At Daughter in Law, Bollywood films are projected onto the walls and Indian music plays through the speakers. The fit-out is full of colours and motifs associated with the subcontinent. And the food – in the ingredients, spices and cooking methods used – tastes unmistakably Indian. It seems as authentic as they come, so why does owner and chef Jessi Singh insist that it isn’t?
“Indians, we don’t eat out – it’s part of the culture,” Singh says. “There’s no such thing as authentic Indian food, because [Indian people] don’t have set recipes. Our food’s been influenced by the British, the Portuguese, the French … It’s totally different for you or me what Indian food is. Authentic food is what my mum made me all her life. No-one else can compare.”
Singh knows he can’t dethrone home cooking when it comes to Indian fare, so he’s going after second place. In the last decade he’s opened a string of successful Indian restaurants in Australia and the US. There’s Dhaba at the Mill and Babu Ji (both now have new owners) and Fitzroy’s Horn Please in Victoria; Don’t Tell Aunty in Sydney, a second Babu Ji in New York City, and restaurant and wine bar Bibi Ji in Southern California.
Singh’s new city eatery is named for the women that he considers the unsung heroes of Indian society: daughters-in-law, many of whom are in arranged marriages.
“Imagine a girl who has to leave her house, [then] from one day to the next she’s living in someone else’s house,” says Singh. “Ninety per cent of the people in there she’s never met, and she has to take care of the whole household. These young, strong women, they have to follow tradition, [but] India has changed a lot. The old tradition and customs are still going, but the new generation is changing dramatically.”
That idea carries through at Daughter In Law; one foot’s steeped in tradition and the other couldn’t care less for it. The Little Bourke Street space is all restrained maximalism; vibrant with rose-coloured walls and plush, peacock-feather blue couches. Shelves are piled high with plants and flowers in burnished silver and copper pots, while sconce lighting casts the room in a moody, pale-pink glow.
On a curved far wall, Bollywood films from the ’70s and ’80s are screened on mute, and boppy tunes and disco favourites from those eras (such as Bum Pam Bum Pam Pa Ra Ra and Rambha Ho Ho Ho) play at just the right volume – loud enough to fill the room, but never detracting from the main show: the food.
The pan-Indian menu takes its cues as much from the ghee and yoghurt-reliant dishes of Singh’s home region of Punjab (in northern India) as it does from the street foods of Mumbai and Delhi and the curries and vindaloos of south-west India.
Beef tartare comes seasoned with dried mango powder and topped with pomegranate seeds in a crisp pappadum cup. The yoghurt kebab is a slightly sour yoghurt patty coated in salted breadcrumbs and fried, served on a sweet, smooth beetroot sauce. Another essential starter is Colonel Tso’s Cauliflower, Singh’s most well-known dish. It’s a mound of fried sweet-and-sour (and pretty spicy) cauliflower, inspired by gobi Manchurian, an Indo-Chinese dish believed to have originated in Kolkata.
There are 10 curries on the menu, five of them vegetarian. Highlights include kadhi (kale fritters in a slow-cooked turmeric-and-yoghurt sauce), the pork-neck vindaloo, a coconut curry with rockling, and, of course, the butter chicken. Grilled dishes from the tandoor include spare ribs and tandoori chicken with spiced yoghurt. There’s also a small range of generous naan pizzas, which are exactly what they sound like.
The drinks list, designed by Singh and ex-Marion sommelier Sacha Imrie, is a considered selection of mainly Australian wines, with more or less equal weighting given to pét-nat, skin contact, reds and whites.
“Everyone thinks that red wine or big bodied wines go with European cuisine and not with Indian cuisine,” Singh says. “But people forget that [as with other cuisines] there’s onion, tomato, garlic and it matches perfectly.”
The Tandoori Tipple cocktail blends gin and cardamom syrup with pineapple that’s been fired in the tandoori oven. The rest of the mixed drinks on the list – with or without alcohol – are just as playful, incorporating ingredients such as chutney, masala and mango.
Daughter in Law
37/41 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
(03) 9242 0814
Mon to Fri 12pm–2.30pm, 5pm–10pm
Sat & Sun, 5pm–10pm