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The indie food movement: Pop-up restaurants are taking over
Payel Majumdar  28th Feb 2015

From freak occurrence to regular affair, pop-up food events are here to stay.

hree or four years ago, the only thing that could possibly qualify as a pop-up event in Delhi was J.N.U.'s student-union curated International Food Festival, a miscellaneous group of stalls put up by international and Indian students over three days. Sampling food over there was a bit of an adventure — while you might have had one of the best Kabuli pulaos of your life at the Afghan stall, it's possible an odd smelly moussaka or gyro put you off Greek food bfor a while.

Cut to 2015: multiple pop-up events taking place in the metropolitan cities have become routine. While more home chefs may be catering on their own, it isn't uncommon for them to tie up with companies that take care of the logistics, such as food delivery, advertising and booking the space for an event. Pop-ups are a great place to experiment with food for both hosts and customers, since fixed costs are low. Home chefs and companies organising such events have both become more commonplace and adventurous, to the benefit of the general public.

One such company is Small Fry Co., based out of Mumbai and co-owned by Insia Lacewalla and Paresh Chhabria. Insia had been organising food stalls for music festivals for some years, when she hit upon the idea of organising pop-ups around Mumbai. "I knew so many people making great food, but people didn't know about them. I decided I would get together all the bakers I know and have a pop-up and it was a great success." Eighteen months on, Small Fry operates in different cities, and has held 16 pop-up events, apart from organising several food and music festivals in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

"We rent a studio or a bungalow for the evening, and everything at the pop-up is food related. There are 30 to 40 different people showcasing food at the venue and there is a variety of food, from organic cheese to bread to dips, sauces, marinades, gourmet products by home chefs, live food stations by home based chefs — from somebody doing keema stuffed idlis, churros, or ramen, it is a mix of different kinds of food."

Small Fry's pop-up events are called Bombay Local, and Lacewalla claims that her ventures have been profitable since day one; that is how she has managed to keep her events sponsor-free. Apart from Bombay Local, Small Fry hosts community lunches called The Secret Ingredient with different chefs, "We have had a Saraswat Brahmin meal, a Bohri meal — these are meals that focus on regional Indian cuisine."

Pop-ups are a great place to experiment with food for both hosts and customers, since fixed costs are low. Home chefs and companies organising such events have both become more commonplace and adventurous, to the benefit of the general public.

Music festivals and fairs are also increasingly opening up to the idea of pop-ups to take care of refreshments, as it also works as value addition to the primary event. Gitika Saikia, who has participated in one of Small Fry's Secret Ingredient food lunches, relates her experience, "I did a rural Assamese spread for the lunch, where I prepared obscure dishes such as banana flower mash with sesame chutney, a dish with banana stem, pork with bamboo shoot and fish with black sesame seeds. I gave a little talk before the meal about the cultural significance of each dish, to make my guests a part of what they were served in more ways than the taste of the food. " Image 2nd

Saikia (who also has her own YouTube cookery show called PakGhor) sources fresh food, and her main concern about catering for such events is the vast amount of produce that she has to courier from Assam. "I only do local, seasonal food, and base my menu around festivals. Since I courier vegetables and other items twice a month from home, it is difficult to estimate their quality, and to guarantee their freshness. As a result I have to deal with a lot of wastage at times."

Sneha Nair, economist by profession, chef by passion, has her own catering company, Poppadam, and has been hosting pop-ups for a while now. She has one piece of advice for people who are starting out, "You have to have fun while doing it. You cannot do it for the money; making money is not that hard, it's the former that is difficult to come by."

Nair has been hosting pop-up meals within her home as well as at other venues with Poppadam, where she explores different aspects of Keralite food. "I am hosting a lunch on Sunday at The Hive, Mumbai, a Syrian Christian meal with the menu having items such as beef cutlets and mutton fry, served on banana leaves. We're also working with other venues to host similar pop-ups." Nair has set menus for lunches at home, but loves to experiment from time to time. Poppadam sticks to Keralite food, though sometimes Nair mixes it up with "fun items" they invent, such as gunpowder and cheese idlis. Nair thinks that pop-ups are a great concept to have as wedding food; she tells us how she has done Onam specials as well as curated wedding meals.

It isn't too much of a hassle calling strangers into their homes if you ask her. "I have been couch surfing for several years now, and have hosted hundreds of people from all over the world, so this isn't any trouble at all." As for how she breaks the ice, "The ice breaks itself as soon as the food appears."

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