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Indian home chefs go global

Self-taught cooks from the diaspora are running supper clubs and pop-ups, appearing on food reality shows and writing cookbooks to clear myths about Indian cuisine being spicy, greasy ‘curry’ 

By bringing home-style food to the table, home cooks from the diaspora are celebrating dishes that carry a whiff of their ancestral towns and cities, thus changing perceptions of Indian food. Photo: Getty Images
By bringing home-style food to the table, home cooks from the diaspora are celebrating dishes that carry a whiff of their ancestral towns and cities, thus changing perceptions of Indian food. Photo: Getty Images

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In 2020, a dish called “Pasta not Pasta” was showcased on MasterChef Australia. It was chef Helly Raichura’s playful take on the Gujarati staple khandvi, and the contestants had to recreate it at her exclusive supper club, Enter Via Laundry, in Melbourne.

While global audiences may have heard of the Indian-origin chef for the first time, her supper club has been quite the institution in Melbourne since its launch in 2018. With a mere 20 covers, Enter Via Laundry has a waiting list of 9,000 people. “They all bring a plus-one, so that means 18,000 people,” says 36-year-old Raichura, a former human resources professional who grew up in Ahmedabad and moved to Australia in 2007.

Across the world, self-taught cooks of Indian origin such as Raichura are running supper clubs, pop-ups, organising food fests, writing books, appearing on food reality shows and taking Indian regional food beyond the communities to which they were earlier confined. By bringing home-style food to the table, they are celebrating dishes that carry a whiff of their ancestral towns and cities—changing perceptions of Indian food as a homogenous entity comprising greasy, heat-laden dishes served with condiments.

Home cooks and chefs abroad are creating a more nuanced understanding of Indian cuisine, building on the foundation put in place by trained chefs such as the late Floyd Cardoz, Sriram Aylur, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, Vikas Khanna, Sameer Taneja, Chintan Pandya and Manish Mehrotra. Since the 1990s, such chefs have worked relentlessly to change perceptions, bringing Indian dishes into the realm of haute cuisine with their beautifully plated, layered and complex dishes. Their food is served in critically acclaimed restaurants in the US and UK, such as Junoon, Benares and Kanishka.

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Today, home cooks, both in India and abroad, are making everyday regional cooking more accessible to all, irrespective of nationality, and using every medium from videos to social media to do it. “People in the UK now broadly know the difference between northern, southern and Gujarati food. They are watching Indian food programmes, recipes on TikTok and YouTube, reading recipes in online blogs and cookbooks, and cooking more Indian food from scratch,” says Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based food writer and author of The Philosophy Of Curry. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: You could say that the shift has come from people becoming more knowledgeable, or because Indian home cooks are putting out more information that has led to more response.”

Indian food has never been more popular. According to the Australian Chef’s Pencil magazine, Indian food has emerged as the second most popular international cuisine on Instagram in the last 12 months. It has the fastest growth rate in hashtags, 41%, among global cuisines, and is inching towards overtaking Italian food. 2021-22 has seen more than 3.3 million hashtags, such as biryani and panipuri.

Helly Raichura, 36, runs a successful restaurant, Enter Via Laundry (earlier a supper club), in Melbourne, which usually has a long waiting list. Courtesy: Enter Via Laundry
Helly Raichura, 36, runs a successful restaurant, Enter Via Laundry (earlier a supper club), in Melbourne, which usually has a long waiting list. Courtesy: Enter Via Laundry

Social media has played a huge role in giving Indian-origin voices a global platform. Sydney-based home chef Bhavna Kalra, 43, says Instagram, TikTok and YouTube have made it possible to go beyond butter chicken and roganjosh, and talk about dishes like dal pakwan and Sindhi kadhi. “Social media has its perils but it has changed a lot for Indian food. Fifteen years ago, most Indian restaurants abroad followed the same template. Now there is so much diversity in the conversation around the cuisine,” says Kalra, who moved to Australia 12 years ago. Today, she curates cooking experiences as the founder of The Modern Desi Co, an offshoot of her very successful food blog, Just A Girl From Aamchi Mumbai.

