ChefsRUs: Home Cooks are Dishing Up A Storm and Getting Five-Star Hotels to Align With Them
WHEN The Oberoi hotels held their annual chefs’ conclave in New Delhi less than a fortnight ago, the person who ladled out dollops of insights into the intricacies of Awadhi, Rampuri and Dehlavi cuisines was not an acknowledged master of five-star kitchens, but a soft-spoken homemaker from Old Delhi.
Nazish Jalali moved from Rampur to Gali Madarsa Husain Baksh in the shadow of Delhi’s Jama Masjid after her marriage in 1982. She brought with her the culinary riches of Rampur, but it was thanks to her husband, the late Dr Najam Jalali, that she was allowed into the secret world of the khansamas who live in the neighbouring Gali Sattewali.
Dr Jalali would treat patients from the working class, including cooks, free of charge, so they would repay his debt in their own little ways. The cooks would send over their qaliyas and qormas, and let Nazish pry into their spice pouches. The homemaker, as a result, was transformed into a home chef who most recently wowed guests at The Suryaa hotel by serving them the home cuisine of Shahjahanabad.
Nazish Jalali isn’t alone. Riding on the wave of interest created by television shows such as Masterchef Australia and Facebook groups, notably the recipe-sharing community of Sikandalous Cuisine, the tribe of home chefs has grown exponentially and acquired an almost cult status. No longer is their band of admirers limited to family and friends. Their recipes are much sought after by fellow food enthusiasts from all across the world and their home-grown expertise is tapped by established restaurants. “Masterchef Australia brought cooking out of the kitchen into the living room. It’s become cool to cook,” says Rushina Munshaw Ghildyal, Mumbai-based home chef, curator of food events and cookbook writer. Adds celebrity chef and TV show host Vicky Ratnani: “Home chefs have opened up a new library of knowledge. There’s a real incubator of knowledge out there.”
It’s a phenomenon, and you know it is one when an established hotel chain such as Hyatt Corporation taps into it with a nine-city, Masterchef-style Culinary Challenge in October-November 2014, where the prize at stake is a return ticket for two to Paris. The ten contestants who made it to the final round included the Hyderabad-based executive director of the Karvi Insurance Repository, Cisco’s sales and operations vice-president from Kolkata, Castrol’s territory manager from Raipur, a Bengali insurance executive from Raipur who prepared a ‘South Indian’ mutton curry in honour of her Malayali mother-in-law, and the eventual winner, the head of administration of the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi.
This explosion of home-whisked culinary creativity is also being harnessed by FoodCloud.in, a website launched this past February by web entrepreneurs Shamit Khemka and Vedant Kanoi, who cooked at the kitchens of Hyatt Regency before heading off to Carnegie-Mellon study Economics followed by Business Administration. A home cook himself, Kanoi, and his wife, Avni, a former journalist, have brought together a passionate group of home chefs, each of whom specialises in a limited number of distinctive dishes. From Priti Goenka‘s Marwari specialities and Estelle Desai‘s (she of the Capital City Minstrels) fab Goan Chicken Curry, to Dr Vinita Sahai Jain‘s (yes, she’s a dental surgeon) bedmi-aloo served with authentic methi ki launji, Maya Lisa Shankar‘s (Erna’s Gourmet) authentic wiener schnitzel, and Yamini Khemka‘s unforgettable red velvet cake with a berry twist — it’s a motley group that packs in a flavourful punch.
As home chefs get busy on the social media, they have the world seeking them out. Past July, Pritha Sen, a journalist-turned-development sector consultant, instantly found an appreciative audience with a voracious appetite for knowledge in both Delhi and Kolkata when she presented a forgotten dish from the erstwhile East Bengal, the chicken (‘fowl’) curry served on the 19th-century steamer that used to ferry passengers from Goalando, a railway station at the meeting point of the Brahmaputra and Padma rivers, to Narayanganj near Dhaka, the then connecting point to Sylhet, Chittagong and Burma. She says she discovered that the curry owes its distinctive taste to the dried prawns used in the masala.
