Feeding frenzy

soity banerjee | Updated on September 05, 2014


Spicy palate: Chilli pickle prepared by Gitika Saikia for an OUMK lunch

Viva la France: Camembert prepared by the Mehra brothers Photo: Prateeksh Mehra

Deep-fried delights: Roycin D’Souza at his Makin’ Bacon stall at a music festival in Mumbai last year

Prateeksh Mehra (in picture) and his brother Agnay brew beer and makecheese in their Mumbai apartment

Agnay Mehra

Strangers no more: Nidhi Jolly serving at the OUMK dinner she hosted sourajit ghosal

Trendsetters: Sheetal and Ranjith Rajasekharan launched OUMK earlier this year

Ahoy Ahomiya: Gitika Saikia with her husband at an OUMK lunch they hosted

Munchies on the move: Karan Malik with Super Sucker, his food truck, in Delhi Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Everyone’s a foodie now. If you want bragging rights, you have to be an extreme foodie

In 1936, when a transatlantic voyage on the new French liner SS Normandie was akin to a ride on the Virgin Galactic today, someone at a hotel in Paris had a bright idea. He decided to open a grand grillroom in the liner’s likeness — the now legendary Le Relais Plaza — for those who had missed the boat.

Nearly 80 years later, it may seem uncharitable to think of some of India’s latest food entrepreneurs as those who missed the boat. But it’s not entirely inaccurate. They chose MBAs over hotel management, trained as tattoo artists rather than chefs, spent their savings on a house not a restaurant... and all this when the time was ripe for new ideas and business models, and Masterchef Australia was but one season old.

With the food evolution now near-complete — since sumac rolls off the tongue as easily as sambar and carbon steel German knives make for appropriate birthday gifts — no food dream is big enough, no idea extraordinary. But the boat-missers are not giving up yet. Paddling hard to make up for lost time, they are going to great lengths to stand out in a grand, but overcrowded grillroom. We seek out just such a crop of culinary daredevils and extreme foodies in the country.

Dining in

‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is often good advice. But what do you do if you are an extreme foodie? Well, you invite some home for dinner.

Litigator Sumeet Lall is, understandably, wary of strangers. So when Shailaja, his corporate lawyer-wife, threatens to spend Saturday night with some, he insists on joining her. (He blames it on the Capital’s unsafe streets, she on Murder 2, which they watched together on cable the previous night.)

Nidhi Jolly, a marketing professional and marathoner, and our host for tonight, has no such qualms. She meets us at the door like she would old friends, dressed in a pastel sheath, nude heels and an eyeball-grabbing neckpiece she picked up on one of her many travels. To her, so deliciously illicit is the thrill of discovery, of unplanned conversation, that she chooses not to google her dinner guests.

What if we were serial killers, I ask.

Are you, she replies in mock dread, before dissolving into laughter and setting the tone for an evening that turns out to be — strangely — a lot of fun.

At this, the first of many such pop-up meals across Delhi, Mumbai and Pune (Bangalore and Kolkata are next), we’ve been brought together by the love of food — a multi-course Mediterranean spread — and by OnceUponMyKitchen. An online marketplace, OUMK seeks to build a network of guests and home cooks who have all, at least once, dreamed the restaurant dream.

Not entirely out-of-the-box — supper clubs and underground dining have been thriving in the shadows of Indian metros for a while now — but novel in its own way, the website encourages amateur cooks to turn their dining table into a restaurant and their dinner parties into a profit-making proposition (OUMK and the hosts have a 10 per cent share each in the price of a meal). That it also puts them in the path of other food-obsessed people and potential friends is but the icing on the cake. Or in this case, pine nuts in the Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired Moroccan carrot salad.

Launched mid-February, by Mumbai-based husband-wife duo Ranjith and Sheetal Rajasekharan, OUMK has been attracting more hosts (over 120 at last count) than guests in its first month of operation. Among them are journalists, designers, boardroom regulars, advertising professionals and at least one delightful conversationalist. Nigel Fernandes, who runs a tattoo studio in Mumbai (and whose first OUMK dinner was sabotaged by chickenpox), has been cooking Goan Christian and Emirati food for friends on almost every weekend of his adult life. With a Goan father and Mangalorean mum, schooling in Dubai and England, tattoo courses in Singapore, and other travels through his almost decade-long MNC stint, Fernandes has collected recipes and friends across time zones. Many of whom return routinely to his kitchen for signature barbecue ribs and Arabic biryani. Had he stuck to his original plan of opening a restaurant in Goa — he struck it off the bucket list when he realised just how many variables were involved and just how fickle tastes could be — business would have probably chugged along by word of mouth alone. With OUMK though, the stakes are low and (non-monetary) returns, just as many.

