The WhatsApp Auntiepreneurs
A tale of three aunties. Words by Diya Mukherjee; Illustration by Michelle Wong.
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A few years ago, I put together a pitch for an Eater London article which, in my heart of hearts, I knew wouldn’t work. It was on all the semi-informal networks of food that take place every day in London, not in bricks and mortar, but in ones and zeros, on WhatsApp chats and Facebook DMs. This network is not exactly secret but hidden, only known by those in the know, because only those in the know would want to know about it in the first place. They mainly comprised enterprising home cooks fulfilling some kind of need that isn’t being catered for by diaspora restaurants. In the case of Cuzcatlán, the at-home pupuseria run by Adelina Bonilla, it was because there were no Salvadorean restaurants in London; for Meldon Ferrao, it was to provide laboriously made Goa sausage which Goan restaurants might not want to sell direct to customers. There were networks of homemade Isarn food which Thai friends told me were even better than The Heron at its peak; networks of Japanese food, not ramen or udon or sushi, but the stews and pickles that you might eat at home with some plain rice. But the problem was two-fold: did these places even need or want any publicity, and could these networks be written about under the umbrella of ‘restaurant writing’?
I was thinking of this again because I believe that the pandemic has changed our preconceptions of what a restaurant does. I was amused to see restaurant critics spend a few months this year acting like there was nothing to write about, when, in reality, there couldn’t have been more to write about. This was the most important time, maybe in the entire history of the restaurant, to be writing about restaurants: their tactics of survival, the shift ─ possibly permanent ─ to delivery, the new vernacular of casual food that the pandemic had created. Most interesting of all, was how the restaurant as it is popularly conceived of through its signifiers ─ a dining room, tablecloths, small plates, a waiter kneeling down slightly too close to you to take your order ─ was being replaced with an informality reminiscent not only of the diaspora restaurants I usually write about, but even those previously hard-to-write-about WhatsApp food networks.
In a post-pandemic restaurant landscape, I’m not sure it will make much sense to distinguish between these as ‘restaurants’ and ‘non-restaurants’, and certainly not ‘things worth writing about’ and ‘things not worth writing about’. My own lists will now have to take into account dark kitchens and Instagram-only drops like Mystic Borek and Decatur. Meanwhile outside of London, some of the most interesting ‘restaurant food’ will be similar to the networks written about today by Diya Mukherjee, of aunties (and uncles) making dishes for a hardcore group of fans on WhatsApp who can easily distinguish their menu from a typical rural or suburban offering. This food is hyper-regional by definition, relying on an entirely local audience and limited by a small delivery radius. So hyper-regional, in fact, that if you’re not in Ashford you have no chance of being invited to the group.
Still, all it needs is for one auntie to rebrand this as the new iteration of the Sushi Tetsu waiting list, and I’m sure the critics will be lining up in no time.
A Tale of Three Aunties, by Diya Mukherjee
Last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, I moved back to my family home in Ashford, East Kent, a place which hasn’t deviated much from the blueprint for an inoffensive British commuter town. In 2004, it was voted one of the UK’s best places to live, but that didn’t stop the Guardian lamenting what this foretold of Britain’s future as ‘a suburban soup of estates, ring roads, trading estates and Tescos’ and, rather brutally, ‘a black hole of culture’. Two small shops at either end of Ashford’s ‘pleasant, if undistinguished’ high street, run by Pakistani and Nepali locals, stock South Asian ingredients for the diaspora community, with traditional curry houses, greasy spoons and a Greggs dotted in between.
With my corporate job coming to an abrupt end, my takeaway habit and South London rent suddenly became unfeasible – but seven years in the capital had given me a superiority complex. ‘There’s just no food culture in Ashford,’ I’d whine to my long-suffering mother. Proof to the contrary arrived in a WhatsApp message: Ma had been invited by a close friend to a group for ‘Priti’s Kitchen’ where, every Sunday without fail, Priti Auntie would send a fixed menu for each day of the upcoming week – these would comfortably feed four people and cost between ten and twenty pounds.
Like all dutiful desi children, I grew up addressing any South Asian woman older than me as ‘Auntie’. Aunties are by no means a homogenous genre, but the aunties in my life have always lived up to the archetype: generous; dispensing practical life advice while piling my dinner plate high with second helpings of home-cooked food. As I leave their houses, stomach fit to burst, they press Tupperwares of leftovers into my hands.
It therefore made perfect sense to me when I discovered that a number of aunties were selling their cooking from their kitchens – after all, it seemed a sensible course of action for those blessed with a natural inclination for hospitality and kitchen wizardry. This network of ‘Auntiepreneurs’ is largely made up of first-generation immigrant women who sell food popular in their homelands to locals in their adopted towns and cities.
It wasn’t long before the Sunday afternoon text became a glimmer of excitement for a household of exhausted healthcare workers. Our family congregated in the kitchen and debated the merits of each day’s menu, before reaching a consensus on which days we would pick up Priti’s food for dinner. We devoured countless menus: biryanis – from delicately fragrant Afghan versions to fiery iterations from Andhra Pradesh – parathas stuffed with paneer, crispy Mumbai-style vada in buns smeared with homemade chutneys, and soft dhokla tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds. For a brief, glorious time, my staple breakfast became leftover aloo paratha from the fridge, eaten with yoghurt and chilli pickle – heaven for a former City worker used to a morning diet of emails, black coffee and existential despair.
