Viva le resistance. How India's home chefs came of age during the Covid 19 lockdown.

I will be updating this post with new discoveries so please scroll to the end if you have read the rest.

Mumbai


Pomfret fry, prawn masala and chapati: Pallavi Amberkar


Pallavi Amberkar: Flavours of Malvan (Maharashtra)


A couple of Saturdays back I ordered two portions of fried pomfret and prawn masala from Pallavi Amberkar who runs a home chef outfit called Flavours of Malvan in Bandra, Mumbai. She is a friend of ours and lives down the road. I went and picked up our order from her gate with her cherubic little son coming down, looking all business-like, to do the important last mile task his mum had assigned him to. We know him of course and I asked him how staying at home was and how being away from friends was. He answered in mono-syllables. He is a start up professional and did not have time for small talk. Perhaps his mum had told him not to stay out for too long. Or perhaps he had his video games to return to. Or holiday homework!

Her son was not the only member of her family helping Pallavi that day. Her mother is currently staying with her and on the days when they have orders, mother and daughter wake up early in the morning and start prepping the food. The seafood is purchased a day before and thoroughly checked and cleaned then. This is not Pallavi's first foray into offering food from her native Malvan (coastal Maharashrian) heritage. She earlier did pop ups at home through platforms such as Authenticook. At that time, her mother in law was at home and teamed up with her.

I must admit that this is the first time that we had ordered from Pallavi and there is a reason for that. We have been trying to have as many home cooked meals as possibly during the lockdown and rarely order in. There are a few restaurants that we order from when it gets too much and need a break from cooking. Khane Khas, Candies and Seefah in Bandra. We do not order often from home cooks for this reason. It requires us to plan in advance and we always plan to cook at home. I do know of folks who order liberally from home chefs these days, out of boredom or fatigue, and who love it.

Pallavi came highly recommended by friends and I decided to call in that day as she had seafood on offer. Seafood is one thing that we have hardly had during the lockdown. I prefer to go to the market and buy fish or buy it from the lady who comes to our building to sell fish. I need to see the fish while buying. Check for size or even the way it is cut. We buy small portions. Which is why the online delivery models which were around during the lockdown did not appeal to me. Going to the market is something we have tried to avoid during the lockdown. Hence we were without fish for 3 months, barring the times when our friend Shaswati would share freshwater fish dishes with us.

I did not mind this arrangement. I am not crazy about seafood. Not all Bengalis are. Our current meat and veg diet worked well for me. Kainaz loves seafood though as most Parsis did and which is why I decided to place an order from Pallavi.

The experience turned out to be beautiful. The quality of the seafood was excellent. The dishes were full of flavour and yet nowhere as oily or hot/ spicy as what I have eaten in Malvani restaurants and I have eaten at quite a few. Be it the masalas used, the quality of the coconut or the kokum, or even the seafood; the food made you feel as if you had gone to visit your grandmother after ages and that she had tried to shower all her love on you in one meal. Not knowing when she can feed you next.

There was the odd technical issue, such as when the batter of the fish fry disintegrated a bit as we ate it well after it was fried, but that was par for the course. The pomfret was big and juicy and the masala stuffed inside made up for the batter wobbles. The prawn masala so generous that we had it over two meals. The missus was happy. My goal was achieved!

Shital Kakad: Shital's Food Cottage


Pav bhaaji: Shital Kakad

Later that evening, our friend Shital Kakad messaged me. She wanted to drop off some pav bhaaji that she had made. I came down to collect the parcel and got to meet her and her husband at our gate. It was the first time since the lockdown that I had met friends from the 'food world.' We wore masks, resisted the temptation to hug each other and chatted happily at a socially acceptable distance.

Now, I must confess that there is only one pav bhaaji that I really love in Mumbai. The one made by Ashok at a street corner of Fort. I have shot there for TV shows, taken people there on my food walks. Everyone doted on it.

