Behind The Kitchen Doors: The Ganga Cafe6 Mar 2017
It is 7.30am in Bangsar. The sun begins to stretch its beams over the sky; but at The Ganga Café the woks have been burning for well over an hour.
We step down from the pavement to the short row of modern shophouses, and are welcomed with a hug from Meeta Sheth, the Mumbai-born owner of The Ganga Café. Every day, except Sunday evenings, she runs the café from 6am until 10pm. When she does an emergency vegetable run, the clock can hit 1am. “I’ve done things a lady shouldn’t do,” she says with a chuckle.
We are ushered into the narrow kitchen that takes up half of the café’s interior. Three of her South Indian cooks are busy preparing their speciality dishes for the day. Meeta rattles off explanations like a well-rehearsed tour guide: over here is the onion curry, which many other places do not make fresh; this is the squash curry – good for weight-loss; that is the spinach curry – because greens are a good source of iron.
THE FORCE BEHIND GANGA
Before I can take note of these anecdotes, Meeta launches into an explanation of South Indian thali, which is commonly served in Malaysia on a banana leaf. The staple items are three vegetable dishes, a vegetable dhal, an onion curry, a spicy sambal, rice, a pappadam and a raw salad. According to Meeta, all thalis have nine similar elements at their foundation. “When we give pickles or smoked chillies, that’s just us using our imagination lah,” she says.
She may sound blasé, but the 47-year-old executive chef admits she didn’t always have a ‘natural hand.’ As the fourth daughter in her family, the cooking was already taken care of by her older sisters; so Meeta was delegated the task of running errands. This legacy is still visible as though we are mid-interview, Meeta has not stopped moving since we began. A customer is greeted as the café opens, she deals with a deliveryman, puts in a word of advice to one of her waiters, and then comes back to finish her sentence.
We learn that after marrying a Malaysian at the age of 21, only then did she inherit the secrets of the kitchen under the guidance of her mother-in-law. “I watched her and I started to follow,” she says, adding that she’s the sort of person to whom, “it has to be now. The thing won’t come tomorrow; it must be done today so you will remember.” A true runner of errands, she gets the job done.
Today, with 27 years of marriage under her belt, three grown children, and a number of years running a food catering business, Meeta has earned her creative license. Meeta complains that since taking over in November 2013, she has dismissed seven vegetable deliverymen. She does not care if these businesses serve half of the KL market; if she gets a bad batch of vegetables they must take it back or they will lose her business.
QUALITY ABOVE ALL ELSE
“Meeta Sheth’s café is renowned for its quality,” she says, placing before us a fresh rava thosai flatbread. Rava is Hindi for semolina, the ingredient that makes rava thosai a low-carb alternative to regular thosai. Quality however, is something of a threatened tradition. “The amount of spices in Indian food is phenomenal,” Meeta continues. “Unfortunately, some people have started putting MSG into their spice mix. It’s so heartbreaking. They think they can make more money, because by using MSG you can reduce the use of spices and the price. The palak paneer may be so ‘wow’, so green in colour; the tomato rice so red – but it’s a fake colour.”
“They don’t know that even with half the spice, you can still do enough to give people satisfaction. MSG is very scary, and its effect – you wouldn’t believe it! I used to get a terrible numbness in my hands, it was so painful, and the doctor said ‘you need to get an operation.’ After Ganga Café I knew it was because of MSG. With no medication it went away, but if I eat somewhere else it’s so painful I cannot even hold a glass.”
Another unique element of this side-of-the-road KL café is the wellbeing of its staff. Meeta lets slip that many restaurants do not provide food for their chefs, making them buy their own lunch elsewhere. At The Ganga Café, the chefs eat what the customers eat at no cost. “It’s for the sake of the food. If the chefs work on an empty stomach, they won’t work the way I want,” she says. “Quality is so important. If I get a new member of staff I say, ‘you work here for a month, and if you are happy you can stay.’”
Meeta’s level of sensitivity is extraordinary, but her philosophy has been earned with hard work. When she first took over The Ganga Café, it was struggling and there were some days when only ten customers would turn up; some days only two. The chefs took a sick day whenever they felt like it and after the first few months Meeta broke down before her husband, “I don’t want this, I cannot do this,” she told him. Her husband replied, “Then you start cooking from tomorrow, and teach them how to cook.” For a year she ran the café on her own. “I was alone, running the café, one person. My customers noticed how good the food was so they supported me. The food came with love, with a positive vibration. People eat, they smile, and they come back again tomorrow wanting more. Dhal doesn’t stay in the body all day!”
FULL BELLIES, HAPPY HEARTS
At The Ganga Café, the food goes down so well we don’t even notice it. We finish our morning medley of mainly South Indian dishes – the North Indian cooks make the naan, chapati, and other a la carte offerings – and we don’t feel bloated, which is testament to the quality of the food. From deep within a satisfied belly, a smile rises to the surface with ease.
Meeta is a follower of Jainism, a religion from the Indian subcontinent that promotes ahimsa, or non-violence towards all living things. Her vegetarian diet and good treatment of her staff are all branches of her devotion and so is her food. Waving a hand to indicate the newly arrived morning regulars, Meeta says, “Their blessing is my religion. My customers look at me, and they just bless me like there is no tomorrow. They are happy after eating.”
We too walk out refreshed. Our bodies feel light. And we realise that good food is not just about good ingredients – it’s about the hearts of those who make it.