When the world’s largest lockdown was initiated in India last March, in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19, restaurants across the country shut operations overnight. Whether eating out or ordering in – out of compulsion, or to relax with friends and family, or to satiate the foodie within – it all came to a grinding halt. From then on, the food landscape in the country began to register interesting trends, one of which was the rise of the gourmet home kitchen.
Beef rendang and pineapple sauce from South India
Everyday cooking can get tedious even for an enthusiast, and so when the opportunity to try a new cuisine from another’s kitchen arises, it is grabbed with both cutlery-wielding hands. No one knows this better than chef Gautam Krishnankutty, whose home kitchen venture has Bengalureans playing a game of fastest finger first.
Despite not revealing his menu on any fixed day, Krishnankutty usually sells out of a dish announced on his Instagram in a few minutes, if not seconds. From the popular Hainanese chicken rice to experiments such as Coca-Cola-braised chicken and mussels in Ghanaian chilli paste shito, knowing that one of the 25 portions he makes is yours, is nothing short of a celebration.
With more than 20 years in the food business as chef and co-owner of Bengaluru restaurants such as Cafe Thulp and The Smoke Co, Krishnankutty took to cooking from his home even before the pandemic, to keep himself busy. Demand had him go from announcing dishes three times a month to thrice a week.
“March 2020 saw an exponential rise in demand. Thanks to erratic supplies, I was cooking without a plan for the first time in decades, based on what was available. I would wake up one morning to find star fruit at the vegetable market and would announce a Thai fish curry with it,” Krishnankutty says.
Crowd favourites such as Brazilian beef feijoada and Thai curries aside, his repertoire includes bottled sauces such as habanero prawn ketchup, brined and fermented bhut jolokia sauce, and even a pineapple sweet chilli sauce – his tribute to the one that accompanies the tod mun goong (crispy prawn cakes) in Bangkok. He smokes meats on an even smaller scale, and the pastrami is sold out before you can blink.
“I can go free-form with this venture, experiment and try dishes that I didn’t have time for earlier. The beef rendang, for example, takes me two days to pull off, but is a favourite so I keep bringing it back,” says Krishnankutty.
Spice mixes and egg roast from north India
At the other end of the country, in New Delhi, the foodies ordering from The Ruchira Kitchen have a firm favourite, too – the Kerala egg roast. Founder and chef Ruchira Hoon says she continues to be surprised by the popularity of what is essentially a quick-fix dish in Kerala homes.
Hoon, a full-time chef with the Olive Bar and Kitchen Group, began her Sunday evening delivery kitchen at home as an interim venture in the wake of the 2020 lockdown. Having grown up in Delhi and Chennai, she was aware of the disparity in the understanding of north-south food cultures.
“I was making what is considered home food – vangi bhath, Thalappakatti biryani, Mangalorean dishes – and found that it opened new culinary experiences for people in Delhi, who knew about food and were willing to try something they haven’t before.
“I realised the food can be educative for people, and making it kept me on top of my cooking and research game,” says Hoon, who also offers Pakistani and Iranian menus, the latter being a personal favourite. She also loves the process of making spice mixtures from scratch. This, she feels, is what gives a dish its edge.
Dan dan noodles and gunpowder sour cream from Western India
Over in India’s finance capital Mumbai, chef Mihir Sheth credits the sauces – think gunpowder sour cream and podi tahini – he makes for his gourmet home kitchen venture, Sambar & Soy, for his success. A culinary enthusiast who moved from the world of computers to food, Sheth lives in Mumbai but has extensive experience working with restaurants across the country.
It was while travelling for work, to Bengaluru especially, that he discovered South Indian food, a cuisine he now alternates with another favourite, an Oriental menu, for his Friday to Sunday kitchen.
Much like Krishnankutty’s beef rendang and Hoon’s Kerala egg roast, Sheth says the demand for the dan dan noodles on his Asian menu has been relentless. When researching, he found that most dishes he wanted to showcase were available in restaurants, but people were not too willing to experiment.
“The key was to present dishes in a familiar form while staying true to core flavours,” says Sheth. The result has been dishes such as mushroom sukka with a grilled cheese dosa, DIY uttapam tacos with sweet potato gasi, Kerala kappa tapioca sliders, and a popular rasam ramen, which the chef says was made on a lark, but resonated well.
Jalapeno ice cream from East India
Echoing Sheth and his rationale about making new dishes feel familiar is Jayatri Biswas, chef and owner of The Fat Little Penguin, a front-runner in artisanal ice cream from Ballygunge, Kolkata. Even before the pandemic, Biswas realised that Kolkata was a tough market to crack.
To make things easier, she began to make a “comfort tub” – a popular flavour like chocolate, but high in quality. It compelled her patrons to try more unusual flavours, including the jalapeno cream cheese ice cream sandwich. The cloud kitchen delivery system has been ideal for this chef who makes up to 350 litres of ice cream a week.
Demand for gourmet food on the rise
All the chefs agree that with cities coming out of lockdown, there is bound to be a dip in sales, but the belief is that those who have been consistent and unique will continue to enjoy patronage. The market has changed with more people now taking to the idea of ordering in, not only from their favourite restaurants, but from the chefs they have come to know and love.
The growing demand for such food is not being felt merely in India’s larger cities. Case in point, Colin D’Souza's Teri Maki Sushi, which he operates from his home kitchen in the coastal town of Mangalore. “During the lockdowns, all people wanted to do was eat something nice or experiment with a new dish. We have had some call us within the hour of ordering something, to explore what else we had on offer,” he says.
Many other cities and towns, too, have a treasure trove of home chefs representing a multitude of cuisines, from the north-eastern Burmese khow suey and hand-spun udon noodles, to Kerala’s pothichoru rice and Sindhi classics such as dal pakwan lentil breakfast and keema ka lola. Home chefs in India ensure the country’s many gourmands sleep with a happy belly.