Last year, this time, Vijay Charan was working in the high-tech kitchen of Michelin-starred Gaa by Garima Arora in Bangkok. Now, he’s in his mom’s kitchen in Chennai, baking pizzas in a small OTG.
“Actually, my approach is inspired by the Japanese idea of ikigai,” he says contently. “If you do something too easy you get bored. If it is too complicated you get anxiety. I wanted something to engage me. So I started making pizzas.”
As far as lockdown philosophy goes, Vijay seems to be on the ideal path. With supply chains collapsing after the first all-India lockdown, and an all pervasive fear economy, this is a time for practical, measured and small steps forward. Fortunately for Chennai, talented cooks are cautiously exploring ways to reach consumers again, mostly with small batches of food cooked at home, and ordered in advance. A refreshing change from the fast food on-demand model we have got used to over the years thanks to burgeoning cloud kitchens and delivery platforms.
Over the two-and-a-half years at Gaa, Vijay developed a fascination for fermented foods, which explains the fiery jars of Guntur chillies lining his kitchen. “Garima had a Scandinavian approach, influenced by what she learnt when she worked with Noma, lots of curing, fermentation and pickling,” he says, adding that she found creative ways to merge Thai ingredients and her Indian influences. “It was an eye opener.”
Inspired by The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani, Vijay has been working incessantly on his technique in a quest for the perfect crust. And he insists on using only local ingredients. “Cooking should be intuitive,” he says, explaining that he believes in creating a product that expresses and evolves with its location, and the times.
Working with local flour is challenging, so he uses a non-conventional method of making dough using a pre-ferment called biga, which is combination of flour, water, yeast — and time. Left to ferment overnight, it results in a satisfyingly chewy pizza base with billowing edges. His sauce, inspired by his mom’s curries, uses fresh tomatoes and Guntur chillies, fermented to highlight flavour and mellow the heat.
Right now there are just three pizzas on the menu, a classic Margarita (₹270) with Kodai cheese, lamb pepperoni (₹300) and the house special (₹270) with his hot sauce, fresh mozarella, chicken sausage and local chillies. He plans to add a vegetable pizza with charred bell peppers, sun dried tomatoes and feta cheese next.
The pizzas are satisfying and unapologetically desi, with a generous amount of sauce and small dollops of cheese. These do not aspire to be Italian: instead Vijay says he wants to prove that anyone can make a good pizza at home, with basic ingredients, some imagination and patience. For those of us lacking two out of the three, fortunately, he delivers (via Dunzo).
Order your pizzas a day in advance. Call Vijay on 9790959997 or 9840788862
It may be a while before you can hop on a plane to Malaysia for a restorative week of mall hopping, teh tarik and kaya toast. Fortunately, Dasha Sendhil is bringing a dollop of vacation cheer to Chennai with her homemade kaya, a slow-cooked, coconutty spread popular is South East Asia.
Dasha’s version is a patient and thoughtful blend of local ingredients, and comes in two versions. Traditional kaya, with coconut milk, jaggery and egg. And a vegan version, made with pumpkin. (Both are ₹250). Yes, I know what you are thinking. Suspicious of vegetables sneaking into my jam, I avoided the vegan version as well. But when I finally tried it, it was an eye-opener — creamy, subtle and not too sweet. A heartening breakfast: especially if you do it the traditional way and eat your kaya on toast, topped with generous slices of chilled butter. The original kaya is sweeter, but also comfortingly mellow and familiar. And unlike commercial jams, this is straight from Dasha’s kitchen, using just a handful of ingredients, and no preservatives.
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Dasha says this was always a staple at home. Her parents then moved to the UK where her mom is currently chef at the family’s café, serving Malaysian food to Newcastle.
“I was chatting with my mom, and I suggested she add kaya to the menu. Then, I thought why don’t I try it here,” she says, adding that she spent much of the last month in her kitchen making batch after batch, till she got a version she was happy with. “It is a long process. I slowly cook it in small batches, to ensure taste and consistency. For the first week I was in the kitchen for 10 hours a day,” Dasha laughs, adding “I am more efficient now, thankfully.”
Orders need to be given a day in advance. Call Truly Kaya on 6379901750
Although Aswini Srinivasan did a diploma in baking and patisserie at the Chennai-based Food Consulate a year ago, it was only during lockdown that she started baking in earnest. A partner in 80 Degrees East, a vegetarian 24-seater café, like many others she found herself facing a indefinite time out because of COVID. “We can’t restart the café, since our staff have gone back to their hometowns, and financially we took a hit,” she says, explaining how she turned a hobby into a business.
“I have a four-year-old nephew who loves cookies, so I started to freeze cookie dough so he didn’t eat too many everyday.” Realising that the frozen dough made it much simpler to quickly bake cookies, she began sending out bags to friends and family. “Although anybody can bake, baking is an art. If I make the perfect dough, everyone can get the experience of making the perfect cookie,” she says.
There are two versions, classic chocolate chip (₹300) and the darker, double chocolate chip (₹350). They arrive frozen: you just need to place the cookies on parchment paper (which she thoughtfully includes in the package), and bake them in an oven or a pressure cooker. (The pack explains how.) The result is crisp on the edges and satisfyingly chewy with soft hearts. If you’re already a pro at baking cookies, this isn’t for you. But it is an ideal way to gain confidence for a beginner.
Besides, given how this year has been going, an emergency stash of cookies is always reassuring.
Call Aswini on 9962555294 to order frozen cookie dough.
This weekly column tracks the city’s shifting culinary landscape. Heard of a new food venture? Tell me: firstname.lastname@example.org