Do early associations of food shape our tastes and identity? Pastry chef Heena Punwani speaks to chef Thomas Zacharias about growing up with Enid Blyton books, her mother’s flavourful butter chicken, and the first wedding cake that she ever baked.
The genius behind all the decadent desserts at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro (a role she moved on from a few months ago), Heena is quite unlike most other pastry chefs I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside. Not only does she put a lot of heart and soul into her creative process, but as an erstwhile engineer, her analytical mind is something of a wonder. Being a curious geek myself, we’ve spent endless hours contemplating how to balance the flavours and textures in a new dessert, or make the most of a seasonal ingredient.
Since she is someone who draws inspiration from her childhood memories to create and reinvent comfort desserts, I thought it would be apt to speak to Heena to kick off our Food Memories series. Excerpts from our conversation:
Growing up, how much of a role did food play in your life?
For as long as I can remember, food has always played a huge role in my life. My mom is a fabulous and adventurous cook. She was always tinkering about in the kitchen, coming up with new dishes—this was her outlet for all creativity.
When it comes to baking, my earliest memories are actually credited to my dad—he would often take me to ‘town’, where he worked. As a reward for my patience while he completed his errands, he would take me to the bakeries around town—Yezdani, Kayani, and Sassanian. The aroma of freshly baked bread, biting into an apple pie still warm from the oven, the spice of a ginger cookie—these are some of the formative memories of my childhood.
Whose cooking has left a lasting impression on you?
Definitely my mom! She was always experimenting, and we were more than happy to be her enthusiastic guinea pigs. Interestingly enough, she learned cooking ‘on the job’. She’s a Bengali, and my dad is a Sindhi. When my mom came to Bombay as a young bride, she knew very little about cooking.
She once told me the story of how my grandmom asked her to make yoghurt. My mom had only seen her making it once, so she mixed everything and then promptly put it in the fridge for it to ‘set’. That failure has long since been forgotten, and now there’s very little that she can’t do.
She always believed in DIY—whether it was making pickles, ghee or ketchup. She was asking me to bring back ingredients like oyster sauce or galangal from my travels long before it became commonplace. Cooking brought her joy, and so did seeing everyone relish the things she made with so much love—a tradition I’m happy to continue today.
What is your favorite dish made by your mother? Tell us why you love it.
Oddly enough, mom never made Bengali food when we were growing up—she somehow thought that no one would appreciate it. It was only when I started going to college and eating Bengali food from outside that I asked her why she hadn’t made this delicious food for us. She was pleasantly surprised, and that’s when we started having Bengali food at home.
But because I had never grown up eating this food, my actual favourite dish made by her is butter chicken. Because she is self-taught, it doesn’t resemble the regular butter chicken that you find in restaurants. Instead, it is rich but still balanced, and delicious: my ultimate comfort food. No visit home is complete without this dish paired with her homemade naans—tiny round ones which are soft and tender, with a complex flavour almost reminiscent of sourdough.
Has a significant food memory from your childhood led you to become a chef?
Because my mom is such a great cook, I didn’t end up cooking much at home. The kitchen was her domain, and I was a guest just happy to be there. When I went to college, I met my now-husband, Amrut. His mom was a teacher at the time, and also a great baker. So many times, their kitchen would be empty in the afternoon and it had an oven—something we did not have at home. That’s where my baking journey started.
I was heavily influenced by books, especially all the Enid Blyton ones that I had read as a kid. There would always be adventures that were accompanied by the most amazing sounding food—farm tables groaning under the weight of cakes and freshly baked bread, midnight feasts with pork pies and jam tarts, picnics with scones and clotted cream. I could now start baking all the things I had just read about.
I started off with the basics—chocolate brownies. They turned out just okay in the beginning, but I tinkered and adjusted until they matched the best possible version of my imagination—something I do with desserts to this day. I had the instant gratification of seeing the joy on people’s faces when they ate something I’d made with so much love and effort, and I was hooked. Since so many of my happy memories revolved around food, it was amazing to bring that happiness to others too. It remains the absolute best part of my job.
What is the most labour-intensive dish that you’ve ever cooked?
This would have to be a wedding cake that I baked for my cousin before I became a pastry chef. I had been baking for a couple of years, and I thought I was up to the challenge of making a wedding cake. But I kept it a secret because I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed if it turned out to be a big flop. All my family was down for the wedding, and they were sure I was always sneaking off to see my boyfriend. While I was definitely sneaking off to my boyfriend’s house– he was actually in the US—I was just baking the cake in his parents’ kitchen.
And of course, I didn’t choose a simple cake for my first project—it was a 3-tier, 8-kg, chocolate and strawberry extravaganza. And while this would not faze me at all now, it took me days, and many tears, and a big meltdown when the oven overheated. But it turned out great for an amateur production, and it was all worth it when I saw the expressions on my cousin and his wife’s faces when it was presented to them. It remains one of the best gifts that I’ve ever given.
Are there any foods or dishes from your childhood which you have a newfound yearning or appreciation for, perhaps because of the technique or craftsmanship involved?
I think I have a much greater appreciation for everything that my mom, aunts and grandmom made—they made it look so simple and effortless. But I now appreciate how much skill and technique went behind it all. For example, I make brittle with a thermometer, but my mom used to make this pistachio and almond chikki—essentially the same thing as a brittle—every Diwali. What amazed me was how she would eyeball it and know exactly when the sugar was at the right temperature. She would take it off the heat at exactly the right point, stir in the nuts and roll out the chikki in the blink of an eye. I think chefs get so much appreciation nowadays, and rightly so, but I think the work of all these brilliant women who passed down these skills through generations also needs to be valued and applauded.
You have reimagined several Indian dishes and given it your own spin. Can you take us through one such instance?
Every Makar Sankrant, my mom would make til-gud ladoos at home, and even though we were not Maharashtrian, she loved saying, “Til gud ghya, godh godh bola” (with a Bengali accent). The tradition continued when I married Amrut (who is Maharashtrian), and his mother made til-gud chikki. And even though both sweets had the same ingredients, they tasted different (more sweetness for me).
It was my first year at The Bombay Canteen (TBC), and chef Thomas had asked me to create a new cake for its birthday celebration. Staying true to the ethos, it not only had to be delicious, but had to also tell a story. We started ideating in January, and I was inspired to reimagine the traditional til-gud into a layered cake. I started with a black sesame-vanilla cake, and layered it with a rich but light jaggery buttercream, salted jaggery caramel, and chopped til-gud brittle for crunch. It was finished with a dark chocolate-jaggery caramel ganache and a delicate til-tuile. We served a slice to every table on TBC’s birthday, and everyone loved it. It proved so popular that it soon became part of our regular menu, and I now see variations of til-gud desserts everywhere. It remains one of my favourite creations—one that honours tradition in a fun and delicious way without being too intellectual about it.