-day home-made food one grew up eating in various small towns even mofussil ones that were once home.

For those who have come away in search of better education or job opportunities, a longing for home usually translates into craving for ghar ka khana or foods from their native land. A lot of young people living in big cities share this nostalgia and yearning. A few of them have tapped into their passion for food and cooking to bring regional cuisines, even the obscure ones, into the spotlight. Since these big cities are a cauldron of cultures comprising people uprooted from their origins and chasing life goals at a dizzying pace, the trend of home-chefs opening their homes and hearts to promote the food of their land to absolute strangers is catching on.

Be it Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru, young professionals with full-time careers are putting their leisure time and weekends to good use by whipping up meals using inherited or special family recipes for anyone willing to try. Bohri, Bihari, Coorgi, Assamese — name it and you’ve got it.

For some, what started as a hobby has turned into a full-time career. Munaf Kapadia, who runs the famous home-dining service, The Bohri Kitchen, in Mumbai is a fine case in point. A tech professional with a promising career at Google, Munaf quit when he discovered a great promise in a venture that germinated from a family bickering over the remote. “The idea of The Bohri Kitchen came about as a result of an argument with my mother over the TV remote. I said if she had a way to bring joy to people with her food, I’d be able to watch my television in peace. The thought just stuck. At first, we wanted to open a restaurant but the logistics of doing that in Mumbai were beyond our means and so we thought of inviting people home for a lavish spread of Bohri food. And not just Bohri food, the idea was to also offer our guests an insight into the history of Bohri cuisine and give them a feel of the Bohri way of community dining by serving meals in large thaals as opposed to eating in individual plates,” says Munaf.

“The response was phenomenal and The Bohri Kitchen has grown exponentially in a short time. Today, we also cater to private experiences at people’s homes, put out different menus every week and run to a packed house on most weekend,” adds Munaf. The Bohri Kitchen enjoys the patronage of not just common Mumbaikars but also Bollywood personalities like Rishi Kapoor, Farah Khan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Hrithik Roshan.

In another part of tinsel town, proud to-be-Bihari girl Dolly Singh, a media professional, has been offering a similar experience with Bihari cuisine. “I have always loved cooking and felt nostalgic about the food from my home state. Litti-chokha, sattu parantha and many other simple Bihari dishes have been my comfort food and I’d often cook them for my friends. They loved these preparations and encouraged me to do this on a bigger scale. One of them created a Facebook page and uploaded a menu. I was surprised at the response it got. This was in November 2014. A few months later, I organised my first pop-up event, which was a huge success with people from different communities, cultures and backgrounds lining up to taste my food,” says Dolly.

“For me, this venture, Home Cafe Bandra, has been more about appreciation and validation than the monetary gains. I always try to maintain the authentic flavours of Bihari cuisine and don’t fuse these with the popular Punjabi or North Indian flavours. To see authentic Bihari food so well-received in a cosmopolitan city is my biggest reward,” she adds. Having hosted celebrities like Anurag Basu at her food pop-ups, Dolly, however, now focuses on home dining to provide an intimate gourmet experience to her guests.

Like Dolly, Delhi-based home-chef Sneha Saikia, who hails from Assam, too, believes that retaining the authenticity of any regional cuisine lies at the core of the expanding its outreach. “I have been doing pop-up events and offering curated home-dining experience for five years now and the response has been overwhelming. Despite that not much is known about Assamese food, I never compromise the authenticity of flavours and even source some ingredients directly from my home state. The Assamese cuisine has a peculiar mix of bitter, tangy, sweet and mild flavours. Also some dishes are made from unique ingredients like silkworms and red ants, but I have never shied away from putting such dishes on table, and people have been quite receptive to such dishes,” says Sneha.

Sneha ventured into this offbeat realm to counter prevalent myths and ignorance about Assamese food. “All my life, people have asked me whether we eat snakes, insects and worms. So I thought I’d give them a taste of our food.” She now hosts these food events not just at her home but also in collaboration with different restaurants in the NCR. Recently, she was invited to host a food pop-up in Nepal. It received an enthusiastic response.

Bengaluru-based Anjali Ganapathy has a similar tale to share about her endeavours to bring Coorgi cuisine into the mainstream through her home-dining venture, Pig Out. Anjali, a branding and marketing professional, started cooking her native cuisine for people seeking offbeat dining experiences to stoke her sense of nostalgia about the dishes she had grown up eating. It started as a weekend hobby in 2013. But within two years, the response made her quit her job and turn it into a full-time business. “Coorg has recently gained prominence on the travel map but its culture and cuisine are still masked in obscurity. My focus has been to introduce people to Coorgi cuisine and its different dishes and ingredients so that they can understand and appreciate the flavours and textures,” adds Anjali.

She often turns to people or elders in the family and community for old recipes and cooking techniques to bring out the authentic flavours of Coorg. “People are becoming more receptive to newer tastes, flavours and palettes, hence there is no need to compromise on the real flavours of our land. While I want to make Coorgi food more approachable, I don’t want to do it at the cost of authenticity. I try to keep the balance with some better-known dishes like Coorgi Panda curry on the menu. When people see something familiar, it helps them shed inhibitions about trying something new,” she adds.

“I initially started on my own but at present I have cooks from Coorg. We collaborate with restaurants and hotels in Bengaluru as well as from places such as Mumbai, Pune and Goa.” What started as a trip down the nostalgia lane for these young home chefs, has turned into a profitable journey for them and many others like them who are benefiting from the yearning of uprooted ones for their roots and food.

Cooking their way back to rootsConnoisseur: The Bohri Kitchen enjoys the patronage of filmstars like Rishi Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan
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