The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a new normal, and that means different things to different people. For some, it is the reality of never seeing a loved one again; for some others, it is the fact that they may never be able to express their humanity through hugging and handshakes. Businesses have also folded up and lives will probably never remain the same again. But there are also some bright sides to cheer about. Many people have found their passions, learnt a skill or two and the world has become much closer than ever.

In Guwahati, Assam, one outcome of note is the rise of home chefs. Within the last two years, the surge has been phenomenal. While there are numerous stories to tell, that of Bijoya Kalita Borah resonates emphatically. Her story is a mixed grill of emotions wrapped into one. They say when life throws lemons at you, you should make lemonades. Well, Bijoya is certainly making tasty lemonades – stamping her place in the budding home chef industry with Bijoya’s Food Bay.

Born in Guwahati in a large home filled with relatives, her father Benudhar Kalita was a renowned Politician throughout the 1980s and 90s. That baton was eventually passed on to her mother. “When my father died, my mother, Late Uttara Kalita had to take care of the family and also my father’s political legacy. She was the only female MLA elected from Kamrup (R) for two consecutive terms. But she was also a family woman. I got my cooking skills from her as she was an awesome cook and whenever she got time she used to cook Assamese delicacies for us.

“She used to bake a lot of cookies and cakes. I started learning when I was in Class 4. I still remember making tea for my father, grandma and myself,” she begins. Bijoya had no idea that those cooking skills and the passion she buried for so many years would one day resurface. She attended Holy Child School and later went to Cotton College in Guwahati. She would later obtain a Bachelor’s in English at Delhi University before taking a course in Journalism. She graduated and got a job as a reporter and anchor at a regional channel in Assam immediately after. Her life seemed pretty sorted out already.

Although her passion for cooking found a way to surface in her work – as she had a well-received and popular food show called ‘Bijoya’s Food Bay’, among many others – it was a slice of misfortune and a period of intense depression that signalled a turning point in her life. “After I lost my mom in 2017, I went through a severe depression. I felt like it was the end of the world. I did nothing for two years, gained a lot of weight, became lethargic, and could not concentrate on anything.

“But in 2020 when the lockdown started, I thought I had to give importance to my mental and physical health. So I started going for walks, exercising, reading books, watching cookery shows, and cooking new dishes for my 5-year-old son who’s a foodie just like me. Then sometime last year I got a call from a friend, Prerona Borthakur. Her son’s birthday was in three days and she wanted me to cook something for around 15 people. I refused at first because I was so nervous, but she insisted because she knows I cook well and she’d be glad if I could cook for her family. I simply told her I’d try.

“I clearly remember the date. On September 17, 2020, I delivered Grilled Veggies, Cheesy Baked Fish, Thai Chicken Curry, Chicken Lattice Pie and Biscuit Pudding. She and her guests loved all the dishes, and that’s how it all started for me. I got together a rough working menu, and orders started coming in with some minimal social media outreach. Voila! My cloud kitchen was on its way. A lot of the initial comments and feedback kept me going and keeps me going even now. That is the fuel for any cloud kitchen venture,” she says.

As someone who’s a mother of a young child, Bijoya pays a lot of attention to hygiene and healthy foods. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons her cooking is trusted more than those offered by restaurants. The frequent returning customers are a positive indication of her performance. But beyond hygiene, Bijoya offers a delicious array of diverse cuisines. “My menu is diverse. I have dishes from different cuisines – Traditional Assamese, Oriental, Continental, Thai, and also cakes and desserts. But I don’t use preservatives or frozen items in my dishes.

“I customise my dishes according to my customers’ needs – no spices, no chillies, no MSG, no sugar, no refined flours, etc. That is one reason, I believe, parents prefer my food, as it is considered safe and healthy,” she adds.

Promoting local content is a task Bijoya believes everyone should take on. Beyond merely promoting Assamese food resources, it is important for the economy of the people. She makes it a point to use locally and responsibly sourced ingredients from suburban and peri-urban areas of Guwahati for her cloud kitchen, and she has been able to support many suppliers, which is a way to empower the local people. As she continues to expand in volume of orders, she’s also mindful that people order from her kitchen because of its sustainability in products and ingredients.

It is easy to expand into large volumes for such kitchens, but her desire to maintain a solid structure for personal quality supervision is a factor she must consider. “The quality of my dishes is my USP. I personally supervise the deliveries after my cooking, so that last-mile connectivity issues are streamlined. It is important that people get my dishes in good time. I also feel good that many food delivery partners in Guwahati are earning a livelihood during this difficult time of the pandemic, because of my cloud kitchen venture” she notes.

