Ever since I can remember, I had a passion for the richness and variety of food in India. This was heightened when I left India to live in the UK in the 1980s. All of a sudden, everything I took for granted was not available and I had to start cooking seriously to recreate that taste of home. I always dreamed of having a food business and November 2012 was my “now or never” moment.
It has been a hard slog to establish myself and not easy where everything about Indian food seems to have been done or said already . But I feel I have a unique voice because of my upbringing and deep understanding of Indian flavours and cooking techniques.
I was brought up in Delhi, which is a melting pot of north Indian cultures and cuisines – the rich and complex Awadhi cuisine of the Nawabs of Lucknow, fragrant meat dishes of the Mughals in Delhi, simple and delicious Bania cuisine of the Guptas and Agarwals, and exciting paneer and chicken dishes from Punjab.
My parents originally came from a village near the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. They were both keen cooks – uncharacteristically for his generation, my father would often be in the kitchen experimenting with different things and I would be his keen helper. Although he was an internationally renowned scholar with a modern outlook on life, he was insistent that I learned to cook traditional Maharashtrian dishes. Maharashtrian food is extremely diverse and relatively less known even in India. There are variations by caste and of course region so the fiery Malvani curries use a lot of fish and coconut while the upper castes cook milder vegetarian dishes.
I learnt how to cook from my grandmothers and many Auntijis who were all great cooks. Although I was rarely in charge of cooking an entire meal, I was, like many other children in Indian families, expected to help around the kitchen, cutting, chopping, organising spices and ingredients and generally being the assistant. Watching my mother put vegetables in a ‘phodnee’ (tempering with mustard and cumin seeds) or helping my grandmother prepare thhecha (chilli crush) was so ingrained in my consciousness that I was able to cook food in our family way after I left home without formal training.
I later spent twelve years in the city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Here too, different food cultures meet each other – rich biryanis and kormas celebrated by the Muslims, super-hot curries from Rayalseem and also the unique fish, prawn and vegetarian dishes of coastal Andhra Pradesh.
It is because of these strong influences of southern India that I named the company Deccan Tiffin – the term ‘Deccan’ was used by the British rulers of India to describe the peninsular region of southern India. My parents’ birthplace is on the Deccan Plateau so it seemed very appropriate to call it that.