British-born Indian Anu Aggarwal is a first-generation Punjabi from Manchester. Moving to China in 2006, when not acting as the Head of Global Recruitment and Operations with Austen Morris Associates, she can be found in the kitchen cooking up deliciousness under the pseudonym Desi Dhaba. This weekend she is teaming up with Hardeep Somal (The Bull & Claw) for an Indian Summer Street Eats event at El Santo. We caught up with her to find out more.
How did you first get into cooking?
Being the eldest of four children, I found myself babysitting my siblings on days when both parents were busy with work, mainly during holidays. That's when I started experimenting in the kitchen. Nothing too exciting back then; beans on toast, fish fingers and homemade chips – all the food that was common back then.
Being in the kitchen seemed like a good place to be; feeding my siblings brought me great satisfaction and motivated me to venture out to experiment more. As I got older, Dad really wanted me to make Indian food – being Indian there was no escaping that. There were many kitchen disasters – burnt rotis, under-seasoned dishes – but funnily enough, Dad didn't mind, he ate what I put in front of him.
He said to me it was the effort that mattered, and I hadn't realized till now how important those words were. I guess that's how I got to where I am now with my cooking; it's all about the effort which comes with ease when you are passionate about what you do.
How did Desi Dhaba come about?
That's another funny story. I have always enjoyed throwing dinner parties for my friends, and every time I did, my friends would always say, 'Why don't you sell this? We would buy it.' I always laughed it off and said I would do something but just never got around to it… until just over two years ago.
I was at a friends' brunch on the Bund, and as you do in Shanghai, bumped into two friends who happened to be brunching there too. They also happened to be part of the Oakham Curry Club (OCC) which, at the time, I knew very little about. As we were drinking and chatting, they mentioned that they were keen to try my food and asked if I would be happy to cook for them?
I didn't take it very seriously, replied 'Yep, no problem, would love to' and forgot all about it until I got a message the following Monday with a confirmed date and how it worked. At that point, I think I gulped and replied to my friend asking if it was a wind up… to which he replied NO. He also informed me I needed to arrange a venue to host them and that I would be marked on my cooking…
No pressure then! How did it go?
It was held in my home, so very authentic to my dinner party style, and true to the spirit of everything that is Desi Dhaba – fun, food and laughter. I had 12 dinner guests, of which I only knew two, so it was a bit strange. But I have to say, they were a great bunch of people; it was so much fun. They even stayed on to watch football as the World Cup was on that year. That first ever Desi Dhaba event for the OCC still remains my most memorable.
We hear you got top marks too – nailed it. What is your cooking philosophy?
In short, I love feeding people. When I cook, it's always with passion, and food always tastes better when it's made with love. People can taste that… so that's it really.
Tell us about some of your standout dishes?
A close friend who has had the pleasure of many Desi Dhaba dishes said that the Nargasay Kofta was an excellent opening dish. The standout main is the Karahi Gosht (lamb). However, the Channa Masala always gets a rave review, and to finish, the Gulab Jamun Cheesecake never fails, it's a winner every time.
What can we expect from your upcoming event?
It's the most significant event by far for me, so I'm taking it back to the basics – I'm sticking to real Indian street eats. There are some winners in there, as well as a newcomer. The Menu is out [see below], so you should stop by and see what we have cooking!
What is it like working with Hardeep Somal?
I've never worked with him before! He's always eating my food, but I have never worked with him directly, so I am very excited to get in the kitchen with him.
Beyond this event, what does the future hold for Desi Dhaba?
For now, it remains a passion project: private dining and popup events are enough to give me a hobby, since I already have a full-time job, which I love, that keeps me busy, along with my fur baby, Kali.
Speaking of dogs, you are active in pet rescue in Shanghai, right?
I am very much involved in helping a pet charity here called Eleventh Hour, run by a small team of rescuers who are just the most lovely people. I do a lot behind the scenes trying to raise awareness and money for the foundation. I am currently gathering prizes for raffle to be held at Perch on September 13. There are some massive prizes, so get buying raffle tickets for that too!
For more on Desi Dhaba, Anu or her pet rescue work, scan the QR code below:
[All images via Anu Aggarwal]