Lost & Found: Anahita Dhondy And Vanshika Bhatia On Reviving Their Native Regional Cuisine

regional cuisine

While there is an appeal in the simplicity and freshness of an avocado on sourdough toast, the zeitgeist seems to be pointing out to an unprecedented interest. An interest to dive deep into the untapped wealth of regional cuisine. And prominent chefs, home cooks, food bloggers and culinary writers in the country seem to have received the memo.

And they’re turning to their grandmothers for inspiration. Familiarising us with Tor-Bhaat and Til Ki Chutney from Uttarakhand, soft and flavourful mawa cakes from Parsi bakeries, seasonal ingredients like Outenga (elephant apples) which are made into a sweet and sour pickle in Assam, and even the community spirit that envelopes Painda Chicken, a dish from Bannuwal cuisine. Painda translates to ‘sit together and eat’, with the dish served in a big thali—chicken curry added on top of broken pieces of roti, and garnished with onions and tomatoes.

regional cuisine
Chicken Painda

As you get adventurous with your gastronomical exploits, exploring the cuisine of the homeland is worth a shot. It’s time to return to your own roots, a ghar waapsi for your plate, if you will. Through our series, Lost & Found, we speak to various culinary experts who are at the forefront of this culinary revolution. Today, we’re talking all things Parsi cuisine with chef Anahita Dhondy Bhandari and finding out all about Bannuwali food from Vanshika Bhatia. Both chefs studied culinary abroad and made a common observation–you may learn the best global cuisines but nothing beats coming home to a home-cooked meal with comforting, familiar flavours and discovering a gamut of ingredients that exist in plenty in your hometown. 

Anahita Dhondy Bhandari   

Cooking attracted Anahita from a very young age. She learned how to cook from her mother (a home-baker) with whom she would spent most of her childhood in the kitchen. “My mom saw that I had a great interest for cooking, which I picked up when I was aged 8 or 10. By the time I was 12-13, I was baking and icing cakes, and helping mum with her business. And eventually, I pursued a career in food. I studied culinary arts at IHM Aurangabad, and French cuisine and pastry at Le Corden Bleu, London. I worked at multiple hotels before launching SodaBottleOpenerWala with AD Singh, at 23.

regional cuisine
Anahita Dhondy Bhandari

The Impetus

The Irani cafe and bar was a result of Anahita’s mission to popularise Parsi cuisine. But what made this chef who was learning global cuisines and cooking techniques abroad, head back to her own roots? Well, she experienced a breakthrough moment while studying at Le Corden Bleu. “Even though the chef I was training under, complimented me for making the perfect Pork Vindaloo in class, upon tasting it, I knew something was missing. I went back to my apartment, and recreated the dish starting from scratch by preparing the vindaloo masala my mom taught me. I sat there and ate it in tears. I realised I might learn all the techniques and recipes I want from world-renowned chefs but what truly satisfies your soul is home-cooked food and familiar flavours. That was a turning point in my life, which pushed me to popularise Parsi food and other Indian regional cuisine,” she says passionately.

The Power Of Passion

Although Anahita resigned from SBOW family, she never stopped sharing all that she had learnt about her native Parsi food with her audience. Going back to her roots was very important to her, which is why she chose to write a book on her native cuisine. She visited Gujarat to do more research for it and released The Parsi Kitchen in October 2021. The book is a warm and whimsical memoir about how she embraces the cuisine that she grew up with.

regional cuisine

During the first lockdown in 2020, she began her passion project aka a weekend kitchen with her mum. “We would just do meals on the weekend. The menu had all our home favourites and it did so well. We ran the whole kitchen for a year, and I’m glad we could make it work. It was also a first step in reviving recipes that we hadn’t cooked in a while, or serving it to people who are trying it out for the first time. Also via my social media, I do a lot of recipes and conversations on ingredients like millets and local Indian produce or what’s in season,” she shares.

To Learn & Unlearn

No successful journey comes without challenges, and Anahita had a her share of roadblocks too, one being customer satisfaction. While some were accepting towards the cuisine, it would be difficult to explain it to those who didn’t like a certain dish. “For example, a customer once came into the restaurant and said that he didn’t enjoy Salli chicken as it was more sweet than spicy. But it’s also a learning curve. You can describe the dish better the next time when you talk to a customer, or you’re able to make a tweak to it, and serve it to them. You want your customer to go back happy, and he should have the right knowledge about the dish. We had to make sure our communication was better. So you know, better descriptions on the menu, better explanations by the server. They help a customer make the right decision when they’re ordering something at a restaurant,” Anahita says.

What The Future Holds

Anahita continues to share recipes and information about Parsi food as well as other regional Indian cuisine. She is set to open a new restaurant, Glass House in Gurgaon–a global cuisine restaurant serving ingredient-focused, grilled food that promotes local ingredients.

Vanshika Bhatia

It was a combination of nostalgia and passion that led Gurugram-based Vanshika Bhatia, chef and founder of the Petite Pie Shop, to start the Bannu Revival Project. It’s an Instagram page through which she breathes life into the forgotten Bannuwali cuisine. “My roots are in Bannu, a city in present-day Pakistan. Post-partition, my great grandparents migrated to Kanpur. During the lockdown, I was craving food from my childhood. On searching for Bannuwali recipes online, I was surprised to not find any. I called my grandmother who not only shared recipes but also stories from her childhood with me. I realised how little my own parents knew about our culinary tradition,” she says, emphasising how incumbent it is upon her generation to revive regional cuisines that would be otherwise lost forever. 

regional cuisine
Chef Vanshika Bhatia

“When I saw Anahita Dhondy be so passionate about her Parsi roots and its food, I was inspired by her and thought of opening my own restaurant.” Prior to Petite Pie Shop, Vanshika’s first venture, Together At 12 focussed on Bannuwal cuisine. However, the second lockdown forced her to shut it down. 

The Origins

Banu was a gated city and very close to Afghanistan. It was a constant war zone and whenever invaders would come in, city folks would lock themselves in their houses for days. “Dry ingredients, preserved and fermented food formed the basis of their cuisine as that is what they could keep for days. There wasn’t much fresh produce so they would use a lot of meat and spices, and some dairy if they had their own cows at home. When they moved to India, they settled in Kanpur, a place that has fresh produce. So the cuisine adapted to the city too,” Vanshika says.

regional cuisine
Lole

Taste Test

Besides social media, Vanshika believed in the power of conversations to share knowledge on her native food. “When I had my restaurant, I also put a lot of Bannuwali dishes on my menu. I spoke a lot about the cuisine with my cousins and distant relatives. As they’re young, I tried to get them excited about it and make the cuisine sound super cool. This made them interact with their family as well about the native cuisine and exchange stories.”

regional cuisine
Chaa ki vadiyan

Table Talk

“I just want people to be more open to Banwali cuisine. Sometimes people make fun of it. But then I tell them there are restaurants serving Rajasthani, Gujarati or Punjabi food. And Bannuwali is our cuisine so why not give it that same importance? People dismiss it and assume that as it’s food from home, what’s so special about it?” Vanshika adds while explaining her key challenge in making others understand her cuisine.

Future Prep

Vanshika plans to continue spreading awareness on Bannuwali food. While social media will remain her platform of communication, she also plans to create experiences for people. “I want to do more dinners with people. Whenever I do a chefs table, I always include one course that has something to do with Bannu or Bannuwali cuisine. I also want to do pop ups, especially in my hometown Kanpur to get the youngsters get acquainted with their own cuisine,” she shares.

ICYMI, there’s a new restaurant in Mumbai with ingredient-focussed meals and infusion of Kashmiri flavours. Check out our review here.

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