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Rude food | The revenge of the amateur

While many of us think we can cook or run restaurants, the truth is that entering the food business requires energy, experience and a high level of expertise, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2010 18:27 IST
Vir Sanghvi

The food business is about professionals. While many of us think we can cook or run restaurants, the truth is that entering the food business requires energy, experience and a high level of expertise.

Ask anybody who actually runs a restaurant and you will hear a litany of woes. Some of this will be about food – menu planning, ingredient ordering, kitchen hiring etc – but a lot of it will be about practicalities: hiring the location, paying off the Municipal Corporation, arranging a hafta rate with the cops, pleasing the Fire Department, bribing the excise officers etc.

Even cookbooks require more expertise than you may think. Most recipes will be reproduced by amateurs with no real kitchen skills. So the recipes themselves need to be fool-proof, they need to be tested again and again and the ingredients required must be those that are both standardised, and easily available.

Given these qualifications, it is always a delight when one finds amateurs succeeding in the food business. And last week, I was thrilled to come across two great successes, both pulled off by food business virgins.

Tushita Patel is a former journalist who now works as executive assistant to Vijay Mallya. (I’m not sure I’m allowed to say this. Her bio only states that she is “the executive assistant to one of India’s most charismatic industrialists” so perhaps Vijay wants her to be discreet).

Some months ago, Tushita, who I know slightly, from her days at The Telegraph, sent me the manuscript of her cookbook. I was a little taken aback because I had no idea that anybody who worked for Vijay could find the time to compile a collection of recipes given Vijay’s frenetic 24/7 work style.

But when I read the manuscript, I was pleasantly surprised. These were recipes that anybody could follow, using ingredients that were widely available. More to the point, Tushita had not bothered with authenticity or haute cuisine. This was the sort of food any working person could make after a day at the office. It was eclectic but it was easy and it all seemed mouth-wateringly delicious.

Tushita’s book is now out. It’s published by Westland and should be in the shops this weekend. It is called Flash In The Pan – What To Cook And How. It is only Rs 250 a copy and it has recipes that will keep you going for months and months.

Writing a book is easier than running a restaurant. All over the Western world (and, as I discovered a couple of months ago, in Hong Kong) the new craze is for pop-up restaurants. I’m not sure how these originated but my guess is that they were derived from the guerilla shops that Japanese designers began opening over the last decade.

A guerilla shop comes up almost overnight in a deserted warehouse or an empty retail space. It has no advertising and the décor is minimalistic. The shop lasts as long as the merchandise does. Once everything is sold, the owners dismantle the shop, leaving the space as bare as they found it, and move on. Sometime later, they find a new location and open a new pop-up or guerilla shop.

Pop-up restaurants work on the same basis. In Hong Kong, people who know how to cook but cannot be bothered to go through the hassles of opening a formal restaurant find an empty basement or a vacant flat and decide that they will turn it into an instant restaurant. Usually, there is no menu or choice. You eat whatever is cooked. The décor is non-existent. There is no advertising. Guests only find out about the place through word of mouth recommendations and then, as the authorities start getting nosey and looking for licences etc, the restaurant closes, leaving behind no evidence that it ever existed.

I have always wondered why nobody opens pop-up restaurants in India. The nearest we’ve come to the concept – at least in my experience – was The Farmhouse which Saeed Sattar used to run on the outskirts of Bangalore in the 1980s. Saeed, an old friend of my parents, had worked for Air India, had become an excellent cook and had then dropped out to live in Poona at the Rajneesh ashram.

When Rajneesh began his global journey, Saeed and his wife Ashrafa moved to a farm outside Bangalore. On Sundays, Saeed would cook lunch (usually Italian with no choice on the menu except for a vegetarian option) and allow paying customers to eat his food.

Because the operation was completely illegal, you could only get a table if you knew Saeed or you knew somebody who knew him. Even then, Saeed could be picky. Once his fame spread, five star hotels began sending high rollers to The Farmhouse. Saeed was not particularly grateful. He would interview potential customers on the phone and reject them if he thought they sounded too nouveau or too vulgar. Saeed died some years ago and though I gather Ashrafa kept The Farmhouse going (she also sold an amazing breakfast cereal that she made herself in partnership, if I remember correctly, with Waheeda Rehman), I lost touch with the Sattars.

Saeed’s operation pre-dated the cult of pop-up restaurants, so, given that we have this sort of expertise in India already, I waited for some enterprising home cook to start a Farmhouse-style pop-up in Delhi.

Last Sunday, I found one. I went to lunch at Ammi, Delhi’s newest (and perhaps only) pop-up which serves coastal food. The cuisine was astonishingly good, among the best of its kind that I’ve eaten outside of the South. I had hot appams with a delicious meat curry from Malabar. There were three other Malayali dishes, thoran made with crunchy beans, a pineapple pachadi and surprisingly good pumpkin with browned coconut.

