Ten years ago Shyama regularly shared her passion for cooking with her friends by hosting popular dinner parties. One evening a guest, who happened to work in the travel industry, convinced her that she really ought to run her own business giving cookery demonstrations for the many visitors to Pondicherry in South-east India. What started as a dinner party conversation led to a profession welcoming guests and presenting the region’s rich gastronomy. Here she shares an insight into her profession and explains how she sees opportunities for women in modern India developing.
Do you have a favourite dish to serve guests?
I try to serve as many varieties of dishes as possible (usually 12-15), so that the clients not only get a taste of Pondicherry, but of different parts of India as well. My favourite dish to serve guests is Mustard Prawns, a dish from West Bengal that perfectly marries the flavour of mustard, coconut and prawns.
Do you like to present local dishes and flavours that they perhaps haven’t tried before?
I always serve local dishes. The unique blend of South Indian spices such as curry leaves, coconut, fenugreek and mustard seeds, are rare to them.
Where do your source your ingredients?
All my ingredients are locally sourced. Early every morning I make a trip to the main market where farmers from neighbouring villages come to sell their fresh produce, such as coconut and fresh fish.
Are there any ingredients that you struggle to obtain in Pondicherry?
Almost everything grows in local farms around Pondicherry, finding all the ingredients I need has never been a problem.
Have you cooked for any famous people?
I have had the privilege of hosting dinner for food critic Fay Maschler and also food author, Ivor Peters – I was a quite nervous but both experiences were very memorable.
Would you be willing to share one of your recipes with us?
Oh yes! I love sharing recipes. Here is the recipe for the above mentioned Mustard Prawns –
Prawns : 200g
Coconut : 1 cup (grated and ground to paste with little water)
Mustard seeds : 5 tsp (soaked in water and then ground to paste)
Turmeric powder : ¼ tsp
Red chilli powder (Paprika) : ¼ tsp
Sugar : ½ tsp
Salt, oil and 2 green chillies.
Take 200g of shelled prawns, marinate in ¼ tsp of turmeric powder and ¼ tsp of red chilli powder (paprika) and ½ tsp of salt. Take a little oil or butter (3 tbsp) in a pan, add the marinated prawns, and sauté for few minutes. Add 1 cup ground coconut and ground mustard paste. Sauté it well on a medium heat. Add the sugar and a little water if needed. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes, until it is semi-dried. Add the whole green chillis, mix and keep covered. Serve hot with rice or bread.
What advice would you give your 18 year old self?
Believe in your dreams and the world will come around!
Have any of your guests swapped recipes with you, and if so, what are the best ones you have received?
This happens all the time. Everyone likes to find equivalents from their own countries to what they are eating. I have received many fantastic recipes, but the ones I have tried are cakes and my family’s favourite – Shepherd’s Pie.
Did you always want to be a cook? What job opportunities were open to you when you were younger?
I have always liked taking care of and nurturing people. As a young girl I wanted to be a nurse. I was always passionate about cooking but had never thought that it would someday be my profession.
Do you feel that opportunities for women in modern India are improving, and if so, in what ways?
Opportunities for women in modern India are improving for sure. Girls are encouraged to be educated and to fulfil their dreams. More and more families acknowledge the rights of girls, and girls are not considered to be a burden anymore. Society is slowly accepting women as equals. There’s a long way ahead but things are changing for the better.
Are you optimistic for changes in the future? What would be the most significant thing you would change?
Yes, young people are doing great things, they are more aware and so much smarter. I believe that the new generation will someday make the world a better place.
Where in the world have you travelled and where would you like to travel to next?
I have travelled to France as well as to several parts of India, but I would like to travel all over the world and experience the culture and food. I believe food is a global language that can bring strangers together. This is the magic I want to witness and learn.
What inspires you?
Interacting with every guest is inspirational. Hearing each one’s stories, and how food has healed them in so many ways makes me want to continue on this journey.