Chef and cookbook author Sapna Anand remembers racing, with her sister, to the gates of her ancestral home in Ottapalam to catch the ice-cream man. All they could hear was ice the cream man’s bicycle bell tinkle. “The road is some distance away... . We would grab all the loose change we could find, run to the gate and be there waiting. ‘Ice cream’ was frozen semiya payasam on a stick, one of the best things!”
She grew up and made raspberry vermicelli berry pops from memory, the berries were her daughter’s suggestion, and put it in her cookbook, New Indian Kitchen .
The 46-year-old executive chef/partner of Blue Elephant divides her time between Kuala Lumpur, where she is based, and Kochi where her parents live. Sapna, a restaurant consultant, works for the Malaysia-based restaurant group SOULed OUT, heading their restaurant Goa By Hubba at The Ascott KL. She lectures at Le Cordon Bleu, Malaysia and hosts a cookery show, Fast Indian Cooking with Sapna , on to its second season, is aired on the Asian Food Channel in countries in the region such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia among others.
When Sapna set up the 16-seater Blue Elephant almost a year ago, on KP Vallon Road, with business partner Oneal Sabu, it was out of love for food —cook and serving—and if a new sensibility toward eating-out emerged, it was unintentional. “For us it was about keeping it (food) simple and serving soul food.”
Food is many things for Sapna, so it comes as a surprise when she says she started cooking rather late. She was in her 30s. “I wasn’t much of a cook. In fact I didn’t know any cooking. In the initial years of our marriage, my husband cooked more than I,” says Sapna. After the couple moved to San Francisco, United States, she began her fledgling attempts. She bought herself a few cookbooks, among which were Julie Sahni’s cookbooks, “Julie is a huge inspiration; her books are popular among young Indian women there.”
Then there were phone calls to her mother in Goa, for recipes that were sent via post. At the time, in the late 1990s, finding authentic ingredients wasn’t easy so she cooked with substitutes. A reason why she didn’t know the ‘authentic’ Indian cooking.
Sapna’s brand of cooking comprises modern Indian cuisine therefore some of her recipes are the 5 spice achari chicken tart and kheema lasagna. Before these, however, there were disasters such as burnt tandoori chicken attempted in a barbecue pit.
When they moved to Ireland, she got herself a job in a Pakistani chef’s kitchen. “It was my first time in a professional kitchen...I saw how things were done in a restaurant,” says Sapna. She also started cooking more, gradually finding her feet as she rustled up new dishes – contemporary take on desi regulars – for expatriate friends. She continued after they moved, yet again, this time to Malaysia in the year 1999.
“My kids were older, I had more time and it led me to rethink cooking. I had started enjoying it.” She decided to learn cookery professionally and went to Le Cordon Bleu (Bangkok) for a one-year pastry making course.
By 2009, Sapna, comfortable with cooking, started blogging on ‘My Test Kitchen’, chronicling her adventures in the kitchen. The blog and the recipes attracted, in 2013, the would-be publishers of New Indian Kitchen, Malaysia-based MPH. “In less than an hour of our meeting the contract was drawn. I took a year to get the book ready since I was not an expert in cooking, baking was my thing. It needed homework and research.”
She wanted to go beyond the typical butter chicken or jalfrezi recipes so started at the beginning with the basics - spices. She researched, spoke to spice farmers and “slowly India started shaping up.” New Indian Kitchen was published in 2015, the second edition came out the very next year and the television show, Fast Indian Cooking with Sapna in 2017.
The show brought her to Kochi where she met Oneal. Setting it up was sudden, “Like everything else I have done. I never plan,” she goes on, “I go by instinct, do only what I know. If I don’t, then I won’t even talk about it.”
Sapna and Oneal are gearing up for another leap of faith. They are planning to close Blue Elephant, as restaurant, and instead keep it running as a cloud kitchen (for takeaway orders) and take their idea of soul food forward to organise pop-ups. “Pop-ups are popular now, Bengaluru and Mumbai are seeing many of these. We are calling it the Soul Food Company, we will showcase food from different parts of India - in India and internationally. The first one will be held at Kuala Lumpur.”
Food ideas from family and friends
Neither traditional nor entirely contemporary, it is “all that I would cook at home, share with family and friends. Whatever you do with your soul will work,” she says.
The inspiration is through friends, family, travel and spaces where she has spent time - a little bit of this and that. Passion fruit and mango kulfi came to be because of the passion fruit gifts from their neighbour’s farms, coconut semolina laddoo dipped in chocolate inspired by her mother-in-law’s laddoos...Sapna has an endless list.
Memories inspire, like her mother’s version of prawn masala created from Sapna’s grandmother’s illegible handwriting or a crab cake eaten at a restaurant as a child in Goa where she grew up.
“Goa was a colossal influence, as much as Kerala. It reflects in my style of work, some of my recipes too. Like the Goan clam with spaghetti and whole roasted chicken cafreal. We lived among a beautiful, close-knit community.”
One of her popular recipes is the lamb and chicken kebab, “people write almost every day about it.”