My suitcase returning from my hometown in Gujarat could often be misconstrued as a grocery bag. In true Gujarati fashion, I am armed with theplas, khakras, and farsan for a few weeks until the stock runs dry and homesick season is back. Fortunately, this time around, my craving for authentic food was satiated before I had the opportunity to whine, thanks to the traditional delicacies made by a microbiologist-turned-communication specialist, cookbook author and two-time award-winning home chef Parul Bhatt at Spice Haat, Hyatt Regency.
The Gujarati spread was one of many offers they have at their ‘Ghar ka Khaana’ fest, presented by The Big Binge Buffet. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday till September 8, the restaurant will offer a corner to one of five Chennai-based home chefs who will present authentic delicacies from their regions — Gujarat, Rajasthan, Coorg, South India (Palakkad/Karnataka), and Bengal. “Many hotels have done food promotions, calling chefs from various regions. I could have called someone from Gujarat but we already have a thriving Gujarati community in Chennai and they are cooking authentic food at home (here). So, why not bring home chefs at Spice Haat so that we can showcase their food to our guests, and in turn, give them a platform,” said Ruban Das, general manager.
For the conceptualisation and curation of the home chefs, the hotel worked with Yogita Uchil, a well-known food eVangelist. “For me, when (a concept) is different, it’s always about regional, local and traditional (food). And any lay person is more concerned about regional now because I think gone is the era when people were excited about continental or Asian (cuisines). People are now getting back to their roots. They now understand that there is so much goodness in it. The concept of always being regional and traditional is something I love to work with,” she shared. So, with her connections (through a WhatsApp group of women home chefs), Yogita was able to connect the five chefs, who were in touch with their roots, with the hotel.
The fest was kicked off by the Gujarati spread (alongside the buffet staples) by Parul, who brought to the fore the delicacies that she had grown up with in Ahmedabad. Simplistic yet fragrant, peas kachori, doodhi muthiya, fafda, ganthiya, namkeen papdi, tandoor khichiya, tuvar dal khichdi, khatti meethi kadhi, mohanthal, and ringan, vatana, batata nu shaak were on display with an assortment of chutneys and pickles. The peas kachori and fafda were perfect appetisers, savoury and salty, well accompanied by the sour and spice of the pickles/chutneys.
But the star of the show was the tuvar dal khichdi (enveloped in kadhi on my plate) that fed my nostalgic ache of a hearty homecooked meal. Savoury and mild in spice, the dish was not flashy or novel in any way but rather, impressed with its authentic flavour. The kadhi was not too sweet and lent a light flavour to the rich khichdi. People around me praised the food — a tourist dealt out compliments to the chef — but I was busy being hypnotised by the garba songs in the background (involuntarily subjecting everyone else to my Gujarati upbringing).
Despite her first time being in charge of cooking in a commercial kitchen, Parul was pleased with the response it garnered. “Ruban’s wife told me that her daughter had asked for the khichdi in her lunchbox the next day and I thought my job is done, now that a child is asking for khichdi, not pasta or pizza. I have many memories of the items on offer. Weddings always included mohanthaal (considered Lord Krishna’s favourite food) and churma ke laddoo. And as a 60s-born kid, we weren’t surrounded by fancy restaurants and often had khichdi at home. Then, we also did not take flights, opting for train travels, the memories of which are brought back with the theplas and chunda that we would always pack for the ride,” Parul explained.
The fest was also an opportunity for the chefs that assisted Parul to learn about authentic dishes, she added. Furthermore, it became an attraction for tourists as well, as Ruban explained, “Our guests can get an authentic taste (of another state’s cuisine here). We have a gentleman from the USA who would have never gotten the opportunity to ever visit a Gujarati household sitting here in Chennai.” The fest has been conceptualised with the long stay of the customer in mind, said Yogita, adding “Tourists get sort of bored looking at the same food every day; there is only so much one can offer at a buffet. Many don’t have the luxury of going out and prefer to have something at the place they are staying. These people will be happy that they can find something from home in one corner of the buffet.”
In the coming weeks, the five home chefs will present their foods in rotation and eventually, the fest will explore other areas of the country as well. Parul plans to swap out the current spread with methi gota, churma laddoo, lagan ni khatti meethi dal and much more, to which certain people — like a certain homesick reporter — are looking forward.
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Parul Bhatt @parulsmagic (August 24 and September 7): Gujarati cuisine
Kavitha Bothra @blend.town (August 30 and September 8): Rajasthani cuisine
Smitha Kuttayya @global.theeni (August 31): Coorg cuisine
Shamala Raghu @shyamalaraghu (August 23, September 6): South Indian cuisine
Joyadrita Ragavendran Chatterjee @foodofjoyflavoursofbengal (August 25, September 1): Bengali cuisine