In a country still grappling with COVID-19, it may be a while before you can cook for friends gathered at your dining table. The next best thing: ordering meals thoughtfully curated and packed with celebration in mind
How do you replace all the drama, anticipation and laughter of a dinner party with a plastic takeaway box? Is it possible to replicate and deliver the cheer of a kitchen filling with a tangle of scents as samosas are fried, dips are assembled and pudding chills in the fridge while friends troop in?
Sharing food is a powerful, uplifting way to connect and in 2020, with COVID-19 and mandatory physical distancing, people are lonelier than ever before.
Takeaway is often mundane and impersonal; so it is encouraging to find small start-ups motivated more by the joy of feeding people than making profits. With packaging that is as endearing as their contents.
Mud Pot Curries
Praveen Khanna turns up at my door at dinner time, balancing a heavy mud pot wrapped in the enticing scent of home made crab curry. He is in a rush, as he is dropping off another pot at a friend’s house, as an engagement gift.
As with many of the weekend home kitchens — run by busy professionals who dabble in food for fun — I place my order and pay via Google Pay a few days ahead to enable Praveen and his mother M V Salomi to plan their Saturday cooking and delivery (Mud Pot Curries functions only on Saturdays).
There is just one item on the menu now: crab in a rich, spicy, coconutty curry. “I keep asking my mom what to call it,” chuckles Praveen, adding that it is a family recipe, inspired by Sri Lankan cooking, with tamarind and chillies sourced from his mother’s home town Kavali, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Hyderabad.
The gravy, dark with patiently caramelised onions, highlights the best qualities of the crabs, which are sweet, fresh and flaky. Praveen says he scoured Chintadripet till he found a supplier who was willing to sell him the same quality that is being exported to Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Priced at ₹1,499 for a pot of the half kilo crab, ₹ 1,999 for jumbo crabs and ₹ 2,900 for the ‘monster’ (two crabs per pot), it is an indulgent dinner. The jumbo is a satisfying balance of meat, flavour and economics: though admittedly a splurge, it is a satisfying one.
“We encourage people to order it for celebrations. Customers are now gifting it to each other,” says Praveen, adding that he deliberately chose to pack the curry in clay pots, “because it is all about the experience. And I want to give people a memorable meal”.
Servings are fairly generous for a reason. “It is even better the next day, so I always tell customers to keep it in the fridge for Sunday breakfast,” he says. “With dosas and idlis, it is absolutely perfect.”
Order between Monday and Thursday. Call 9884523464
There is something joyful about plump kozhukattais, reminiscent of festivals and family get-togethers. Recently launched Pidi, celebrates this joy with a fiesta of dumplings, all packed in cute palm leaf boxes.
“It is a boxful of nostalgia,” says Rennee Saradha, discussing the brand, which launched — appropriately enough — on Vinayaka Chaturthi. Operating out of the same kitchen as The Bagel Pot (also run by Renee) Pidi collaborates with Better Chances, an organisation supporting people with mental health challenges.
After graduating from the Madras School of Social Work, Renee worked in Auroville, then moved to Chennai to start The Bagel Pot. Discussing how she spent lockdown learning about indigenous rice, Renee says it inspired her to launch Pidi, which celebrates heritage rice from around the country. “We have more than two lakh variants of rice in the country. Many of them are highly nutritious and medicinal,” she says, adding that they use about 12 varieties now.
The Onam-inspired box (₹450) features more than a dozen pidis, including spongy unniyappams made with karuppu kavuni. There is ada, wrapped in banana leaves, its dough tinted golden by nendran bananas. Coconut palm leaves hug wands of navara rice, laced with jaggery and hill bananas. And, to balance the sweet, shredded coconut fillings, a handful of fluffy ammini kozhukattais, dusted with Kerala chammanthi powder.
“It is a very heart-warming process, making kozhukattais,” says Renee, explaining how workers from Better Chances shape the dough along with her team everyday. “The dough is soft and pliable, it helps you focus.”
Pidi aims to convince more people to cook with heritage rice, and will hence offer a variety in each curated box. The Ganesh Chathurthi box is still available (₹ 250) and soon customers will be able to put together their own collection of pidis. The team plans to add more savoury versions, and incorporate about 100 varieties of rice over the next few months.
The boxes, like the product, have been inspired by Renee’s home in Karaikudi. “The pidi is close to my heart,” she says. “My grandmother taught me how to make it, and our recipes are based on hers.”
Order one day in advance. Call 9840749519
(This weekly column tracks Chennai’s shifting culinary landscape. Heard of a new food venture? Tell me: email@example.com)