Indian Chefs Reveal The Comfort Food They Turned To During The Lockdown

It’s not just the humble dal-chawal.
Curd rice or yogurt rice
Curd rice or yogurt rice

There’s no denying it: food, among the privileged, has been a great source of comfort during this lockdown. In the early days of the lockdown, people experimented a lot, following food trends and swapping ingredients with what was available. It’s been three months and with seemingly no end to the bad news, people are now turning to comfort food. It could be a simple dal khichdi, a warming bowl of soup, a well-made omelette, a fragrant fish curry or even a well-cooked steak.

Chefs may be feeding people daily but what about the dishes that bring them comfort? We spoke to a few of them to find out what food is keeping them comforted and nourished through this lockdown. Here’s what they had to say.

Buff fry: the taste of home

For the man who enjoys feeding people at The Bombay Canteen, chef Thomas Zacharias doesn’t like cooking for himself. “I always had a mental block against it, preferring to cook for friends and family,” he says. When the lockdown began, he had no choice. Within the first few days, he had a breakthrough: he was enjoying cooking for himself. He even developed a system: cook one dish a day, and make enough for three days and, and don’t repeat dishes.

Steaming buff fry on a frying pan
Steaming buff fry on a frying pan

He started sharing recipe videos of simple things he was preparing, like a curry leaf coconut chutney, Kerala fried chicken, his grandmother’s pazham peechi (banana fritters), Khasi black sesame chicken and the Bihari chokha. “I find comfort in simple food,” he says. “The food I steered towards were mostly Kerala food because I am always craving that.”

The secret addition to many of his meals is hidden in the back of his freezer, a stash of spicy, coconut-ty buff fry. “My mom made it and brought it for me a few months ago. I have enough to feed a wedding party. Whenever I feel homesick, which is every couple of days, I dip into the stash,” he says.

Chilli chicken: the unlikely companion to dal-chawal

The morale in celebrity chef Amrita Raichand’s home was very low in the early days of the lockdown. The family enjoyed eating out; her in-laws were missing their ‘outside food’. Raichand decided to go all out. “I made Chinese, Thai, Italian food, pizzas, burgers, French fries, spaghetti and meatball…all the things I don’t usually cook because my focus is on healthy eating,” she says. Every weekend is a new special treat.

Chilli chicken cooked at Amrita Raichand's home.
Chilli chicken cooked at Amrita Raichand's home.

“I don’t feel guilty about it at all. Eating this food gave them some happiness and comfort so that was a victory for me.”

Raichand’s comfort food, however, is something she learned from her mother: chilli chicken. It’s not just the chicken, though but a whole Bihari meal: alu beans or alu bhindi ka bhujia, dal, chawal and tomato chutney. “This was the first meal I cooked. I was just eight and I wanted to impress my mother,” she says.

Raichand has cooked this meal so often, she can prepare it in an hour. The chilli chicken has a simple marinade of salt, pepper, ginger-garlic paste, chilli sauce or ketchup. It’s cooked in a kadhai with slit green chillies, and onions get added at the end. The dal is a mix of arhar and masoor, and has a tadka of onions, jeera, and red chilli powder. “This was and is a staple meal at our home,” she says.

Mutton curry: straight out of the cooker

The first two weeks of the lockdown, chef Amninder Sandhu felt really low and out of sorts. She was worried about her mother’s health and her month-old restaurant Iktara was forced to shut down just as it was getting popular.

To cope, Sandhu cooked her standard comfort food, her mother’s mutton curry. This simple curry has onion, tomato, garlic, cumin, coriander, black pepper, coriander and potatoes. She paired it with rice, onions and lime. “It’s the ultimate comfort food. It satisfies my soul.”

Sandhu's comfort food -- her mother's mutton curry.
Sandhu's comfort food -- her mother's mutton curry.

Sandhu loves this curry so much that it has featured in every restaurant she has worked in – Masala Bay, Arth and now, Iktara (available for delivery), served in a pressure cooker.