With Shital's, I now have a second favourite pav bhaaji. The bhaaji (mashed vegetables) had the same spunk of flavour and balance as Ashok's. Being a home cooked one, it tasted even more wholesome than the street food version. She added maska (butter) and masala to the pav as Ashok does. I made grilled sandwiches with the leftovers and they were amazing as well.

Shital is a passionate home chef who set up a studio called Shital's Food Cottage sometime back. I have been there for events and had many a lovely Gujarati meal at her home too. Her hospitality is legendary. All of that has stopped during the lockdown. Which is why she decided to cook and offer food on retail. She does all the work by herself and her husband drives her down for deliveries. She is not comfortable outsourcing that given the pandemic we are in. That limits volumes, but Shital is fine with that.

She tells me that given the home quarantine we are in, with no access to street foods or restaurants, what is selling the most for her are Gujarati chaat/ snack favourites which people have no access to. Her pav bhaaji told me exactly why!

Subasree Basu & Manju Malwade: Hungry Cat Kitchen


Chicken cutlets, shepherd's pie, kaffir lime pork & rice: Hungry Cat Kitchen


I placed another 'home chef' order this Sunday. This was from Subasree Basu's Hungry Cat Kitchen. Subhasree, or Bonnie as we know her, started off as a 'home chef' operating from home but now runs a commercial kitchen with her business cum creative partners. Perzen Patel earlier, and now Manju Malwade after Perzen migrated to New Zealand.

Subhasree belonged to the corporate world when we first met in Mumbai. As did I. Coincidentally we both abandoned our cubicles at the same time, to chase our respective dreams. It has been inspiring to see her grow over the years. I will be the first to admit that running a food business is a million times tougher than sitting by the keyboard and pounding away as we writers do.

Subhasree closed her business in the early months of the pandemic and has now opened again with Manju to offer weekly specials in Mumbai. They are cooking everything themselves. 'Memories of my early flea market days,' as Subhasree put it with characteristic Bengali wryness. The capacity is therefore limited and they take orders in advance.

She had chicken cutlets on her menu last weekend. The Parsi margi nu lacy cutlace. I placed an order for this as K loves chicken cutlets. I ordered a classic mutton shepherd's pie too. Bonnie told me that she was sending a portion of her signature 'kaffir lime pork' on the house. "I cooked 8,9 kilos of pork and the magic of bulk cooking came through," said Shubhasree with quiet confidence.

The order made for a veritable Sunday picnic. K approved of the cutlets. What more can I say? Barring the fact that I was impressed by how well the coating held on.

"That's all Manju. I have zero credit for the kebabs," said Shubhasree. "Manju understands all things batters and fries."

Shubhasree is the queen of pies and slow cooking if I may say so. And salads!

The shepherd's pie was a flavour festival and I used the leftovers wisely for the next days breakfast sandwich. The pork curry was sublime and the meat was tender as a dream despite being lean and not belly pieces. The leftover pork remained as tender when I had them the night after.

Bimba Nayak: Cooking Concepts


Hyderabadi dum chicken, mutton biryani and chicken 65. Bimba Nayak

Talking of the Parsi chicken cutlets, it has been a virtual 'regional Indian food festival' in Mumbai of late, thanks to folks opening up their home kitchens to food lovers across the city. Delivery apps and comparatively less traffic on the roads have made their reach near universal (for those willing to pay for delivery).

An example of this would be the Hyderabadi fare that I got to sample from Bimba Nayak recently. The biryani made me happily sing, 'I have finally found what I was looking for,' (with apologies to U2). The rice was fragrant, the spices subtle, the mutton tender and Bimba did what no self respecting Hyderabadi would. She added potatoes in it and thank God for that. Ones that soaked in the flavours of the dish and won the heart of this Bengali. "We like potatoes in Mumbai," said Bimba. The biryani was way lighter, less oily and sans the chilli heat which makes me sweat, compared to the ones at places such as Shadab, Shah Ghouse and Cafe Bahar in Hyderabad, which I love going to when in the city. This was a lovingly home cooked biryani after all.

