The philosophy behind Don’t Tell Aunty is to give credit to all the unsung heroes of every Indian family – the women. You can get a taste of it for only $10 at lunch for the best thali in town.
Indian born chef and restaurateur Jessi Singh is no stranger to ruffling a few feathers with his “unauthentic” Indian food.
“I once had an Indian customer in one of my Melbourne restaurants who sent the tandoori chicken back because it wasn’t orange enough,” Singh tells SBS Food. “He hadn’t even tried it, so I brought him back to the kitchen, showed him the chicken and the tandoor and made him eat it. He told me he’d been eating tandoori chicken for 25 years and this was the best he’d ever had. Now he’s one of my regulars.”
This ‘devil may care’ approach to Indian food is an underlying presence at Singh’s many restaurants (Horn Please and Dhaba at The Mill in Melbourne, Babu Ji in New York), not least of all at his brand-new Surry Hills venture, Don’t Tell Aunty. No, the tandoori chicken at Don’t Tell Aunty isn’t nuclear orange in colour – but it’s tender, vibrant in flavour and quite possibly the best you’ll ever try, regardless.
The colourful interiors, the classic Bollywood films projected on the walls, and the name of the restaurant itself all imply an inherent playfulness, a subversion of what’s understood to be typical of culinary culture in India. “Don’t tell Aunty I’m in the kitchen” is the concept behind the restaurant’s name. “Everyone thinks it’s Aunty’s job to do all the cooking, but no, I don’t think so,” says Singh.
Indian kitchens traditionally are headed up by mums, aunties, sisters and grandmothers, who, according to the chef, often go without the credit they so deserve.
“Women in Indian families make every meal from scratch, but those typical ‘housewife’ roles aren’t considered jobs,” he says. “Indian men have no clue. They’ll come home after four to six hours of work, and demand their wives get them a glass of water. It’s like, what? Are you crazy? She’s cooking everything for you! Get yourself a glass of water! The philosophy behind Don’t Tell Aunty is to give credit to all the unsung heroes of every Indian family – the women.”
“I once had an Indian customer in one of my Melbourne restaurants who sent the tandoori chicken back because it wasn’t orange enough.”
With Singh in the kitchen, Don’t Tell Aunty is a deviation from the classic Indian restaurant model – but the trend-bucking doesn’t stop there.
Dishes like Sydney rock oysters with green mango pickle butter, pineapple vinegar, mint chutney and broken chickpea noodles, ‘yoghurt kebabs’ (a kind of croquette made with green chilli and cardamom, served over a beet and ginger sauce) and “Unauthentic Butter Chicken” are as much about arousing the senses – all of them – as they are about smashing long-held misconceptions about Indian food, that it’s “too smelly,” too spicy, or too heavy to be enjoyable.
“I don’t use ghee, oil, butter or colouring in any of my dishes,” Singh says. “Indian food can be so great, but every Indian restaurant you go to has the same UK-style Indian food menu, the same heaviness.”
In other words, the menu at Don’t Tell Aunty is Singh’s way of reinventing the wheel, of modernising Indian cuisine for everyone – hardcore Indian food traditionalists included.
“That’s my style of cooking, that’s what I’m trying to do. 40 per cent of people won’t like it, but the people who do like it, they’ll be back again and again.”
If anyone’s in a position to subvert hundreds of years of tradition with a hip new restaurant, it’s Singh. Born to a farming family in the north Indian state of Punjab, Singh developed a relationship with food and cooking from a young age, through milking buffalo at 4am for the next day’s ghee, and preparing temple feasts for his entire Sikh community. He learned all the rules before learning how to break them.
“I knew how to make butter, yoghurt and ghee all before I was 10,” he says. “I’m not a trained chef, and I never went to culinary school. These were my foundations. We had a vegie garden and, basically, if it wasn’t in season, we didn’t eat it. I grew up in a big joint family with my dad’s brothers and my grandma, and being in that household brought me closer to food – we all had to chip in, because we couldn’t afford labour. I go back to my parents’ village all the time, and they still have a flour mill used to grind up wheat, rice and spices.”
“Indian men have no clue. They’ll come home after four to six hours of work, and demand their wives get them a glass of water. It’s like, what? Are you crazy? She’s cooking everything for you! Get yourself a glass of water!”
His upbringing provides him a unique perspective on what ‘authenticity’ even means in a country like India, where home cooking is the norm, and dishes are mostly constructed with whatever is in season and on hand. According to Singh, the Indian customers who aren’t satisfied with his food are the diners who expect a replica of what they eat at home.
“We don’t have ‘authentic’ Indian food,” he says. “Authentic is whatever your mum cooks for you at home. Every meal is eaten at home – it’s more affordable and it’s way better.”
The affordability factor hits home Tuesday to Friday lunchtimes, when you can get a $10 canteen lunch – think of this like best thali meal deal in town.
Don’t Tell Aunty aims for a different experience: a spirit of ‘unauthenticity’ that both draws on and defies tradition to create something new and exciting. And damn good tandoori chicken to boot.