Thursday, May 07, 2015

Bawibride, Gitika's Pakghor and Poppaddum - Meet my Culinary Heroes

Gitika Saikia.

Imagine how refreshing it would be to experience meals that are different. Lighter on the stomach, seasonal, seasoned with stories and experiences; Like a Parsi Bhonu, washed down with stories of eccentric Bawas, beer and Raspberry at a period bungalow in a vintage Parsi Baug where time stops. Or a festive Assamese Bihu meal accompanied by dancing, anecdotes about looking for ant eggs cooking silk worms and learning about unknown North Eastern Cultures and Cuisines. Or a traditional Kerela Sadya served on a leaf, garnished with stories of coconut harvests and pepper picking…. Sounds like something you want to do? Well read on to find out how!

Until last year, the dining scene in Mumbai was pretty dismal. New restaurant openings, menu launches or food festival were daily occurrences. One hotel finished a Kashmiri festival and another announced theirs a week later. An element of ennui had set in. Nothing new was happening. They also caricature the cuisine in focus with the broadest brush, to appeal to the largest common denominator, dishing up predictable unimaginatively-executed menus. (Exceptions are ITC and Leela, where Indian food experiences are well researched and respectfully served).

Regional food festivals at hotels also for some reason, tend to be about royal cuisines… like they need to justify charging what they do by tagging it with ‘royal.’ Until now, home cooking has been largely ignored only seeing light in the recipe pages of columns like 'Ghar ka khana around festive times when papers are looking for something topical to feature. Or on the rare occasions that a hotel chain deigns to exploit a home-cook and showcase a cuisine their chefs cannot do (yes that is a grouse I will air at some point as well). So it is a happy thing, then, that into this desolate landscape of dining have arrived a tribe of extraordinary culinary evangelists. There is a burgeoning underground food scene that is mushrooming in our melting pot of a city and it is so exciting! Over the last few weeks I finally had a chance to catch up with some amazing women who are changing the dynamics of Mumbai’s culinary scene.

Perzen Patel
First I visited Perzen, who has been charming my twitter timeline with her indefatigable enthusiasm in promoting Parsi cuisine. I was invited to a Dhansak lunch at her new kitchen, in a vintage parsi bungalow. Perzen learned Parsi cooking from her mother to connect with her roots. Realizing that Parsi food was disappearing she decided to do something about it. The result? The Bawi Bride kitchenShe started taking orders for Parsi food, conducting personalised cooking classes among other things. But her most delicious offering is the Parsi meals she hosts. 

Jer Villa
Which climbed a few notches higher since she began offering them at her new home, Jer Villa a retro Parsi bungalow, in Malcolm Baug, Jogeshwari.  I got there on a humid Sunday afternoon to be welcomed by a smiling Perzen and a tall glass of chilled Raspberry. Much talk, eating of Saria (sago crackers) and sighing over Jer Villa’s antiquities (like a fan in the loo!) later we dug into lunch. A delicious meal of Dhansak, Salli chicken and Lagan nu Custard washed down with chilled beer. The Dhansak was perfect, but it was the Salli chicken that I really savoured that day. Tender chicken in a spicy, subtly sweet gravy with crispy salli to sprinkle over. I just could not get enough! Perzen has something happening almost every weekend so check out her website and sign up for one of her meals. For more info check – 

Next on the menu was an Assamese Bihu meal, right here at my studio. 

Assamese Bihu meal 
In Assam, April is when young village boys go hunting for a delicacy found only on mango and olive trees. Red ant eggs, costly to buy, they make for a special delicacy during Bihu, the Assamese New Year. Gitika Saikia timed herself perfectly and flew in from Assam bearing these and bags full of exotic ingredients we had never seen before like silkworm eggs and proceeded to cook up a fantastic meal of ant eggs scrambled with egg. There was also polu lota, made from the cocoon of the silkworm, boiled and stir fried, and washed down with a fermented rice drink flavoured with 80 different herbs. Gitika has singlehandedly given the cuisines of the North East and identity in India. She regularly hosts meals of different kinds all over the city. Find out more about what she does here 
Sneha Niar
Soon after this I finally met Sneha Nair, an economist who started cooking to reconnect herself with Keralite food but soon found it became a full time job under the name Poppadum! Sneha invited me over and spoilt me rotten with a fantastic meal to give me a taste of her cooking. There was a subtly sweet Pineapple Pachadi spiked with mustard, Syrian Christian veg stew redolent of cinnamon, mutton pepper fry, pomfret pepper fry, raw mango mustard chutney, mango ginger chutney, yoghurt and Madras Cucumber Curry, Poppaddum and pickled mango ginger. And there was Sneha of the dancing eyes who fascinated me with her memories and stories. 
A Poppaddum Meal
                                                                        Every weekend Sneha serves up sadyas (traditional and often festive Keralite meals involving a selection of dishes served on a banana leaf) inspired by traditional Syrian, Malabar Muslim, and Kerela Hindu cuisines. The theme and menu varies with each lunch which – like all of Poppaddum’s lunches - are served in the informal setting of Nair’s home on banana leaves. For more information go to

Perzen Patel 
                                                                            It’s one thing to cook a meal occasionally for friends it is absolutely another to do it on a weekly or often even daily basis. For me it is a great measure of regard and affection when someone cooks me a meal with love. They spend the most valuable commodity on us. Time. These three ladies, have taken the onus of evangelizing their heritage and culture through the medium of their food. They do what it takes, from going to any lengths to get the ingredients they need, to refusing to compromise on anything that is part of the experience they serve up.  They are up there - my culinary heroes.

I’d predicted that Indian food would be huge on the menu in 2015, when I was working on the Natures Basket Food Trends report for 2015,last year. With Indian food being discovered and rediscovered at every level in our country on a daily basis, today, I’m happy to be proven right. 
One of the areas that this is most evident in, is that of home cooks and home cooking experiences in Mumbai. In addition to contacting these ladies directly, keep an eye on the events curated by the following, Trekurious Mumbai (they have each of these ladies featuring in May), Secret Ingredient home chef experiences and Bombay Local food festivals from Small Fry Co. (They have the biggest ever Bombay Local edition on 16th May) and of course the Culinary Legacy events I curate at APB Cook Studio (Rongali Bihu version 2 on 16th May & a fabulous Maharashtrian Mejwani Food Festival coming up on 23 May. .
Culinary Legacy event at APB Cook Studio

Meal Sneha cooked for me

Jer Villa and a band of happy foodies! 

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