Ask Gitika Saikia, a marketing executive with Tech Mahindra, who has been squeezing weekend breakfasts and lunches for OUMK in what is a packed-like-the-local-train life in Mumbai. Hardly a challenge for Saikia, a feisty Dibrugarh girl who, on a holiday in Europe last year, queued up on a whim at the international border of Montenegro without a valid visa (“I had heard their food was to die for”). That she didn’t end up dead, or in an episode of Locked up Abroad, is a different matter, of course.

Like hatted chefs who fly their yellow fin tuna from Tokyo’s Tsukiji or white truffle from Piedmont, Saikia has been ‘importing’ bhut jolokia, lai haak (leafy greens that marry well with pork), khar (an alkali made from the cinder of banana stem or peel) and banana flowers (of bananas with seeds) ever since she moved 3,000km away from home. But after OUMK’s website went live, she says she finds herself greeting the courier delivery boys more often. Intent on giving Mumbai a taste of the diversity of Assam, Saikia hopes to introduce guests to the cuisines of Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi and her own Sonowal Kochari tribe. Meals are priced ₹600-700 per head. “Now, which restaurant would you find that at, you tell me,” she asks no one in particular.

Back at Jolly’s, the only thing more abundant than the food itself — from parmesan crisps and homemade bread to herb-stuffed tomatoes and an apple cake that could put Delia Smith to shame — is the food-related chatter. Pinned to the chair by tales of chasing salad trucks across town and by yet another helping of brownie buttons, time runs out long before the food does.

Heading out into the night, I discover my taxi is at large, when Lall and Shailaja step in to drop me home. In the back of a strange car, minutes shy of midnight, I lean back as we pick up the threads of an unfinished conversation and race along empty Delhi roads… Oddly, there’s nothing strange about it.

Blooming in my basement

What do two Bombay boys in their 20s do afterhours? Knock back a few beers with friends. Check. Nibble at cheese and crackers while they are at it. Check.

Now, try that again. What do two Bombay extreme foodies do afterhours? Knock back a few craft beers they brewed at home. And nibble at Camembert and Brie that ‘bloomed’ in their basement!

Calling brothers Prateeksh, 29, and Agnay Mehra, 27, foodies though, is like calling Richard Branson a manufacturer and the Pussy Riot a band. Sure they love their food — in fact, Prateeksh has been a food photographer for the better part of a decade now — but what the two really are, are dotty scientists. “I have been using my right brain for years now, it was time to let the rusty left one do its job,” says Prateeksh, who won a Cannes Bronze Lion for his work in 2010.

Holed up in their 700 sq ft Dahisar basement-cave whenever they found a chink in the day, the siblings experimented with yeast and hops, temperatures and timings, for two years. And when Prateeksh wasn’t making but drinking the beer, he liked to pair his brews with cheese (an unusual choice, but one that is slowly gaining ground globally). “The trouble,” he says, “was I rarely found anything I liked. And when I did — scraping the bottom of a shelf crowded with imported labels — the cheese was far too expensive.”

It was on one such occasion about a year ago that the skies thundered and neurons crackled in his head. “Since I was already familiar with the process of fermentation for beer,” says Prateeksh, “what was stopping me from trying my hand at cheese-making? Wasn’t it also about controlling microorganisms and ageing and fermenting?”

So with no training, no tales of tutelage under artisans in the shadow of the French Alps, the Mehra brothers plunged headlong into a vat of full-cream milk. Dipping into books and the internet for information, sourcing rennet and bacterial cultures from friends and family abroad, they braved several disasters, only to arrive at Gruyere and Gouda that turned out to be “frightfully close” to artisanal variants in Europe. Working with local cow’s milk (pasteurised at home) to make mild, soft cheeses, aged for about a month and a half, the brothers are proudest of their Camembert and Brie, Saint-Marcellin and Italian Robiola. With bloomy, white fungal rinds “that have a mind of their own”, they require constant care and mollycoddling, especially in balmy Mumbai. The absence of preservatives makes them more delicate and toothsome.

