Inviting strangers to dinner

DECCAN CHRONICLE | JULIE SAM
Published Jun 28, 2015, 9:51 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
There’s a growing tribe of amateur cooks who are dishing out exciting cuisines — at their homes
Matter of Taste: Guests enjoy a meal at The Bohri Kitchen where son-mother pair Munaf and Nafisa Kapadia present authentic Bohri cuisine in Mumbai
 Matter of Taste: Guests enjoy a meal at The Bohri Kitchen where son-mother pair Munaf and Nafisa Kapadia present authentic Bohri cuisine in Mumbai

On a Saturday morning, Sneha Nair — an economic researcher by day, and a cooking enthusiast by night (or rather in her spare time) — is busy whipping up a traditional Kerala sadhya. She carefully prepares delicacies like pineapple pachhadi, idichakka thoran (tender jackfruit, cooked with coconut), pavvaka theeyal (bittergourd) and then just before the first of her guests begin to arrive, lays it all out on banana leaves in her living room, ready for her guests to dig in. Now, Sneha’s acitivity may not strike you as particularly unusual — we all do cook up a feast for our friends and relatives from time to time. But Sneha’s visitors aren’t her friends or family: They’re strangers; regular Mumbaikars who love the idea of tucking into a traditional Malayali meal, with the assurance that what they’ll be having is indeed, authentic fare, as cooked in the kitchens of Kerala.

Sneha has been advertising these meals — cooked and served at her home, and presented under the moniker “Poppadum” — on Facebook and on websites like Mealtango and Trekurious for just over a year now, and the response has only grown since that time. Initially, she would restrict it to just Sundays, once a fortnight. Then, she started hosting the meals on Saturdays, then on weekdays as well. Now, a Poppadum meal is hosted 3-4 times a week, and at each of these meals around 10-15 guests are usually present. Sneha is one among the growing tribe of amateur cooks who are cooking and serving meals — trying out various cuisines — at their homes. Websites like Mealtango and Trekurious and apps like Tiny Owl abound with listings/bookings for sit-down meals at the homes of amateur cooks.

Among the popular ones are The Bohri Kitchen (son-mother pair Munaf and Nafisa Kapadia who present authentic Bohri cuisine in Mumbai), Bawi Bride (Parsi food prepared by Perzen Patel, also in Mumbai), Ruchira Hoon Phillip from Delhi, who dishes up desi delights for travellers to India, Santhanam T. from Bengaluru (sadhyas prepared from all-organic ingredients) and Rahul Nanda from Foodie Doodle, also from Bengaluru, who helps home chefs across the city host similar meals. These services signal a shift in the food industry — instead of a celebration of the cult of the star chefs or of iconic restaurants, the focus is on amateur chefs who extend invites for a traditional/themed meal cooked and served by them at their home.

A simple start

Most of these home cooks have had a simple start to their services. For instance, The Bohri Kitchen in Mumbai began when Munaf Kapadia (who calls himself the Chief Eating Officer) felt that the fabulous cooking of his mother, Nafisa, needed a greater audience than just their family.

Opening a restaurant would have been a logistical nightmare but when Nafisa put together a rough structure of a menu for an evening dinner, Munaf quickly emailed a few friends and asked if they’d be interested for a sit-down meal. Overwhelmed with the response, they hosted a few more meals, for friends and their mutual acquaintances. Watermelon juice, chicken drumsticks, chicken angara, mutton biryani, paaya soup, ice cream and saunf (customary in a Bohri meal) were served.

Munaf soon started a Facebook page and they now host regular weekly meals for 12-15 guests at a time. “We screen candidates just to make sure we aren’t inviting someone with bad intentions. My mother speaks to them and goes through their online profiles. I have trained her to be a stalker!” he adds with a laugh.  
 
A dash of culture
 
What these home cooks offer isn’t just delicious food served in a more intimate and personal setting than a restaurant — they also offer insights into the host family’s culture. For instance, Bawi Bride’s Perzen Patel realised that guests were interested in learning about Parsi culture and traditions when she hosted a Navroze table. Now, she has quit her job as a marketing executive and works on Bawi Bride full time. Yet another culturally impressive experience is offered by Gitika Saikia who serves cuisine from the Northeast at her home.

Strangers for dinner?
 
