Chef Sweety Singh On The Art Of Slow Cooking In Punjabi Cuisine
Image Credit: Chef Sweety Singh and his expertise in Punjabi food is well known

Chef Sweety Singh is known for his delicious Punjabi food and for his take on the lovely flavours of Punjab. With an experience spanning more than three decades, the chef places special emphasis on using the most fresh and authentic ingredients to enhance the taste of any dish, along with staying true to traditional styles of cooking. With his late pop-up coming up at Renaissance Bengaluru Race Course Hotel, called Pind da swaad, we caught up with Chef Sweety Singh, and he spoke at length about his love for cooking as well as clearing some misconceptions about Punjabi food being heavy.

How did your fascination with cooking start?

In 1950, during the partition, my family moved to Delhi from Amritsar. My dad then started a thela, which he used to cook himself and sell in the shop. Since he was visually impaired, he used to cook by ‘smelling’ the food. In those days, we got featured in the famed Pioneer newspaper as the Best Dhaba in Delhi. And so it started. I got the opportunity to cook at a 5-star hotel in 1990! Until then, I used to only manage our shop, and we had karigars who used to do the actual cooking. But this is my family legacy, and so very passionately, I started cooking home-style Punjabi food in big five-star hotel kitchens also!

Your name is as interesting as your personality and food. So, what is the reason behind your name being "Sweety Singh"?

Sweety is simply my ghar ka naam. In those days, we all had a pet name at home. Mr. Gautam Anand of ITC Hotels used to tell me he would like to call me Sweety Chef only. And so the name stuck on; everyone fondly refers to me as Chef Sweety Singh until today.

Punjabi food, the way it is presented in mainstream discourse, is heavy, buttery, and super rich. But is the day-to-day, ghar ka Punjabi khaana, different from that, and in what ways?

I always like to see my food as ‘nani-dadi ke haath ka khaana’. We use home-style, simple ingredients and rely completely on the traditional concept of slow cooking. I don’t use any artificial colours, flavours, or purees. Fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a little bit of home-made spice are cooked with love in my kitchen. This is the real ‘pind ka swaad, so to speak. Ghar ke khaane mein asli swaad hai!

Cream and tomato puree—these are two things that people associate the most with Punjabi cooking. But has that always been the case?

In reality, only to save time and make khaana jhatpat, the idea of using tomato purees has become a go-to these days. But the fact is that these are all frozen products and contain so many chemicals. They have no real flavour or nutrition. For home-style cooking, we should always prefer to use fresh tomatoes and slow-cook them. The results will astound you! That is the real fragrance of seasonal vegetables.

When you talk about cream, this is not really required in all Punjabi food. Not at all. This is a big misnomer that tends to make people think Punjabi food has to be heavy. When you are truly able to master the art of slow cooking, you will realise that we don’t need to add cream to thicken a gravy; the ingredients themselves will thicken and become tasty when cooked with love and patience for longer and, most importantly, on a low flame. This is the magic of slow cooking.

What are some of the lesser-known gems from Punjabi kitchens that you would want people to try?

I always suggest consuming seasonal vegetables. Take these, and we can make such tasty dishes as sitaphal khatta meetha, ghiya aur Amritsari wadi, tinda malaiwaala, ajwaini arbi, or torai sabzi. Arbi chaat is so easy to make too; just steam the arbi, add chopped tomatoes and onions, and squeeze some fresh lemon.

What is your favourite comfort food to cook in your spare time?

On Sundays, the whole family sits and eats together at home. We like to start breakfast with a hearty aloo puri, besan ka pooda with bread, or channa bhatura. Then we make soul food: rajma chawal, kadhi chawal, chole chawal, or simple meat-waala chawal (not Biryani!).

You keep travelling around the country for your work. What are your favourite regional cuisines and dishes other than Punjabi?

All our states have unique foods, and I prefer to try those. Take biryani, for example: Kolkata style will feature potatoes; Hyderabadi Paradise biryani has such a unique flavour; and Lucknowi has a different fan club altogether. I love to enjoy 2 idlis and 1 small dosa for breakfast when I travel because that unique taste we can’t replicate at home in Delhi.

It's raining in most parts of the country. Any special monsoon cooking tips you'd like to give our readers?

During the monsoon, there are a lot of pests that stick to fresh produce, be they flies or worms. To keep germs away, always try to slow cook your food before eating and ensure that it is cooked well so that it digests comfortably. This will keep you hale and hearty during this season, so you can enjoy the goodness of aloo and onion pakodas with mint chutney and garam garam chai. That is the essence of the monsoon.

Name the overrated and underrated Punjabi dishes.

Punjabi butter chicken has been given a bad name these days by adding honey, khoya, sugar, purees, and colouring. This is a simple preparation that was actually invented by dhaba owners to extend the life of tandoori chicken and reduce waste since they usually roast chicken in bulk so that they can quickly serve it. They realised that this makes a great combination when heated in a yummy tomato-based gravy! That’s all butter chicken is.

Yes, everyone wants to indulge in non-vegetarian kebabs and tandoori chicken after a few Patiala pegs, but at the end of the night, you need roti-dal for a good night’s rest.

Tell us something about Pind da Swaad in Bengaluru and what people can expect from the pop-up.

We have brought home-style recipes: the fresh aroma of seasonal vegetables, pind-style chole, sarson ka saag, Amritsari kulcha, and Punjabi lassi as welcome drinks! Not only this. We will have different lentils: rajma dal, chana dal, and loki dal. You should try our bharwaan karela, hing wali kadhi with pyaaz ke pakode, and flavoursome kathal biryani. For meat lovers, we have tawa bheja and tawa kalenji gurde, and for vegetarians, we have everyone’s favourite soya haap and nutri kulcha. And of course, classics like kali dal and butter chicken are going to be the stars of the menu.