Food

Freedom from cooking gas

Chef Amninder Sandhu credits herself with being one of the first chefs in the country to work in a totally gas-free set-up. When I meet her at Arth in Mumbai, she is diligently working at a mound of coriander and mint leaves, gently pushing the black oval batta on the dotted surface of the sil . As I look around, I notice other traditional cooking equipment: mortar and pestle, heavy-bottomed copper lagans , sigree s, handi s and earthen chatti s make up her arsenal.

Sandhu tells me that flavours are more pronounced in the techniques of traditional cooking. Perhaps that is why, as the coriander and mint transform into a dark green chutney, it releases a fragrance that instantly stirs my appetite. “The excessive heat released from grinding machines robs the ingredients of their flavour,” she adds.

Draped in a black apron and hair tied back, she is bursting with the kind of energy found in people who love what they do. Her restaurant has been making headlines for its gas-free methods, introducing the city to a cuisine that pairs the ancient techniques of cooking over charcoal with modern methods like sous vide and smoking.

Born in a Sikh family and raised in the enchanting north-eastern states of India, Arth is Sandhu’s homecoming, as it allows her to showcase the food she grew up eating. On her recent travels, Sandhu travelled to far-flung places — Majuli, Shillong, Khonoma, Alleppey, Mangaluru, Guntur and Rishikesh — learning near-forgotten recipes and experiencing the diverse produce. Perhaps that is why, in many ways, her dishes remind you of home.

Going old school

For Sandhu, keeping the kitchen gas-free was one of the signature elements while setting up Arth. Each dish on the menu is rooted in the ancient techniques of cooking. Inspired by the fact that the earliest record of cooked food in history made use of a charcoal-powered hearth, she ensured that each dish is prepared on wood or charcoal.

“In those days, there was no gas. Yet the food was more flavourful and tasty. Slow-cooking and cooking food over a charcoal-powered hearth ensure that flavours are more pronounced,” explains Sandhu, who was felicitated with the Best Lady Chef Award for 2015-2016 by The Ministry of Tourism.

Challenges galore

It was a challenge for Sandhu initially to build this one of a kind bespoke kitchen as none of the equipment needed was readily available. Another challenge is that gas-free kitchens tend to get hot, and hence, require a much more efficient exhaust system.

Moreover, Sandhu had to on-board staff who were willing to work in a gas-free environment. Training the staff to use the equipment took a while; however, she says that they have mastered the art now.

To suit the ancient methods, Sandhu uses traditional recipes that are much more elaborate. She believes that the most positive part of cooking gas-free is that guests get acquainted with culinary traditions and the history attached to the offerings.

Sandhu refers to age-old recipe books and travels to far-flung regions in India, where gas stoves and burners are not easily accessible, using personal experiences to create recipes. For instance, the Deomali — a dish of mutton that is slowly cooked in bamboo — at Arth is inspired by her family picnics, when her uncle used to cook fish in bamboo. “The bamboo lends its flavour to the meat,” she explains.

The time factor

Succulent kebabs

Succulent kebabs

It does, however, take longer for Sandhu to cook food over charcoal than on gas. However, cooking on charcoal also leads to more even cooking and lends the dishes a depth of flavour that a gas stove can never replicate.

For instance, the lamb leg in her Rann biryani takes six hours on slow simmering coal, compared to gas, where two-and-a-half to three hours is more than enough.

Similarly, the kakori kebab is slow-cooked on charcoal sigrees for several hours before being stone-ground. Even before the kebabs are served, they give out whiffs of pure saffron, and you know that it’s going to be a hearty meal.

And then there is the chooza , slowly cooked in a sandpit for three hours, as opposed to a gas stove that would take a maximum of half-an-hour.

But Sandhu also points out what she believes to be the most positive part of cooking gas-free: her guests get acquainted with culinary traditions and the history attached to the offerings. The food is also much more flavourful, and the texture of the food, once cooked, is far superior to what regular cooking methods yield.

All in all, she admits that gas-free cooking does not limit her, and has instead opened doors to limitless possibilities.


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Printable version | May 18, 2022 9:45:05 am | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/cooking-gas-free-with-chef-amninder-sandhu/article23321151.ece