The Hyderabadi dum chicken won our hearts too. To me it was a throwback to the chaaps of Kolkata's Mughlai restaurants. Sans the oil-slick that they come with. To Kunal Vijayakar on the other hand (according to his Facebook update), it was reminiscent of the chicken/ mutton masala of Colaba's Olympia. I agree with him on that.

She sent a chicken 65 too. It was as red as one the one at Buhari in Chennai where the dish is said to have been invented, but sans the excess of salt, chilli powder and stuff that sucked my cheek dry, that I remembered from my chicken 65 experience there. The chicken was tender in both dishes. Even the breast pieces.

Bimba is an indomitable 65 year old, who had started her career as a master tailor in 1973,  set up her own manufacturing unit to supply baby clothes across India, took up cooking then and worked as a chef for the Royal family of Kuwait, living there alone to support her family in Mumbai. She returned to Mumbai and held baking classed at home where she taught future entrepreneurs. "Every woman should earn," is her motto as a teacher.

She does sugar craft for cakes in top five star hotels in the city. A skill she had learnt when her employers would send her to the UK for training during her Gulf days.

All of this came to a standstill post the lockdown. Which is when Bimba coopted her daughter in law Gauri and son, Hiren, and decided to offer a Hyderabadi menu from her home for folks in Mumbai. She kept the prices low as she felt her customers were going through economic stress and did not want to add to it. She sourced her rice from Amritsar, chose the best cuts of meat, made her spices in house, and this care showed in the food.

When there is a better supply of fish she will offer dishes from her native Pathare Prabhu cuisine for diners, says this very inspiring super granny.  Business has been good she said to me, as did Pallavi. People are welcoming this.

There is more


I stopped mid meal and shot this picture of the half finished bowl of the lamb sorva from Abhinanda
Bhattacharya when I saw how good it was

Talking of Hyderabadi food, there was the brilliant mutton sorva which I got to try in home chef Abhinanda Bhattacharya's Hyderabadi special menu. She has teamed up with another home chef friend of ours, the very effervescent Ananya Banerjee, and they offer individual specials which they market together. Ananya had sent me a sample too and I have had her food earlier. Some of the nice picks this time were the shoshe narkol paneer, the gurer payesh and the kosha mangsho.

Jasleen Marwah: Namak Swaad Anusaar (Kashmiri pundit)


Rajma, yakhni chicken, dum aloo, pickles. Jasleen Marwah


Let's move to the north now to the delectable Kashmiri Pundit food that Jasleen Marwah has on offer from her house in north Mumbai. Delivery apps such as Wefast have made distances meaningless in Mumbai thankfully and has opened avenues for home chefs and their kitchens for us food lovers.

Jasleen has worked in the media in the past, is passionate about pottery and loves sharing her love for Kashmiri food by cooking and feeding folks. She has done pop ups at home before, festivals in association with restaurants and in events too. I have had a chance to try her food in the past and loved it.

All of that stopped post the lockdown till she decided to take advantage of the delivery models available and has begun offering Kashmiri food on weekends in Mumbai.

Thanks to this, on Friday we got to savour her chicken yakhni, a curd based curry which was as silken as a poem, the onion and garlic free rajma which pulled at your heart strings with each bite and an onion garlic free Kashmiri dum  alu which, unlike the ersatz versions found in restaurants across the world, spoke of great character and elan.

You eat this all with rice which was the simplest thing for this lazy Bengali to make.

Tiyash Sen: Sennistic (Kolkata classics)


Chicken rezala. Tiyash Sen.


Home chefs come in all shapes and sizes and genders. Take young Tiyash Sen for example, whom I am yet to meet and of whose cooking prowess I had heard of from my friends, husband wife duo Vernika Awal and Shouvik Das, in the past. Before Vernika and Shouvik got married, Shouvik shared an apartment with a group of boys in Bandra and Tiyash was one of them. Tiyash took charge of the cooking duties there and is a DOP by profession. The boys raved about his food. I remember once sending king prawns from a client shoot that Shouvik and I were working on, for Tiyash to cook, and I heard great things about what followed.

