Freny Fernandes Talks About Her Restaurant, East Indian Cuisine
Image Credit: Instagram/Freny's Bandra

The fact that Mumbai is the hub for East Indian cuisine is very well known, but the food that the Bombay East Indians or East Indian Catholics traditionally prepare and eat is still relatively unknown. Changing all of that through her brand new restaurant with homely vibes is Chef Freny Fernandes. At Freny’s All Day Dining & Bar in picturesque Bandra’s lanes, this young chef is not only recreating recipes that she grew up eating but also spreading awareness about parts of East Indian culture that many are still unaware of. 

In conversation with Slurrp, Chef Freny Fernandes explained how her journey took her all the way to the Culinary Institute of America and back to Mumbai, where she started Moner, a dessert bar and bistro. Yet, it was her East Indian roots that pulled her back to a new adventure, where she set out to explore the dishes her mother Monica, father Peter and even grandmother Isabel, traditionally cooked up.  

Freny’s is therefore not just a labour of love but a landmark to East Indian traditions and an ode to Fernandes’ family recipes. Here is everything you need to know about Chef Freny Fernandes’ journey, heritage and love for all things homely and East Indian. 

The Making Of A Chef: An Early Start 

“I remember my earliest memories is my mom making cake during Christmas time,” Freny says. “There were no fancy equipments or ovens. She would literally beat the butter and sugar by hand for hours and that made the softest cakes! The fake vanilla essence smell still reminds me of home and that’s why I love using it for a classic cake!” 

Apart from Christmas, there were plenty of other festivals and special occasions where Freny would experience the flavours of a huge, traditional feast. “Growing up, during any occasion or festival, there would be a big feast at home. From hot fugyas & varyas to mom’s special roast chicken and dad’s mutton curry were all staples! I remember my grandfather cooking mutton curry in a big handi for the entire extended family for any special occasion. I feel like although my family doesn’t come from a chef background, my hands have been blessed by them and that's what gave me the passion for cooking and feeding good food.” 

Growing up in Mumbai, you’d imagine Freny’s East Indian family food traditions would be pretty well known by friends and her school circle. On the contrary, she explains that not many she grew up with outside the community did. “I feel like people never knew and still don’t know what East Indians are or what our food is. There’s so much to know about our culture and cuisine but only a few people know about it!” And that is precisely what she’s hoping to change with Freny’s. 

Coming Back Home To Roots To Build Moner & Freny’s 

Those familiar with Freny know that she is trained in classic French techniques, which is why Moner was the first place she opened after coming back to India. “After studying from the CIA I worked at restaurant Daniel and Epicerie Boulud by chef Daniel Boulud, followed by the Four Seasons at Disney and a short stint at Noma. So, I’ve worked mainly at Michelin star restaurants before coming back to India,” she explains. “When I opened my first place Monèr, I realized that I wanted to highlight my food! The food that I grew up eating as well as food from my travels that I loved or learned!” 

That’s basically how the concept of Freny’s came up. "I decided to create a menu that would have all my favourites ,but with a slight twist. So, we have something like a cutlet pav slider or grilled prawns but with a chinchoni sauce which is a tangy East Indian style curry,” she says, while also explaining the decor and ambiance. “I wanted people to actually feel like they’ve come to my house and are eating in my living room when they walk into Freny’s. I’ve tried to add those details in our furniture which is a mix of old school/retro, to the doilies on the speakers of how our grandma would put it back in the day, to the old school linen lamps, the chandeliers that remind of old Portuguese churches, Portuguese tiles across the stairs. Etc. And of course, my family pictures are spread out on all the walls that literally gives a peek into my family to my guests.”  

Decoding East Indian Food, A Mix Of Many Influences 

Freny further explains that East Indian food is a mix of a lot of different cuisines. “We are known for our Bottle Masalas and fugyas, but people don’t know that even in East Indians the recipe changes in every household,” she says. “We also have a different Bottle Masala for different preparations! Of course, we love our fish, mainly because we belong to the coast, we grew up eating different kinds of fish, especially bombil! Dried bombil is a staple in every household. We make curries, chutneys, and pickles from it. My dad’s favourite thing to make and eat is dried bombil curry with eggplant and potatoes! It’s so simple and yet so delicious! I personally love a simple meal of chinchoni with rice and some fried fish!” 

The influences, she says, are as rooted in European Catholic traditions as local Maharashtrian ones. “We East Indians are the original inhabitants of Bombay,” she explains. “So, our community origins are among Maharashtrian Hindu castes like Kolis, Kumbhars, etc. Our food too is therefore a mix of the cuisines of these castes. Each caste and community had their own kind of food, but there is predominantly a Koli seafood influence because we’re right at the coast. My dad’s side comes from Aagris or farmers, so they are more into vegetables and we use a lot of eggplant curries, val, gawar, drumsticks, etc.” 

Bottle Masala, The Secret Behind East Indian Food 

One of the most popular and intriguing part of East Indian cuisine is the Bottle Masala, which Freny also breaks down for us. “The name Bottle Masala itself came in because we store it in used liquor bottles made of glass,” she says. “But like any other culture, every home and family has their own blend of masalas. So, there’s a Bottle Masala for mutton which has more garam masalas, there’s a fish Bottle Masala which has more red chillies, and we have a Bottle Masala for puris which is more yellow in colour because it has coriander, fenugreek and other seeds and no red chillies at all. Our Vindaloo Bottle Masala is a separate one altogether. Mostly, these different Bottle Masalas has 25-30 different blend of spices and every family has their own recipe that they pass down.” 

At Freny’s, the Bottle Masalas used are made by Monica Fernandes, Freny’s mother. “Since we’ve opened, she’s made her Bottle Masala batch at least twice because of the amount of it we need in what we cook,” she explains. “But the process is very long. She goes especially to Navi Mumbai, where there’s a really nice wholesale market where you get fresh chillies and other spices. She then dries it all at home under the sun, winnows and cleans the spices and finally grinds and packs them.” 

Now that you know more about the dishes and spices, what about the carb staples that go with them? Freny explains that there are several flatbreads they make in-house. “We have the bhakris, or the rotyas as we call them,” she says. “For us, rotyas are just rice flour rotis, then we have chitaps, polas and even a type of sannas. We also have fugyas and pav. All the recipes are again my mom’s, and she teaches our staff and I how to make them fresh. But we keep rotyas and some of the others as weekend specials.” 

Making A Regular Menu Special On Occasions 

“Freny’s is supposed to be my home, so for every holiday or festival I want to have a special menu,” she explains. “Our Easter menu was the first, so we did a special East Indian brunch with all the specials that we have at home. So, we had roast chicken, sorpotel, indyals and my dad’s mutton curry. I want to continue having these special days, like Thanksgiving and Christmas.” 

Apart from that, Freny also utilises fresh, seasonal produce to bring that natural change of seasons into their menu. “During summer, we get a lot of the val beans, so we’re doing this Valachi Bhaji as a special. We’re also doing mango dishes made with produce from my house. Even the sugarcane juice we use in some dishes come from my home. So, I try to get as much seasonal stuff that is available around my home itself, even the mutton, chicken and pork.” 

So, apart from plenty of summer specials, what does the near future hold for Freny’s? “The next big feast for us is for Our Lady of Velainkanni, which is our special church feast,” she says. “So, we’ll have a menu for that as well. And I’m also planning pop-ups with other East Indian chefs and cooks, which will be more of the plated, set menus every week. I also want to host music nights at Freny’s with East Indian singers coming over.”