Yes, chef!

National Award-winning chef Amninder Sandhu believes Indian cuisine is a sleeping giant. Shilpi Madan catches up with the culinary expert...

Chef Amninder Sandhu

She is busy packing her bags as we speak, for London to dazzle the natives there with her mean culinary skills at the highly touted Meatopia. “It is an internationally feted culinary event that originated in New York City, with the likes of Chef Francis Mallmann, whom I admire deeply, having graced it in the earlier years,” shares Amninder Sandhu excitedly. Sandhu will be showcasing the magic of the age-old Indian tandoor by preparing bharwan tangdi kebabs on wood and charcoal — her forte. And then she will be preparing mango wood-smoked chicken at The Cutting Room as a wrap-up to the event on the final day.

With a desi flair

Fame comes naturally to Chef Amninder Sandhu, India’s most popular lady chef who has made a mark for herself in the legion of Indian cuisine. “Indian kitchen is the most challenging kitchen for any chef,” she confesses, “with the logistics of withstanding the high temperatures of the tandoor, and the complexities of cooking techniques that come into play here.”

But why did Amninder choose to excel in Indian cuisine in particular? “If I were to specialise in any other cuisine, say Italian, I would not want an Italian to come up to me and point out fallacies in my preparations. With Indian food, I have a reference point, my childhood memories. I also feel that I am guarding a legacy that I can pass on to the younger generation since none of the recipes that our grandmothers and elders perfected have been documented. They are an invaluable treasure,” she says.

Amninder grew up in the small town of Jorhat in Assam, where her mother cooked delicious mutton and chicken soup to nourish her kids. “Whatever she could not source from the local market, she grew in her kitchen garden,” she recalls fondly, having imbibed the genesis of the noveau farm-to-fork concept early on.

“I want to revive traditional methods of cooking and celebrate local ingredients on the plate.” Cooking on mango wood and charcoal is what she loves, and that explains the ethos behind the restaurant she powers in Mumbai: Arth, India’s only gas-free, fine-dine restaurant where every preparation takes place on wood or charcoal. Amninder was crowned the ‘Best Lady Chef’ in India in 2015-16, a National Tourism award bestowed upon her by the Ministry of Tourism. She also cooked recently for the irrepressible culinary force, Chef Marco Pierre White, during his visit to India, and is raking in an astounding following on social media due to her outings on web series a la the only Indian chef aboard The Final Table on Netflix, wielding her kitchen artillery against other international chefs.

Being a vocal champion of Indian food, Amninder has come up with a new menu centred around bamboo shoot, a common ingredient in the North East, at Arth. Probably, the roots lie in the fishing trips she, her brothers and sisters took with their uncle, in Assam. “He used to stuff the fresh catch inside bamboo and throw into the fire, to be slow-cooked. That explains my love for slow cooking. We cook over hot sand in our kitchen, using sigrees and angeethi to create magic with ingredients,” she smiles.

Strong & steady

Her 19-year-old journey in the culinary world has brought with it its fair share of challenges, most of them centred around derision and scoff because she is a woman. “I was always told I was not good enough. I am a lady chef, short and skinny, not good enough for the Indian kitchen as it is not meant for the faint-hearted. I have heard these comments enough during my career. It has only been my passion for cooking that has made me push ahead with resilience,” confesses Amninder. Her parents, of course, supported her throughout in pursuing her dream in a relatively male-dominated culinary world.

“I want to tell all aspiring chefs out there that I always encourage talent in people in my kitchen. There is no might in flaunting superiority. There is grace in nourishing talent. Interns are always welcome in my kitchen. The other day, someone from Malaysia mailed me asking for the recipe for butter chicken and I responded, to his surprise. Always share, be honest to your craft. Food must always have a soul, that which is prepared with love is eaten with love,” she says.

What’s next? “A book on Indian cooking,” she says, flashing her treasured dimpled smile.

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