Forged in Fire
A determined cook brings India’s ancient culinary techniques into her kitchen BY LAURA KINIRY WHILE TRAVELING THROUGH THE
wetlands of northeast India’s Majuli island, chef Amninder Sandhu and the team from Arth, her Mumbai restaurant, sat down for a meal with members of the local Mishing tribe. They were presented with a a traditional round platter, loaded with local delicacies: banana flowers, fish curry, fiddlehead ferns. “There were also these really tiny potatoes,” Sandhu recalls. “We thought they were chickpeas at first, because they were that small. But I put one in my mouth and realized, these are the potatoes I grew up eating as a child!” The
guti aloo, or “pearl potatoes,” as Sandhu calls them, are native to India’s Assam state, and are just one of dozens of regional ingredients she has brought back to her kitchen in Mumbai.
Sandhu spent 15 years traveling the country collecting ingredients, while also adopting the traditional cooking methods of the people she met. She was so taken with these ancient practices that when she opened Arth in 2017— an otherwise posh and elegantly styled restaurant—she was determined to adhere to slow cooking on either charcoal or wood, a stripped-down way of maximizing flavors and celebrating India’s diverse culinary heritage. It’s now home to the city’s first and only modern gas-free kitchen.
Sandhu and her staff taught themselves to cook using a custom sandpit and sigri and angeethi ovens, ancient Indian stoves that employ smoldering charcoal—all tucked into their kitchen’s stainless-steel counters.
“The company fabricating our kitchen had never designed anything like this before,” Sandhu says. It took the team a few weeks to figure out how to gauge the right cooking temperatures and times—“there was nothing as challenging as learning to cook a whole goat to perfection in a sandpit!”—but Arth’s menu of regional dishes adapted from across the country is now a favorite among visitors, from Bollywood stars to international epicureans. Despite the intense learning curve, Sandhu is thrilled with her latest endeavor. “If I were to cook with just gas,” she says, “it would be a really boring kitchen.”
From top: In Arth’s gas-free kitchen, spices might be ground on a stone silbatta, meat grilled over a charcoalfired sigri, or a whole goat baked under a layer of sand before a dish arrives at the table.