Hush Supper Club Quietly Reveals Spicy Secrets

by Sarah Henry on August 14, 2011 · 12 comments

in bay area bites,food businesses,food events,global cuisine

geeta hush supper club
Photo of Geeta courtesy of Hush Supper Club

What’s a former World Bank worker doing running a secret supper club? Meet the accomplished amateur cook who goes by the name Geeta and hosts the Hush Supper Club in her Washington D.C. home. This summer, Geeta brought Hush to the Bay Area, where she served up culinary storytelling along with vegetarian Indian food.

Geeta grew up in Chicago eating the food of the Gujarati region in northwestern India. Her family followed the dietary restrictions of people who practice the ancient religion known as Jainism, a vegetarian cuisine that prohibits eating root vegetables that can’t regenerate on their own (think potatoes, onions, and garlic). Well, there was that brief period when her father, worried about his children’s ability to assimilate in America, took them out to eat hamburgers for a year or two. But otherwise, Geeta told me, she’s led a meatless life.

Around three years ago, Geeta’s mother became ill and she worried she might lose her (she’s well now). But at the time, Geeta was struck by the fact that if her mother passed she’d take with her all the recipes to the food Geeta grew up with. She vowed then to learn the food traditions of her family and to master the comfort dishes from her family home.

Now in her late 30s, Geeta recently gave up her World Bank job traveling to Africa to devote much of her time to educating people about the food traditions of her culture and the stories behind these classic dishes.

Her Supper Club’s are popular in D.C., where word spread quickly. Prominent media coverage in The Washington Post and on Rachel Ray’s blog has helped.

hush supper club table setting. Photo by Pam Rutter
Hush Supper Club. Photo: Pam Rutter

In late July she held a Supper Club in a friend’s home in The Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. Hush came to San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and Oakland’s Jack London Square in early August. Geeta spoke with this reporter while she was in town.

What can attendees expect at a Hush Supper Club event?

I think of it more as a salon than a trendy underground dinner.There’s a playfulness to these salons, a sense that people can be kids again. I want to challenge the hipsters who aren’t bothered to get bothered (or involved) with something. We’ll start with a cocktail, which allows people to get the “What do you do?/How did you get here?” questions out of the way. I don’t socialize with my guests at this stage, I like them to get to know each other, as it’s often strangers coming together.

I like to keep it small; 12 is ideal, sometimes we’ll have up to 16. The more intimate the better. The evening typically lasts four to five hours and the suggested donation is $75.

Why did you start the supper club?

For three reasons: One, India is on the move and I wanted to tell the story of my people and my culture. Secondly, before there were celebrity chefs and fetishized food, there was just food and the stories behind the dishes we eat, and I want to continue that tradition. And three, as someone who likes to tell stories, I like to question people’s assumptions about culture and provoke them to think through food.

What are some misunderstandings about the Jain diet and how closely do you follow the food regimen?

Some people think we don’t eat dairy, but yogurt is a big part of our diet. It gets kind of complicated with the food rules but essentially we don’t eat any plant that can’t regenerate itself, which is why tubers like potatoes are off limits, as well as garlic and onions. When I traveled to Africa a lot I found myself eating eggs, which is a big no-no in the Jain world, but I needed to find protein sources. As a rule, Jains don’t drink, but this Jain likes a cocktail.

What’s on the menu this weekend?

We’ll probably start with a saffron-cardamon infused cocktail. Since it’s summer I’m thinking mangoes. Mango lassi, of course, but also mango soup which is savory. I’ll do a chaat making demonstration. I’ll probably serve a chana chaat (chickpea snack), which is the quintessential Gujarati street food.

We’ll have dhokla (steamed lentil-and-rice cakes), a chana masala, and a classic corn dish, with green chili, coconut, and raisins. Maybe some okra.

And then falooda, a cooling, creamy, rose-scented dessert with basil seeds and gooey noodles, that you mix all together. It has this wonderful perfume. Chai, of course.

Have you noticed differences in the dinner conversations in the D.C., Chicago and Bay Area Hush Supper Club events?

In D.C., since so much of Washington life involves international travel, you can literally verify headlines at dinner parts with people just back from Uganda and Iraq. I challenge people there not to ask “What do you do?” In Chicago I suggest people find something else to talk about beyond the bears, bulls, cubs — in other words sports. Here in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of talk about the food and food culture, so I encourage guests to mix it up.

What are some of the signature flavors in your cuisine?

Common spices used in Jain cuisine include saffron, cinnamon, cardamon, chili, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. Fresh herbs include cilantro and mint and curry leaves in the winter. We get a lot of protein from chickpea, lentil. or bean flours. And we use yogurt in our flat-bread doughs.

spice sacks

What’s the secret ingredient in your spice box?

The mystery ingredient is hing (asafoetida) which is a pungent garlic-like flavoring and a digestive aid, known for its anti-gas properties, as my mother likes to say.

What’s next for Hush?

I’d like to write a memoir about my food and culture, and my experience sharing it through the supper clubs. I walked away from a life at the World Bank for a spice box. But that kind of entrepreneurial pluck is respected by my people.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra August 15, 2011 at 8:28 am

Love the idea of supper clubs. If I did not have so much on my plate (Could not resist that one!), I’d start a supper club on Outer Cape Cod. Got to get myself some hing. Is it easy to find at spice shops?

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Sarah Henry August 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Yes, hing should not be hard to come by at a spice shop. Or you can always order online. A supper club on the outer cape sounds lovely, Sandy. Go for it — in the off season, maybe?

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Jeanine Barone August 17, 2011 at 9:20 am

Here in NYC I attend a lot of supper clubs. I love them. And it’s always nice to hear about one focusing in on ethnic cuisine, which is not the case for the ones here in NYC.

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Sarah Henry August 17, 2011 at 9:51 am

Interesting, Jeanine. Curious to know what the NYC supper clubs you attend do focus on, culinary-wise.

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Sheryl August 17, 2011 at 5:31 pm

This idea is totally new to me. I wonder if it’s just done in cities, not out in the sleepy suburbs?

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Sarah Henry August 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I’ve been to something similar in rural West Marin. I think underground supper clubs can happen anywhere, it just takes a community to get it started and spread the word.

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MyKidsEatSquid August 17, 2011 at 5:57 pm

There’s nothing like this in my area, but it reminds me of how friends gather for supper just to get together–it seems like an extension of that anyway. We have friends who just moved here from Mexico and they’ve promised me to teach a few dishes from their region. I cant’ wait.

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Sarah Henry August 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Definitely take ‘em up on it, MKES. And then return the favor with some all American dish in your repertoire.

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amee August 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm

What a great post, Sarah! We grew up in a Jain family as well, although for us potatoes, onions, and garlic are not off limits, but it is common. There’s a restaurant here at a local temple (Kalachandji’s) and they make only Jain food and the food is AMAZING…the variety and flavor you can have without onions and garlic is incredible.. If you haven’t had good chaat, you MUST go get yourself some. there’s nothing like it out there. it’s just a wonderful mess of mad stuff. thanks for sharing the interview. hope all is well with you.

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Sarah Henry August 17, 2011 at 8:11 pm

So you were raised Jain but root veggies were okay? I didn’t know that was possible. You’re full of great info on the Indian food front, Amee. Look forward to sharing a supper with you somewhere some time soon.

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Jane Boursaw August 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Ooh, a secret, spicy supper club. Sounds like a blast. Love the spice photo.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Five New Images from The Hunger Games

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Vera Marie Badertscher August 24, 2011 at 11:11 am

I hope she writes that book–I’d love to read it.

I think my stomach must be part Jain, since it won’t let me eat onions.

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