The best meals come peppered with stories: the inside joke, the untold anecdote, the childhood memory. Mumbai-based travel writer Shirin Mehrotra and Mangaluru chef Shriya Shetty are trying to ensure that the best dishes come with stories, too. A chance meeting between the two gave birth to The Literary Table, a pop-up dinner service with books as its theme. “The idea is to get book lovers together over good food. The food, of course, is inspired from a book,” says Mehrotra.

Bone broth, handmade ramen and chilli oil: this dish is Chef Shriya Shetty’s take on Dumbledore’s Pensieve for the #MugglesFeast pop-up

Not long ago, the duo hosted a Harry Potterinspired dinner, which they called #MugglesFeast. “Professor Snape is a very bitter character throughout the book,” says Shetty. “I wanted to translate that onto my plate. The only ingredient that came to my mind was karela.” With a goal to “play with the emotions of the food,” they whipped up a karela tart, which was then paired with a rum-based cocktail, infused with rosella flowers, thyme and topped with soda “inspired by Lily Potter.” Mehrotra says, “A cocktail which was my favourite was the colourchanging cocktail that was inspired from [Nymphadora] Tonks’s character.” (Tonks’s hair colour keeps changing in the series.)

Shirin Mehrotra and Shriya Shetty from The Literary Table (Meal for one: Rupees 3000-4000)

Last month, they did a pop-up at Mumbai’s Savor Kitchen, based on the books and life of Japanese author Haruki Murakami. “Food is an integral part of his writing,” explains Mehrotra. They also had a live jazz performance to reflect Murakami’s passion for jazz — he used to run a jazz club, and the music makes frequent appearances in his books. Both Mehrotra and Shetty have other fulltime commitments and see The Literary Table as an extension of their passion for food. So, the pop-ups are held only once every few months, and that, too, for a small group of about 20. Mehrotra says, “We don’t want to go above 20, because that’s a manageable number for us.” Also, interactions are far more comfortable in smaller groups. A notice announcing the pop-up is posted on social media a few weeks in advance, and anyone can apply to be invited. The price tag is 3000-4000 per participant. The next one will probably happen in October.

Ragini Kashyap from Bordered (Meal for one:  Rupees1900 with one cocktail)

Another much talked about Mumbai pop-up is Bordered, run by Ragini Kashyap, a development consultant. The name and the theme come from Kashyap’s background. She calls herself a “third culture kid,” a term used to describe people who were raised in cultures very different from their parents, or home country. She spent her formative years in Qatar, Canada, India and the UK and said that she often struggled with the idea of home. “Food is something that’s always given me a lot of stability in defining myself. It is also something that has been a rich well for my curiosity.”

Pooja Pangtey and Teiskhem (Tei) Lynrah from Meraki (Meal for one: An eight-course meal is from Rupees 2000-3500)

The idea of combining food and culture came to her, she says, during her frequent visits to London’s many food markets. “One day the penny dropped: I would curate menus to tell stories and invite diners to engage with the food within a broader, richer cultural context,” she says. She soon embarked on her culinary journey by setting up a company called Third Culture Cooks, with the idea of doing a pop-up series featuring cuisines halved by borders. The cross-border food that she has explored so far includes those of the Tamils and Sinhalese, Bangladeshis and Bengalis, Tibetans and Chinese.

Creating a unique experience for diners entails enormous research. So, Kashyap’s Bordered menu tries to draw upon “regional specificities and relationships. Two communities in a similar region may have similar preparations or ingredients based on their geography, even though their spices are fairly different,” she says. It has also helped her explore her roots. Bordered’s next pop-up in Mumbai will feature cuisine from Punjab, both in India and Pakistan. “Three of my four grandparents came from Lahore to Delhi during Partition,” she says. “This menu, therefore, is an opportunity to explore the Partition over five courses of Punjabi food.” Guests will discover the differences that have surfaced over the years between Punjabi food across the two countries.

 

The Literary Table whipped up the karela tart after borrowing inspiration from Professor Snape’s character in the Harry Potter series

Kashyap hosts these dinners in three countries — the UK, Canada and India, in people’s homes either for public or private groups of about 10-14 people. Communication is mostly through social media, and each participant pays `1900 (with one cocktail) or `2600 (with wine and cocktail) for the meal.

If the growing market of pop-ups is about exposure, renewed opportunities and experimentation, both for the creator as well as the consumer, it’s also about exploring common passions. Pooja Pangtey, from the Kumaon Hills of Uttarakhand, and Teiskhem (Tei) Lynrah, from Shillong, Meghalaya, were working in a bank in Mumbai when they began yearning for their respective native hill cuisines. This gave them the idea for their pop-up, which they called Meraki, a Greek word signifying something you pour your heart and soul into. “That is what cooking our food is for us,” says Pangtey.

The exciting aspect of Meraki is that it combines hill cuisines from two culturally distinct parts of the country. “Although the recipes are from different cuisines, our food went well together as it was simple, rustic and hearty,” Pangtey says. “I’d cook my dal with jumboo, and Tei her pork with black sesame, and it’d be a perfectly indulgent yet comforting meal.” The “amazing” response to the first menu they designed encouraged them to quit their bank jobs to follow their passion for food.

 

 

Coconut curd rice arancini balls stuffed with prawns on a bed of beetroot thoriyal, from Bordered

Meraki’s fare includes recipes from hilly terrains such as Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nepal, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. “We realised that a lot of ingredients and knowledge gained through generations are getting lost. Through Meraki, we want to do our bit in learning and sharing some of this knowledge and giving back to our roots. Our usual event is a feast. It could either be a plated seven-toeight course menu, which includes a mix of traditional recipes and our recipes using ingredients from the hills. Alternatively, it could be a family-style feast in which courses keep coming out to the community table, and the guests eat like a family, sharing everything and eating to their heart’s content,” explains Pangtey.

When not doing their Meraki pop-ups, the duo works in jobs they feel are far more fulfilling. Pangtey works as a marketing manager for a craft brewery, while Tei runs a guesthouse in Shillong, and manages a Shillong-based band called Gino and artist Ras Man Man. Pangtey says, “We go to the hills and live with the locals, go through research papers, meet botanists or older locals and interact with them to learn as much as we can.” From restaurants to art studios and homes, Meraki pops up in various formats. The last one was held in Mumbai’s Magazine Street Kitchen. A meal for one in Mumbai is usually priced between Rupees 2000-3500.

Meraki’s version of the tea and street snacks platter from Manipur

Pop-ups serve a broader scope, an interactive space for adventurous diners to enjoy new cuisines and flavours from around the world while meeting and talking to new people in intimate settings. Ragini Kashyap provides three reasons that make pop-ups a unique experience worth exploring, beyond the carefully curated menu. “A home allows for a very intimate setting, where diners (even if they are strangers) are encouraged to engage with one another; the smaller number of people allows space for each guest to contribute to the conversation as much as they are comfortable doing — we are all too smart and interesting to make small talk. An intimate setting allows us to scratch beneath the surface and have interesting conversations with people. Finally, because I am exploring conflict — some moments can be politically sensitive or challenging to explore — but it is important to highlight them. Therefore, doing this with an exclusive group allows me to tailor how I share the information and react to the crowd, which is more difficult with a larger group.”