When other chefs and restaurateurs say that your restaurant is their favourite place to dig into the particular cuisine you serve, you know you’ve made it. However, as Nalini Sadhu notes, her husband Surinder still doesn’t think she makes Kashmiri Pandit food as well as his mother. Their legions of fans flock to the couple’s Kashmiri restaurant, Matamaal, regardless.
Married for 33 years (“at this point we’ve stopped counting,” quips Nalini), the couple had a love marriage of sorts, though not at first sight. “We first met in Kashmir when Surinder had returned from Bahrain where he was working. Incidentally, Nalini does most of the talking in this interview, with Surinder resignedly mentioning, “Even in videos and the shows we’ve been featured on, you’ll notice it is Nalini who does all the talking.”
However, after the pair got married in 1987 and returned to Bahrain, Nalini did everything she could to please her new spouse, including learning how to cook the Kashmiri Pandit food Surinder so loved.
The ebullient pair love entertaining and always had people over for meals, a practice they continued when they returned to India in 1997. A couple of years later, Nalini took part in a neighbourhood bazaar for which she prepared biryani. The biryani was sold out within the hour and Nalini had to rush home to prepare a fresh batch. Once the neighbours got privy to Nalini’s kitchen magic, they joined in the chorus of the couple’s friends begging them to open a restaurant. But Nalini was content raising her two sons, Mikhail and Hans, apart from, of course, preparing party feasts. With encouragement (and vegetable chopping and other help) from Surinder, she also began to participate in local food festivals, gradually moving on to bigger events. “When people think Kashmiri cuisine, they immediately think Wazwan. Kashmiri Pandit food isn’t really prepared in restaurants, and at most people will have tasted it in the homes of Kashmiri Pandits,” explains Surinder. The next big milestone for the couple was when Singapore’s iconic Raffles hotel invited Nalini to host a Kashmiri food festival.
“That was one time I didn’t go with her, and she came back with all these Singapore dollars, which, trust me, will still be lying in her cupboard,” says Surinder. In any case, once her sons had grown up and left for college, she and Surinder finally decided to open a restaurant, which began as a 12-seater restaurant in Gurugram. “With god’s grace, when we had to expand.
Despite having been inundated with franchisee offers, the Sadhus have only just given the green light for their second restaurant, which is in Qatar, having finally found partners as passionate as they are. Meanwhile, the Sadhus have decided to focus on other good works. “We feed 500 migrant workers every day and provide dry rations for families. We also feed stray animals,” says Nalini, getting in the last word.
Younger son Hans, who lives with his parents, decided to use his parents’ expertise in Kashmiri food to start sourcing, roasting, grinding, and retailing traditional spices and other region-specific ingredients, which are available across India, under the name Kanz & Muhul (‘Mortar & Pestle’). Elder son Mikhail and his wife Sneha, who live in Toronto, help with the marketing of the brand and have been working with Nalini to organise live cooking sessions online, which are attended by enthusiasts from around the world. “Sneha isn’t Kashmiri, but she’s taken so well to the food and is very passionate about it. I’d say she’s become quite the expert,” enthuses Nalini. The subtle dig at Surinder’s devotion to her own mother-in-law’s expertise is surely just in our imagination.