Danda Food Project, A Home-Dining Project That’s Pushing Boundaries| Indie Eats
Cheese and dairy consultant Aditya Raghavan was on his way to conduct a mozzarella-making workshop for an editor of a magazine when he met Anandita Kamani. While the cheese from the evening didn’t hold, they instead found tremendously common ground on food. The duo has now started the Danda Food Project, a home-dining experiment that manages to be warm and intimate in setting as well as gastronomically cutting-edge at the same time.
They serve dinners with multiple courses based on a theme to up to 14 diners at a time, usually with beer-y pairings. Known to sell out minutes after they announce a new meal, we speak to the founders of Danda Food Project, who’ve been serving up delightful plates to everyone who has visited.
What led to the forming of the Danda Food Project?
Aditya: We both really wanted to cook more and learn more about cooking. It started off with a nose-to-tail pork dinner: The Pandi Degustation. We showcased Indian pork dishes in a new light, with interesting twists, and nice plating. After that, we pretty much knew we wanted to be on this path.
Anandita: It was an intimate dinner, only 12 seats, but we had ridiculous amounts of fun and it was pretty well received, so we knew we were onto something. A couple of weeks later at a friend’s place (over wine, of course) Addie said rather tipsily, “How about we call ourselves the Danda Food Project?”. I laughed, also rather tipsily, and said, “Why not?”. And we’ve never looked back.
What led you to serving themed dinners? Are there distinct advantages to this?
Anandita: After our first pork-themed dinner we realized that, since neither of us have had the benefit of a culinary education, this was a brilliant way to learn about different parts of an animal and how to cook them and respect the animal by minimizing waste and educating people that “cheaper cuts” like the head or feet, and “yucky bits” such as offal and blood, are safe to eat and can also be truly delicious. Later we started experimenting with different themes, always focusing on local and seasonal ingredients.
Aditya: We always wanted to do plated dinners since each course tells a story – like a chapter of a book. This idea led to us imagining menus that had an overarching theme so that diners could come and experience each plate on its own but also go home with an overall memory of the evening. I guess the greatest advantage to plated food is that, as a cook, you can really express your passion and creativity.
Tell us some of the favourite dishes you’ve pulled off in the Danda Food Project kitchen.
Anandita: I really loved our whole Vegetarian Menu. Most of the diners that came to these dinners were hardcore non-vegetarians, and they all said (with shocked expressions to our shocked faces) that they didn’t miss the meat. I also loved our “Cacao Butter” course at our chocolate themed Pod-to-Plate dinner – a sharing plate of vegetables roasted in cacao butter served with three kinds of sauces, all made with cacao butter as well. But one of my most favourite dishes is “The Momo”. It’s the first dish that Addie cooked for me from our pork menu. A semi-soupy pork mince stuffed momo, sitting atop a healthy dollop of chhurpi cheese and Spitian ghee, finished with a few drops of Dallechilli reduction. Heaven.
Aditya: It’s pretty hard to pick one or a few. Personally, I got a big kick out of fermenting cacao nibs into a miso especially given how cacao nibs itself are a byproduct of cacao fruit fermentation. Also, it tasted pretty good and I don’t think it has been done before.
Take us through the preparation process for each of your dinners.
Aditya: It starts with an idea. Many ideas are there, most of them unfeasible. Ana helps stabilize the boat by being the adult in the room and making sure we don’t go crazy. We usually start recipe testing a good four or five days before the dinner. On the day of the dinner, we are usually busy getting are miseen place ready, like preparing greens, or working on garnishes. In almost all our dinners, there is a lot of active cooking happening while diners are eating. This is again a great advantage of a coursed-out menu. Sometimes we might be working on pasta that is needed three courses later, or starting a braise for course number nine, while plating the first course. We are always on our feet.
Anandita: We always start by deciding a theme that best fits the season, such as the Vegetarian Menu in January to celebrate winter produce. That’s the easiest part. What follows are intense debates and discussions as to what should make it on the menu. This can sometimes get a little contentious and typically lasts several days. Then begins the long and laborious process of testing recipes. Since these are tasting menus, we like to include a mix of cold and hot dishes, and usually follow a European menu progression of some sort. Ultimately, each dish must fulfill certain criteria- Is it interesting? Does it make you think? Does it highlight the main ingredient? And of course, is it delicious? Final decisions however are always unanimous, and although it may have started as one person’s idea, by the time it’s executed, it belongs to all of us.
Can you describe each other’s cooking styles?
Anandita: Addie is passionate about food, but he’s particularly passionate about Indian food and reinventing it. As a cheese maker, he’s obviously a dairy geek and very knowledgeable about fermentation, which in itself is a niche skill. His background in physics makes his approach to food very scientific, but he is also incredibly creative, a very rare combination. His experiments may not always be successful (he’s obsessed with xanthan), but when they are, he knocks it out of the park. Working with him has given me the opportunity to learn so much, and I treasure our friendship.
Aditya: There is just one word to describe Ana’s cooking: Soulful. Whether she’s whipping up a French omelette, or braising mutton shanks, there is just a lot of love in every bite. She understands flavours and thinks hard on how to make something delicious. One of her greatest strengths is cooking with fish. I have seen her cook different fish using various techniques. She is artistic, with a vivid imagination, and this is usually seen in her style of plating.
How are diners different when eating at home versus the ones you see in restaurants?
Anandita: Our typical diner is usually well travelled with a discerning palate, as hungry for a new and exciting experience as they are for the food.
Aditya: We usually get diners who are open-minded about food. That allows us to feed them things like blood pasta ravioli stuffed with goat brains. Things like our Blood Brain Barrier (the pasta) will probably never make it to a restaurant menu.
How do you measure the success of a dinner?
Aditya: Two things matter: Diners leaving happy and remembering our food. The other is whether we accomplished what we set out to do in the dinner. If not, we then go back to our drawing board and see how we could have improved.
Anandita: We always try to find a balance between food that is edgy but also soulful on our menus, and we always end each dinner with a family-style meal. Having said that, as a team, our benchmark is to ensure that each dinner is better than the last.
Follow the Danda Food Project on Facebook and sign up for their next dinner at https://www.facebook.com/dandafoodproject