At Home with Hena Gulabani

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we join Ankiet & Hena Gulabani in their Bandra home for a homemade Sindhi meal.

Ankiet and Hena Gulabani make Sindhi koki in their Mumbai home
Hena Gulabani shares Sindhi recipes with The Goya Journal

Bandra can be hipster in the most deliciously obvious ways – the roastery at the neighbourhood coffee shop that doubles as a community table, the boy with the handlebar moustache who brews kombucha on weekends, and avocado-toast that is available all year round. But Bandra can also be unexpectedly warm: food bloggers will introduce you to their favourite vendors at the market, the city’s historians will walk you through old neighbourhoods, and new friends will bring over baskets of groceries at 10 pm on Tuesday night.

Ankiet Gulabani, food writer and prolific blogger, has been one of the people whose generosity can catch you by surprise in the manic business of big city life. Since we moved to Bombay a year ago, tubs of homemade XO sauce, ziplock bags of thickly gooey nolen gur, jars of spiced mango murabba, even a large vat of homemade sorpotel (complete with offals and blood), have found their way to our doorstep. And when we meet his mother, things only become clearer. Ankiet is his mother’s son; kindred spirits tethered by a love of cooking and creativity, driven by curiosity, and the immovable values of generosity and thrift – no one leaves hungry, and nothing goes to waste in their kitchen.

The contents of the fridge of Belly Over Mind blogger, Ankiet Gulabani, and his mother, Hena Gulabani

We peek into their refrigerator (one of the best things about #1000Kitchens is the license to peek into other people’s fridges) – and it is stocked in neat rows of meticulously labelled jars. Sauces, chutneys, and condiments, all carefully dated, of course. Later in conversation, Hena tell us this is a family obsession – growing up, her mother’s kitchen shelves too, were lined with jars of pickles and home-ground masalas.

It is raining outside, and the monsoon light falls on Hena’s profile as she sits by the living room window. She's making kachori ki curry, a rustic, homely Sindhi dish, always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. "It is perfect with rice or roti, and even just on its own," she begins. But along the way, we get derailed with talk of a breakfast roti – hand-pounded with plenty of ghee and just enough water to bind, she describes a buttery, flaky, salted shortcrust pastry, slow-cooked to a beautiful golden crust. "Then you smash it, and dunk it into dahi. If you're a traditional Sindhi, you'll have it with papad, but my favourite pairing is with garam garam adhrak-wali chai."

Hena Gulabani makes the dough for Sindhi koki 
Hena Gulabani makes the dough for Sindhi koki

The Sindhis came to India as refugees from the Sindh region of Pakistan. If you live in India, chances are there is a Sindhi Colony in your city. And if you’re lucky, Sindhi classmates will have invited you to their homes for lunch, growing up, where the first taste of their cuisine will have been enough to convert you: saibhaji with bhugha chawal, lotus stem curry, kadhi chawal, and dal pakwan.

But koki, or loli, is something we haven’t tasted before. Crumbed into pebbly dough, like you would shortcrust, Hena watched grandmother make these for her grandfather, served alongside a ball of homemade white butter. "Those were different times," she smiles. "After my grandmother expired, he stopped eating, explaining simply – Mujhe bhook nahi hai; she has fed me to my full. He died on her 12th day. I guess that's love for you," she says quietly.

Hena breaks the silence with an offer to make us koki. "In that case, I'll have one too!" Ankiet jumps in. As we step into the kitchen, and listen in on their conversation, we notice a tender bond between two very headstrong people. Ankiet quizzes her on the why’s behind every step of her recipe, and she has answers at the ready – “I’ve always been curious myself, as a student of the sciences. But working with Ankiet has taught me a lot. His study goes deep.”

Hena Gulabani shares her recipe for koki or loli, a Sindhi flatbread 

“We teach each other,” he interjects gently. “She taught me how to read a recipe, how to research – (‘at the very basic, compare three recipes!’) – and how to adapt it to a home kitchen. Simple things, but it set the ground work for what I do today.”

In turn, it was Ankiet's persistent nudging that pushed Hena into entrepreneurship. "When we were kids, she'd always take copious notes watching BBC Good Food on the telly, and I knew her experiments was good; they deserved a larger audience." So when the recent Khar Gymkhana Entrepreneurs Exhibition called for registrations, it seemed like the perfect time to make good on all that training. With a little prodding from her son, Hena registered for her first sale under the name Chutney Mary. Ankiet, who remembered all her early experiments, helped her put together a product list: jars of XO sauce, salted caramel, curry leaf pesto, harissa, and toum were almost entirely sold out at the sale, and built a growing customer base for Chutney Mary. Now, she sells her sauces and condiments on order.

Back in her kitchen, as Hena works the ghee into the dough ‘andaaza se' – a style of cooking that eyeballs quantities, drawing from instinct rather than precise measurements, she confesses the term often frustrated her as a young cook trying to learn. But today it is a reflexive part of the way she cooks herself. "The correct way to eat this,” she demonstrates, “is to brown it till it gets crusty, then hold it edge-wise over a plate and crush it with a big clap – kutti hui, while it is still hot.”

Food and cooking, so often is a demonstration of love. And as we settle around Ankiet’s dining table, the four of us, breaking off large hunks of koki and slurping into cups of ginger tea, it is no different at all.

Recipe for Hena Gulabani's Koki

2 cups atta
3 tbsp ghee, plus 3 tbsp more
1 tsp salt
1 onion, chopped fine
3 green chillies, chopped fine
2 tbsp coriander, chopped fine
1/2 cup water
Dried Pomegranate Seeds (optional) 1 tsp

Place the atta, salt, onion, green chilli and coriander (plus pomegranate seeds, if using) in a large mixing bowl. Mix this with your fingers.
Add 3 tbsp ghee to this mixture and continue to work it like you would for pastry crust -- breading with your fingertips, to make a pebbly dough.
Add water bit by bit, pressing the dough together rather than kneading it, to form a shaggy ball that just about holds together.
Divide the dough into two and roll each of them out into a thick roti. Aim for even thickness so that it cooks evenly. It’s okay if the edges crack as you roll it out. Just keep patching it up as you go. If you find that the roti is thicker around the edges, use your fingers to flatten it out on the tawa itself. 
Heat a tawa and place the roti on it. If you find that the roti is thicker around the edges, use your fingers to flatten it out on the tawa itself. Cook on one side over low flame for 2-3 minutes, then flip your koki to continue cooking on the other side for another 2 minutes. If your koki breaks during flipping, that’s perfectly alright. This just means that you have added more ghee to your koki, and it will actually taste better.  
When you’re ready for the next flip, increase the heat to medium, add a pat of ghee to the koki and flip again, pressing down with a kitchen cloth or flat spatula to ensure it cooks evenly. When the roti forms a golden crust on one side, add more ghee and flip and repeat on the other side. Your final result should be a good dark golden crust with a few black spots. Serve hot with dahi or hot ginger tea.

Find Hena's Sindhi Kachori Curry here

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photos by Aysha Tanya; illustration by Annushka Hardikar.