About Time You Met: Nitisha Patel, Founder of DhalingsBy Angelica Malin
Nitisha Patel has many strings to her bowl; a chef, author, food stylist and most recently, founder of vegan dark kitchen concept, Dhalings. We chatted to Nitisha about what people can expect from Dhalings, her creative plant-based South Asian meals and what’s next:
We hear you’re planning a dark kitchen concept called Dhalings in Birmingham, tell us more!
Yes, that’s right. In 2018 I launched my second cookery book titled ‘The Delicious Book of Dhal’ – the book is both vegan and vegetarian showcasing lentil-based recipes.
Having launched the book, I received lots of positive feedback which led me to think about how I can further explore the popularity of vegan and vegetarian South Asian meals focused around lentils. Recipe book launched, the next step seemed a no brainer, to bring those recipes (and more!) to life. In November of 2020, 2 years in the making, Dhalings was born.
Dhalings is a revolutionary take away food brand pioneering plant-based South Asian meals. The menu prides itself on fresh, fun, exciting, casual, informal, street food style dining. Food that takes you on a culinary journey from the comfort of your own home.
We have been inspired by the Dabbawallas (food delivery men) of Mumbai, and have combined family favourite foods with fresh, innovative and modern meal solutions. From dhal to thalis, burgers, and burritos to biryanis, and street food to smoothies, we have developed a menu to celebrate generational South Asian food, culture, heritage here in the UK.
What are your favourite dishes on the menu?
The entire dhal section of the menu, compromising of 4 comforting, favourite dhals, will always have a place in my heart. But the dhal burger is somewhat of a culinary triumph!
What was it like running your own food consultancy business in the midst of a global pandemic?
In 2016 I left a high profile job with a global food manufacturing company, (and all the perks and security that came with it), to start my own food consultancy business. I spent 3 years growing my business single handily with minimum resources.
Over the years, my business evolved, developed, and grew to cater for both the hospitality and retail sector (food manufacturing). By the end of 2019, having worked on 3 high profile client contracts, my business had just had the most profitable year to date.
A few months later, when the pandemic hit the UK, the retail and hospitality sectors were the first to be shut down. And as a direct knock-on effect, so did my business. Life literally became a rollercoaster, but only heading downwards, and quick!
As business stopped pretty much overnight, I was in quite a dark place. With no income on the horizon, and lockdown taking its toll on my mental health, I felt extremely alone and scared for what the future held. In the past, I have always spoken openly about finding a way through difficult times, I’ve often advised others not to give up when they feel overwhelmed. And it’s this notion of being ‘adaptable’ that I had to keep in mind. Running Nitisha Patel Food Consultancy during 2020 was definitely a low point.
You’re best known for writing The Delicious Book of Dhal, have you got any more books on the horizon?
Once Dhalings is up and running, I would love to write a Dhalings cookery book, which not just showcases our company recipes, but share our journey to inspire others that something so beautiful can definitely emerge and grow during dark times.
Who inspires you in the industry and why?
Ever since I was a child I have been obsessed with cookery shows. Growing up as a British Asian child with a passion for food and cooking, I never saw anyone in the media who looked like me, who I could resonate with, anyone in the industry who I could aspire to be.
But I will never forget watching the likes of culinary heroes such as Keith Floyd and Rick Stein travel to countries like India and Sri Lanka to learn from the locals and showcase traditional South Asian cuisine on prime time British TV.
As a young child, I was drawn to these 2 men, and for the last 10 years whilst being on my own journey in the industry, they still inspire me today because of the way they embraced and raised awareness of other cultures, histories and cuisines.
What advice would you give to chefs just starting out?
As a society, we are all so hungry to ‘make it to the top’. Social media has taught us to ‘fake it until we make it’. To paint a picture of a world we would rather live, than work hard for. Many young chefs are transfixed on getting the title of head chef, rather than working to acquire the skills, knowledge and expertise which qualifies them to become head chef.
Our industry is going through an unprecedented crisis, one which will affect our industry for many years to come. The future of our industry will need strong individuals to lead us through recovery. My main pieces of advice would be, firstly to begin this journey for the right reasons. Being a chef isn’t as glamourous as the media makes out, and a chef who has zero passion for food or cooking sticks out like a sore thumb!
Secondly, be prepared to work hard, and constantly educate yourself. Good chefs don’t switch off when they leave the kitchen, education is constant. We are blessed with so many resources at out fingertips, not making the most of these resources and educating ourselves in today’s world is just silly. Every cuisine has a hero ingredient, recipe, or technique we could all know more about.
Thirdly, it’s important to understand that whilst this industry is notorious for taking its toll on your mental health, it’s also a career which can shape you as a person and open many doors and opportunities. Do what you love (cook), love what you do (cook some more), and take time to unwind, reflect and work harder in creating your own path.
What do you think of the vegan scene in Birmingham?
I definitely think we have an exciting and growing vegan scene in Birmingham. As a foodie, it’s exciting to see:
A) How many independent vegan restaurants and eateries are opening up and offering such wonderful food.
B) How many individuals, influencers and bloggers use their platforms to showcase what vegan options there are in Birmingham.
The UK vegan food market, across all sectors, has transformed into an extremely exciting space, and will continue to grow in the future. I’m very excited for Dhalings to be part of this scene.
What are your favourite ingredients to cook with?
This is a very difficult question as there are so many to choose from. I would have to say firstly, my holy trinity paste. It’s a paste of equal amounts of fresh garlic, ginger and chillies, which I blend in a food processor and preserve with oil and salt. It lasts in my fridge for weeks and completely transforms my food by adding a fresh kick of heat, depth, and pungency. I use it for many dishes, not just in Indian cookery.
And secondly, onions. I think onions are extremely underrated, versatile, and can simply transform a dish by adding a base flavour, a body to a dish and, also texture.
The way in which you cook onions makes a huge difference to your final dish for example, for a Korma, you would gently cook onions until soft without any colour, whereas for a more robust dish such as a Vindaloo or Rogan Josh, you would fry the onions until browned and caramelised.