Trained chefs and home cooks have different audiences and unique spaces, explains Chetna Makan, 44, a Kent-based author and UK-based Guild of Food Writers’ Recipe Writer of the Year for 2022. “If I want a memorable meal, I will head to their restaurants (of chefs like Bhatia). However, if I want to cook at home, I might not look for recipes from fine-dining Indian restaurants,” she says. That’s where the food bloggers, recipe writers and social media cooks find their following.

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On Facebook or Instagram, you get a glimpse of the person’s lifestyle, cooking values and influences. There is a human connection. “A lot of women home cooks are coming to the fore. That is important as women are taking power back in a male-dominated industry. They test recipes and can work around childcare. They do supper clubs and pop-ups, especially if the budget is tight, they don’t have the capital to open a restaurant, or simply if they want to showcase the cuisine of the region their family is from,” says Sukhadwala. And social media as well as technology have made it easier to cater to orders from a larger number of customers.

These home cooks are also tapping the trend of making things from scratch—for Indians, an age-old practice. “A lot of this change has to do with the pandemic. Brick-and-mortar restaurants no longer represent a level of security. If you don’t want to take that level of risk and yet wish to dip your feet in the industry waters, you can start with pop-ups and supper clubs,” Sukhadwala adds. The past few years have also seen people leaving the daily grind to follow passion projects in food.

Sukhadwala cites Asma Khan as the biggest example. Khan did not know how to cook until she moved to Cambridge in 1991 and longed for the food she had grown up eating. While she pursued a PhD in British constitutional law at King’s College London, she started borrowing recipes from her aunt, mother and family cook. Soon after, Khan began hosting supper clubs at home. As the popularity of her food soared, she had to move the supper clubs out of her home, to a pub in Soho called Sun and 13 Cantons.

Chetna Makan, 44, from Kent was a semi-finalist on ‘The Great British Bake Off’. Now an author, she has just been awarded the Recipe Writer of the Year by the The Guild of Food Writers. Courtesy: Chetna Makan
Chetna Makan, 44, from Kent was a semi-finalist on ‘The Great British Bake Off’. Now an author, she has just been awarded the Recipe Writer of the Year by the The Guild of Food Writers. Courtesy: Chetna Makan

There has been no looking back. Khan has authored books, started a restaurant, Darjeeling Express, in 2017 and is the first British-Indian chef to be profiled on the Netflix series Chef’s Table. The Darjeeling Express will close on 4 July and hopes to reopen elsewhere. Khan’s journey has served as an inspiration for thousands of self-taught cooks across the world. “There are now more opportunities for supper club hosts in the UK. Some venues in London don’t have permanent chefs. They collaborate with supper club hosts, giving out residencies, spanning a night to six months. The possibilities have increased. Khan herself made it a point to invite women home cooks to host supper club days at the Darjeeling Express,” says Sukhadwala.

Priya Deshingkar, professor of migration and development at the University of Sussex, UK, runs the popular Maharani supper club in Brighton. Though she was born in London, her parents shifted to Delhi when she was two. When she got married, she moved to Hyderabad. “When I finally returned to the UK in 2009, I started the supper club. I was passionate about food and wanted to share that with people,” says Deshingkar. The supper club, now in its ninth year, has become popular with guests not just from Brighton but from London as well.

Some of her popular dishes include an old Delhi-style biryani, burrah lamb chops and chaat items such as dahi bhalle. “I don’t cut corners. Even the chutneys are made from scratch,” says Deshingkar, whose family is from Maharashtra. Her deep understanding of cuisines from Maharashtra, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh is reflected in her menus.

