There’s a look that appears when a chef shares his/her work with you.
A banked fire behind the eyes. A quickening of movement like a tiger eyeing its prey. A lilt to the voice that hints of energy barely contained.
I see it in Sumeet Nair as he stirs prawns into his kadhai and talks us through the finer points of tempering India’s myriad spices. He offers techniques and tastes from a two-burner stove in his yard in a Delhi suburb, and his passion is palpable.
Sumeet, if asked, wouldn’t refer to himself as a chef at all. With his Stanford degree and his career in design, he might describe himself a skilled home cook at best, a product of parents “obsessed with food”, and a frequent dinner host to friends and colleagues. But his home is a 2.6-acre organic farm where he grows and grinds his own wheat; his kitchen, the daily well-spring of fresh homemade yogurt and chapatti bread; his garden, a laboratory of cultivation for anything that might grow in Delhi’s semi-arid climate. And a digression from his usual holiday destination in Goa to a bungalow in Tamil Nadu has seen him become lead author on a cookbook that attempts to capture the unique and disappearing cuisine of Chettinad.
“I sat behind a simple banana leaf on which 23 different courses arrived, ” he explains. “And the flavour profile was so different in each dish, the juxtaposition of flavours so scientific, that I thought: I have to document this food .”
The embers behind his eyes flare into flame.
I see the look again 400 kilometres to the north in the city of Amritsar, widely- acclaimed as the street food capital of India.
Word has it that Bollywood stars flock here from distant Mumbai just to sample the vibrant offerings at its dhabas . It’s food that the Hindustan Times describes as “almost a character in itself, a sort of stereotypical Punjabi inviting you to share in his legendary largesse and appetite for life”.
The Hindustan might have been using Surjit Singh as their model for the stereotype, so apt is the description for the tall, crimson-turbaned man who welcomes us to Surjit Food Plaza. His manner is magnanimous, his smiles broad, but he is all intensity and attention when it comes to deciding what menu choices might best present his food to us. Surjit’s culinary career began in a small stand near the railway station where he drew fans for his unique masala-coated makhan fish. As his popularity soared, so too did his food offerings, and in 1976 he moved his kadhai and tandoor to his current location in the Lawrence Road food district.
His bright white digs may hum with fluorescent light and air-conditioning, but the kitchen on display through a wide pane of glass still lives in the alley – albeit the most speckless alley, I suspect, on the planet. It’s to here that I follow to watch him at work, tossing chicken tikka with vegetables and spices over a flaming grill. Here, too, I discover, is where his burn is the brightest and his hospitality billows warmest into the night.
High in the Himalayan foothills to the east of the Punjab, copper pots glow from their hooks in the sparkling demonstration kitchen of Ananda Spa. Built on the leafy palace grounds of the Maharaja of Tehri Garwhal, this spa restaurant couldn’t be aesthetically-further from Amritsar’s gritty streets – but a similar passion flames in the face that appears beneath the chef’s toque of Arun Kala.
Chef Arun has come full circle in the geography of his 15-year career: born and raised in nearby Dehradun, he earned his credentials as a pastry chef under India’s university culinary program, honing his skills at restaurants and five-star hotels around the country before venturing off to the UK. With notches to his belt from Aberdeen, Scotland and Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London, Arun returned to his home state two years ago to skill-up in Ayurvedic cuisine at this world renowned resort.
His mien is earnest, his manner affable, as he fashions the locally-sourced pulses and organic greens into fine-textured soups and subtle hors d’oeuvres. But when our conversation turns to the Diwali sweets he learned to make at his mother’s side and the puff pastry I devoured with today’s mushroom ragout, his animation springs into full blaze.
There’s contagion in that look. A contagion that’s the fuel to my food writing. That has me mimicking the creations of Sumeet, Surjit, Arun, and others at home in my own kitchen. And that gives me the confidence – every once in a long while – to dare to create something new of my own.
By Sumeet Nair and Meenakshi Meyyappan.
Available on Amazon.
3-4, Ground Floor, Nehru Shopping Complex
Lawrence Road, Joshi Colony, Amritsar, Punjab
The Palace Estate, Narendra Nagar Tehri – Garhwal
Narendra Nagar, Uttarakhand
Text and photos © 2016 Catherine Van Brunschot