What’s it like having strangers at home, dining with you? While Munaf Kapadia may joke about “not having serial killers over”, the space constraint does mean that guests — who do not know each other — are pushed into close proximity. The Kapadias, for instance, found that serving food on the traditional Bohri thaal (a common platter out of which up to eight people can eat) was not to everyone’s liking, so they served individual portions. For Ruchira Hoon Phillip, hosting strangers is actually an experience she enjoys, especially now that she has got to understand the food preferences of the travellers who sign up for her curated meals. “For instance, Italians and French like spice in their food. When it comes to Americans and Russians, you really need to keep the spice in check. I think these sit-down events are more personal, and this is your best bet if you want to know more about the place you live in,” she says.

And if you also love having company over, in addition to cooking for them, then offering a sit-down meal is truly a joy. A case in point is Mrs Santhanam T. who says she has always enjoyed cooking for and hosting people, and grew up amidst a culture of big get-togethers where traditional Malayali food was served. “So when I heard of the website MealTango, I decided to give hosting a sit-down meal a try,” she says. “At 65, I am happy where this is going. I like talking to people, calling people over for lunch, and expanding my social circle. It gives me a sense of self-worth. I am proud that I am doing something that makes me happy. Initially I cooked for my family, now I cook because it makes me happy.”
 
What the guests have to say
 
Munaf says guests who’ve sampled Nafisa’s khaana have hugged her in appreciation! And why not, with dishes that you wouldn’t get in a restaurant, the knowledge that what you’ve been served is an authentic sample of a particular culture or cuisine and the personal attention from your host — all at a reasonable price (none of these meals cost more than Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000) Swarnim, a guest who signed up for Sneha Nair’s ‘naadan fish meal’ says, “The food was absolutely fantastic as only a home cooked meal can be, and it had all the complexity and flavours of authentic Malayali food. We had two types of fish —both delicious — along with a variety of yummy chutneys and pickles. Sneha told us a lot of interesting little tidbits about where the dishes and ingredients come from.” Another guest, Shashi, sampled a Poppadum meal, and says, “It was a feast! We sat on the floor and were served on banana leaves. We were served delicious food with so much enthusiasm and warmth but it soon became obvious that sitting on the floor with a full stomach was not the most comfortable of postures for some of our urban friends!”

Not in competition with restaurants
 
While the home cooks we spoke to love to cook and serve meals, most of them also insist that they’re not interested in setting up restaurants. Ruchira, for instance, says that she doesn’t want to get into the restaurant business because “there is too much hard work involved”. “For instance, you need to work from 11 am to 11 pm in the kitchen, and I do not really want to be involved with the backend. I am happier whipping up food,” she says. Sneha adds that cooking itself is exciting, the bonus is being paid for hosting her meals. “These recipes have come from my family and I cook these dishes as an exercise to revive them. This is my way of documenting a bit of my culture and making sure that it doesn’t die with the previous generation. Also, I like socialising and meeting people, so Poppadum helps me get out of the daily rut,” she says.
 
Not just a passing fad
 
It isn’t just about individuals hosting meals anymore, there are now platforms/portals that collate all of these experientials and help you book them in a one-stop kind of way. Apart from Trekurious, Tiny Owl and MealTango, there is Foodie Doodle, that gets together all the home cooks who’re ready to host sit-down meals on their platform. Rahul Nanda, the co-founder and CEO of Foodie Doodle, says, “We either hold our events at the chef’s home or at a venue that is comfortable for both, the chef and the guests. The home-chef events present a live demonstration of a few recipes that are easy for the guests to follow. And we ensure that the guests don’t number more than 12-15.” Bookings are done via the Foodie Doodle Official Group, and usually cost between Rs 600-1,500. If these live demos are the next step for home chefs, so is retailing their delicacies online. The Kapadias of Bohri Kitchen retail chutneys and sheer korma and have a “bring your dabba” initiative where customers can take away packaged food from their home. Sneha Nair too retails her pickles online and is in talks with restaurants to curate special menus.

Mrs Santhanam feels demand for such services — especially as our cities become evermore multicultural — will only rise. “In Bengaluru, for instance, you find a lot of Malayalis who crave for authentic Malayali food, or want to eat something traditional. I believe we will only go forward from here,” she says.
Munaf Kapadia agrees. “I am beginning to feel that home-chefs coming to the fore is more than just a trend,” he says. “If done in a scalable manner, it can disrupt the food industry.”





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