When Indian cooking enthusiast Perzen Patel was little, her grandmother, Dolly Mumma, asked her what she wanted to inherit. Patel thought about it for a moment and replied, “a big, never-ending bowl of her curry” to always remember her by.
Patel grew up learning to cook at her Dolly Mumma’s knee in India, but when she moved to Aotearoa-New Zealand at 15, she lost her knack for traditional Indian cooking.
A visit home, years later, reignited her love of flavours beyond the orange tikkas and yellow butter chickens she’d grown used to in New Zealand. On returning home, she started her Indian cooking sauce company, named it after her grandmother, and never looked back.
"When it came to Indian food, I was really tired of hearing people just talk about the same four or five dishes. I felt like we were ready to move further,” she says.
Now Dolly Mumma sells not only chutneys, sauces and pastes, aimed at adding traditional Indian cooking flavours to almost any dish, but Patel also hosts online cooking classes, live-streamed from her home kitchen, where everything she needs to make a quick, flavourful dish is close at hand in her well-stocked pantry.
"The classes are advertised to be about 60 minutes, but I love talking about food and sharing stories, so they always take much longer.”
"We do a little icebreaker activity around food at the start of the class, and then when everything is cooked, I essentially just sign off really quickly, because I know everyone's really hungry." There are usually about five to 10 people in each class, and at the end of the session, they have two complete dishes cooked.
"My favourite part of the class is to share the personal stories,” Patel says. “I'm a strong believer in the idea it's less about food than the stories behind the food we eat.
"It's [the difference between] giving you a plate of prawn curry, and telling you, 'this is my grandmother's prawn curry. I made it with fresh curry leaves from the garden'. Sharing that story, and why it's special to me, that's what makes the food memorable for you."
Patel hopes that personal connection will encourage her students to experiment with Indian flavours in their own kitchens later.
Living with her in-laws in India, Patel had to share the kitchen with the rest of the family. The was also in a separate room, so if you were cooking it felt very isolating.
"When we were house-hunting here, I really wanted the kitchen to be an open space where people can gather around." Her open-plan Kiwi kitchen is perfect for showcasing her culture, in particular her not-so-secret culinary weapon, her masala box.
As a teen in New Zealand, her mum would often try to convince her of the importance of the masala box, a stainless steel tin, usually with six smaller tins inside for various seeds and spices.
When I went for my exchange semester to Canada, my mother insisted I take a Masala Dabba with me. I scoffed at her then but when I was in my flat alone in Toronto, that box became my lifeline. It… read more
"I was like, 'no, who uses that?'. I just wanted my fancy spice rack from Briscoes, that spins.
"It was only when I moved back to India, where I really started my journey of falling back in love with Indian food and started cooking Indian food that I realised just how impractical [the European] one is and how great having a masala box is."
With a masala box, adjust the balance of the flavours is simple as all the spices she typically uses are open at the same time. And because they are only small amounts of each spice, they are kept fresher and last longer than constantly opening the whole box each time you need it.
Changing with the season, her masala will include white sesame, black mustard, and cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chilli powder and a cumin and coriander seed powder.
"Because they're in such small quantities, there's an opportunity to try a new flavour each time. You can say, ‘OK, this time I'm not going to put white sesame seed in, I'll put something else in’. And that's going to change up the flavours of what I'm cooking.”
Another wedding gift used regularly in Patel’s kitchen is a traditional patio tapeli cooking pot, typically used for a revered, aromatic tomato-based sauce, engraved with H N Darukhanawalla, her grandfather’s name. A family heirloom, she shares ownership of the pot with her mother.
"There's actually a funny story around that," says Patel, bringing the saucepan to life with another family tale.
"That was my maiden name as well. And if you do the literal Hindi translation it means walla: ‘owner, or person who does something’, with 'daru', stands for alcohol and 'khana', stands for food.
"When I studied hospitality, my lecturer would always joke that, my surname was very suited to me."