I took the opportunity to order from him when Vernika told me that Tiyash had begun offering weekly specials, now cooked from his apartment in Juhu during the lockdown. What followed was first a majestic chicken rezala and a few weeks later a scintillating chicken bharta. The former is from the Kolkata Mughlai restaurant pantheon. The latter, from the Punjabi dhabas of Kolkata. This is more Kolkata food than 'Bengali'. Each dish pushed the flavour quotient to the amp and was a throwback to happy Kolkata meals and yet were much lighter on the belly than the originals.

A new star to look out for!!!!!

Chef Marina Balkrishnan: Ootupura (Keralite)

Keralite food: Marina Balkrishnan

While most of the folks that I spoke about so far are home/ hobby cooks who went professional, there are a few professional and trained chefs who have gone independent during the lockdown using the delivery mode from home.

Take for example, chef Marina Balkrishnan, who worked in Thailand at Garima Arora's Ga before she came back to Mumbai where she planned to start something to highlight the wealth of her native Keralite cuisine. The lockdown brought her plans to open a restaurant to a harsh halt from what I gather. Not one to be cowed down, Marina launched a programmed called Ootupoora where every Sunday, she cooks and offers home cooked Keralite food rooted strongly in her childhood memories of Kerala, to diners in Mumbai.

I got to sample this on the first Sunday of her operation and was smitten by the purity of flavours. This was clean eating at its very best. Being a chef and a storyteller, her meal came with description of the dishes on instagram (@thatthalasserygirl) and heating instructions (in the packaging) and even a hygienically cleaned (as I learnt later) banana leaf.

Chef James Miranda: Jazzy Jim's Cookhouse (old school 'conti')


Roast chicken; James Miranda

Then there is IHM Aurangabad trained young chef James Miranda who is a talented musician too and the son of our GP, Dr Margaret Miranda. He had worked in five star hotels in Mumbai, then quit to try the odd music gig and food enterprise too. One of which was breakfasts out of his kitchen in Bandra. Post the lockdown, he came up with the idea (much to his mother's relief I feel as she really frets about him like mine does about me) of offering classic 'continental fare' on Sundays which can serve as family meals. I ordered one of his brine cured roast chickens and I kid you not, when I tell you that a classic bistro in gay Paree would be proud to serve it. That is how brilliant it was. We used the leftovers well over the subsequent days.

Left without staff, James like most others in the story, does everything himself in the kitchen. Short of raising the chicken!

Chef Hemal Shah (world cuisine)


Asian lunch: Hemal Shah


Another example of a professional chef turning home chef is Hemal Shah who earlier worked at La Folie, where we knew her to be a very caring and compassionate chef who made our visits to the cafe special. She then left to set up her own events and pop up meals business. The lockdown put paid to that for now.

She then began to offer online cooking workshops. The theme being her travels and inspirations from across the world. She offers curated meals too in Mumbai based on her theme for the week.

We got a taste of her Oriental cooking this weekend and some of the dishes, such as the heady prawn laksa (with a khow suey like turmeric hit) and the American chain PF Chang inspired dynamite prawns were brilliant and the nutella cup cookie had K smitten as had the laksa.

Chef Anurita Ghoshal: Eight By Anurita (desserts)


Dark chocolate keto cake which we actually like because of its taste! Anurita Ghoshal


When it came to the sweet stuff during the lockdown, we kept going to our friend and LCB trained, advertising professional turned recruitment specialist and now a professional dessert chef too, Anurita Ghoshal of Eight by Anurita. Be it the keto dark chocolate cake for K, or the 'mango and lots of cream cake' for my mom in law's birthday or the 'chocolate but no icing' cake for my masi in law, Anurita has delivered one knock performance out after another during the lockdown She delivers wherever we want, again using wefast. The charges are added on and we sent cakes to Dadar and Cuffe Parade thanks to this.

Vive le resistance

I used the term 'home chef' to club all non restaurant option providers in the article, not just those who operate out of home. This definition can be debated. Going back to my Presidency College Sociology Hons days in Kolkata, I will quote Marx (Karl) in response and he had said, "philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it."