Next, the duo plan to add a range of goat’s cheeses — with higher fatty acids and shorter shelf-life, making heavy salting a necessity — and blue cheese to their repertoire. To be sold under ‘The Spotted Cow’ label from end-March, the cheeses will be supplied to a small pool of restaurateurs and private clients to begin with. They will also have smaller packs to encourage the average Joe to try something new and exciting.

The brothers, meanwhile, are expecting more friends to drop in.

Bacon is a food group

At 22, Mumbai’s Roycin D’Souza knows exactly why he’d pick the local back bacon (which curls) over imported, vacuum-packed Belly bacon (“because it’s better and doesn’t cost a human arm and a leg”). If that doesn’t cut it, ask him about the Makin’ Bacon stall — his first — at the NH7 Weekender music festival last October, where he flipped bacon burgers and batter-fried, bacon-wrapped Snicker bars for a hungry mob of 600. All this in… wait for it… a pair of boxer shorts.

In a 20-minute telephonic interview, D’Souza, a photographer by profession and food-lover by choice, utters the word bacon about as many times as he inhales. And who can blame him? Currently in the thick of R&D operations for his preservative-free bacon marmalade, bacon butter, candied bacon (jerky), baconnaise (mayo) and even a bacon peanut butter (a nod to Elvis), D’Souza can’t quite explain this unbridled affection for all things bacon. “I suppose I never baked a cake,” he offers weakly. Nothing in his Mangalorean roots and schooldays in Dubai and Goa suggests any deep porkaporka connection — except, perhaps, the meals he tossed up for hungover friends at college. And yet, D’Souza finds himself neck-deep in lard love — starting small with jars of jammy bacon for customers in Mumbai and makeshift stalls at music festivals like Sunburn and NH7.

When that isn’t quite enough, he takes his shop with him (sort of) to a handful of open terraces and gardens in parsimonious Mumbai and calls it the Bombay Barbecue Club. Homeowner-hosts and the cook/s bring friends along and split the costs. The only people barred entry are nosy, tetchy neighbours with a history of calling the police.

Salad days

There was a time when food trucks largely meant grubby Chinese operations, where food and comfort came cheap. Then came cable television, and with it the American dream of taco trucks in Manhattan or frites in Queens. And never did the twain meet.

Or so I thought, until Lall and Shailaja told me about their wild goose chase across Sarita Vihar in Delhi this winter. They were in pursuit of 26-year-old Karan Malik and the Super Sucker. Named, curiously, after a detox salad (super sucker, get it?), the truck has been footloose in the city since September last year. Its daily address, a telltale pin on Facebook. Go figure.

After the usual rounds of winter music fests — some of which charge a cool ₹40,000 as parking rental for two evenings — the Super Sucker truck is waiting to tide over the harsh Delhi summer in Malik’s garage. Until then, the chef, who trained in Melbourne and earned elbow grease at cooking stints in the London Olympics and Australian Open, plans to feed the demand for low-cal, healthy food at gyms and hospitals. Greek salad, anyone?

Meals on (private) wheels

Shyam Nair is the Curtis Stone of Bangalore. The take-home chef, whose arrival in the city’s food circuit two years ago led ‘eating out’ to ‘eating in’. After prepping in his grandmother’s garage, Nair would load the food into his car and serve a meal for his clients in their homes. A back injury late last year forced him to take things slow, so he is back at the drawing board now. The new idea “is to get like-minded cooks to jam together like bands.” Discover new flavours, make new friends.

Malik, D’Souza, Mehra and others are merely the tip of the (hand-churned) iceberg in the evolving foodscape of India. For every 10 people who order chicken lollipops in restaurants, there is at least one person trying to raise an organic fowl, which is hand-fed and frequently petted. There are cook-offs and competitive eating contests, mystery box cooking parties and blind tastings going on in obscure corners of every Indian city now. The question no longer is what would you like to eat? It’s how far would you go with your love for grub?

Published on March 21, 2014

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