Meet the chef who is all set to bring Kerala food to the northeast

Meet the chef who is all set to bring Kerala food to the northeast

In the world of cooking, Shalini, 53, is a true rarity: a self-taught cook who honed her skills in the Indian kitchen, right from the comfort of her home before excelling in the industry, spinning the stories of love over food with her culinary skills.

Home Chef Shalini Aniket Biju Home Chef Shalini Aniket Biju

A conversation with Mumbai-based Chef Shalini Aniket Biju is much like a steady, yet a rumbling front row roller coaster ride that slowly picks up as soon the list of delectable cuisines and food ingredients enters your sixth sense, and the discussion pumps up. The discussion may suddenly veer off course, soar to new heights, and then plummet to its lowest point. You leave feeling enthralled and pleasantly energised.
In the world of cooking, Shalini, 53, is a true rarity: a self-taught cook who honed her skills in the Indian kitchen, right from the comfort of her home before excelling in the industry, spinning the stories of love over food with her culinary skills.

Shalini Aniket Biju

Being a Sindhi and getting married into a Malayali family, her biggest task was to bridge the gap between the North and South. The kitchen turned into a battle field where Shalini continued to fight like a valiant chef, developing, re-developing, creating, re-creating an array of dishes, combining the best of the two worlds and improving her gastronomical skills.
Like Shalini says, “It should be simple. Food reflects the intricacies of life. If one is heavy then its complementary dish should be light. One should balance their platter like we do in varied situations in our daily life.”

Shalini Aniket Biju in her kitchen

And now Shalini is all set to introduce her delectable platter of exquisite Keralean dishes in Guwahati in an upcoming event titled 'Kerala Food Pop Up' by Terra Mayaa, presented and hosted by Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, curator of bespoke meals. 
To understand her foray into India’s northeast, India Today NE engaged in an exclusive tête-à-tête with Shalini Aniket Biju, who spoke about her journey, struggles, inspiration, motivation and the life’s philosophy. Excerpts from the exclusive interview with Nandita Borah.
Q. What is this Kerala Food Pop Up all about?
A: The Kerala Food Pop up is an event which aims to basically unite the country, bridging the gap between North and South, East and West. It’s a cross-country, cross-boundary event, where through food we are trying to connect each contour of the country, learning, experiencing food habits and dispensing culinary ideas and make the people of Northeast know the food styles beyond its boundaries and relish what we bring to the table. Basically, Kerala Food Pop Up attempts to unite India. I have experienced Assamese cuisine in Mumbai. Same way I want to bring the Malayali culture to Assam. 

Chef Shalini with one of her dishes

Q. What were some of your earliest associations with food? 
A: I always wanted to be a chef. But then they say that life takes you where it has to take you. I didn’t turn out to be a chef initially. I got into Commerce, was engaged in the corporate field. If I can recollect, my earliest association with food has been when my grandmother introduced me to the culinary journey. Since childhood I loved cooking. Be it fermentation process, like making pickles, my grandmother always involved me, right from when I was six years old and from there I took forward and developed my love for cooking. When I look back, I think it has been a very long journey for me. Although the journey has been 6-7 years, I reached where I wanted to reach. I have cooked for many people. And then I entered into the home dining. From there I picked up my passion and my kids told me to that you should follow what you love doing and then I started my journey of Home Chef.

Q. Why specialise in Keralean food? 
A: I am a Sindhi and got married into a Malayali family. So my association with south cuisine was only after marriage. Earlier, I would think South Indian cuisine is about idli sambhar, dosa chutney, which was very limited knowledge. You see, North Indian cuisine is totally different from the South Indian cuisine. Like for example the vegetables that we have in North is different from the ones we use in Kerala. You have tapioca, raw banana, elephant foot, and many others that is used in Kerala dish which is totally different from the ones that are used in the North. And after coming into this family, I can say that I was actually introduced to Malayali dish by my mother-in-law. She used to meticulously teach me the nuances of cooking especially vegetarian food, while my father-in-law is a hardcore non-vegetarian. Both of them taught me the facets of a typical Keralean dish right from the proper cutting of vegetables, to adding of spices. My father-in-law was very particular about the cutting of the vegetables. If he didn’t like the cut then he will straight away throw the vegetables. Then you see, I had that passion and the thirst to learn, so then and there I jumped into hardcore cooking. Now after 25 years since I got married into this family, I can say that I have evolved as a chef and have got into the hardcore Malayali cooking.

