As one the leading female chefs in India, Amninder Sandhu is well-known for setting up the first gas free kitchen in the country and using traditional and other forms like wood and charcoal to cook. Her culinary trajectory also took her to Netflix’s global food competition The Final Table in 2018. Sandhu had previously worked in The Taj, before setting up her unique kitchen at Arth. Recently, she shifted to her delivery-only kitchen Iktara, where she has been serving delicious Indian food directly to people’s home during the pandemic. Winner of the National Award for Best Lady Chef, here Amninder Sandhu chats with SheThePeople about her inspiration behind cooking, her new venture Iktara, the impact of the lockdown, and the food she finds comfort in.
Q. Your cooking style is unconventional. What is the inspiration behind a gas free kitchen?
While I was at Arth, I started a gas-free kitchen. It was an incredibly gratifying experience for me. I was able to revive some of the forgotten cooking techniques. I’ve always taken pride in traditional, slow-cooked, elaborate, skill-sensitive recipes. Before Arth, I worked at The Taj. Once, I did a food promotion there with the granddaughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala who shared her family heirloom recipes with me. She’d always tell me that had the dishes been cooked on charcoal or wood, in a heavy bottomed copper lagan, they would taste absolutely different. And I think that clicked something within me.
Even a simple baingan ka bharta, when cooked on open fire or a phulka, tastes so different. I feel that wood and charcoal are so much more than just forms of fuel. They should be considered ingredients, because the wood you cook on, makes such a difference in your final dish. And it’s something gas cannot replicate. And I think that’s where I got the inspiration to create a gas free kitchen.
Q. You’ve recently left Arth, and started your own delivery-only service Iktara. Tell us something about your experience there? What has the response been like?
The response has been great actually. I call Iktara a divine intervention, as it was perfectly timed. We opened it 3 weeks before the lockdown. And now, during this pandemic, only delivery-kitchens make sense.
While deciding on the menu for Iktara, I constantly thought to myself: if I were the one sitting at home, craving to eat Indian food, then what would I like to order? And that’s how I put it together, so that the menu gives out a sense of comfort for people craving home food.
Q. What would you, as a professional chef, say the biggest challenges you faced during the lockdown and this pandemic as a whole?
The past few months have been really very hard. From not getting your supplies on time to standing outside grocery stores, everything has been tough. What I try to do is take each day as it comes because I’ve realized that no two days are the same anymore.
We got our small team of staff to the kitchen, and they’ve been living here since the lockdown started. Luckily, we are a large kitchen as we operate out of the 2500 square-ft Magazine Street Kitchen. With all the facilities available, we could house our team here. And all the staff members have all been incredibly supportive too.
It’s not easy for any of us, being in the kitchen for all these months, without having the option to go out anywhere. But so many livelihoods depend on a business. We don’t know when this will end, or where we are headed. The only thing all of us can do at this point is to make it work. And that is what we are doing. We are trying everything we can do in our means to ensure that we keep our small business afloat.
Q. You have often talked about Indian food as a generational legacy. Have you incorporated any of the family recipes in your menu at Iktara?
Yes! For example, my Mama’s mutton curry which was on the menu at Taj and Arth, is also on the menu at Iktara.
Q. You mentioned how food is something we’re all seeking comfort in these days. Tell us about that one dish which has been your go-to comfort food during this pandemic?
It is that very same mutton curry and rice. It’s super soul satisfying to me. The Assamese short-grained fragrant rice, mutton curry with potatoes and Kagzi lemon is my ultimate go to comfort food.
Q. When did you realise that food was your calling?
It happened much later in life actually. Food was an important part of my childhood. We lived in Jorhat, Assam, and many times ingredients weren’t available in the local stores. Hence, my mum used to grow all kind of ingredients in her kitchen garden. Then I remember how my mama (maternal uncle) used to take us to picnics in the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh. He would teach us how to catch fishes. And whenever we would make a catch, he’d stuff it inside a bamboo and cook it on open fire. But in all those years of my life, never did I consider becoming a professional chef.
I came to Bombay when I was 17 to study science. I used to cook small things like instant noodles or scrambled eggs in my hostel, and my friend used to tell me that everything tasted very different when I cooked it. She would constantly tell me to become a chef, although at that time I merely laughed it off. Then one day, in my 3rd year of college, while I was looking out of the lab with a test-tube in my hand, all of my childhood memories, along with what my friend said, came to hit me together. It’s may sound all very dramatic (laughs), but I still vividly remember the moment in my life from that day, when I realized that food was my calling. That day, I said to myself that I’ll become a chef, and there hasn’t been a looking back ever since.
Q. The culinary industry in India is male-dominated, and you are one of the top female chefs in the country. A lot of young girls who want to go ahead in this field look up to you. Is there a message you would like leave for them?
What I’d like to tell them is that never allow anybody to tell you what you can or cannot do. Don’t ever give anyone the rights to decide your future path. Not even your family. You should decide that for yourself. I was blessed to have a very uplifting family. A lot of times why we don’t see female chefs is because they don’t have a very supportive family. But that shouldn’t stop any girl from doing what they want to.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople