Like any good chef, Nikhil Chib was well prepared for his guests. It didn’t matter that it was 10.30am and his guests numbered just two—this journalist and a photographer. His mise en place was, well, in place and as soon as we entered his Colaba apartment, he got cooking.
Chib, the 37-year-old owner of Busaba, an Asian restaurant in Mumbai’s Colaba district, says he does most of the cooking at home (he lives with his wife Natasha) and most of the household chores as well. He loves Asian cooking, which he says is easy and quick to prepare. On the menu today are two examples of simple Thai cooking: Som Tam and Kai Bai Kaprow. That’s Raw Papaya Salad and Stir-Fried Chicken with Chilli, Garlic and Basil. “These are two standard dishes that you get all over the streets of Thailand,” he says.
Speed king: Chib prepared two dishes that are available all over Thailand. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Though the papaya salad should have fish sauce and dry shrimps to be completely authentic, Chib says he also makes the vegetarian version. This salad has become one of those dishes which is a must-order at Thai restaurants in India and is a favourite with vegetarians and meat eaters alike. The best part is, Chib shows how ridiculously simple it is to make.
Chib pulls out a wooden mortar, which is a foot-and-a-half-high, and a pestle, which looks more like a club than a cooking tool. “I got this on my latest trip to Thailand, for about Rs400. If you don’t have one at home, you can put the ingredients in a degchi and pound on them with a pestle.”
Long slivers of raw papaya are tossed into the mortar, followed by chilli, garlic, lemon juice and jaggery. Then Chib starts the actual work, which is pounding on the ingredients. He explains that it helps to release the juices and this is what gives the salad that dripping, wet texture.
As he bashes away at our meal, he explains what got him hooked to cooking. “I got my passion for food from my mother. When I was young, she was always experimenting with French, Italian and Chinese dishes. I also travelled a lot with her; I first went to Europe when I was 8. I was exposed to different cuisines pretty early on,” he says. Chib’s grandmother grew up in Rangoon, and that was his first connection with Asian countries such as Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Vietnam and Korea, which he now loves and travels to ever so often.
The first dish he learnt to make was the Burmese speciality kaukswe, followed by momos, which he was taught by a Tibetan chef. He says he had “zero knowledge” when he started his catering business in 1995. “I slowly increased my repertoire of dishes by travelling to Thailand and learning from chefs there.”
Though he studied economics and finance, he left that line to start his catering business, and five years later, a restaurant in Goa, Busabong. Busaba opened in 2001 (Busabong and Busaba mean wild tree and wild flower, respectively, in Thai). It currently serves dishes from Korea, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The salad in progress is on Busaba’s menu as well. After about 5 minutes of pounding, it’s ready. Chib throws in some cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts. He hands us two forks and tells us to dig in—right from the mortar. The juice drips down the strands of papaya as we fork it up. It’s quite an overwhelming explosion of tastes—extremely tangy, tongue-searingly spicy, with the bite of raw garlic and a hint of sweet and salt. We keep eating while he wipes his workspace clean, and starts on his next task.
The stir-fried chicken is almost as easy as the salad—he adds the ingredients one by one into a deep, medium-sized pan which serves as a wok, and the dish is ready in about 4 minutes. Chunks of red and green pepper add colour and a change of texture to the tiny bits of chicken, coated in a soy and oyster sauce gravy, flavoured with basil. Again, we’re handed two spoons and told to help ourselves from the pan.
The Stir-Fried Chicken; and Raw Papaya Salad. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
As we eat, Chib tells us his dream is to open a very small French restaurant, which will serve long sit-down meals one can linger over for hours. “Even though I love food which is quick, I also love European cooking and elaborate meals,” he says. “I want to make dining a celebration.”
1 raw papaya
6 pieces cherry tomatoes
1 tsp red chillies, chopped
1 tsp garlic, chopped
1 tsp lemon juice
10g (2 tsp) jaggery
10ml fish sauce (optional)
10g dry shrimp (optional)
20g crushed peanuts, for garnish
Shred the papaya with a peeler into very thin strips. Put it in a mortar and pound with the pestle. Add all the ingredients to the mortar. While pounding with one hand, use a spoon and keep stirring the ingredients with the other. Continue this exercise for 3-4 minutes. The final taste of the salad should be sweet, sour, spicy and salty. Garnish with crushed peanuts.
Kai Bai Kaprow
(Stir-Fried Chicken with Chilli, Garlic and Basil)
250g chicken breast
4 basil leaves
1/2 red and yellow peppers each
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp garlic, chopped
1 tsp red chillies, chopped
2 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
Mince the breast of chicken and keep aside. Add the oil, garlic and chilli in a wok and sauté well. Then add the peppers and minced chicken. Sauté for at least 2 minutes. Add oyster and soy sauce, basil and a little water. Sauté and serve with steamed white rice.