Home Chef Shalini Aniket Biju showcasing her dishes

Q. How similar are foods from Kerala and the northeast?
A: This isn’t my first time visiting Assam. Earlier too I visited Northeast in 2018, December. It was a solo trip to Arunachal, Meghalaya and Assam and I can say that we draw a lot of similarities between Assam and Kerala with respect to its food habits and I love the food here. Like for example the people of Kerala believe in lot of fermentation of food like what people in Assam or the Northeast do. Then there is what you call the ‘pitha’, a rice dish using rice powder and jaggery. We too have a similar dish where the additional ingredient is coconut. Actually, there is a lot of overlapping in food not only in Assam and Kerala, but across the country which tends to bring forth the similarity in dishes. Like here in Kerala we have the red rice, the same which people in Assam consume. And if you see, the vegetables used in Kerala and Assam are very common and are found in both states.
Q. What are the challenges one faces in this industry? 
A: When I entered this scene I was already a chef. I came from a different world altogether. Then I started my home dining journey. I was an eye-opener for me itself. Like when you cook in the house, it’s a different atmosphere. When we cook we don’t measure things. But when we are doing in a commercial kitchen, then everything needs to be similar. You cannot deviate from it. Because you are serving your client, your customer, you have to follow the taste and their choices. What I have learnt from my grandmother is the authentic recipe. Every household has its own authentic recipe. But once you are stepping out of your home kitchen and entering a commercial space, things then change totally. Professional chefs are different from what home chefs bring to the table. Commercial kitchens follow a set of assembly line preparation while the home chefs like me try to follow the authenticity. That is one challenge I say we face. But now the things are changing and I find the chefs are becoming more accepting and keen on learning. My second biggest challenge was working in a commercial kitchen, because when you are working in the house, you are cooking on a normal burner, while in commercial kitchen the burners are huge, the vessels are big. And when I, a woman chef entered a commercial kitchen, although there are many women chefs around the world, it was a big challenge for me as well as for the chef. So, both of us to come to a mid point, we both needed to work really hard. Now, things are really changing. I am travelling across the country and learning new things. At the end, it is always going to one’s roots, to your home kitchen. Even chefs nowadays are bringing their home recipes on our table.
Q. What is the highlight of a typical Kerala dish?
A: If I have to give a background, then Kerala is not a Muslim, Hindu or Christian state. The platter is basically influenced from the Dutch, the French, Portuguese. If you flip through the pages of history, then you will find that Kerala was the oldest trade route. Find the south coast rich in spices, the European nations came here to trade with us and buy our spices. We even have spices growing in our backyard. You might understand what important role spices play in our everyday food. Like if you look in the North, a lot of spices go into different food items. While we being the oldest trade route and the spice producer, we do not play with our spices or add them in each and every food. We want our spices to be subtle, to bring out the beauty of each and every spice that we add to our food. Like when I am taking about ‘appam’ with stew, Puttu and Kadala curry, Karimeen Pollichathu, there is so much more to Kerala. We are enriched with such a vibrant platter, we have the Thalassery Biryani, the pure vegetarian Sadya special. We are beyond the idli, vada sambhar. Also, because of the location, we have lot of non-veg food, especially sea food and which is quite similar to Assam and Northeast as well. Our fish curries our to die for because we use ‘Kodampuli’, a souring agent which is very healthy for anybody. 

Shalini Aniket Biju in the kitchen while showing off her signature dishes

Q. As a chef, what will be your magic mantra for all the budding chefs out there?
A: Keep is simple, don’t over complicate. Do what you feel like, but from the core of your heart. A chef who works from the depth of his heart makes the best food.