In suburban Melbourne, Chef Helly Raichura cooks up a 10-course degustation that pays homage to her childhood in Gujarat, using native Australian ingredients.
Every Saturday night, Helly Raichura cooks up a storm for ten strangers at a secret location. This 10-course degustation, called EnterViaLaundry, gets its curious name from the walkway that leads guests through a laundry, into the dining space. Strangers meet and stories are exchanged, as chef and co-owner Helly sprints between kitchen and dining room, pausing only to introduce each course and its origins. Every inventive dish in this vegetarian degustation is a nod to Helly’s childhood spent in Gujarat; they tie her past neatly to her present as she reimagines classics like the Khandavi and Khaman.
Helly’s weekdays are dedicated to her day job as HR Advisor to a tech startup. But her weekends tell a different story, where food and romance take centrestage. She forages, chops, fries, sears, roasts, wipes the sweat off her brow, and gets right back to it. At the end of the mad rush, the doors open, people swarm in, and Helly serves up food that blends the cultures of India and Australia. So it’s no surprise that when asked about her dishes like Makki Roti or Malpua, Helly goes right back to her years growing up. “Twenty years ago, some incredible things were happening in my kitchen back home. I clearly remember how my grandmother would dehydrate cantaloupe seeds, removing the husks of the seeds with her tiny tweezers. Suppliers from Mathura would come home with pure edible fragrances like Rooh Gulab, Baras and Khus. My mother and I would go to farms to pick our own produce and cook over bonfires; baingan bharta was always on the menu with some bajra rotla and freshly churned butter. This defined my relationship with food. The basic rule of thumb was: if it was not made from scratch, it was not good enough,” she remembers.
Helly picked up a few key lessons early on: the importance of cooking with fresh produce, and learning from failure. An experiment to cook khichdi in a empty cheese tin (“processed cheese came in tins back then”) over an open fire in the backyard went horribly wrong, as did an attempt to make risotto with basmati rice. But success struck with a batch of sweet, green dudhi halwa, tucked beneath edible silver sheets, and finished with a few drops of Rooh Gulab. These memories from her childhood play into the dishes she whips up at EnterViaLaundry, which she launched after a dinner at Chef Shaun Quade’s Lûmé. “I had never eaten at a fine dining restaurant before this. The food was art, the kitchen was theatre, and the chefs were artists. I was hooked; it ignited something in me. Since then, I kept learning — I learnt to run a kitchen, to work through service, to think like a chef, and to build expressive and evocative dishes. Over few months, I trained with Gaggan Anand at Gaggan and with Shaun at Lûmé. Suddenly, I had all the pieces of the puzzle, and the idea of EnterViaLaundry sparked”.
Her menu was born out of a process that was equal parts intuitive and exploratory. Some dishes were created from memory and experimentation, and others took shape through rigorous recipe testing. One of the first dishes was Handvo, which celebrated naturally fermented rice and lentils, baked and smoked with eucalyptus, brushed with grape juice reduction and served with cultured butter and fresh coriander seeds. Others took the idea of a traditional dish, and turned it on its head. Khaman, traditionally steamed squares made from rice and split chickpeas, turns into a colourful bouquet at EnterViaLaundry. Sweet and sour tufts of sponge, flavoured with beetroot, spinach and butterfly pea tea, are served with raw mango kachumber and coconut milk kefir. “I wanted to make something that is colourful like Holi, and is sweet, sour, spicy and fresh, all at the same time,” says Helly.
The dish that singlehandedly underscores Helly’s genius reimagines a famous Gujarati snack. With Khandavi, AKA Pasta not Pasta, she loosens the traditional tightly rolled version made with flour and buttermilk, into velvety chickpea flour ribbons that lie in a bed of spiced coconut milk, dotted with lemongrass, coriander, Thai basil and chilli oil. She finishes the dish with garlic flowers handpicked from her garden. “I have a feeling that I will be cooking this dish for many years to come, for many people. It feels great to be able to showcase a slice of my Gujarati heritage and its cuisine, which is so rich, beautiful, adaptive, but is yet to be discovered by the rest of the world.”
The menu at EnterViaLaundry takes native Australian ingredients like lemon myrtle, quandongs and finger limes, and tempers them with techniques that are intrinsically Indian. Helly’s food is inventive and adaptive; it takes the spotlight off predictable spices and curries, and instead shines it on local vegetables, herbs, leaves, flowers and fruits. She redefines what a plate of food inspired by India could taste like, and in doing so, she encourages us to look at the unending possibilities of where this could go. “The sense of place is very important to my creative process. I take ingredients from India and Australia, and try to find the best way for them to meet on a plate. So for example, I use paperbark to lend a smoky flavour to my Matla Undhiyu, and serve it with Davidson’s plum chutney with cumin and caramelised gud.”
News of the weekly degustation has been been doing the rounds for a while, and a few months ago on a Saturday night, George Calombaris came knocking at Helly’s door, with a bottle of Greek olive oil. Reservations on their website are booked months in advance, and ever since it launched, Helly had to switch up the seating; what used to be a snug evening with six people, now hosts ten diners, but remains equally intimate.
For Helly, it is almost impossible to look back on this journey without reflecting on the many lessons she picked up on the way. “Now more than ever, the world is open to trying new things, respecting and learning from each other’s differences and cultures. I love how we are realising that there is no longer one right way of cooking. Anything is possible.”
Ritupriya Basu is a writer, storyteller and design maniac based in Mumbai.
Images courtesy of Helly Raichura.
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