What India’s cooks are cooking at house

Some took cooking lessons from their mothers. Others taught their child the joys of baking. Over the past few weeks, as they were kept away from their workspaces during the COVID-19 lockdown, all the chefs we spoke to had one thing in common: the luxury of time, something nearly unheard of in the fast-paced culinary industry.

For Chef Kelvin Cheung, who garnered a celebrity following because of his hit Mumbai restaurant Bastian and now has over 1,72,000 followers on Instagram, it has been family time through and through. “We started social distancing early; the three of us have been at home in Delhi since a couple of days before the lockdown officially began. And so far, we have been spending a lot more time cooking together as a family, involving the baby as well,” he said over a phone call.

While Cheung has been serving up dals, ensuring waste-free cooking with Chinese congees and baking banana bread and chocolate chip cookies with his son Bodhi, Mumbai-based restaurateur Rachel Goenka has been exploring family recipes with her sister. Goenka is founder and CEO of The Chocolate Spoon Company, and the brains behind brands like The Sassy Spoon, House of Mandarin, Wicked China and more. She said, “We have also been trying Goan dishes, mainly from my grandmother’s traditional recipes. I had made a chicken cafreal, and also a vindaloo.”

Bengaluru-based Kavan Kuttappa has been cooking with his parents. He helms the kitchen at Bengaluru’s popular The Permit Room, as well as pH4 Food & Beverages with a number of restaurants and bars under it, and has spent the lockdown picking up Coorg cuisine tips from his mother. “Our most famous staple is pandi (pork) curry which I have been making for a while now. There are also rice accompaniments that need experience to perfect: like a flat rice cake called paputtu,made with coarser grains of broken rice and topped with freshly grated coconut.”

Chef Suresh Pillai has been making traditional dishes too, even though he is under lockdown in London. “I am staying with Malayali friends at Croydon, which has a considerable population from Kerala. So, essentials of Kerala cooking are available here.” The culinary director of The Raviz Hotels, which has properties in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Kozhikode, has whipped up everything from puttu-kadala to fish curries during the lockdown. “I devoted a week to upmas when I used, besides semolina, alternative such as quinoa, wheat, and barley,” he said.

Like Pillai, a number of chefs are using this time not only to experiment, but also to interact and guide followers online — many of whom are grappling with kitchen duties of their own.

Says Cheung, “I have been freezing fresh fruits and vegetables to be used later. This is also something I have shared on my Instagram: things like sliced bananas and destemmed grapes can be frozen for a long time, to use when it isn’t available in the market.” The tips he shares with his one lakh-plus Instagram followers are practical and carefully thought-out, he says. “I wanted to share recipes that are hassle free: after all, how many people want to be stuck washing dishes for hours?”

His series #homecookingwithKelvin is among the more popular lockdown recipe sources on social media, aided no doubt by the starring role played by his little son. Another such hashtag is #fingeasy, by Chennai-based restaurateur Sandesh Reddy. Unlike the more complex offerings of his restaurants, the dishes on Reddy’s Instagram use basic ingredients. “Recently, I found some pizza seasoning in the house, and used it to make mushroom Aglio e Olio pasta, along with crushed garlic, olive oil and pepperoncino chillies… It is the kind of ridiculous thing that I would never try in my restaurants, but it was satisfying and simple,” he says. His other offerings include a kale dal, Thai pulav and frozen Milo.

Of course, these chefs are all also Working From Home simultaneously: The restaurant industry is an embattled one, not the least because of uncertainty in terms of when it would be safe to eat out again, and a number of jobs to protect. While firefighting, chefs are also planning for life and business post-lockdown.

There is only so much they can do, however, till the situation becomes more clear. As Pillai puts it, “This is the first time in my 25-year career that I have faced such a situation… Chefs don’t usually get so much time to rest; I am making the most of it.”

With inputs from Aparna Narrain, Shilpa Nair and Meghna Majumdar

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