Deshingkar charges £40 (around 4,000) for a three-course meal, which includes a starter, a main course with a number of dishes, dessert, and ends with a Delhi-style chai. It is as much a social event—filled with conversations—as a food one. “Sometimes members of the Indian diaspora are even more conservative than those in India. Then there are the others, who want to integrate and blend in, so they abandon their Indian identity,” explains Deshingkar. Amazed that some third- and fourth-generation Indians have no knowledge of Indian food, she says her supper clubs and pop-ups are as much for the “white British public” as for the members of the Indian diaspora.

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Priya Deshingkar from Brighton, UK, runs the Maharani supper club, which gets diners not just from Brighton but from London as well. Photo: courtesy Priya Deshingkar
Priya Deshingkar from Brighton, UK, runs the Maharani supper club, which gets diners not just from Brighton but from London as well. Photo: courtesy Priya Deshingkar

Young chefs in India, who have championed Indian food at home, have also played a role. Earlier, culinary school students in India aspired to cook European food. “But when the chefs of many leading restaurants in India, ranging from Masque and The Bombay Canteen to Indian Accent, started championing Indian produce, we got a chance to appreciate the vastness of our cuisine through their food and stories,” explains Sonal Ved, Mumbai-based author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway?. As Indians, she believes, we can choose what we want to portray about our cuisine to the world. “Do we want to harp on our long history? Do we want to talk about modern usage of age-old ingredients? It’s going to be a group effort to write this definition,” she adds.

In turn, when home cooks from the Indian diaspora see regional diversity being feted, they feel a greater urge to move beyond “curry”. Makan says she was shocked when she moved from India to the UK in 2003 and saw what was being sold as “Indian food”. “The curry-house idea of food is not how we eat at home,” says the former fashion-industry professional. Through her books, Chetna’s 30 Minute Indian, Chetna’s Healthy Indian Vegetarian and Chai, Chaat And Chutney: A Street Food Journey Through India, she has tried to correct some of these notions.

Makan worked in a clothing retail business in Kent when she first moved to the UK. She didn’t like it. When she took maternity leave, Makan knew she would not go back. She and her friends used to watch The Great British Bake Off. “I used to bake regularly, so my friends urged me to apply. Even when I got the call, I didn’t think I would end up making a career out of food,” she says. After she reached the semi-finals of the show in 2014, she thought about writing a book. “At that time, there was no book that combined Western bakes with Indian flavours. The Cardamom Trail was unique in that sense and the book did really well,” says Makan.

Then came the book on chaats, an attempt to show people that Indian street food was not just samosa. For those who thought Indian food was unhealthy, she came up with healthy vegetarian recipes. “Today, with social media, my audience has expanded. I have more followers from the US. Surprisingly, I have a lot of followers from back home in India as well. I don’t need to tell them how to make aloo gobhi. But I have had touching responses like: My mom used to make it like this. She passed away and I have been cooking her recipes and missing her,” she says.

The interest in Indian food is definitely growing, says Kalra. When she moved from Mumbai to Australia 12 years ago, the only Indian food available was a version of the British curries. “Now, a home cook does some amazing Bengali food, especially desserts. I am seeing some Malwani cooking; lots of people are doing pickles. There is a small ecosystem here now,” she adds.

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Kalra holds a full-time job as a project manager at an IT firm, and conducts cooking classes on weekends. “A lot of participants have never cooked Indian food from scratch. They don’t know the concept of bhoono, which is so integral to Indian cuisine. So, I have to make things simpler.” She describes it as an experience for six-eight people, where she talks about the history of a dish and places ingredients in the context of migration and identity.

Bhavna Kalra runs cooking experiences in Sydney as part of The Modern Desi Co, which doesn't just explain the nuances of Indian cooking but the historical context as well
Bhavna Kalra runs cooking experiences in Sydney as part of The Modern Desi Co, which doesn't just explain the nuances of Indian cooking but the historical context as well

“I make something as simple as a chhole. It comes to them (non-Indians) as a surprise that chickpeas can be freshly boiled instead of being eaten out of a tin,” says Kalra. Her style veers towards convenience and comfort. She wants to clear the misconception that all Indian dishes require 20-plus ingredients.

