How to picnic like a Parisian
Purple Foodie Shaheen Peerbhai's new book features recipes born in a tiny French apartment
On a Thursday night in Paris in 2012, Shaheen Peerbhai and her roommate Jennie Levitt stayed up to cook over 400 baos. They worked for 22 hours straight, making their own buns, curing the meat, slow-cooking it all day and then finally serving it at dinner. “Back then, nobody, except our Taiwanese customers, knew what a bao was and we had to explain it to them," says Peerbhai.
That meal was part of the duo’s successful dinner party series, an extension of an idea that had taken birth a year earlier at their tiny apartment in Jouy-en-Josas, a small town south of Paris. “Every Friday for a whole year, we created a delicious lunch from our apartment. This inspired the name of our pop-up—Friday Lunches. We cooked and baked in the quiet hours of the morning, creating a meal of a sandwich, a dessert and a drink, all made from scratch," says Peerbhai, now 31. Levitt was studying for an MBA and Peerbhai was attending Le Cordon Bleu. This was an experiment conducted in their spare time, a chance to try and share new recipes . It started with 20 people, turned their home into a popular spot for a picnic lunch for classmates and friends, and finally became a bustling restaurant for 80 guests at a bar in Paris.
The result of this picnic club turned dinner party series is the book Paris Picnic Club (Penguin India). It has 120 recipes for small plates, sharing platters, tartines, breads, stock, drinks and desserts, inspired by those meals. Instead of photographs, the recipes come with watercolour illustrations by Levitt, 33.
Peerbhai, a chef and author who conducts baking masterclasses in India and London, is a popular name in India owing to her blog Purple Foodie. In fact, Paris Picnic Club came about when a literary agent in New York saw her blog. “I was really enjoying cooking in France, and thought it would be wonderful to document this style of cooking," she says.
Paris Picnic Club, as the name suggests, is a reflection of what Peerbhai and Levitt were cooking in Paris. Their cooking style is simple, fresh, traditional but not constrained. In their words, they create “happy food" and they don’t dot their plates with sauces but heap generous spoonfuls on to it. “The book has all sorts of influences—Korean, Japanese, Moroccan, Indian and Latin. This is a nod to the multicultural Paris that people tend to overlook and always only associate French food with foie gras and boudin noir," says Peerbhai.
There are a few Indian references too—the oily, rich vanilla beans that Peerbhai would take back from her visits to India, the Indian shops in the 10th arrondissement of Paris where they used to buy some ingredients and spices, and a recipe for mint and coriander chicken tartine. “Of the over 100 recipes, 80 can be made in Indian kitchens with locally available ingredients." says Peerbhai.
In the introduction, they speak about how their cooking takes inspiration from the ingredients found in Paris—flavours of the Middle East (mint, za’atar, Aleppo pepper), Africa (dates, harissa), Italy (lemon, tomato, olive oil), East Asia (miso, gochujang), India (countless spices), Spain (ham, almonds), and Latin America (yucca flour, lime, passion fruit). “If something isn’t available, there are always local options to substitute with and make the recipe your own," says Peerbhai. “While I made the sauce with mirabelles in Paris, I used greengages in London and Jennie used her local plums in Bogota and they all worked well...so while the book is rooted in Paris, it will be very much at home anywhere in the world."
Each recipe comes with a small blurb talking about its inception, handy tips and ingredient substitutes. There are sections dedicated to pantry essentials (like dried herbs, sea salt, mustard); basic recipes (like stock, harissa, elderflower vinegar and mayonnaise); how to picnic like a Parisian; and their favourite picnic spots.
The recipes may seem complicated—some run into pages—but Peerbhai says they will interest keen cooks and enthusiastic beginners. “The target audience is an accomplished home cook, someone who knows their way around the kitchen and is comfortable cooking," she adds.
The Friday Lunches have ceased—Peerbhai is in London and Levitt in Bogota. But they plan on starting these again when they return to Paris in June for the book’s promotion.
Paris Picnic Club is available in book stores and online.