The ‘resistance’ bit is reference to the fact that we are watching Money Heist on Netflix these days.

Setting aside definitions and definitions for a bit, what excites me about this story is that while we only hear about the the very unfortunate closures and losses and economic dead ends that the lockdown has led to, this is a wonderful example of the reverse. The resistance. 

Our merry band of 'home chefs' have actually started new businesses or business lines in this atmosphere of gloom and despair and it was not easy.

For some, this was something they have never done before. Others had, but in a very different and cushioned way. They had no support. Had to do everything themselves. Sourcing, cooking, packing, figuring out delivery, marketing, payment. Maintain hygiene norms and live up to the trust reposed on them. Learn how to deliver consistency in taste and portions. Be alert and tenacious even when their spirits were battered. Refusing to be locked down by the miasma of the pandemic. Metaphorically speaking!

Opening their hearts and their kitchen to us so that we could stay home and stay safe and be well fed.

This is one of the most glorious stories to come out the lockdown and I know that I have just skimmed the surface and I might add a few later to the post, but till then I would like to say a big thank you to all of them.

You added hope and joy to our lives through your efforts. How wonderful is that?!

Kolkata


From the page of DJCooks


Before I sign off, let me share a few home chef stories from Kolkata in a quick bulletin. Popular Tibetan restaurant owner, Doma Wang's daughter Sonam, who is a make up artiste, and her friend Manisha, have launched a confectionery delivery business called Boma (named after Manisha's baby daughter). They made lovely desserts through the lockdown at home it seems till Doma encouraged them to make their eclairs, cupcakes and cookies commercially available to all. 

Our friend Debjani Banerji, who works in publishing, heard the my #foodocracyforher chat with Doma Wang and then decided to launch a weekly home chef Bengali menu. A picture she posted during her first day on the new journey conveyed a happy Durga Pujo bhog centre feel to me. I have had the privilege of eating inn Doma's restaurant and at Debjani's house and I am sure the food will be good. 

Popular food bloggers from the city, Debjani Chatterjee Alam and Madhushree Basu Roy, who had once collaborated to do a Bengali food festival at Mustard in Mumbai and where the food was lovely, have launched their own home chef menus in Kolkata. 

Yes, my story is primarily about Mumbai, but those featured in it are from across the country and I am looking forward to coming across many such stories from across the country through your comments. 

If it inspires any of you to act on something you have been planning but didn’t have the courage to act on, or to a good meal, then my work is done!


As always, requesting you to message me if you spot any grammatical or factual errors

Updates: 

I plan to update this story as and when I come upon new experiences and will do so here:

Misbah Mitha: Tadka Tales

1st July 2020 

Afghani chicken and Arabic pulao. Misbah Mitha (the portion size was a lot more). Big thanks to K for the crockery that she ordered for me from Nicobar. They were made for this aristocratic meal.


"This is so good. Reminds me of the my mother's white chicken curry. It is almost as if it was cooked in someone's house."

"It was cooked in someone's house," I replied with a smile to K. 

This was over lunch today when we got to try the the food most kindly sent by Misbah Mitha. She was in school with our friend Dr Manisha Talim (@sugarsnapmumbai) and Manisha said we MUST try the food.

On the menu was Chicken Afghani and Arabic Pulao. Both dishes looked very delicate and yet were so intense in flavour. One neither needed to add salt to the dish, nor even a salad on the side. The curry of the yogurt, almond and cashew based chicken was mellow and yet had a peppery and nutty note. The rice was redolent with dried fruits and saffron and brought in its own flavour notes to the soiree on our plates. Despite the 'rich' ingredients used, the food did not leave us feeling heavy at all.What impressed me the most was how tender the chicken was, despite being cubed breast pieces.

Misbah is a fashion designer and for the past three decades has done Indian wear under the brand Zebaish. She belongs to the Muslim Halai Memon community and is a passionate cook who never had the time to take this forward. The pandemic hit her out of nowhere and work stopped. That is when our common friend Manisha, who has tried Misbah's food often in the past, strongly encouraged Misbah to try out her hand as as a home chef. 