Krishnendu Ray, professor at New York University, who focuses on food studies, immigration, ethnicity and cultural sociology, finds it heartening that the one-dimensional association of curries and heat is crumbling. Western norms about “good food”, derived from French and Italian methods and standards, are changing. “(There is a) move away from dominant Western notions that ingredients should taste of themselves. South Asian, Swahili, Chinese and South-East Asian dishes often reveal the importance of aromatic intensity and layering that are incompatible with outdated presumptions—for instance, that the green bean ought to taste only like a green bean and not like coconut, curry leaf and mustard seed to be counted in the temple of culinary culture,” he says.

REALITY TV CHEFS

Indian cooks, or those of Indian origin, making it to the last few rounds or winning food reality shows are adding to the global appeal of Indian food among non-Indians. The most popular examples are Makan at The Great British Bake Off and Justin Narayan and Sashi Cheliah winning MasterChef Australia. Their success has prompted people from other nationalities to understand Indian cooking. All of them make it a point to highlight their origins or heritage. Cheliah often celebrated his Tamil origins on the show. “I hail from Madurai and the dishes I create represent both my roots and the current place that I live in,” says Cheliah, who is currently touring four Indian cities for the World on a Plate pop-up at The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts.

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MasterChef Australia, now in its 14th season, is the show largely credited with “the increasing global visibility of Indian-ish cuisine”, explains Ray. In the current season, being streamed on Disney+ Hotstar and featuring a mix of new and returning contestants, restaurateur-chef Sarah Todd made bhelpuri—and the judges couldn’t stop raving about its complexity. To an Indian, it is a surprise to see a simple street food snack being celebrated, but to audiences around the world, bhelpuri was a revelation.

Todd first appeared on MasterChef in 2014, after a successful stint as a model and training at Le Cordon Bleu London. Since then, she has opened restaurants in Goa and Mumbai and splits her time between India and Australia. Today, when she talks about xacuti and falooda, audiences listen, take notes, scout for recipes on the internet and try to replicate the dishes at home. Todd says it is exciting to have the opportunity to share the complexity of Indian food on a global platform.

When she first appeared on MasterChef Australia, she had dreamt of opening a modern Indian restaurant. “Thankfully, I didn’t go ahead with that. I travelled around India for eight years and soaked up the nuances of regional Indian food. Today, I am taking Indian flavours to whichever country I go to. I combine those with local influences to make the dish more recognisable to the palate of the people in that country,” says Todd, who will host Indian pop-ups in Australia later this year as well as a food and travel show on Assam.

Chef-restaurateur Sarah Todd, 34, divides her time between India and Australia, and has been showcasing regional Indian flavours at her eateries, as well as in ‘MasterChef Australia’. Courtesy: Disney + Hotstar
Chef-restaurateur Sarah Todd, 34, divides her time between India and Australia, and has been showcasing regional Indian flavours at her eateries, as well as in ‘MasterChef Australia’. Courtesy: Disney + Hotstar

Be it the UK, US or Australia, there are subtle differences in the way home cooks explore regional dishes. The UK is a more evolved market, with greater opportunities for pop-ups and supper clubs. In Australia, the emphasis is on demystifying Indian cooking by sharing recipes and techniques. In the US, the focus remains convenience. Quick, non-fuss recipes, which don’t require many gadgets or an elaborate shopping list, are the norm. That’s what makes home cooks like Meeta Arora of Piping Pot Curry so popular. Through her website and social media, she showcases simple home-cooked food using gadgets such as the instant pot and air fryer.

