When chef Sapna Ajwani landed in London after living in Germany and leaving her home of South Mumba, she saw an opportunity to connect with her Sindhi roots — and to introduce the flavors of Sindhi cuisine to the masses.
“I used to cook all the time because I missed my home food so much,” Ajwani told SEEMA. “My friends whom I would invite always commented that the food is very different from what they eat at Indian restaurants and I would say, ‘Obviously, it’s Sindhi food, there are no restaurants.’ That’s what got me thinking, that there might be an opportunity to rescue the cuisine from the depths of obscurity.”
Ajwani started her supper club Sindhi Gusto in 2016, giving diners a chance to explore her native flavors and to learn about the culture. As the website states, “Eating Sindhi food is a travel in time itself, some of these ingredients date back to the time when civilisation itself began, like ‘Pallo’ (Hilsa) the famous fish delicacy, ‘Bhee’ (lotus stem), grains such as ‘Juwar’ or sorghum to name a few.”
“My suppers always begin with an introduction tracing the history of Sindh from the time of the Indus valley civilisation 7000 years ago, travelling back in time until today, highlighting what the partition of 1947 did to us,” she says. “It’s a story not many know because Sindhis are such a stoic people. After the partition they just put their heads down and did what they know best, to work hard and eke out a living. The entire province of Sindh became a part of Pakistan and was never carved up, and close to a million Sindhi Hindus migrated to India and other parts of the world.”
What are your earliest cooking memories?
SA: All my memories from childhood are about food either eating, watching people cook and finally trying my hand at my favourite dishes. I didn’t actually learn to cook like how chefs train, it has been mainly by observation, and talking about food with my family. Even now, I recreate recipes from remembering the taste and memories of watching how my family cooks.
The first dish I ever cooked was scrambled eggs, learnt from my father, he is the best “egg cook” in our family. I would watch my paternal grandmother make pickles, in these big ceramic jars we called, 'barnis'. He would chop and dry vegetables for the harsh winters in Jodhpur like turnips, apple gourd, bitter gourd, and lotus stems.
What inspired you to be a chef? Tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are now.
SA: I have been a foodie since childhood. I remember reading the recipe sections and the new restaurant sections of magazines and newspapers. I would make my mum take me to eat kebabs, to places that were 20 miles away from where we lived in South Mumbai, simply because I had read those were the best in Mumbai. This was when I was still in primary school, and my palate kept developing, so much so even the adults would seek my opinion on where to go eat.
That continued right through University, work, and still does. People trust my palate. That sort of gives you the picture on how picky I am about food. I started recreating the food I liked at home, and would invite friends over or take it to them. My friends would always comment, “You are such a good cook, start a restaurant.”
Why did you decide to launch a supper club in 2016? What were you hoping diners would learn about Sindhi cuisine?
SA: Around 2011 to 2012, supper clubs started becoming popular in London, especially for discerning eaters like me who wanted to discover new flavors. We used to go to quite a few, that’s when I started dreaming about doing something similar for Sindhi cuisine. It would also be a road test before ever thinking about starting a restaurant. I also thought it would be such a shame, if the beautiful culinary history and flavours of Sindh were not introduced to a foodie city like London.
SA: I do an introduction for each dish and tell them the story behind it, leading with the story of Sindh, Sindhis and the food in general. I always welcome the guests with our favorite nibble, a ‘Sindhi Papad,’ crispy mixed lentil bites full of pepper and cumin, along with a drink.
Afterwards, there are at least three starters , two vegetarian, and one fish/meat generally or vegetarian for the vegetarian guests. Dal pakwan (mixed lentils topped with spicy chutneys) served with crispy fried bread, is a permanent fixture and by far the most popular dish, loved by all. I have to literally take the serving bowls away from the guests because they can’t stop stuffing themselves with the crispy bread dunked into the creamy lentils.
There after there is a main and a side, meat, fish or vegetarian, the side is always a unique vegetable that people wouldn’t ever think of eating or is available in restaurants, for eg, bitter gourds, ivy gourds, a desert vegetable I got especially from Rajasthan (dried). The idea of a supperclub to me is to introduce people to different flavours and ingredients they wouldn’t normally get in a restaurant, because it may not be a very commercially viable dish. Like the bitter gourd, I know many people in India don’t know how to cook it, or because they have had a badly cooked dish, never want to eat it again. The evening ends with dessert, tea, and generally a night cap of whisky, rum. Sindhis love their drink you see.
The whole evening is about eating, and chatting with your fellow guests, whom you may not know, but all are there for the same thing: to eat good food, learn about a different culture, make new friends, and have some interesting conversations.
Has cooking been an escape for you during the pandemic? Has your cooking changed at all in the past couple of months?
SA: Before the lockdown started, I was travelling through Pakistan. I was in Sindh rediscovering my roots, researching for my upcoming book, to see what the SIndhis were eating in Pakistan,in the villages, availability of ingredients, learning about the food cooked in the remote regions of Sindh. After I came back, I actually had a lot to do, and started writing everything that I had experienced and testing the recipes. I find cooking very therapeutic and creative at the same time. It’s a great way to take one’s mind of pressing matters, with all that’s going around.
Because of all the problems with food wastage, and the difficulty in actually procuring things, I’ve been sure to put every bit of food that is cooked to use. That might mean repurposing a mutton stew into a mutton pulao, or using leftover bread and flatbreads to make a Sindhi panzanella called Seyal dubroti or Seyal phulko. Sindhis, because of all the hardships they went through, have always been very careful about not wasting anything. The article I did recently with Cntraveller in India covers that aspect of lockdown cooking. It also allows me to focus time on writing my book.