Ajima brings traditional Indian flavors to Nevada County
One of Sianna Chauhan’s first memories was of being in her grandmother’s courtyard in Yorkshire, England, the saris of her female relatives blowing in the breeze as they lovingly laid out hundreds of chapattis in the sun to dry while they talked and laughed. This memory, and many others revolving around family, food, and fun, has helped to shape the destiny of Sianna and led her to start her new Indian food catering and delivery business, Ajima.
A heritage of hard work and good food
The word Ajima means “grandmother,” as her own Ajima taught her sixteen children and countless grandchildren how to make Indian food in the old way. She, along with her husband and 16 children, migrated to England from Rajistan in 1947. The family had a chain of successful restaurants, and Sianna’s grandmother helped with the businesses, raised the children, kept the house, and taught her brood to cook and manage a household and business. It was working in the restaurant that Sianna’s mother and father met, and went on to open their own restaurant when Sianna was 12. From there, the business grew until the family had a small chain of eateries in North Yorkshire. Sianna and her sister helped with business; cooking, cleaning, waiting on customers, and more and were raised in a strict environment where they were expected to work hard to help the family with the household and the restaurant. “Working was just part of our family culture,” Sianna said. “My sister and I learned how to manage and operate a business; this was imperative in our family, to eat together and to work together and to share.”
But Sundays were a day of rest, when Sianna’s family would spend the day together and enjoy an eight course meal would last 2-3 hours; course after course that they would enjoy whilst sitting on the floor in the old world style. Not limited to Indian cuisine, Sianna’s father could cook Moroccan, African, British, and every cuisine there is, so the menu was widely varied from week to week. In their household, there was an embracing of different cultures in more ways than just food; it was required that they learned and spoke in different languages, and Sianna herself speaks five. “It was a beautiful time to be a child to see my family, who had been immigrants to this white nation from Africa and India, and working very hard to make a great life,” she said.
Like a Rolling Stone
At age 25, Sianna decided to leave England because it was “too cold.” She had already traveled extensively, visiting France, Spain, Thailand, Cambodia, and many trips to India. She then traveled to Australia, and settled there for seven years working in events in television and film. She would go to music festivals and started her own food stall called Greedy Ganesha where she would serve basic Indian festival food like pakoras and chai. While visiting Bangkok, Sianna met a man who lived in Grass Valley who said that he would soon need a cook, and asked if he could email her about it. She said yes and then promptly forgot all about it.
Then, out of the blue, the man emailed her saying that he needed someone in Grass Valley in two weeks. Sianna packed her bags and moved here to work on a local farm where she did all of the cooking and served 30 people three meals a day, as well as cleaning, shopping, and organizing logistics. People started hiring her to cook for their events, and she had the idea to start hosting supper clubs in her home. She did not charge for these traditional, eight course Indian meals modeled after the Sunday family dinners of her youth, where she taught guests about the history of India and about each course and how to eat it properly. It was at one of these gatherings that she met Sunya Sather, who has helped Sianna turn her Indian food concept into a business plan. “Sunya is my right hand woman. Without her I would be lost. She is backbone of all of the media, websites, everything. She helped me realize that this could be a real professional venture,” Sianna said. “I’ve always cooked; it’s been part of my heritage, my culture, my ancestors. I love to feed people and share my passion for that because it’s embedded in my roots.”
Exotic, Local, Sensual
It can take up to two hours to cook each traditional Indian dish, and each one must be cooked separately with different spices. For instance, for beef dishes star anise, coriander seeds, and cinnamon are used to bring out the flavor of the meat. Each dish uses a combination of seeds and powdered spices; seeds are for the smell and powders are for the taste. “Indian food is warming, nourishing, sensual, passionate, and healing. All of those spices are there not just for taste; they’re anti aging, antioxidant, antidepressant, that’s why Indian people look so good,” Sianna said.
If you have never tried Indian food, Sianna suggests that you start with mild spice, and maybe an appetizer of chicken wings, because they are familiar and a good introduction to Indian flavors. If you’re looking for an entrée, try a lentil dish, and then ramp up to a meat curry. You can talk to Sianna about any reservations you have, but she urges people not to be afraid to try new things and to enjoy a literal taste of Indian culture. Sianna explains that in India, people eat with their hands because, “There is a relationship with your sense of touch and taste and that is your relationship with food. People don’t know to eat Indian food and I want to teach them how. Each dish comes out separately and is a journey to the next dish; it’s a sensual passionate experience,” she said. “I ask people to be adventurous and open up their senses and to realize that there are spices that they have perhaps never heard of. I ask people to go back to the days when they didn’t know Mexican food, but now that they do it’s not anything to fear.”
Thinking globally and acting locally, Sianna sources her meat, chicken, beans and vegetables locally, and almost all of her ingredients are organic. All spices used in Ajima dishes are from India; all are organic and sourced through Indian shops in Berkeley. She acknowledges that her prices are a little high, but that is due to the quality of the food and spices, packaging and labels, and the time it takes to cook each dish. You do get what you pay for, as the portions are huge and one entrée will feed two people, and each dish is hand made from scratch with love, as her own Ajima taught her. “I started this business to honor my grandmother and her traditions. She would say, ‘Never cook when you’re angry, cook only when you’re happy.’ I try to remember that when I’m cooking for my customers, and from what I hear, they all feel that,” Sianna said. “For those that are unsure, please ask questions. Ajima is here to take you on a journey, help you choose your dishes and level of spice to guide you into our traditional Indian food. You are guaranteed to love at least one dish!”
Sianna will be debuting Ajima this month at the Nevada City Farmers Market and Summer Nights, where she will be cooking fresh pakoras and bhajis, and will also have small containers of lentil curry and traditional chai available. You can hire Ajima as well for catering for weddings and events, and have a special menu created just for your celebration. If you just want to order a meal to enjoy at home, do so online at ajimacuisine.com or call 530-648-0471. Due to the time it takes to hand make each item; orders must be placed before 12 p.m. for same day delivery. All deliveries go out after 3 p.m. each day.
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