Arora, 41, grew up in Mumbai and moved to the US in 2006 for work. She pursued a master’s in management science and engineering at Stanford University from 2010-12 and was working as a product specialist at a software firm in California when she decided to start a food blog, five years ago, to dispel misconceptions about Indian food. “One of the triggers was when a colleague said, ‘I can’t have Indian food every day, it’s so creamy and has so many calories,’” she says. “People lead such busy lives, they need easy recipes.”

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Arora does live sessions on social media and plans to host in-person meet-ups soon. People are particularly interested in vegan and vegetarian recipes, and Indian food has variety in this context. “What helps is that there are a lot more grocery stores carrying specialised Indian ingredients as well.”

A SENSE OF NOSTALGIA

Deepa Reddy, a Puducherry-based cultural anthropologist, has been observing this global rise of the Indian home chef closely. She feels it’s natural for people to want and recreate flavours from back home to relive the nostalgia of their mum’s food. In fact, nostalgia is driving food both in India as well as abroad. People in India talk about their grandmother’s recipes. Abroad, third-fourth generation people want to recover the traditions of a world that is lost. The impetus and context are different. There is a lot of chronicling and documentation happening. It starts with ‘my home’ and ‘my recipe’. But the individual is just one part of the concentric circles and the conversation then moves on to broader themes of region and state.

Meeta Arora of Piping Pot Curry, based out of California, US
Meeta Arora of Piping Pot Curry, based out of California, US

PLAYING WITH FOOD

Whether it is pop-ups or YouTube videos, one is seeing a playful streak emerge. There is no pretension and definitely no fusion. The new approach is to recreate Indian flavours using local produce from the region the chef lives in.

At Enter Via Laundry in Melbourne, the menu is dependent on seasonal produce, much like it is in India. “I try to use natives like finger lime and blood lime. Back in Bengal, a jhol is made with eggplant, but in our kitchen we make it with beautiful black oyster mushrooms. Instead of hilsa, I use murray cod, which is a beautiful fatty river fish. Local crustacean, marron, replaces the king prawns in malai curry,” Raichura explains.

The supper club has acquired a new form at a permanent restaurant space in Carlton. It will continue to highlight inspiring regional food, stories and company on a shared table in an intimate environment.

When Raichura moved to Melbourne, she would make fancy food like pastries and dumplings. Soon, though, she started delving into the treasure chest of regional Indian food. “When I got here, I changed the way I spoke and dressed to fit in. But I think I have rebellious streak within me. I was missing home so much and decided to embrace the Indianness in me. Even at the restaurant now, I wear salwar-kameez,” she says.

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The major influence at her supper club is migration, which has lent a global touch to the cuisine. The kitchen is run by three chefs and the menu changes every week. “I think being self-taught has an advantage. You have the old sense of hospitality that was prevalent in Indian homes. Some of the best foods back home were cooked on special occasions. I want to keep that sense alive,” says Raichura, who is focusing on Bengali food for the moment and will then move on to Kashmiri cuisine.

Sukhadwala cites the example of the London-based Jikoni, run by Ravinder Bhogal, which doesn’t pretend to be traditional Indian. “It is influenced by her travels, of hailing from a Punjabi Sikh family and being brought up in Kenya,” says Sukhadwala. Bhogal too is a self-taught cook. Originally from the beauty industry, she took part in a TV competition, The F Word, judged by celebrated chef Gordon Ramsay, in 2007.

The universe of Indian food looks eclectic and vibrant. Home cooks from the diaspora are picking up specific threads—street food, Ayurveda-based recipes, spice-led bakes, vegan dishes—to lend Indian voices to international trends. In the coming years, one hopes to see the conversations becoming more specialised; say, a cooking app on fermented foods from a specific region, a video series on plant-based menus or a pop-up on zero-waste cooking of Indian food. Someday, it would be great to hear the differences between steamed cooking en papillote and in a paturi being debated upon in a corner of Australia. The future may well have a nuanced Indian touch.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    01.07.2022 | 04:00 PM IST

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