Pop-Up People: Papi's Pickles
by Laura Martin
It's time to ditch any pre-conceived notions about Indian food being all creamy, fatty and heavy. Papi's Pickles is a pop-up that showcases the fragrant, spicy and healthy dishes that come from South India - and why they should be working their way into your kitchens as well. The supperclub - set up by Abi Ramanan - takes place at the Well Street Kitchen in November and December, and if it's anything like their last events, tickets will go quick than you can say "Papi's Pickles popular pop-up". We caught up with Abi ahead of the next series of suppers to get the low down on the menu, what we can expect from the family-based collective next and just what makes their pickles so special.
Tell us about Papi's Pickles - how did it all start?
It's a family business that I founded earlier this year in April. I'd been working in the charity sector for about three years working on some amazing jobs and with some amazing people but I became really interested in social enterprise for change and tool for empowerment.
Your cuisine is all about celebrating South India - why this particular style of food?
I was born in South India and the business is essentially me, my mum and my aunt and my cousin. When I first started up, there weren't that many people doing South Indian street food in London. There are a few good restaurants, but because I worked in sustainable food, I was really keen to use organic, sustainable and local ingredients. Also there seemed to be quite a lot of anti-immigration hostility going on, so I really liked the idea of combining a traditional South Indian cooking with fresh, seasonal, British produce. I felt there was a gap in the market for that.
Home-made pickles was your first venture into your own business, right?
Yes. Our pickles are quite unique because they have no preservatives in them so you have to refrigerate and eat them within three to four weeks. We're currently working on new packaging –. I know this is really nerdy, but there's a big revolution happening in pouches, so I'm interested experimenting with packaging, maybe it's something that shrinks as the product gets used, or we add a recipe card or something to it.
I did a bit of research on the internet and found that no one was really selling it. For the first pop-ups we did, we let people take the jars home for a bit of market research. We also had a hashtag #pocketyourpickles and told people to tweet or Instagram pictures of what they were eating it with. The more I thought about it, the more I didn't want to alter the traditional recipes so we can create a really sustainable product. Plus, if we make it successful we can teach it to other women across the world, then they can have a franchise and earn money from it. It's also a really healthy food – South Indian food has so many health benefits, it's really low in salt, it's really low in fat, it can help to combat diabetes...
How did you move into supperclubs?
The one at Well Street Kitchen was the first one we ever did. A friend contacted me and said they do pop-ups of cuisine from all around the world. I contacted the owner and it turns out they are just obsessed with South Indian cuisine. Supperclubs weren't something we initially set out to do but it came up as an opportunity and it turned out that it's quite popular. It's a good place to test out different styles, menus and pickles. If we do move into something more permanent it's good to have the feedback from all these events.
All your chefs are female - what made you focus on this?
I've always wanted to work more with women, especially because cheffing can be a very male-dominated environment. I had also done some work with Sri Lankan refugees and Tamils relocated around the world who have been excluded and I wanted to find a way of working to use the skills they already had. Then we'd top that up by teaching them how to do South Indian cooking to earn an income for themselves. I know there's a demand for this food– we've sold out all the Well St Kitchen dinners so far and have served over 700 people at our residency – and now I want to expand it.
Who's cooking at your next supperclub, Sri Lankan Short Eats?
We're working with a lady from Sri Lanka called Rammiya and she is going to be the head chef for the Well Street Kitchen supperclub. My aunt, Radhika, will also be in the kitchen with her cooking up the five-course meal.
What can we expect on the menu?
What I'm really excited about is it's the first time we're having Sri Lankan food on the menu and it's the first time we're trying things almost tapas-style. The pickles and appalam will be the starter, then there will be two South Indian courses. First, stuffed ladies fingers (okra) with ginger and sweet 'n' sour relish, then adai – a variation on a dosa, but it's thicker, like a savory pancake with a coconut and seasonal vegetable stew. Then the two Sri Lankan courses are very traditional, Puttu, which is steamed rice with coconut and mackerel curry, then there's broken down pancakes, like string hoppers with an aubergine curry. Then the dessert is Gulab jamun, a type of doughnut served with a cardamom and saffron sugar syrup and homemade cardamom ice-cream.
What would you say is your signature dish?
The dosa. For our pop-up we've always done dosas and we were going to change it for our second time at the Well Street Kitchen, but people contacted us and said "are you definitely going to do the dosas? Because we wanted to come for that!". We do lots of different dosas as they're so versatile – coconut; chilli and yoghurt in the batter, chicken...The majority of our meals are vegetarian but we do have some meat dishes to accommodate the meat eaters.
This will be your third supperclub - what's the response been like?
Thee feedback has been great so far. We've sold out all the events which is 40 people, we have waiting lists and I love the venue. It's perfect and so nice to take over a whole space. People have come for special occasions. I'm really excited about the menu, too. It can be a bit slow sometimes, but it's because we make everything fresh in the kitchen. It's very hard work but I think there's nothing like the trials and tribulations of starting something on your own. I will always be so glad I started it as I've learned so much.
What's the most important thing you've learned doing the pop-ups?
Don't trust anyone! Haha, no, I'm just joking. The most important thing I learnt was that it doesn't matter if the Chiltern Firehouse has a year long waiting list - I hate how elitist food in London can be - it's important to create accessible events where the food is really good, but not some club that only one per cent of London can go to. That's what I was really interested in. I learnt that I did not know anything about food or business or funding, I just had an idea and was really determined. You don't need to be an expert at things. You need to be committed. Unless you're a doctor or a lawyer there are no real experts, everyone is just making it up as they go along!
Where would you like to take Papi's Pickles in the future?
I'd like to do more collaborations. We're actually working on a project with The Chickpea Sisters to take place in January - they work with migrants and we're planning a pop-up with them. I would like to secure some sort of permanent premises when we have more chefs on board to do a night or work together on a product range.
What do you like to eat when you're not doing the cooking?
Probably moussaka. I am absolutely obsessed with Greek food. I really want to do a South Indian collaboration with Greek food. I always have these hairbrained ideas but I want to do a series of six or eight supperclubs where each one is a different combination, like South Indian with Moroccan, or South Indian with Greek and exploring all these cultures. Actually, that's a really good idea! I must look into to that....
The next Papi's Pickles pop-up is on Saturday 8th November and Saturday 6th December. Tickets cost £25 from here.