There were dishes from the rest of South India as well, a Thoothukudi chicken curry from Tamil Nadu, a brinjal dish from Andhra and a semolina pudding from Karnataka.

Ammi does not mean – as North Indians might think – mother but apparently is the Malayalam word for a pestle and mortar. It’s a good name because the distinctive characteristic of the cooking was perfection in spicing. Nothing was too hot and nothing was much too bland. This was cooking done by a master who had no need to use any restaurant-style tricks but was happiest turning out the real thing.

The location – at least on this Sunday – was a sprawling bungalow in South Delhi. There were tables in the lawn but many people sat in the living and dining room.

I know how I found out about Ammi – on the incestuous journo circuit – but obviously a lot of other people had heard too. There were Ritu Dalmia of Diva, Gautam Anand of ITC (chef Manjit Gill had been there the previous Sunday), the BJP’s Nalin Kohli (of TV fame) and at least three editors. The week before, guests had included Ravi Bajaj and Vikram Chandra or so I was able to discover.

Because the pop-up was packed to capacity, I don’t suppose they’re worried too much about attracting more custom. They have a rather discreet, high-profile clientele that likes keeping its haunts to itself. I asked if I could include a phone number when I wrote about the food and they looked quite alarmed. So I don’t know how anybody outside this charmed circle can get in but apparently there is an email id (

). At the moment Ammi only does Sunday lunch and by Sunday evening, all traces of the restaurant have vanished and the bungalow is back to normal.

If you can get in, do go. If not, don’t worry too much. Like all good pop-ups, this one will come and go, staying open for a few weeks, closing and then opening up again at a completely different location. I’ve heard whispers that the people behind Ammi do discreet catering but I’m not sure how this works. In any case, don’t worry. I’m sure more pop-ups will open in Delhi in the coming months.

Recipes from Flash in The Pan

Spicy Potatoes
Potatoes with the skin on, medium-sized, diced 5; Oil 1 tbsp; Cumin seeds 1/2 tsp; Mustard seeds 1/2 tsp; Chilli powder 1/2 tsp; Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp; Asafoetida powder 1/2 tsp; Salt 1/2 tsp; Poppy seeds 1 tsp; Green chillies, slit 3

Wash the diced potatoes in several changes of water and soak it for as long as you can in chilled water. Drain when you’re ready to cook.

Heat the oil in a frying pan or kadhai. Once hot, turn down the heat to moderate and add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, chilli powder, turmeric and lastly the asafoetida. Stir and mix.

Add the potatoes and stir so that they are coated in the spices. Increase the heat and stir quickly for two minutes. Add salt.

Turn the heat down to low, cover the pan and cook, checking every five minutes. The potatoes should steam in their own juices, but if they start burning, sprinkle some water. Cook covered till done – this should be about 15 minutes.

Take it out on a serving dish, ideally with a lid. Sprinkle the poppy seeds, if you’re using them, on the potatoes and place the chillies artily to offset the green of the chillies against the orange-red potatoes and cover with the lid (the steam from the hot potatoes will soften the chillies a bit).

Uncover at the table.

Stewed Pears In Red Wine
Pears, small, tight recommended 8; Vanilla pod 1 or extract at a crunch 1/2 tsp; Red wine 1 bottle/750 ml; Sugar 100 gms (1/2 cup); Cinnamon 4x1” sticks

Peel the pears, but retain the stalk. Cut each pear vertically into two.

Split the vanilla pod with a sharp knife and scrape out the extract.

Put all the ingredients into a heavy-based pan. Stir everything well so that the fruits are adequately submerged.

Cover and cook on a simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. The pears should soften but retain adequate bite.

Cool and refrigerate.

Serve with cream.

You can also use peaches in this recipe

Mushroom and Fried Onion Rice
Oil 4 tbsp; onions, large, sliced 1; Mushrooms, sliced 100 gms; Salt 1 ½ tsp; slightly undercooked Basmati rice 6 cups

Heat oil in a kadhai or frying pan and fry the onion on high heat till it turns brown.

Add the mushrooms and stir fry till all the water from the mushrooms has evaporated and they are wilted and fried.

Pour in ½ cup of hot water and some salt, followed by the cooked rice. Cook on moderate heat till the water is absorbed by the rice. Cool and separate the grains by raking it with a fork before you empty it into a serving dish or individual bowls.

It could take on stratospheric dimensions if you have a stock of mixed mushrooms like shitake, porcini apart from the regular local. If you are using dry mushrooms, soak them in hot water and use the water in the rice.