Home chefs have found a forum in Sikandalous Cuisine (22,000-plus members, and counting!) to share and refine family recipes after often-intense discussions. It has made stars out of ‘regular people’ such as Roma Patil, a sheet metal manufacturer’s wife living in Belgaum, Karnataka, whose recipe for sambhar made with milk caused quite a sensation some time back. Another member, Monica Gupta, has a national following for her ‘Jammu ka khana‘. And so does Rajeev Nandgopal, a dental surgeon from Erode, the country’s turmeric capital in Tamil Nadu, whose non-vegetarian recipes from the south get rave reviews whenever he posts them.
“Sikandalous Cuisine gives unknown home cooks the validation they seek outside their immediate family,” says Atul Sikand, a former student of development economics and former real estate developer who has shepherded the group for about four year and turned it into a Facebook phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, Sumeet Nair, fashion impresario and author of the critically acclaimed Chettinad cookbook, The Bangala Table, got 30 members of Sikandalous Cuisine to test his recipes before his work went to print.
“The recipes in the custody of home cooks are pure, passed from one generation to the other — they haven’t been tweaked by chefs influenced by the principles of French cooking that they studied at their hotel management school,” says Mohit Balachandran, custodian of the recently opened (and hugely popular) Soda Bottle Opener Wala in Delhi-NCR. That may be why he only trusts Niloufer Dhondy, who caters to small Parsi groups from her Gurgaon home, for his supplies of sambhar masala, which can make or mar a dhansak. “It is better than the commercial brands you get in Mumbai,” Balachandran insists. Dhondy also introduced Balachandran, who’s otherwise famous as the street food blogger Chowder Singh, to Sujata, a four-tiered, charcoal-fired pressure cooker that helps you slow-cook four dishes together — mutton, vegetables, pulao and custard — for seven-eight people in three hours.
Home chefs have been around for as long as people can remember. The most famous among them was Mrs Balbir Singh, whose cookery classes in Delhi made her a legend in her lifetime, was the author of the best-selling Indian Cookery, which went into multiple editions after it first hit the market as a Mills & Boon imprint in 1961.
Competing with her for national fame were the Mumbai triumvirate — Tarla Dalal, who became a brand name after the publication of The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking in 1974; Katy Dalal, an acclaimed archaeologist specialising in the pre-Harappan times, who put Parsi cuisine on the national map with her chart-topping cookbook, Jamva Chaloji; and Premila Lal, the name the Tanzanian-born Eve’s Weekly fashion writer Kiki Watsa took after being asked to start a cookery column — she, a fashionista, did not want to be seen writing about food, but she could not escape her date with fate after the runaway success of Premila Lal’s Indian Recipes, first published in 1974.
A subsequent generation of home chefs scripted their success stories after the four original divas had attained goddess-like status. Rocky Mohan, the son of man who created Old Monk and put Mohan Meakin on the world map, turned his passion for cooking, which he inherited from his father and grandfather, into a series of cookbooks, starting with Art of Indian Cuisine. Salma Husain, now rated as the country’s foremost food historian and an encyclopaedia on Mughal cuisine, got into the business of food by accident when she was asked by the founder of Jamia Hamdard, Hakeem Abdul Hameed, to manage the kitchen of the university’s hostel.
Husain’s services are continually sought after by ITC Hotels, as are those of Chitra Ghose, an advertising executive who became a full-time caterer on the insistence of her daughter Sagarika Ghose, the well-known television and online journalist. In the tradition of Minakshie Das Gupta, another home chef who was best known as the lead author of The Calcutta Notebook (1995), Ghose Senior tracked down the roots of Anglo-Indian cuisine, as it flourished in Bengal, through the archives of Fort William, Indian Railways and Calcutta Club. There, she dug out lost recipes for forgotten British Raj favourites such as Chicken Cutlet Cornwallis, Company Bahadur’s Chicken Steak and Queen Victoria’s Trifle Pudding. Unsurprisingly, when ITC Sonar was coming up in Kolkata, Ghose was the one contracted to put together a menu based on the cuisine that developed under Awadhi influence after Wajid Ali Shah moved to Metiabruz in the southern fringes of Kolkata in 1856.
They belong to the pre-social media age when celebrity status didn’t come like instant coffee. Their numbers, though, have gone against the home chefs. The more they proliferate, the less the chances of one of them becoming an industry, like the grand divas of the past. Collectively, however, they represent a creative force that refuses to stay confined in the kitchen.
This article first appeared in the India Today edition dated January 12, 2015. Copyright: India Today.