Among the many delicious conversations I have with chef-friends are candid chats about who ate what where and how it tasted. These are honest conversations, unvarnished, untempered by politeness. They are not meant to be repeated, least of all in my food writing. This, then, is an exception.
Last winter, as I sat chatting with Manish Mehrotra, India’s top chef at the helm of the restaurant Indian Accent, he told me about a “perplexing” dahi bada he had recently eaten at the home of an acquaintance. It was a healthy version, he explained, stuffed with moong sprouts. “I kept wondering, how did she do it – fillit with so much stuff?” he said, to which I replied with a dismissive, “but dahi ki gujiya is also stuffed, no…”
That dahi bada was unique, Mehrotra assured me. Unlike dahi gujiya, which is not stuffed that much (with chironjee, coconut and raisins), this one seemed a technical impossibility. It was stuffed to the gills with the healthy stuff but remained miraculously intact after the deep-frying. Mehrotra asked the homemaker for the hack, which when I heard, left me gasping at its ingenuity: a gol gappa filled with those sprouts had been buried inside the lentil paste. When the bada was fried, the wafer-thin walls of the gol gappa dissolved, leaving a perfect stuffed bada, crunchy outside, full of redeeming vitality inside.
Mehrotra subsequently adopted this hack and used it to experiment with other less virtuous fillings, including keema (inspired by the homely Rajasthani dish of keema tikiya served with yoghurt) and now does stuffed dahi bada counters at some of his caterings. The dahi bada (in yet another avatar) has even made it to his new tasting menu at the Indian Accent – a menu devoted to gentrified chaat as it is made, not necessarily on the street, but in homes with better ingredients, restrained masalas and dollops of inventiveness.
For some years now, top chefs in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa and Bengaluru have been paying homage to home food by putting it on their restaurant menus. Whether serving Sindhi kadhi and arbi tuk or kathal ki tahiri (called biryani usually) and Goan caldin, some of the trendiest restaurants in the country make it a point to tell us how their chefs deep-dived into memories of their homes and those of others to recreate regional dishes that could never be found on commercial menus before.
Pinch Of Irony
The trend of putting homely bathua and yams, yakhni pulao or a fish recipe from the matriarchs of a specific Kerala village on restaurant menus is barely five years old. It turns on its head a much longer convention of Indian restaurant food being a separate genre in itself – unlike food cooked in our homes – with dishes like dal makhni, butter chicken, tandoori broccoli, tomatoey rogan josh, or a coconutty sludge in the name of Goan fish curry. This restaurantisation of regional recipes decimates the tyranny of the dishes liberally laced with GG (ginger garlic) paste and garam masala or chaat masala.
Metropolitan foodies are pleased with this transition. They have found new heroes in Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen (who makes it a point to highlight his regional inspirations), Prateek Sadhu of Masque (recreating his native Kashmiri food in his stylised, technique-perfect restaurant food), Amninder Sandhu (championing old ways of cooking on woodfire), apart from Mehrotra and others.
Even in London, chefs like Asma Khan of Darjeeling Express, Sameer Taneja of Benares (who has overturned the paradigm of the Frenchified Indian restaurants), Sriram Aylur of The Quilon (a vocal champion of coastal Indian food) have been winning over a newer audience by serving a more nuanced understanding of Indian gastronomy than curry or salmon tikkas entailed.
However, while Indian restaurants finally underline the cooking of our home, ironically, pandemic-era home cooks themselves are aspiring to cooking food that is more “restaurant like”.
“Pandemic cooks have now graduated to becoming chefs,” said chef Ranveer Brar, tongue-in-cheek. Brar, a celebrity chef whose cooking shows on TV and social media are highly popular, notes the change in recipes preferred by his audience in the last eight months. At the beginning of the pandemic, as middle India took to cooking with a gusto, there were many beginners demanding simple recipes. Now, Brar says, this lot has become more confident in its skills and there is a hunger for generic restaurant-style dishes that can be cooked at home. “Things like the perfect burger, the perfect pasta… because people now feel creating these restaurant dishes is achievable and also because they miss this food,” he said.
While 50% of his audience, Brar contends, is now demanding street-food recipes like paani puri or chole bhaturey, 20% seems interested in Indian mithais (“since they have been scared of going to halwai shops”), and 30% wants to learn to cook generic restaurant food at home.
