Sydney Tiffin Room goes way beyond biryani and butter chicken
Shashank Achuta wants to shake up your definition of Indian cuisine.
If butter chicken with naan is all that comes to mind when you think of this cuisine, the Indian-born chef is hoping to show you just how varied the country’s dishes can be. Achuta, who moved here in 2015 and worked in several well-known Australian restaurants (Attica, Hubert, Cafe Paci), recently launched its Sydney Tiffin Room delivery service. Her menu offered everything from “Indian fish and chips” to saffron risotto inspired by a traditional rice pudding that her mother prepared for religious offerings.
“I come from the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, ”says Achuta. This is also where her parents are from, but the food varied so much in the area that her mother suffered “culture shock” while adapting to her husband’s cooking. “My mom used to tell me how she used to. I spent hours, every day, learning all these different dishes with his mother-in-law,” he says.
Achuta’s mother grew up in Kothagudem in the northeast of the state, which has a very arid and hot climate. “So the food used as much heat as possible, there was a lot of dehydration in the sun.” The sun-dried ingredients would turn into pappadums and crackers – things that crackle with flavor. The summer harvest was followed by massive stripping sessions. Achuta remembers a cook’s conservation efforts in his grandmother’s kitchen. “All his work was to transform 25 kilos of green mangoes into the most delicious pickles”, explains the chef. “There would be a nice, comfortable spot in the kitchen and he would go.” The cook added mustard powder and chili and let the pickle fully develop its deep, sweet and sour flavors after fermenting in a clay pot for weeks.
Meanwhile, her father’s food memories were measured in borders crossed and kilometers traveled. “My dad grew up in so many different places, because my grandfather worked for the Indian railways, so he was constantly relocated,” he says. “My dad had one of the best experiences, experiencing all of the different foods and cultures.”
Proof of the diversity of Indian cuisine, his father’s diet was completely different from his mother’s, even though they were both vegetarians living in the same condition. Achuta’s father spent a key part of his upbringing at Nellore, 300 km south of his mother’s hometown. “Nellore’s food tends to be very spicy,” he says, referring to the generous amount of chili peppers and fragrant earthy ingredients used in his dishes.
After their marriage, they moved further inland to Bengalru (Bangalore) in the state of Karnataka. “Bangalore has always been a metropolitan city, as much as a mixing pot you get,” Achuta said.
A regional specialty he liked was the idlis at a local cafe. While the rice and semolina dough was simple, the real joy of the dish was to embed the steamed cakes in the chutney. He still remembers the coconut and cilantro chutney at his favorite spot, and “Uncle Chutney” there with his ladle, endlessly handing out chutneys.
The Chef’s Life is a portrait of the breadth of Indian cuisine, but it was not until after the pandemic that he was able to further explore the regionality of cuisine.
When COVID-19 shut down the restaurant industry last year, he was working at Fred’s at Paddington in Sydney. Achuta was not entitled to social benefits, so he started a food delivery service to keep busy. “I wanted to cook Indian food, sure, but in a way that a lot of people don’t, I think,” he says.
“I think people have experienced [with Indian food here] and they’ve been criticized and shut down, so they’re moving back to something more secure. They end up with butter chicken, naan and biryani, and… everything becomes very monotonous, ”adds Achuta. “It’s something that I aspire to do too, to reinvent the wheel in Indian cuisine.
So, what started out as a handful of curries and biryanis last year has grown into something more ambitious during the current lockdown. Just three months ago, he stumbled across the dish that inspired the management of Sydney Tiffin Room, the delivery service he officially launched. in August. This dish is a duck and poppy seed curry influenced by Pondicherry (Pondicherry) in the south-east, a region formerly colonized by France. “I was doing a lot of research on Pondicherry and duck seems to be something that was introduced by the French.” He also credits the French for introducing salads from Nice and crème brûlée to the region. By mixing different ideas – the nutty, medicinal, thickening power of poppy seeds, the richness of duck fat and balanced broth with coconut milk – he came up with something surprising. “The first time my husband and I tried it, we looked at each other and we were like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on to something!’
“It’s something that I also aspire to do, reinvent the wheel when it comes to Indian cuisine.”
With Sydney Tiffin Room, each menu focuses on special dishes from a region – reworked with the chef’s local touch. Pondicherry’s menu also featured masala vadai. “This is a very popular snack / breakfast in South India,” he explains. The Achuta version of lentil fritters evokes the region’s coastline by flavoring it with king prawns and adding a rich punch of burnt onion chutney and a hint of ultra-concentrated shrimp oil made from shellfish heads. . “It’s something that will always stay on my menu.”
Then there’s her remix of her mother’s annam payasam, a rice pudding with religious significance. She made it big in the morning and gave it to Ganesh, the Hindu god who loves sweets, before they eat them. “You can smell the most delicious ghee and roasted peanuts and candy and it’s just sitting there, and you’re not allowed to touch it. It’s chaotic, it’s the worst experience. But it teaches you. patience !”
The chief laughs at his memories of painful waiting for annam payasam. “It might not seem like much, but try putting a box of donuts in front of you and someone says, ‘You can’t eat it for four or five hours. “Those five hours seem like years!”
He transforms this dish for the Sydney Tiffin Room by making it a sweet saffron risotto. “This is my take on a Milanese risotto,” he says. “It’s hard on saffron, on cardamom. I finish with a touch of yogurt, to give it a little spice.”
Then there is his cafreal fish fry rava de Goa: fish cutlets in a semolina crust with a spicy cilantro cafereal sauce, which he says is like an Indian version of fish and chips. Cilantro-chilli marinade reflects the period of the state of western India as unique portuguese colony (Colonial rulers introduced the idea of caféréal here, having originally encountered it in Mozambique).
For Achuta, there’s the pressure to ship the fried fish before it gets soggy. “It’s the last thing I do before I send the food,” he says. The chef jumps into the car once it’s done, and starts heading to his delivery destinations.
“I unfortunately had a few accidents: a little spilled curry, a little oil in the backseat. These are the worst things to wash – but I guess that’s all part of the fuss, right?”
“I really want to make food from northeast India: the region itself, even within India, lacks representation,” he says.
Before the recent lockdown, Achuta worked at the Sydney restaurant Lana as sous chef. “We were open for every two weeks before we were quarantined,” he says. When trade restrictions related to the pandemic are lifted, Lana will reopen, but Achuta is not yet ready to withdraw delivery service.
“I hope the Sydney Tiffin Hall is the start of something bigger for me and I want to devote as much time and resources to it as possible.” he says. Perhaps he will pursue it on weekends or on special occasions. But for the chef, it is essential to continue to showcase the cuisine of his country of origin.
“I speak for a lot of Indians when I say that it is still – to some extent – very under-represented.”