The creative force behind Smoke and Lime Supperclubs, Sohini Banerjee, is weaving her Bengali roots into the UK’s culinary landscape and cooking up a storm as a private chef, food club host, and consultant. We chat with her in this candid interview.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your journey and Supperclubs?
I’ll start with hello, I guess! I’m Sohini, and I’ve been running Smoke and Lime supperclubs with my partner (in food and life), Rijul, for a little over 5 years now. I was born in Kolkata and spent my formative years there before my family moved to the UK. Despite two decades in England, Kolkata continues to hold a special place in my heart. I’m drawn to the city’s rich tapestry of food, art, dance forms, music, literature and general atmosphere. I fell in love with cooking food through the love and mastery my mother (and her mother in turn) showed towards the cuisine. It felt like a very organic progression from starting out experimenting with family recipes, to one day (years later) setting out the first Smoke and Lime supperclub table.
The supperclub is a safe space to enjoy food that hopefully evokes nostalgia in some, and sparks intrigue in others. We open up our home to 10 diners, sharing one table, with a new menu as often as I please. You can find classic Bengali technique and poise, with my own spin on things to reflect my own journey to the other side of the world. The aim has always been to be comfortable but exciting and make sure you’ve eaten enough to have the best sleep afterwards.
What inspired you to focus on no-waste cooking, and how does it shape your culinary philosophy? Are there specific flavors, techniques, or cultural influences that define your cooking?
I honestly can take no credit for this! My grandmothers, and my ancestors before them, had to make use of every morsel of food they had to make ends meet during leaner times. I guess that has sort of become ingrained in our culinary identity. It has led me to exciting places in the kitchen and has trained me to look at each piece of produce in new and innovative ways as second nature.
In terms of specific flavours, my food will regularly feature the more delicate flavours of mustard oil, green chillies, ginger, poppy seeds and Bengali panchforon (five spice) but will just as readily feature sambol, gochujang, miso or a homemade chilli oil! It depends on what the dish calls for, and all of these interloping “foreign” ingredients add depth and complexity.
Broadly speaking, I’m influenced by the diverse history of produce cultivated in Bengal, food migration into (and out of) Bengal over the centuries, as well as the two predominant culinary “traditions” in Bengal – Ghoti and Bangal food. These are too rich and complex to explain in a few words so I’ll save this for another time!
Can you share some examples of creative dishes that minimize waste without compromising on flavor?
My go-to no waste dish at the supperclub is a “patha bata”, a.k.a. pasted leaves. Think of it akin to a pate type of chimichurri. This uses the leaves and stems of any seasonal vegetable (typically cauliflower) and I add things like onion and garlic skin, plus whatever else I feel like adding based on what is “waste” from other dishes. This helps me reduce my cooking carbon footprint and I do honestly believe that all parts of any vegetable are edible too! The magic is the depth of flavour you can get out of roasting the leaves to a wonderfully caramel crispiness, then tempering mustard oil and blending the two together. Sometimes I use confit garlic or fried garlic, or sometimes fresh chillies. It truly is the sort of cooking that makes me love food and is so typically Bengali. It always goes down a treat! And it’s very simple. It’s how we eat at home as Bengalis.
Any anecdote or particular experience in your journey that has had a lasting impact on you and your approach to cooking?
From my formative years, it was actually my Habu (my own word for my grandfather, as I couldn’t say “dadu”). He was a trendsetter in many ways, particularly in his love for cooking and making aachar (pickles). I distinctly remember how he would go to the market for long red chillies, before bringing them home to clean them, de-seed them by hand (no gloves!), stuff them with moshla (spices) and dunk them in mustard oil, after which they would sit gathering the sun’s rays on our South Kolkata rooftop terrace. That taste is my north star when it comes to pickle making and his standard remains the one I aspire to reach one day. He passed early in 2020 and I still have the last batch of his lonka’r aachar (chilli pickle). I miss him dearly.
And to fast forward a bit, to more recent experiences: among my first forays into the supperclub world was meeting, and briefly working with, Asma Khan back in 2018. She showed me through the success of Darjeeling Express that Bengali food has a place in London’s food scene, and that was an early catalyst to set me on my current path. Moreover, she has shown that there is a place to tell our food stories with pride, in a way that compels people to listen to us. I think that’s so important. I was privileged to count Asma as a guest at the first ever supperclub I hosted.
What is your favorite comfort food and is there a particular reason?
Easy. Ghee, bhaat (rice), aloo sheddo (mash potato, Bengali style). A little bit of salt and a squeeze of lime, and I’m home. It’s just so satisfyingly starchy, and the slight zing of fresh mustard oil and green chilli in the aloo sheddo balance things perfectly. Add some homemade acchar for the ultimate cosy food hug. I am a fan of all things magically simple and homemade. I have never felt that sort of comfort from takeaway or junk food.
What’s on the horizon next for you – personally or professionally?
I have a couple of events in the lead up to Christmas, and then I’m off to Kolkata in January for a couple of months of pop-ups and supperclubs there! I’m super excited for this, as I’ve always wanted to see how my food and flavours translate in the city that made me. I want to create a sense of community wherever I go. So, I am a little reluctant to open a physical business and instead create a brand associated with me, regardless of the country or city I am in.
I want to develop a sense of home for my guests, where they can relax, feel comfortable, and converse about food. I will continue to work freelance in cooking, creating and consulting for neighbourhood businesses and creating cosy supperclub experiences in London once I return from India in Spring. On a personal note, I want to take more time to relax and absorb things around me a little more. While living in London, it’s hard to slow down and tell myself to take it easy, but I also don’t want to be creatively burnt out!
What advice would you give aspiring chefs just starting their culinary journey?
Don’t let your qualifications (or lack thereof) stop you from making your food for people. There is absolutely a place for the Cordon Bleu-trained, French-skilled chefs that predominate in professional kitchens. But professional kitchens aren’t the only environment you can cook in.
I learnt through trial and error, and my roots are my guide. I have undertaken no formal training but have never felt the lack. So my advice would be cook, cook and cook some more: beyond honing your skills, it allows you to develop a food identity and an individual relationship with food in a way that more formalised training may not.
If you were to invite the blahcksheep team over for dinner, what would be on the menu?
I would absolutely start with my doi phuchka for that instant flavour bomb and hit of Kolkata flavours. The tamarind, black salt and spicy aloo stuffing make it the best starter to any meal! Although it’s hard not to eat multiple and get very full! There would have to be some sort of homemade focaccia, aachar and butter on the menu, as this is how I started my food journey. By putting together a plate that not many would find comfortable whilst reading but find comfort as soon as they’ve had a mouthful. Followed by a pungent mustard oil dish featuring a seasonal vegetable and drizzled with a poppy seed paste.
I’d have to also feed you my sriracha and sambal gnocchi – blasphemy for Italians – but I am an NRI and grew up eating desi pasta and this is my ode to that. Spicy, tangy, creamy and something wildly addictive. And yes, I make my own gnocchi.
Finishing off with a bhapa doi (a Bengali staple) with a dark chocolate spiced ganache and perhaps some puff pastry. I’m writing this and getting hungry. I am the sort of chef who cooks according to seasonal produce but also my mood. I find it hard to run the same menus again and again because, to me, food is about feeding my guests but also feeding myself! So all of the above is currently what I feel like eating!