No one can deny how important the support of family is in any business. Thankfully, Bijoya has a bucket full of those. “My family has rallied around me, especially my husband and young son, who are my first line of tasters and appreciation club. My son simply loves the Chicken Momos that I make, and he always gets a good share. I have many friends who are real foodies in different phases of my life, with most of our conversations starting and ending with food, and that is a major factor too,” she adds.

From trying out one recipe every day from the cookbook she created with the recipe printouts in her home to make her first dish – her mom-styled Fish Tenga Curry – Bijoya has blossomed into a phenomenon in Guwahati and other parts of Assam. Her love for experimenting and attention to detail are two qualities that every chef needs to have to succeed. “I cannot even drink plain tea. My tea has to be loaded with something exotic, like mint and ginger or cinnamon. I am very particular about everything, every proportion and even the size and style of the vegetables that have to be cut. I am basically an obsessive perfectionist, and this helps in maintaining quality,” she chips.

Bijoya’s Food Bay has a rich menu of exciting meals like Grilled Sandwich, Grilled Veggies, Chicken Hummus Salad, Tuna Salad, Egg Chaat, Chicken Stroganoff, Egg Casserole, Chicken Lattice Pie, Thai Chicken Curry and Fiery Asian Chicken Wings. Others include Veg Fried Rice, Veg Hakka Noodles, Fish with Mustard, Chicken Biryani with Raita, Butter Chicken, Til Chicken, Paneer Cheese Parantha, and Chicken with Bamboo Shoot, among many others.

Cakes are another huge part of her kitchen. “I bake only plain non-icing cakes. I am not a very big fan of icing cakes myself and neither do I have an interest in learning to frost. You will be amazed to see the number of people who love plain tea cakes. There are different varieties of tea-cakes on my menu, the most-selling being Date & Walnut Cake. I have certain clients who are diabetic and prefer Whole Wheat Jaggery Cakes. I also make Cheesecakes, Pudding, Custard, and Doughnuts, as well.

“My best selling dessert is the Cinnamon Bread Pudding. It’s the most simple and elegant dessert I have ever baked, and yet is everyone’s favourite. Assorted Doughnuts are very popular among kids. I make Doughnuts with Dark & White Chocolate Frosting. My desserts are a hit with kids and parents alike,” says Bijoya.

To make all of those exciting meals and cakes, you’ll find eggs, jaggery, bell peppers, local fish, parsley, pepper, salt, sugar, all-purpose flour, olive oil, butter and many more in her kitchen. “I don’t stock chicken because I buy fresh chicken every morning as per the required quantity. That is one reason I take pre-orders, at least a day ahead. I also like to cook more with fresh local fish, which is in abundance in Guwahati, instead of using the frozen and processed fish that comes from outside. A lot of patience, of course, but that is the primary ingredient in all my dishes,” she observes.

While she gets inspiration from friends, family and chefs like Ranveer Brar, Vikaas Khanna, Gordon Ramsay, and Sanjeev Kapoor, she loves to make everything original. The Chicken Hummus Salad is completely her own creation. Every time she makes the salad, the taste is different because she keeps adding new ingredients. “There are a lot of clients who inspire me to create new recipes. I am open to suggestions and advice and I truly follow them. I always keep my eyes, ears and taste buds open,” she says.

Her best-selling meals include Bhapa Iilish, Chicken Biryani with Boondi Raita, Butter Chicken, Chicken Momos, Fish in Lemon Butter Sauce, and Date and Walnut cake. “I am swamped by such orders, and I am always mindful to accept only as many orders a day which I can sustainably manage myself. My core marketing philosophy is of low volume, high quality, something I have imbibed from my travels in Bhutan”.

The major challenges for Bijoya include grocery shopping, managing too many orders each day, and supervising deliveries. She had always wanted to start her own restaurant, but now after transforming her home kitchen into a professional takeaway counter, she has changed her mind because she feels people order food from her because it’s a home kitchen and it’s hygienic. This is why she’s planning to set up a takeaway counter soon after the pandemic ends.

“I love organic produce, and I have a vision of starting an organic farm near Guwahati in the future, where I can grow some vegetables, which I can use for my cloud kitchen. I feel this is a natural extension of my food philosophy, which centres on core elements of slow cooking, patience, sustainability, freshness, and traditional recipes but with modern cooking methods”, she concludes.

Bijoya’s Food Bay is on Facebook. She can be reached at 09394939405

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