Home chef Tanisha Phanbuh has been slogging nonstop in kitchens for the last month and a half. After doing a special sit-down dinner in her home in Gurugram, Phanbuh worked on back-to-back food festivals in hotels, such as The Park and Pullman, to give Delhiites a taste of Khasi cuisine.
Her menu features Khasi dishes with a gourmet touch accompanied with immersive stories on food. She has a simple, comforting starter comprising boiled potatoes served with an assortment of chutneys, like fermented bean paste; fresh coriander-mustard; and a fermented fish chutney. It becomes an engaging story about a community belonging to east Meghalaya gather around a big tray of potatoes and eat them with these chutneys and dips.
If Phanbuh’s successful popups are any indication—her fish ceviche in tomato sauce and perilla seeds is exceptional— Delhi NCR is exploring community-specific cuisines with even greater enthusiasm than before. Gurpreet Singh Tikku, a food influencer in Delhi, agrees that invitations to home chefs’ tables have increased significantly, especially in the last two years. He says many people became home chefs during the lockdown, with nostalgia as the star ingredient, and some eventually turned entrepreneurs serving region and community-specific foods. No wonder then that cuisines celebrating regional communities of Varanasi, Mewar, Orissa, Mithila, Andhra, Kashmir, Coorg, Maharashtra, among several others, are getting increasingly popular in the city.
Delhi-based chef Nishant Choubey notes the new trend is collaborations between home chefs and professional chefs. For an upcoming event organised by the culture ministry on the occasion of International Museums Day on May 18, he joined hands with select home chefs to create a lunch menu. It has Parsi-style jackfruit biryani, eggplant chokha, sattu litti, and a bevy of dishes that focus on millets.
Kirti Jha, a city-based home chef delivering Mithila Khenai (Maithili cuisine) says that her mission is “to tell people that there’s food beyond litti chokha in Bihar”. She offers specialties such as neem baingan, a stir-fried dish that’s made by chopping aubergines and tender neem leaves (using baby leaves reduces the bitterness), and the unique kathal lassi (jackfruit lassi). To keep things interesting, she changes her menus for festivals, such as Makar Sankranti, Holi, Shivratri, and more. Maithili cuisine, she shares, is mentioned in mythological texts such as Ramayana, and focuses on local leafy vegetables, fish and meats. Jha took the home chef route during the lockdown with her brand Cook Doors.
Those in the business say that a home chef’s table will always be a more educative experience than eating in a restaurant. Besides the assurance of fresh ingredients and quality produce, what works is an intimate setting with stories and conversations, and it’s an opportunity for home chefs to break myths about regional cuisines. Home chef Taiyaba Ali, explains this in the context of Lucknowi food. “People presume that in a Lucknowi Muslim home, all you get are meat dishes, which isn’t true. We make kebabs with peels of vegetables, particularly from the gourd family,” she says. Ali will be cooking a 7-8 course menu celebrating various communities of Lucknow at a food popup at Rooh, in south Delhi between May 24-31. Sunetra Sil Vijaykar, in Gurugram, hosts food popups in her home to acquaint people with the Pathare Prabhu community of Mumbai. While the community eats a lot of seafood, the home chef clarifies that there’s very little emphasis on accompaniments such as chutneys, dips and pickles. That said, one finds a typical Maharashtrian koshimbir (salad) on the side that’s made with chopped vegetables and hung curd. She says, “Our dishes change based on what is available during the season. During monsoon, for instance, we will make shevalyache sambharye or a dragon stalk yam with prawns stew, or a seasonal vegetable with dried prawns.” For summer, there’s a dish called gor kairi (a mango-based sweet and sour curry) or a kheema curry with raw mangoes.
Odia chef Shelly Tripathy notes a change in the quintessential Delhi foodie. “People at my popups come with knowledge about the dishes and they want to enhance that further,” she says. At her sold-out Odia pop-up last month, with over 20 dishes such as pakhala rice (cooked rice partially fermented in water), panasa tarkari (jackfruit curry), chicken pakudi (fritters), poi saga ghanta (an aromatic concoction of mix vegetables), among others, the home chef talks in detail to a select audience about ingredients, and the cultural influences.
Anita Sahoo, co-founder, Home Kouzina, an aggregator platform for home chefs, is busy preparing to host food popups in Delhi NCR. Her brand recently concluded two sold-out popups, including one on Goan cuisine and another on Poila Boishakh (Bengali new year) foods inspired by eastern Bengal, including Bangladesh. Sahoo agrees that there is an increasing demand in Delhi NCR, particularly in areas of Gurugram where the cosmopolitan mix of professionals want to indulge not just in food, but also understand the nuances of their own region’s cuisine by experimenting in what Sahoo calls, “sub-regional tastes”. Up next from Home Kouzina are pop-ups celebrating Iyengar, Vidharbha and Telangana foods.
For some home chefs, documenting food is as essential as cooking it. Sitara Cariappa, who specialises in Kodava (Coorg) cuisine is working on her third, still untitled book, featuring regional and global recipes sourced from Delhi-based families from Coorg (there are 130 of them, according to her). Recently, she hosted a food festival at her residence to celebrate Coorg’s harvest season with an array of dishes such as thambutt (mashed bananas mixed with roasted rice powder, sesame seeds and ghee), pandhi or chicken curry and thindi (or snacks) platter comprising chirotti or deep-fried pastries and koole putt or steamed jackfruit pulp. Cariappa brings spiced wines, honey, cardamom, coffee and local vegetables to Delhi from Coorg for such events.
In fact, most home chefs bring back vacuum-packed foods and local spices from their respective homes to cater to the demands of their food patrons in Delhi. Abhilasha Jain who has been serving Marwar’s vegetarian food for almost a decade says that she’s seeing an evolved palate in the city. “They want to know everything about the freshness of the spices, flavours and produce,” she says. The asafoetida in Jain’s kitchen is sourced from one of the oldest shops in a place in Afghanistan and she still returns to her hometown in Rajasthan’s Beawar to bring back turmeric, cumin, red chillies, for pickles, papads and kadhis. Given that the region has limited vegetation but an abundance of dairy and millets, she uses a lot of curd, bajra and jowar in her dishes. Vijaykar sources seafood directly from Mumbai to avoid compromising on the freshness of the fish.
It’s a reason why they command a premium with an average food pop-up ranging anywhere between ₹ 2500-4500 plus taxes, and sometimes more. But eventually, as Phanbuh notes, “Food transcends boundaries, ethnicities, religions, and allows for an experience that is unmatched.”
To reserve a table or order food from these home chefs, visit the following Instagram pages: @tribalgourmet for Tanisha Phanbuh; @cookdoors_official for Kirti Jha; @elaach.official for Shelly Tripathy; @dinewithvijaykars for Sunetra Sil Vijaykar; @taiyabaali for Taiyaba Ali; and home chef aggregator @home.kouzina
For Abhilasha Jain's marwadi menu, visit marwadikhana.in; and for Sitara Cariappa's Kodava food, check out thedrunkenpig.co.
Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.