Jessi Singh draws on his Sikh heritage to create a warming lunch for friends.
Homestyle Indian banquet
“Jessi loves to feed people and he can do it anywhere,” says his wife Jennifer. He did it as a boy in his Punjab village, getting up at 4am to water the fields, milk the buffalo and make yoghurt lassi for breakfast before heading to school. He did it in Jennifer’s miniature apartment in San Francisco. “He invited people over, I told him it was impossible, but amazing food kept appearing from my tiny kitchen,” she says. Even today, he’s known for rummaging in friends’ fridges and creating feasts, turning his hosts into honoured guests in their own homes. He’s tapping into a Sikh sense of hospitality. “It’s a natural part of my culture,” he says. “Everyone must sit down and eat together and the guest is considered God.” It also, simply, makes him feel good. “After a long day in the kitchen, cooking is a therapy for me,” he says. “It gives me huge satisfaction to know I made my meal from scratch.”
Jessi Singh has another mission when feeding people at his restaurants Horn Please in Fitzroy North, Dhaba at the Mill in Kyneton and its spin-off food trucks. His fervent hope is to rescue Indian cuisine from its sloppy reputation. “People think Indian food is cheap, oily, spicy,” he laments. “A lot of restaurants are stuck in the 70s. They have the red napkins, the Taj Mahal pictures and the dodgy smell. It’s not about quality ingredients and it’s not how Indian people eat.” In his village, vendors pass by three times a day with vegetables and other produce. “Every single meal is made fresh.”
Before he launched a food career, Singh travelled the world working as a photographer. He badly missed Indian food but everywhere he went – the US, Europe, Africa – he found Indian restaurants doing a similar menu of 10 chicken, 10 lamb, 10 beef dishes, reheating sauces over and over again. “I would go to the kitchen and these guys were making a dal, a fresh chicken curry for themselves, but they wouldn’t serve it to their customers.” When the couple emigrated to Australia in 2007, he vowed to do his bit to resurrect his cuisine’s reputation.
They quickly opened Dhaba and followed up with Horn Please in 2012. For some Kyneton locals, Dhaba was their first experience of Indian food. “People were very scared of it but once they got used to it they loved it,” says Singh. There are still a few cultural hurdles. “Some of our customers refuse to say ‘samosa,’” he laughs. “Instead they ask for ‘spicy pasties’ and they buy 10 at a time and walk around the street eating them. As one Aussie guy said to me, ‘The Chiko Roll days are gone.’”
First published in The Age, The [melbourne] Magazine, May 2013
Find out what happened next & see 4 great recipes from Jessi.