Sneha Saikia’s dining hall came to life again with laughter, jokes, anecdotes, and a combination of aromas coming out of her kitchen as she reopened her doors for home dine-ins in August last year.
It was in March 2020, when the Covid lockdown was first imposed in the country, that Saikia, like everyone else, had to shut down her pop-up. Two years later, as travel resumes and restaurants brim with life, home chefs share stories of food, flavours, and resilience.
“Earlier, people never minded dining with strangers but after Covid they became hesitant to even visit a stranger’s home. When the second Covid wave subsided, people started attending the dine-ins again but they were still not comfortable mingling with strangers and preferred coming in with their friends or family,” says Sneha, who started ‘Table for 6 Luncheon’ in 2018 to put Assamese cuisine on the national capital’s culinary map.
People choosing to form their own groups and come over for the intimate food experience with only known people made Sneha’s business suffer. The first group of guests she hosted after the pandemic was three couples who were friends with each other. “The couples made the group on their own so as to avoid dining with strangers,” informs Sneha. “But, slowly people started dining with strangers.”
Lucknow-based Sheeba Iqbal has a similar story to share. Iqbal, who recently hosted the team of the upcoming movie Bawaal, starring actors Varun Dhawan and Janhvi Kapoor, at her dine-in Aab-O-Daana, tells how she had to shut her pop-up and stop food delivery following the pandemic-induced lockdown. However, once the restrictions were lifted and there was a movement of groceries and other raw materials, she resumed home deliveries.
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It was in October 2020, after a gap of six months, that Sheeba hosted two Bengali couples and soon after a group of eight doctors from Punjab. “After hosting the Bengali couple, there was no stopping. I hosted the doctors’ groups and business started bouncing back. I had a good season throughout the winter of 2020,” says Sheeba.
In the winter of 2021, Sheeba resumed hosting big groups, and then there was no looking back. “The frequency of diners increases in winters, which is from October to March. I do dine-ins every alternate day to meet the demand,” she adds.
Sheeba specialises in Awadhi cuisine, the traditional recipes for which have been passed on to generations in Lucknow homes. She learned cooking from her mother but honed her skills under the guidance of her mother-in-law, who belonged to Bhopal, and brought the taste from the royal kitchens of begum of the capital city of Madhya Pradesh.
A Bite of Comfort
One of the reasons behind the popularity of dine-ins is the traditional cuisine the host has to offer, which is not found in many restaurants. From Bohri and Awadhi to Assamese and Himachali — there is nostalgia in every bite. Home pop-ups also offer a new way to socialise as they help in bringing people with common interests together, learn about the rich heritage of various communities while enjoying a good home-cooked meal.
Dr Aman Bhosle, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, who is regular to home dine-ins says that besides the authentic food that he gets to taste at these pop-ups, he loves meeting food enthusiasts and making new friends. Bhosle has travelled far and wide to explore various cuisine especially, Southeast Asian cuisine. Next, he is keen to try authentic Russian and German cuisines.
Mahua Jain, a Delhi-based content writer, who first visited a home dine-in 2019, says “authentic food” is what attracts her to these places.Jain, 51, who has been to various restaurant pop-ups says she is now searching for a dine-in that specialises in Kashmiri cuisine.
Of Food and Laughter
Nitika Sood, who runs Pahadi Pattal, too closed her doors for home dine-ins during the pandemic but her loyal diners bombarded her with queries on reopening. Overwhelmed by the response to her Himachali food, Sood decided to venture into home deliveries. “I was getting a lot of inquiries about the pop-ups and my diners wanted to taste my food. So, I started home delivery and within no time I was swamped with orders from Delhi-NCR,” Sood says.
She takes only 12-15 orders on Saturdays besides orders for special occasions.
Although there is no dearth of online orders, Nitika is still set to open her doors for home dine-ins towards the end of the year. “I miss interacting with people, sharing stories and knowledge about Himachali cuisine, and bonding over the food,” says Sood.
Dr Ruchi Mittal, who runs ‘Miles n Meals’, too is keen to resume home dine-ins after Diwali. With the virus still lurking around, she intends to write Covid-related protocols on the invite to make the dining experience for her guests safe. Currently, she runs a food delivery business and organises a small gathering of 4-6 people every month.
For Sunetra Vijaykar of ‘Dine With Vijaykars (DWV)’, it has always been about dining experience and not just the unique food that kept her away from venturing into home deliveries and made her put the dine-ins on hold.
Already having several confirmations from her regular diners and patrons, she plans to restart dine-ins by the last quarter of this year. Asked about the precautions she is going to take when she resumes the pop-up, Sunetra says, “It may not be large groups but a smaller, socially distanced group and more private dinings will be the way ahead.”
DWV specialises in Pathare Prabhu (PP) cuisine, the traditional cuisine of the Pathare Prabhu community in Western Maharashtra. As per her, the community has developed a full cuisine over centuries with several items that are unique and some which are twists to the typical neighbouring Marathi and Gujarati dishes.
Speaking about the future of home dine-ins, she says, “The last two years have been difficult for people, but now that things are open, and with travel and experiences coming back in action, there is a lot that can happen in the home-dining space.”
“The stage seems set for home-dining experiences to take the next steps, which could be in collaborative models with restaurants in more holistic experiences that cover tourism and cultural aspects along with food, like cultural festivals and food consulting,” she feels.