Chef Sujan Sarkar never imagined that he would become a chef. Instead, Sarkar, the executive chef and partner of Rooh and BaarBaar in the US, dreamt of becoming a fashion designer. He spent a couple of years trying to get into fashion design school, to little avail. “I’m talking 1998-99. It wasn’t easy to get admission at that time because seats were so limited,” he says.
Fashion’s loss turned out to be food’s gain. ‘People told me to try hotel school because they said that I was good at cooking,” says Sarkar, who did exactly that, going on to become the head chef at Automat, London, at the age of 27. His other accolades and achievements include being named chef of the Year 2016 by Times Food Guide and working in restaurants worldwide, including London, Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai, San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
In a free-wheeling interview with Lounge on the eve of the Bengali New Year or Poila Boishakh, Sarkar talks about how cooking is a skill, his childhood memories of the festival, and why a piping hot bowl of khichadi continues to be his comfort food.
Also read: Memories, meals and journeys great and small
What is your favourite food memory of your childhood?
I grew up in a village close to Calcutta. My earliest food memories were my visits to the market there-- we used to call it haath, back then—on Tuesday and Saturday. I must have been 5 or 6 and would see hundreds of things you could pick and choose from—fish, meat, vegetables, sweets. It was amazing.
How was Poila Boishakh celebrated in your home?
I don’t remember celebrating it at home. More than a festival celebrated at home, it was a very trade-related festival. Back then, we used to get things from grocery stores etc., sometimes on credit. The store would write your name and the amount, and by the end of the month, you have to pay them. On Pôhela Boishakh, they open a new book for you, and you have to clear all your dues so they can start afresh. These traders would send home a lot of sweets as a sort of appreciation, so there were a lot of different sweets coming to your house. It isn’t even necessary that you are on the list of creditors; you may even have a friend who has a shop and will send you sweets. Of course, things have been changing, and today you go and eat a special meal in a restaurant.
What is your comfort food and why?
I would say kichadi. I used to have to be at school at seven in the morning and would leave home at six—I used to eat kichadi in the morning before school back then. I often come back late and travel a lot—I still want kichadi. I now do it in a slow cooker. Maybe the way of cooking and some of the ingredients have changed, but kichadi hasn’t.
Do you remember the first dish that you cooked in your life?
I never imagined that I would become a chef. I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was good at art and all that. In every Bengali household, in fact, any Indian household, guests come home every weekend. I used to help my mother make the pooris. I still have some burn marks on my hand because of that (laughs). My mom used to say, “I am rolling the pooris, you fry.” So that is how it started.
Also, when I was in high school, there would be picnics in winter. I used to cook for those; atleast try to. I would get delayed, though. I would start cooking at 10 in the morning, people would have finished eating, and I would still be cooking. I never thought I would take this profession seriously; it just happened.
Your father is an agriculturalist. How did that shape your attitude towards food and ingredients?
Being good at this profession isn’t about one thing; you have to have the right attitude, be creative, be a good team player, and be honest about what you are doing. My childhood memories also helped. My father is an agriculturist. We used to have goats, sheep, ducks, and chickens; I used to go with my dad to different farms. All this exposure to all this—I never knew that it would help me in my profession. But these things definitely relate so much to what I do today; that is why I am doing something different from other people. My perception of Indian food—how I see its ingredients and how I marry them together is why it is unique. The most important thing is the ingredients and flavour combination. Without considering ingredients, we cannot move ahead and take the cuisine forward.
How has the narrative of Indian food changed in America?
In London, Indian food is popular because of our colonial heritage. But America is a different world. When I opened my first restaurant in San Francisco in 2017, there were not many upscale Indian restaurants in the Bay Area or the West Coast. New York had a few but mostly doing traditional Indian food-- not modern or progressive.
There is a long way to go, but things have changed a lot: chefs are doing new things, and good restaurants are coming up. I think the US is going to be the biggest international market for Indian food in the next ten years. This is the right time to engage more people in America and change their perception of Indian food; ensure that they don’t dismiss it as just curry. You have to give millennials something exciting. Otherwise, they don’t care. It is not just food but about our culture, art, what is India. I think that the future is bright.
Also read: How to explore Goa like a chef
Chef Sujan Sarkar's Suji (Semolina) Halwa Cake, Milk Ice Cream
For Suji Halwa
50 gm ghee
100 gm caster sugar
300 ml water
100 gm fine semolina (suji)
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
120 gm unsalted butter
75 gm sugar
60 gm nolen gur
2 whole eggs
270 gm suji halwa
250 gm whole milk yoghurt
70 gm ground pistachio
1 teaspoon baking powder
Half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Preheat oven to 180°C.
To make suji halwa, heat ghee in a pan and cook suji on low heat till golden in colour. Simultaneously, add one part of sugar(100 gm) and water (300 ml) in a separate pan and get it to a boil.
Add boiling sugar syrup to the suji cook on low heat till it starts spitting.
Pour it on a clean and dry pan, let it cool.
For the cake, using an electric mixer (paddle), beat butter, sugar, cardamom and a pinch of salt until light and fluffy.
Beat in eggs one at a time until combined, then add in halwa, till it incorporates properly.
Fold in pistachios, yogurt and nolen gur. Do not over-mix.
Spoon batter into a greased and baking paper-lined 20cm x 30cm slice tin.
Bake for 35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the centre comes out clean.
800 ml milk
75 gm caster sugar
100 ml condensed milk
20 gm glucose
Split the milk into two portions: 50ml and 750ml
In a large saucepan, add the sugar to 750ml of the milk and place over a low heat. Stir continuously to avoid the milk from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the liquid down to 500ml.
Mix the reduced milk with the condensed milk and glucose over a low heat until they have dissolved.
Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water until soft. Squeeze the gelatine free of the water and add to the warm milk mix, add the remaining 50 ml of milk to the mix.
Churn in an ice cream maker until an ice cream consistency is reached. Freeze until ready to serve
Place a warm piece of suji halwa cake on a plate. Place a scoop of milk ice cream next to it. Drizzle some nolen gur (liquid) on the cake and serve.
Inheritance of flavours is a series of interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.