Priti’s food business is a family affair. She grew up in Gujarat, learning the basics of the local cuisine at an outdoor stove, before marrying her husband Kartik and moving to Britain. After her children were born, the family moved to Puducherry, where they started a restaurant together, hiring both Bihari and Bengali chefs and learning to cook traditional South Indian dishes from local women. ‘They taught me everything I know about their regional cuisines,’ Priti recalls, ‘and then we put our own twist on them, adjusting the oil and salt to our tastes.’ This explains her menus, which can encompass two strikingly regional cuisines from opposite ends of the subcontinent in the same week.
Ashford, like most British towns, does not suffer from a shortage of South Asian restaurants – so why do Priti’s regulars choose her menu over theirs? ‘I put a lot of love into my food,’ says Priti. ‘And I don’t feed my customers anything I wouldn’t feed my own children. I consider them my family. You can taste that in the cooking.’ My mother’s answer to this question is even simpler. ‘It’s good food, at a fair price, and it tastes of home. It feels like she’s making this food for us.’
Often Priti literally is making the food just for us. Although she claims she could make roti in her sleep that would all look and taste the same, Priti has to be constantly responsive to requests for regional and personal customisation. ‘Sometimes my customers phone me to ask for a little more spice in their chicken, or to roll my rotis a little thicker,’ she laughs, ‘and I’ll always oblige.’ While her customer base spans Ashford’s ethnic spectrum, most of the WhatsApp group’s two hundred members are South Asian, with soft spots for different flavours from their own regions. There are elements of Priti’s food which appeal to our uniquely Bengali tastes, like the sweet background hum of cooked mustard oil in a lamb pulao, or the sulphurous taste of black salt in a chutney (a polarising ingredient which once prompted an ex-boyfriend to ask why dinner tasted of farts). Some of her South Indian customers are unused to her Gujurati rotli, which are rolled extra-thin for a more delicate texture.
Unlike Priti’s Kitchen, which has been selling food since 2018, Susmita Auntie’s new business, based in St Helens, Merseyside, was prompted by the onset of lockdown. She had been catering for the local cricket club’s weekend matches since 2017, providing players and parents with hot lunches of pulao with a choice of two curries alongside the club’s usual tray of sandwiches. ‘It was a bit of pocket money,’ she tells me, ‘and I wanted to show people what we really eat at home.’ Once the first lockdown was announced – and cricket matches were strictly off the table – she started to receive messages from people saying that they missed her food more than the cricket. She began taking orders over WhatsApp and Facebook, sending fixed menus throughout the week through neighbourhood group messages, and now has steady regulars who order every week.
‘In London, you have so much choice when you go out to eat Indian food,’ Susmita tells me in Bengali. ‘But here we don’t.’ Indian takeaway food where she lives in St Helens was previously only available from Bangladeshi-run curry houses which, while delicious, was somewhat homogenous. Her regulars come to her for something that tastes a little lighter and a little different, the food she grew up eating in Kolkata – shorshe maach, daal, kosha murghi and panch mishali torkari – food that is eaten day in, day out in a Bengali household. When Susmita – who is renowned within our circle of Bengali family friends for her culinary prowess – describes a typical weekly menu, it makes my heart sing. When introducing the food I grew up eating to others, I have always felt the need to preface it with an explanation, to ensure that the new recipient is not expecting the likes of a jalfrezi. ‘I use bone-in meat,’ she tells me. ‘Good,’ I think to myself. Just as it should be.
In his article on the curry house, writer Thuli Weerasena calls the new cuisine invented by the first wave of Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants ‘foundational in building the diverse food landscape that we see today’, paving the way for South Asian restaurants offering specialised regional cuisine in Britain. Even outside the confines of the capital and in places without large South Asian communities, the success of Susmita’s cooking proves how the curry house has acted as a ‘gateway drug’ for these vernacular dishes of Indian dining culture. But Weerasena also touches on how the drive for ‘authenticity’ has become a marker for ‘those who consider themselves discerning diners’. There is a snob value to knowing the story of your food, whether it’s buying chicken that was raised on an organic farm down the road, or the assurance that your Friday night curry is the same thing your Indian neighbour cooks for their own family.
‘People increasingly want to know the provenance of their food,’ says Mandira Auntie, who set up Mandira’s Kitchen from her family home in the leafy suburbs of Guildford, Surrey. ‘And regionality is key to this. In India, the food changes every fifty kilometres.’ She notes that, in Surrey, there is an increasing number of people who have travelled to India on holiday and learned this first-hand. Mandira’s Kitchen started life as Surrey Spice, offering Indian supper clubs from Mandira’s home which featured regional South Asian menus, including food from her native West Bengal. Much like Susmita, Mandira’s offerings were partially borne out of a desire to challenge local perceptions of Indian food, which were centred on curry house menus. Leaving a job as a management consultant, Mandira focused on her new food business, expanding into catering, artisanal products and freezer meals. In November 2019, she opened a cafe in Guildford, serving dishes inspired by the street food of Delhi and Kolkata. Unlike Priti and Susmita’s businesses, this was never designed to remain a small-scale operation: Mandira’s Kitchen has picked up a number of awards, employs a full team of staff, and delivers its Indian freezer meals nationwide. Choosing the dishes has been a careful process of trial and error, experimenting with the British palate’s receptiveness to new tastes and textures. The exercise has yielded surprising results, such as the happy revelation that potol posto is a hit in the Home Counties.
