Chef Amninder Sandhu On The Art Of Open-Fire Cooking
Image Credit: Instagram/@chefamnindersandhu

The traditional cooking methods, passed down through generations, offer a lot more than just delicious dishes. These time-tested techniques appreciate the art of cooking and bring back nostalgic flavours to the food. Embracing Traditions is a series by Slurrp to understand the world of chefs and restaurants who swear by time-honoured techniques. Here, you will meet culinary masters who use generations-old methods to create flavourful and authentic dishes. Prepare yourself to take a dive into age-old techniques like chulah-a mud stove, dhungar-coal cooking and balchao- a practice of pickling, as we rediscover the beauty and depth of traditional cooking.   

Being in the culinary industry for more than two decades, Chef Amninder Sandhu has marked her presence among the top chefs of India due to her impeccable contribution in reviving the art of traditional cooking. From honing her skills at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel to giving India its first gas-free kitchen Arth in 2017 in the suburb of Mumbai, her journey has been filled with amazing experiences and achievements. She also started a cloud kitchen called Ammu in Bandra, Mumbai, where the chef brought culinary gems from her childhood memories. In addition to this, chef Amninder Sandhu launched Iktara as well, a delivery-only service, in response to the challenges faced during the pandemic.  

Renowned for her mastery of open-fire cooking, a technique that utilises direct heat and the smoky essence of a flame. From quick grilling to slow-cooked tandoor preparations, all of which imbue the food with mellow hint of the wood or coals. During a conversation with Slurrp, when asked about why she focuses on traditional cooking methods when modern appliances are so prevalent, her response highlighted her long-standing commitment to these techniques. She explained that her passion for tradition isn't a recent development, but rather a core belief. “It's not something that happened to me recently, I had a vibe right from the beginning, because I feel that I'm a purist in sense that I like to respect tradition and feel it makes more sense to retain the art in its original form,” said the only Indian participant on Netflix’s global food competition The Final Table in 2018.   

Chef Amninder believes that one can always “play around and reinvent a few things but the main backbone of any cuisine shouldn't be messed with; whether it's the duration you cook something or the utensils you use.” “Using the right tools, right ingredients and the right form of heat can make a huge difference to any dish,” explains Sandhu, who was awarded the ‘Best Lady Chef’ at the National Tourism Awards of 2014-15.  

Her newly-opened restaurant - Palaash - located inside the virgin forests of Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district, uses a 100% open-fire concept to cook meals, while the rapidly popular Bawri in Goa is partially open-fire and partially operated using gas. “We cook on wood and charcoal, use silbatas and mortar-pestles for masalas,” she says while describing other traditional cooking techniques that are used in her restaurants. Amninder believes that the way slow-cooking on wood or charcoal breaks down the ingredients and the complexity that it lends to the final dish, is something that cooking over a gas flame can hardly replicate.  

Besides Palaash and Bawri, she also owns Arth, which has a unique approach to Indian cuisine. This fine-dining restaurant, instead of relying on modern kitchen appliances, prioritises on wood or charcoal methods for cooking delicacies like jungli murgi and chicken stuffed-Bhavnagri chilli. Their dishes are prepared over charcoal angeethis, which are like open fires in small pits. They also utilise brass tandoors, the classic clay ovens known for their intense heat, for roasting and baking kebabs as well as chicken delicacies. However, this is not the end of chef Amninder’s dedication to traditional techniques, it goes even further. Her restaurant employs sand pits for a slow and gentle cooking process, and sigdis- portable charcoal grills, for imparting a distinctive earthy flavour. Even the preparation of spices and chutneys reflects this commitment to authenticity since Arth uses flat grinding stones or mortar and pestles to create their flavourful spice blends, ensuring a truly fresh and vibrant taste experience.  

Heavy-bottomed copper lagan, which is a type of handi with tin plating inside, and bamboo are also an integral part of her cooking. “I make a bamboo smoked pork which is served with sticky rice, and is wrapped in haldi leaf. It's a traditional dish of a tribe in the Northeast called the Mishing tribe,” she says while explaining more about the unique traditional cooking techniques she uses at her forest restaurant. At Palaash, she works with the team of local women from the neighboring village who bring the true essence of Maharashtra in the food served to the diners.  

But using traditional techniques to get authentic tastes is not an easy task to achieve. According to chef, unlike the controlled environment of a gas stove with its adjustable regulators, open flames are quite difficult to work with. It does not have a simple ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch which makes it vital to have a more intuitive approach. Amninder further explains that it's crucial to understand the fire itself and you need to learn what cooks at high heat and what simply needs a gentle simmer. Regulating temperatures become an innate skill and not something one can simply control with a knob. Open-fire cooking demands a skill that hinges heavily on one's experience and ability to play with the flames, she believes.  

On being quizzed about what type of dishes are best when cooked on an open fire, she says, “Bamboo smoked pork, biryani and kebabs must always be cooked using this method.” While bamboo-smoked biryani is her favourite, she further adds, “My heart breaks when I see bread baked on gas, it should always be baked in a charcoal-fired tandoor.”   

While cooking food with bamboo and charcoal is a generations-old technique that has diminished with technological advances; but Chef Amninder has brought forward culinary practices like these to the forefront.  

As the tandoor is one of her favourite cooking equipments, she feels that the ancient cooking vessel needs to evolve with time. She expresses that, “Tandoor is still in a very ancient form, and I hope to see a day when some work is done on it so that it becomes more user-friendly.” She feels that it is important for the chefs in today’s world to promote age-old cooking methods. While everyone is moving forward with shortcuts and quick methods to reduce the time spent in the kitchen, chefs like Amninder have devoted themselves to reviving the classics.