Sanjeev Kapoor, India’s best-known chef, who launched three online cooking courses during the pandemic, supports this hypothesis. “Of the three classes, the one with restaurant-style food has the maximum traction,” he said. “Even on Food Food [his TV channel], we have increased the frequency of content from hotels with restaurant-style food.” In fact, a cursory examination of the dozens of YouTube food channels floated in the last six months by amateur cooks throws up catchy captions like “Restaurant jaisa paneer chowmein banana ki vidhi (how to cook restaurant style paneer chowmein)”.
Cooking Like Heston
Unlike in many countries where eating out is more frequent, in India, most homes cook regularly and cheaply (the current average of eating out, including coffee breaks, is about thrice a week, according to a National Restaurant Association of India study). The pandemic seems to be adding to this lifestyle by elevating cooking from being something functional to something of an entertainment too. This may explain the current aspiration cutting across social strata to cook more restaurant-like food.
For the privileged, of course, food has often been entertainment – India’s deep culinary traditions include royal or aristocratic cuisines, as well as middle-class party cooking of the 1980s that included dishes like veg au gratin in slushy white sauce or dum aloo. But millennial preoccupations with “authenticity” meant that in the last decade or so, such privileged entertainment too changed and show-off dishes on dining tables tended to be defined more by heritage than restaurants. Now, this equation is in a flux again.
While some home cooks aspire to create older generic restaurant-style dishes, those who consider themselves gourmands want to cook up signature dishes of the world’s top chefs. Internationally, pandemic pastimes of the elite have included cooking complicated Heston Blumenthal or Massimo Bottura recipes or putting together their meal kits. Many celebrated chefs have even launched or relaunched DIY kits in the hope of saving their luxury businesses and adding a revenue stream to cope with pandemic-induced losses.
Shivani Maitra, a partner with Deloitte in London, told me about a unique intimate dinner she was invited to at a friend’s home that involved cooking from Blumenthal’s kits, while a chef from Blumenthal’s team demonstrated alongside online. “We paid £75 per person for each kit and £75 for delivery since we had to send a cab to pick up the kits from the restaurant,” she said. “So that is about £100 per person for a DIY meal, with the wine being ours. Still, it was Heston’s.”
Perhaps influenced by these new global formats, those who think of themselves as discerning in Delhi and Mumbai too seem to be looking at this kind of prestige cooking. Through the pandemic, I have received occasional queries from people wanting to know if such and such top chef will be willing to cook online alongside a “foodie” and teach his or her signature recipe as a special-occasion treat.
Unlike Blue Apron and other popular DIY meal kits internationally, meal kits in India had never taken off as a business because they were pitched as something functional. In a country where most homes managed to cook fresh meals relatively cheaply daily, the kits were not viable. However, with prestige cooking emerging as niche entertainment, top chefs and restaurants are pitching creamy restaurant-style khao suey, spicy kottu parotta and duck kebabs in snazzily packaged kits to the elite “foodie”.
In fact, some kits have emerged as handy options for those travelling to hill stations or beach getaways in quiet cottages in the last few months. Reluctant to eat out, many families have nevertheless been simulating restaurant meals via these kits.
Special occasion cooking in homes may in fact be changing decisively with this kind of prestige cooking. This Dussehra, I broke my family tradition. Instead of frying aloo ki kachori, a rather unique festive dish my mother still cooks annually, I sat at the dining table plating up pulled pork phulka tacos from a DIY kit launched by Makery.in. The taco is of course Indian Accent’s signature dish. I knew I could never approximate the dainty prettiness of Mehrotra’s restaurant creation. Yet, it seemed a worthy pursuit. For Rs 2,000, the brunch for three involved tossing the pre-cooked meat in masala, grilling half-done phulkas on the tawa, and then layering these with lemon cream, tamatar chutney, potato salli, pickled cabbage and other condiments that came neatly in little paper cups. Not cheap, not too expensive either. Yeah, I would do it again.
We don’t know yet for how long this kind of entertainment will keep us in its thrall. Yet, even when we begin to escape our isolation, this aspiration towards restaurant-ness at home, whether at the level of a chowmein stall or World’s 50 Best, means that a new cooking culture is simmering.