Chingri Malai curry at Culinary Connections, New Delhi. Photo courtesy of Rishabh Gogoi.
V Nata Raju’s house in East Delhi bustles with activity on a Sunday morning. “When Raju built this house, the kitchen was the epicentre”, his wife Punita, 56, tells VICE World News as she flattens moon-shaped discs of aata (dough) and spreads chilli powder over them to make Mirchi ka Paratha (traditional spiced flatbreads), a dish that has its roots in her family’s kitchen in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Meanwhile, 61-year-old Raju prepares Guntur Mutton curry, a spicy goat-meat stew; and Kodi Vepudu, a spicy chicken fry dish that Raju finishes up with a homemade powder made from dried lentils and chillies. These dishes are from his native state of Andhra Pradesh, a southern coastal state in the country, whose cuisine contrasts starkly with the north.
“Andhra Pradesh is the largest producer of red chilli peppers in the world, most famous of which is the Guntur Sannam chilli”, Raju explains as he cooks. This is why the state’s cuisine is often talked of as loaded with red chillies and spices. “But that is not all. There is more to Andhra food than just being hot.” He holds up a box that contains a spice mix, the recipe of which he inherited from his mother. It is made of more than 20 ground spices and is the “secret” to Raju’s meat preparations. “To really know regional Indian cuisine, you have to look within homes,” he says. “That’s where you will find stories of how people really eat.”
The Rajus are the proprietors of 108 Kitchens, a door-to-door food service they have been operating since late September 2020. Last year, hundreds of home chefs sprung up throughout the country, advertised their menus on social media and collaborated with delivery partners to arrange services for their clients.
Restaurants closed and thousands of Indian households avoided domestic staff cooking for them during India’s nationwide lockdown, which lasted for more than 100 days. As a result, people started looking for alternatives. “For those who were not cooking regularly, the initial novelty of experimenting and the chore of planning three meals wore off quickly,” says Joanna Lobo, Mumbai-based food critic and writer. “Home chefs bridged this gap in the market, offering people food cooked in a home kitchen.” Lobo also mentions the comfort of it. “The ease of delivery, of not stepping out the door.”
The prelude to home kitchens is the large industry of food tech, in which convenience had become a governing factor in how Indians had begun to eat. The Indian food tech industry, one of the largest in the world, grew six times between 2017 and 2019. Home kitchens, while they delivered, also provided more personalisation, which “works wonders”, Lobo says.
If personalisation drew customers to home-chefs, “the variety and the novelty of dishes on offer was staggering,” Lobo says.
For 39-year-old Nusma Shaik, the chef at Nusma’s Family Legacy in the western Indian state of Goa, the novelty did the trick. “My food is mostly Shahi,” she says, using the word that signifies recipes that descend from royal kitchens of the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. “It is that specialisation that my clients enjoy.” Shaik cooks Haleem, a popular slow-cooked meat stew made with wheat, mutton, and spices; Raan (leg of mutton) marinated in spices and grilled until meat falls off the bone. “Many have told me that it is the only raan in Goa,” she says.
Shaik’s recipes are all her mother’s. One of her favourites is Panjiri , a sweet dish made from dry fruits, dry coconut, ghee, and jaggery. Families and their secrets are often the bedrock of the most timeless of Indian foods. But as Shaik points out, only a few get to cook to commercial success and fame. “People prefer paying a hefty amount to a chef with an English accent trained in France cooking something that no one truly cares about,” says Raju’s son, Upmanyu. “But our grandmothers labored over fires for hours, creating the most astounding things. When does that matter?” he asks.
Home chefs, with their heirloom recipes, address this neglect. Owais Rasool Bhat, 33, the Kashmiri chef behind Wullar Kitchen in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, tells VICE World News his menu is a “tribute to the women of South-Kashmir”. “There’s so much we take for granted growing up, especially as men, working with the recipes of the women in my family has made me realise the work that goes into preparing these foods.” Wullar’s Kitchen’s specialities are Chhath Ras, a traditional meat stew made with fennel and cooked over a slow fire; and Rajma Gosht, made from red kidney beans and mutton, “telling the story of how people devise ways to survive harsh weather”.
According to Umpanyu, there is a generic idea that home food is what people traditionally eat at home. And restaurant food needs to be borderline junk food. “However, the pandemic changed that. People were closed in, and they wanted food that tasted like home, which is where the home kitchens entered.”
Home kitchens are not to be confused with cloud kitchens – large networks of savvy home-delivery systems, like the ones Uber founder Travis Kalanick is looking to establish around the world. Cloud kitchens work on gentrified menus and invisible labour to create seamless but soulless food industries. Home chefs, on the other hand, rely on specificity and compassionate curation that keeps people returning to them.
At Culinary Connections, a home kitchen in New Delhi, 63-year-old Utpala Mukherjee and her nephew Rishabh Gogoi pack momos or Tibetan meat dumplings, and pork with black sesame to send to customers. The home kitchen employs five persons. “Creating livelihoods was my main incentive”, says Mukherjee. Gogoi proposes to his aunt to increase prices for boneless meat, but she won’t. “This is the difference,” Gogoi adds, laughing. “With younger people, everything is so cutthroat and about capital profit, but home chefs are often older people, like my aunt, who do not have that temperament”. Supervising her orders, Mukherjee shares how a customer invited her over for dinner after ordering from her kitchen a few times. “It felt like an exchange,” she says. “It is an isolating time. People need to be looked after. People need to be fed.”