Shashank Achuta wants to shake up your definition of Indian food.
If butter chicken with naan is all that comes to mind when you think of this cuisine, the Indian-born chef hopes to show you how wide ranging the country's dishes can be. Achuta, who moved here in 2015 and has worked at several acclaimed Australian restaurants (Attica, Hubert, Cafe Paci), recently launched his Sydney Tiffin Room delivery service. Its menu has offered everything from "Indian fish and chips" to saffron risotto inspired by a traditional rice pudding his mother would make for religious offerings.
"I'm from the state of Andhra Pradesh in the south of India," Achuta says. It's also where his parents are from, but the food varied so wildly within the region that his mother experienced "culture shock" from adjusting to her husband's cuisine. "My mum would tell me how she'd spend hours, every day, learning all these different dishes with her mother-in-law," he says.
Achuta's mum grew up in Kothagudem in the state's West Godavari district, which has a very arid, hot climate. "So the food used as much heat as possible, there was a lot of dehydrating in the sun." Sun-dried ingredients would become pappadums and crackers – things that crackled with flavour. Summer harvests were followed with massive pickling sessions. Achuta recalls the preservation efforts of a cook in his grandmother's kitchen. "His entire job was just to turn 25 kilos of green mangos into the most delicious pickle," the chef says. "He would find himself a nice cosy spot in the kitchen and he would go at it." The cook added mustard powder and chilli and let the pickle fully develop its deep, sour-sweet flavours after fermenting in a clay pot for weeks.
Meanwhile, his father's food memories could be measured in borders crossed and kilometres travelled. "My dad grew up in so many different places, because my granddad was with the Indian railways, so he was constantly being relocated," he says. "My dad had one of the best experiences, experiencing all the different foods and cultures."
As proof of how diverse Indian cuisine can be, his father's diet was completely different from his mother's, even though they were both vegetarians living in the same state. Achuta's dad spent a key part of his upbringing in Nellore, 300km south of his mother's home town. "Nellore food tends to be very spicy," he says, referring to the generous amount of chillies and fragrant, earthy ingredients used in its dishes.
After they got married, they moved further inland to Bengalru (Bangalore) in the state of Karnataka. "Bangalore has always been a metropolitan city, as much of as a mixing pot as you get," Achuta says.
One regional speciality he loved were the idlis at a local cafe. While the rice and semolina batter were plain, the true joy of the dish was drowning the steamed cakes in chutney. He still remembers the coconut and coriander chutney at his favourite place, and the "Chutney Uncle" there with his ladle, endlessly dispensing chutney serves.
The chef's life is a portrait of how far-ranging Indian food can be, but it wasn't until the pandemic that he got to explore the cuisine's regionality further.
When COVID-19 shut down the restaurant industry last year, he was working at Fred's in Sydney's Paddington. Achuta wasn't eligible for social welfare benefits, so he began a food delivery service to stay occupied. "I wanted to do Indian food for sure, but in a way that I don't think a lot of people are doing," he says.
"I think people have experimented [with Indian food here] and they've been criticised and shut down, so they retreat to something more safe. They eventually end up with butter chicken and naan and biryani, and… everything becomes very monotone," Achuta adds. "It's something I aspire to do, too, to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Indian food."
So what began as a handful of curries and biryanis last year has evolved into something more ambitious during this current lockdown. Only three months ago, he came across the dish that inspired the direction of Sydney Tiffin Room, the delivery service he officially launched in August. That dish is a duck and poppy seed curry influenced by Puducherry (Pondicherry) in the southeast, an area once colonised by France. "I was doing a lot of research on Pondicherry and duck seems to be something that was brought in by the French." He credits the French for introducing Niçoise salads and crème brulée to the region, too. By blending different ideas – the nutty, medicinal, thickening power of poppy seeds, the richness of duck fat and stock balanced with some coconut milk – he ended up with something surprising. "The first time, my housemate and I tried it, we looked at each other and went, 'Oh my God, I'm onto something!'"
"It's something I aspire to do, too, to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Indian food."
With Sydney Tiffin Room, each menu focuses on a region's special dishes – reworked with the chef's own local twist. The Pondicherry menu also featured masala vadai. "It's a very popular evening snack/breakfast food in south India," he explains. Achuta's version of the lentil fritters evokes the region's coastline by flavouring it with king prawns and adding a rich punch of burnt onion chutney and a splash of ultra-concentrated prawn oil made from crustacean heads. "That's something that's always going to stay on my menu."
Then there's his remix of his mum's annam payasam, a rice pudding with religious significance. She'd make a big batch in the morning, and offer some to Ganesha, the Hindu god that famously loves sweets, before they ate it. "You can smell ghee, roasted peanuts and the most delicious sweets and it's just sitting there, and you're not allowed to touch it. It's chaotic, it's the worst experience. But it teaches you patience!"
The chef laughs at his memories of painfully waiting around for annam payasam. "It might not seem like much, but try putting a box of doughnuts in front of you and someone telling you: 'You can't eat it for four or five hours.' Those five hours seem like years!"
He transforms that dish for Sydney Tiffin Room by making it a sweet saffron risotto. "It's my take on a risotto Milanese," he says. "It goes hard on the saffron, on the cardamom. I finish it off with a touch of yoghurt, to give a bit of tang in it."
Then there's his rava fish fry cafreal from Goa: semolina-crusted fish cutlets with a zingy cafreal coriander sauce, which he says is like an Indian version of fish and chips. The coriander-chilli marinade reflects the western Indian state's period as a one-time Portuguese colony (the colonial rulers introduced the cafreal idea here, after originally encountering it in Mozambique).
For Achuta, there's the pressure of dispatching the fried fish before it comes soggy. "It's the absolute last thing I do before I send the food out," he says. The chef jumps into the car once it's done, and starts steering towards his delivery destinations.
"I've had a few accidents unfortunately: a bit of curry spilling, a bit of oil on the back seat. These are the worst things to wash off – but I guess it's all part of the hustle, right?"
"I really want to do food from the northeast of India: the region in itself, even within India, lacks representation," he says.
Before the recent lockdown, Achuta was working at Sydney restaurant Lana as sous-chef. "We were open for all of two weeks before we were sent into lockdown," he says. When pandemic-trading restrictions lift, Lana will reopen, but Achuta isn't ready to retire his delivery service yet.
"Sydney Tiffin Room hopefully is the start of something bigger for me and I want to dedicate as much of my time and resources as I can to it." he says. Perhaps he'll continue it on weekends or on special occasions. But the chef believes it's vital to keep showcasing the cuisine of his homeland.
"I speak for a lot of Indians when I say, that it's still – to a certain extent – very underrepresented."