From personal experience, I know that of Manisha believes in you then she will push you in the right direction even if you do not want to get up. I owe her a lot for this even in my own life!

Misbah started Tadka Tales, her home chef offer, a fortnight  or so back and in her words, 'the response has been overwhelming. Especially since I am not from any culinary school and was very apprehensive about this." After today's lunch, I am not surprised about this. 

Incidentally, though a designer, Misbah had not been to fashion school either!


Nicole Mody: #ComidaWorld (dessert)


4th July 2020

I had been meaning to order the sourdough chocolate chip cookies from her menu ever since I saw Nicole Mody launch a menu of home made cookies, banana breads and cheesecake towards the beginning of the lockdown. I managed to do so today finally when I ordered them for K, the cookie monster in the house, and for me. We both love good cookies!!!!!

It was worth the wait. These were soft-baked cookies. The way we like our cookies to be. Buttery. The chocolate chips were generous and of excellent quality and the cookies were of the sort which I feel that even the folks at Ben's Cookies London (our favourite cookie place) might feel proud to serve. This was gourmet stuff coming out of a home kitchen. 

Nicole told me that she was literally doing everything alone for this. Plus the housework. "I have never had to cook for meal every single meal that I have had before this period," said Nicole. "I have begun to appreciate what our house helps did like I never have before."

To be fair, Nicole does say that her husband helps a bit and if anything falls on the floor then her dog licks it up (and cleans it up in the process). That apart, #comidaworld is a one woman act, as are so many of these valiant home chef stories springing up during the lockdown.

The best part of this endeavour, says Nicole, is that kept her very busy at a time when her professional assignments had come to a stop. Having started at a time when most cafes and bakeries were shut, her work was cut out as for many, this was a rare place to get the sweet stuff from then. Things that gave one joy. 

Nicole delivers cookies and banana breads across Mumbai using delivery apps though her cheesecakes need to be picked up from her. Orders need to be placed in advance.

Appendix:

My chats with home cooks turned home chefs/ restaurateurs on #foodocracyforher where I bring you stories of women entrepreneurs in the F&B space in India:


Finely Chopped Home Chef directory

Link to Instagram pages of home chefs in the story, and some others too, as most advertise through Instagram. These are all whose food I have experienced, no or in the past, and recommend. 

Mumbai

  1. Pallavi Amberkar: Flavours of Malvan
  2. Shital Kakad: Shital's Food Cottage
  3. Shubhasree Basu & Manju Alwade: Hungry Cat Kitchen
  4. Bimba Nayak: Cooking Concepts 2006
  5. Jasleen Marwah: Namak Swaad Anusaar
  6. Marina Balkrishnan: That Thallassery Girl
  7. Tiyash Sen: Sennistic
  8. Chef Ananaya Banerjee
  9. Abhinanda Bhattacharya Peppercorns_Abhinanda
  10. James Miranda: Jazzy Jim's Cookhouse
  11. Anurita Ghoshal: Eight by Anurita
  12. Hemal Shah: Chef Hemal
  13. Misba Mitha: Tadka Tales
  14. Nicole Mody
Not in this story, but whom I would recommend basis my past experience and feedback of some whom I recommended them to recently.



Comments

Shaswati said…
Lovely write up as always. What I really like is the way you are inspiring so many home chefs/ cooks to pick up the baton. Your writing, posts, blogs, podcasts all directing towards foodocrasyindia and foodocrasyforher has added an extra dimension to your creation and encouraging so many - really really commendable.
Sunny said…
Such a beautifully written article with details on each of the home chef and their offerings. And I agree when you say that running a food business from home...end to end is supremely challenging!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@shaswati thank you so much for your lovely words. Yes, it suddenly like that there is some meaning behind what I ma doing and that eggs me on. As does this voted of confidence

@sunny thank you and yes, I am realising this with each conversation that I am having and am getting lots of inspiration for the home chefs and am hoping to channel that into my life and that of my readers