“Most of our food memories are formed from the first decade of our lives. When we were kids, my brother and I would come home ravenous after playing outside. We were so hungry that we wouldn’t allow our mother to transfer the curry from the cooker to a bowl. I still recall the aroma of the curry and the whistle of the cooker going off at the table. I wanted to recreate that memory,” she says.

Khichdi: simple and nutritious

At Ranveer Brar’s home, khichdi has become an everyday affair. “We are just consuming a lot of it, by experimenting with different ingredients like jowar, bajra and red rice, lentils and beans,” says the celebrity chef and MasterChef India judge.

“As a family, we consciously made an effort not to eat anything too fancy. When so many people were struggling for food, it didn’t feel right.”

Famous Indian Food Khichdi is ready to serve.
Famous Indian Food Khichdi is ready to serve.

Brar loves simple food. The lockdown has helped him focus on discovering this simplicity of food. He prefers cooking with four to five ingredients. “Simple food is the most difficult to cook. It’s a good test of your cooking skills, the ability to bring out flavour with few ingredients. And I take secret pleasure in getting it right,” he says, adding that it has brought back his confidence in his own cooking.

Laksa: a one-bowl meal

Jaydeep Mukherjee, brand head, Smoke House Deli, calls himself a ‘complete Asian food buff’. He loves the unparalleled diversity, richness, and contrast of the food, is intrigued by Asian curries, and has an affinity for one-meal noodle bowls with curry or broth and toppings. “I’ve been experimenting with different improvisations on the family favourite, laksa, during this lockdown,” he says.

These are bowls of noodles, fragrant spicy curries with coconut milk, a variety of toppings from eggs, sprouts, brown onions, and fermented salads, to an assortment of seafood or meat. Each variation came from different countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even parts of southern Thailand.

Laksa
Laksa

Each has a long list of ingredients, some commonplace, others more difficult to acquire and which required compromise. Store-bought egg noodles replaced rice vermicelli, cashews replaced candlenuts, and fresh homemade coconut milk replaced coconut cream.

The results of his experiments may not have been authentic but the family finds it satiating and comforting. “The fragrance of kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, and chillies blended with fresh seafood or chicken and home-made bean curd, then rounded off by the sweetness and earthiness of fresh coconut milk and toasted nut pastes, creates magic on the palate.”

Chocolate cake: the tiffin favourite

The lockdown has made Anahita Dhondy, chef-partner, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Gurgaon, take a closer look at her own kitchen. “I think chefs have found so much time to appreciate their home kitchens so we’ve turned to easy comfort foods which we haven’t had in a while,” she says.

Chocolate cake
Chocolate cake

In Dhondy’s case, her comfort food binge includes dal, chawal and baingan kachri (slices of eggplant, crusted and spiced). “My mom’s chocolate cake is also comfort food. My memories with the chocolate cake go back to every birthday we’ve celebrated. It was also a part of our tiffin in school,” she says.

Curd rice

Chef Ananda Solomon may be serving up Thai food at Thai Naam by Ananda but, at home, he prefers the simple pleasures of a curd-rice. “Comfort food for me is curd rice. I have grown up eating it and it’s an integral part of my childhood. Even today, I gravitate to eating curd rice every lunch and dinner,” he says. Another dish that satiates his palate is a simple fried egg.

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Lunch delight: Amritsari Flatbreads with a dash of mint

Chef Vikas Khanna has been obsessing over aloo parathas for the last few weeks. These aren’t the regular ones though. “During the summer in Amritsar, my favourite Sushma didi used to take all of us to her farmhouse, which was known as Phalsa Wala Bagh She is my hero and mentor. She would drive us to is her AC car, playing Mozart, talking about her trips to America, MTV, and teaching us English. At the pool, she would teach us swimming. Our lunch was always aloo parathas made by her cook,” says the restaurateur, author and MasterChef India judge. “If Sushma didi inspired my tiny brains with influences around the world, it was these flatbreads that satisfied my soul.”

The flatbreads had a dough of boiled potatoes, mint, dried pomegranate seeds, coriander seeds and cumin. The flour was just used to bind the mashed potatoes. This was lightly cooked on a cast iron griddle with layers of ghee. Learning this recipe says Khanna, was the foundation of his cooking skills. And he turns to it often.