Mr and Mrs of Spices
By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Photo Credit: Sipra Das Dated: October 01, 2014
A former media planner, Rohini Gauthaman, along with her husband, Gauthaman Veera, has started a restaurant that recreates authentic chettinad cuisine in East Delhi
Rohini Gauthaman, a former General Manager at RK Swamy, and her husband Gauthaman Veera, who works for epagemaker, a digital solutions company, are famous among their friends for cooking up a fiery storm, especially of the Chettinad variety. They also nurtured a dream... for nearly ten years... So, encouraged by friends and Punjabi cousins (Gauthaman is half Tamil, half Punjabi) and some culinary research, they realised that it was time Delhi got “the real taste of Chettinad cuisine”.
Their survey revealed that there were only three types of biryani in Delhi — Hyderabadi, Peshawari, and Avadhi, but no restaurant or eatery served what they really wanted. “We keep making trips to Chennai and after one such trip we were convinced that there was scope for Chettinad cuisine here,” says Gauthaman.
However, they weren’t sure of how many takers there would be for this so-far-untasted cuisine. So they decided to start a small takeaway and called it ‘Smoky Chettinad’ in Mayur Vihar, east of Delhi and across the River Yamuna. Mayur Vihar has significant South Indian population — a clear demographic advantage.
While they did think of getting cooks from Chennai, the Gauthamans finally chose to cook by themselves. In May, attired in aprons and chef caps, they opened shop and were to ready to unveil Chettinad. The inserts they had sent out with newspapers had spread the word.
A distinctly smoky flavour is integral to Chettinad cuisine and it comes from the 'dum' (charcoal) cooking and from 'kallupassi' (a kind of sea moss). But the Gauthamans weren’t familiar with the charcoal route.
“A lot of goof-ups happened. We had to dum the biryani and we did not how long that would take because at home we used the stove. We did not know how to fire a tandoor,” Gauthaman says, adding that they have now mastered it.
One morning a review in The Indian Express caught them by surprise! Soon customers, among them a large number of journalists, began calling in. Most times, the duo is busy explaining to people what the cuisine is all about, to the extent that they often send out web links to the curious foodie and others.
Smoky Chettinad has earned mixed reactions from its patrons. Some have ordered and reordered, while others are only beginning to appreciate its nuances. “We’ve done a lot of homework. We like to really delve into why a person has written a negative review and try and explain the cuisine to them,” says Rohini. In fact, they almost went up to the house of a customer to apologise because he wasn’t pleased with the way the Chicken 65 was made.
Smoky has a European setup where the kitchen is out in the open and anybody can walk in, much to the amusement of passers-by. Rohini has a database of people who have called to place an order and when they call the next time, get a personalised greeting.
“They are pleasantly surprised. They want to know what we do and how we do it. I get calls from people when guests are coming over and they ask what they should order and how much would suffice. There’s a lot of personal talk that happens,” she adds.
Moreover, they hope to change the perception people have about South Indian food. “People think that down South, from Nagpur onwards, only idlis and dosas are consumed. We want to change that,” they say.
Meeting and interacting with customers directly, hearing them, and observing them have all been an overwhelming experience for Rohini. “There’s so much to learn! You realise that advertising is such a small aspect in the whole thing,” she says and smiles.
We tried their Chettinad Chicken Biryani and Pepper Chicken. The eating experience was guilt-free as there was no trace of excess oil in the food. The biryani tastes refreshingly different and is packed with spices that are distinct from the regular ‘garam masalas’. The pepper chicken was good too, except for the copious amounts of ginger in it. Overall a memorable experience and we shall order again. More so because it doesn’t seem like ‘food ordered from a restaurant’ either to the stomach or the heart!