“All Indians are very good cooks,” says Punjab-born Jessi Singh. We’re sitting in the front window of his North Fitzroy curry house, Horn Please, with his wife and business partner, Jennifer. “Growing up in an Indian family, food is a big part of everyday life, especially when you live overseas and migrate to a different country,” Jessi continues. “You stick with your food and culture. No matter how far the Indian community lives outside of India, most will still eat Indian food three times a day.”
Like many Indian children Jessi would help milk the buffalo and prepare food from scratch; bread for every meal, yoghurt, butter and lassi. Australia wasn’t his family’s first move – they migrated to California when Jessi was nine – but cooking was a ritual he always enjoyed, and continues to do so in the kitchens at his two Melbourne eateries Horn Please and Babu Ji (St Kilda).
Not a trained chef, Jessi spent years working in kitchens across America before settling in San Francisco, where he met the vivacious New Yorker who is now his wife.
After travelling the world together, Jessi and Jennifer decided to settle in Australia, moving to Kyneton in 2009 to open their first eatery, Dhaba at the Mill. “At that point in our lives we wanted to experience a smaller community,” says Jennifer. “We’d both come from bustling, dynamic cities and were craving something more low key, and we were about to start our family.”
Pregnant with their eldest daughter Luca (now four), the Singhs opened their first restaurant in a beautiful old flour mill. “Many people only have money to eat one meal a day in India,” explains Jessi of the name Dhaba, which denotes a no-frills roadside eatery. “Dhaba serves a lot of purposes for every budget; for travellers walking by, or as a gathering spot for any meal at any time of day.”
At Dhaba, Jessi’s weekly changing menu of five to six curries and street-food dishes highlighted locally sourced ingredients; beef from Bendigo, Trentham potatoes, Macedon Ranges lamb and wines from the same region.
With this casual street food atmosphere in mind, not long after the Kyneton restaurant opened, the Singhs built the Dhaba Truck, which they would set up in neighbouring towns Woodend, Castlemaine and Mt Macedon, serving an abbreviated menu.
After three years in Kyneton, the Singhs found themselves spending their days off in Melbourne. Yearning for the city life again, they sold their country curry house to some long- term staff, drove the Dhaba Truck to Melbourne and set up a new restaurant in North Fitzroy along St Georges Road, in the space that was previously Nepalese restaurant Gurkhas.
In August 2012, and with Jennifer pregnant with second daughter, Stella, Horn Please opened its doors. Named after the popular hand-painted slogans that decorate the back of commercial vehicles across India, the restaurant walls are adorned with Hindi proverbs, kitsch studio portraits collected on trips to India and contemporary versions painted by local artist Rebeccah Power.
“I’ve always just loved that one,” says Jennifer, pointing to a traditional Bengali wedding portrait hanging on the front wall. The portrait is an example of hand painting with watercolour over black-and-white negatives, a common practice in India before colour photography existed.
At Horn Please, Jessi cooks a regularly changing menu of about seven curries, four meat, three veg, plus a black dahl, charred naan and a selection of street food. This includes dishes such as papdi chaat – an Indian version of nachos and salsa with cubes of potates and chickpeas covered in sweet green chutney, yoghurt and pomegranate seeds. It’s the perfect foil to one of the various beers you can help yourself to from the beer fridge up front.
Similar aesthetic touches grace the Singh’s most recent venue, Babu Ji, which opened at The George building in February this year. Decorated like a classic Indian coffee house with hand-painted murals and Bollywood movies projected on the walls, at Babu Ji the team serves a style of sub-continental cuisine we haven’t seen much of in Australia.
Here, the restaurant’s name refers to a playful term for a stylish older man, and Jessi serves traditional dishes such as whole roast leg of lamb pulled off the bone, charcoal smoked goat and beef cooked with dry pressed mince. “A lot of these recipes you won’t see in the mainstream type restaurants where it’s always the same thing on every menu,” he says. “I wanted to do some true Indian curries that have been around for many years, but that you will barely find in Australia.” “I guess Mexican and Indian cuisines are very similar,” Jessi says. “They do tortilla, we do roti, they use lots of tomato, onion, chilli, coriander, same in India. And actually, chilli came to India from Mexico, 500 years ago. We didn’t have it before.”
Like Mexican and other street-style cuisines, Indian food is casual, flavoursome, cheap, cheerful, and great with beer. So why hasn’t this exciting cuisine hit its stride as a popular food trend?
“We can’t figure it out,” says Jennifer. “We’ve travelled the world trying to find out, and that’s why we wanted to do this,” she says of the small food empire she is building with her husband.
It’s not without want. With such a large Indian migrant community in Australia, Indian restaurants are popular and appear in most suburbs. But so often offering the same thing – a safe and very standard selection of curries – its place on the dining scene has largely remained as a takeaway food, and hasn’t broken into popular dining as a creative, progressive cuisine.
The Singhs give a nod to Tonka as an exciting development for Indian dining in Melbourne. “Tonka has taken Indian food to the next level, giving the cuisine some due respect,” says Jessi.
“[But] there’s a certain mindset with Indian food. Many of these old traditional restaurants are stuck in the ’60s and ’70s,” he explains. “So often with Indian eateries, if someone goes out of business, someone else will buy it and do the exact same thing with a new name, putting Taj Mahal pictures up and purple napkins curled on plates,” he smiles earnestly.
“I have one good friend who has been serving Indian food in Melbourne for 37 years and said, ‘I didn’t have the guts to do this kind of menu. I always thought you had to have 10 chicken, 10 lamb, 10 beef.’ He thought nobody would come if he raised his prices above $10.”
“But it’s not just about the food,” Jessi continues. “You really need to consider all the details; a beautiful space, nice environment and interesting food matched with nice wines, where people are happy to pay a bit more.”