Indian mum serves up nostalgic picnic food at Dubai cafe

Sarita Mehta launched Picnic Basket when she was 60, offering everything from minced pies and mac and cheese to chai and chutney sandwiches

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A pair of chutney sandwiches, a wedge of moist plum cake and a comforting cup of hot chocolate or tall glass of lemonade – on a pleasant afternoon in Dubai, this would be the perfect picnic hamper to relish on a blanket on the grass.

As the climes grow warmer, though, foodies can instead munch on this delectable fare sitting inside a cosy cafe, aptly named Picnic Basket. Nestled on a quiet street in the Wasl Port Views community in Al Mina near Port Rashid in Dubai, the cafe offers food curated to elicit nostalgia.

It’s the result of founder Sarita Mehta’s lifelong dream to share “retro recipes”. At an age when most people toy with the idea of retirement, the sexagenarian from India eagerly embraced entrepreneurship. “Picnics and holidays are always memorable. This space is an ode to good old times and old-fashioned food that many grew up eating, from cucumber and tomato sandwiches and cold potato salad to tea cakes and lemonade,” she says.

With these classics, Mehta hopes to tickle taste buds and memories with recipes they would have enjoyed on holiday or during weekends spent with loved ones. “My most memorable Sundays were spent outdoors and with my kids in community clubs. They’d go for a swim while us adults lazed around enjoying chicken salami sandwiches and ice cream floats,” recalls Mehta.

With its pale blue walls, vintage posters, rattan chairs and lace curtains, the interiors of Picnic Basket are also designed to take visitors on a walk down memory lane. The menu is an eclectic mix of home-made festive fare; food you would pack in picnic hampers and recipes once popular in the social clubs of the 1980s and '90s.

“This is simple food that is slowly getting forgotten, especially when pitted against fast food,” says Mehta. Sandwiches make up a bulk of the menu, with flavours such as jam, peanut butter, spinach-corn-cheese, chicken and chutney. Also available are roast chicken, minced pies, chicken tikka, batata poha, pancakes, hash browns, Dundee cakes, chai and fruit squash.

Through these dishes, I am reliving my childhood
Sarita Mehta, cafe owner, Picnic Basket

An avid cook, Mehta used to be an interior designer and nutritionist when she lived in Mumbai before becoming “a happy homemaker” for many years, content with nurturing her family of food lovers. Ten years ago, she moved to the UAE with her husband and grown-up children. Watching tourists set off on boats and yachts around the Dubai Marina, where she lived, proved to be a catalyst for her current cafe venture.

“I used to see people grab anything, mostly junk, and head off on boat rides. I had this urge to pack them a healthy, home-made picnic hamper. On a whim, I started jotting down recipes in a small diary,” she says.

About a year ago, those diary notes were printed into a pretty illustrated menu card, that looks like it's straight out of a children's classic.

The smell and taste of that wood-fired chicken still lingers on my tongue
Sarita Mehta

Inspired by Enid Blyton’s novels, replete with enchanting adventures around finger food, Mehta has also put together a range of picnic baskets to cater to the diverse nationalities living in Dubai. The Hyde Park hamper, for instance, has shepherd’s pie, bean salad, wafers and roast chicken. The Juhu Beach basket serves the South Asian palate with puri bhaji, shrikhand and lassi. Flora Lia, the Italian basket, comes with baked lamb bolognese, mini cheeseboard, iced tea and caprese puffs. Miss Muffet is for the little ones, with everything in tiny sizes.

Mehra’s own childhood picnics, she says, were vivid and idyllic. Her extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins would head to forests in and around Mumbai. “We would all sit under huge Banyan trees and roast chicken on a fire. There would be fried pooris and jam sandwiches for the kids. It was wonderful. The smell and taste of that wood-fired chicken still lingers on my tongue,” she says.

Several dishes served at the Picnic Basket are from Mehta’s family kitchen. She and her brothers were hands-on assisting their mother, who was “an ace culinarian”, says Mehta. “One of my mother's most loved recipe was a sponge cake made from home-made butter. Every week she had a jar of butter ready, half of which was used in the house and the rest was kept aside for the cake. I have used the same recipe at the cafe,” she says. Another popular option is an orange and walnut cake, baked with the fruit rind and soaked in orange juice.

Her grandfather's favourite bun-maska and chai from the famed Iranian cafes of Mumbai have also been replicated at Picnic Basket.

“The buns, sprinkled with sugar and butter, taste heavenly when dipped in tea as the warm butter melts into the steaming chai. Through these dishes, I am reliving my childhood,” says Mehta.

She is not in the least daunted by her recent entrepreneurial role. “When you can run a household, why can't you run a cafe?” she asks.

Together with her team of bakers and helpers whom she has personally trained, Mehta preps all the meals at the restaurant daily.

She credits her family and her own dogged determination for the success of the cafe, which enjoys a steady flow of visitors both from within the immediate community and from as far away as Sharjah and Mirdif.

“There is so much joy in cooking and feeding others,” she says. “But best of all, I love to see their empty plates.”

Updated: April 27, 2024, 6:08 AM