When I began interviewing the aunties, I thought they were feeding local South Asians hungry for nostalgic dishes, but I was wrong. Susmita tells me that very little of the sizable local Bengali community comes to her for a taste of home. She doesn’t change any of her recipes to suit British tastes, and makes sure the food is halal, but ultimately Bengalis won’t pay her to cook the food they make themselves. ‘All of my customers are English,’ she says. I nod, recalling my own lofty declarations that I ‘could make this at home’ after meals at London’s more ‘authentic’ Indian restaurants. There’s a clear difference between the home-cooked takeaways that my family buys from Priti – which more closely resemble the restaurant cuisine of my parents’ hometown – and Susmita’s menus, which mirror what they would have eaten at home. So maybe when my first-generation Bengali mother talked about the ‘taste of home’ when referring to Priti’s cooking, she did not mean that it reminds her of my grandmother’s warm embrace; instead, perhaps she is still looking for the experience of eating out.
Like many South Asian immigrants arriving in the UK, my parents quickly located the nearest sources of regional ingredients and were able to replicate an approximation of Bengali household staples using local produce. Nowadays, during our pandemic family routine of combing through Priti Auntie’s Sunday menu drop together, we will invariably choose food that we don’t make at home. My parents will either order food that they can’t make, as it hails from another region of India, or food that is typically bought from restaurants and street vendors. Our choices are easily recognisable as treats: we favour fried, pillowy bhature instead of rice (of which we will have 30kg in our house at any time) and Hyderabadi chicken, slick with red oil and curry leaves, instead of daal (which we batch-make at home to eat for the rest of the week). Our favourite food closely mirrors the cuisine at the heart of the eating-out culture back home in Kolkata, which draws on the city’s own street food as well as its love of restaurant cuisine from other South Asian regions.
Perhaps this points to a shift in how diaspora food networks operate. The lineage of diaspora women selling food from their homes stretches further back than WhatsApp, but these circles have usually been insular and informal, bypassing a restaurant industry dominated by male chefs and managers. Today, as more affluent aunties start selling food from their homes, their customer bases have expanded into wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds. This is partly down to the advent of social media channels, offering the expansion of customer networks beyond those established through word of mouth alone. A market that was previously under the radar now features businesses that accept orders through Instagram, selling home-style South Asian food to people who have never tasted it before, or to middle-class desi families surprised to hear that the food of their homeland is being sold on a housing estate a few miles away.
This is epitomised by Mandira’s Kitchen, though this business is a different model and price point altogether to most of the home cooks selling food that I have encountered. Priti Auntie and Susmita Auntie are clear that, for now, they have no intention of expanding their operations (though Priti does hint at the possibility of an outdoor restaurant once her children are fully settled). Their forays into selling home-cooked food seem almost incidental, as gifted cooks who were egged on by family members and close friends to capitalise on their talent. Customer bases are restricted to the locality in which they live, as only pick-up services can be offered for logistical reasons. The two women balance full-time motherhood and home-making with cooking, and the continued ability to do so is crucial for them,
For many of the aunties’ customers, part of the thrill lies precisely in the fact that they are not operating traditional restaurants. In Kolkata, it is not unusual to bring home hot samosas wrapped in newspaper for a weekday breakfast, or to stop in the street with friends to buy a chicken roll, or to go to your neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall kabab shop to bring home something to have with your tea. In pre-Auntiepreneur Ashford, a routine like this would have been almost impossible. Now, my parents can feed the four of us at a fraction of the price of a sit-down or takeaway restaurant meal. Each meal has felt like a genuine treat, more so than a restaurant takeaway because it’s something I have access to by dint of being from Ashford, privy to this small WhatsApp club that few others know about. The aunties’ food is often democratic in its pricing, but feels intensely personal. It’s implicit that the food that we buy from them is the food that they have grown up with themselves, that they might serve it to their own guests. They craft ever-changing menus, designed to provide customers with something that feels distinctly different from the food they eat day to day, but still retains the hallmarks of home cooking. The organisation, creativity and skill required to cook and feed on this scale – often alone, in a domestic kitchen – is immense. And they don’t even ask for their Tupperware back.
Diya Mukherjee works in healthcare policy, and can be found on Instagram writing stories and sharing photos of her culinary successes (and failures) as @diyas.dinners
Michelle Wong is an illustrator and designer based in London. Previous clients include BBC, gal-dem and Shado Magazine. Her work focuses on narrative, identity and politics. You can find her on Instagram @michelle.cywong