Esther Jasper is a home cook and baker who started a small catering business almost twenty years ago. If you’ve visited Kingsley, and enjoyed one (or more!) of the delicious nibbles that circulate there, you have Esther to thank for them! Her array of cookies, cakes and other goodies are always a delightful interlude to your Kingsley experience. In a conversation with Aneesha Bangera of the Kanakavalli Journal, Esther traces her food journey; from baking experiments with her mother, to cooking up a storm for her children and their friends. She believes that the most important thing about cooking for others is to evoke feelings of familiarity and joy. Soft-spoken and gentle, Esther is always smiling, and is always draped in a beautiful sari - the garment she’s most comfortable in. Her warm and down-to-earth personality shines through in her delightful curation of kanjivarams for January’s Vignette. Excerpts of the conversation below…
Food for the Soul
Tell us a little about how you first fell in love with baking and cooking.
I think my interest in cooking and baking began with me watching my mother and grandmother – both of whom were wonderful cooks. When I was in college, I used to help Amma plan my sister's birthday parties (she's 13 years younger than I am!) and we used to do all kinds of different cakes and snacks. When I got married and had children of my own this interest carried on, especially with their birthday celebrations which I really enjoyed putting together. I love to try new recipes, and the fact that both my kids love to eat really motivated me to look beyond the boring affairs of everyday cooking. And now my son has discovered a passion for baking! He's more adventurous than I am, and is always experimenting and innovating with baking. My catering business began around 15 or 20 years ago, in a very small way. I used to make dinners for Sangeeta, a friend of mine, for a few months, and she told me I needed to start doing this as a profession. She introduced me to some of her friends, and then I met Ahalya; since then the business has kept me quite busy. I now do the weekly cakes and cookies at Kingsley, as well as starters and snacks for all the events.
Who or what have been your greatest inspirations in your life as a caterer and chef?
My grandmother is perhaps my biggest inspiration when it comes to cooking – it was something she did with great love and care. Growing up, I used to enjoy baking, but I never really learnt much in terms of everyday cooking. When I got married and moved away, I realised how little I knew, and I would run to my grandmother with question after question about recipes and methods. Almost every recipe I use today is originally my grandma's, especially in Indian cooking. So, everything we eat at home reminds me a little of her, and of what I grew up eating with my family. Recently I've also been watching cooking shows and reading books by Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten – two of my favourites.
What are some of your favourite dishes to cook and to eat?
I really like to eat! My tastes are quite varied, but if I had to pick a favourite I'd have to say I love our Indian cuisine. A hearty chicken or mutton gravy, with rice and vegetables – something we often have at home – would be my go-to meal, both to cook and to eat. I do also enjoy a pasta or lasagne but if I had to choose, I'd definitely choose Indian. I'm also very fond of desserts, especially fruit-based ones like cherry pies and panna cottas. I'm not the most adventurous person when it comes to eating though, and I'm a little wary of some cuisines that I'm not familiar with. For me, food is about comfort – and sometimes the most simple meals are the most satisfying.
When you cook for people, what is it that you want them to feel or experience through your food?
When I cook for someone, the thing I most want is for them to enjoy it and to feel as though they are eating at home. That experience – of familiarity and joy – is most important to me, I think. It's not about getting praise or compliments, or creating exotic and elaborate meals, but about ensuring that the person who is eating your food leaves feeling truly satisfied. Food is such a multi-sensory experience, evoking various feelings and memories through taste and smell and texture. And for someone to really enjoy eating the food I prepare is truly meaningful for me as a cook.
What foods evoke memories for you? Could you share a few experiences?
I'm originally from Yercaud, near Salem in South India, and while growing up we used to make a lot of trips to Chennai. Amma would always pack lime rice or curd rice with a delicious meat fry. And my father would stop somewhere en route, find us a tree to sit under, and we would have a lovely little picnic of our own, before continuing on our journey. These are special memories, and eating that kind of simple but wholesome homemade food always transports me back to my childhood with my family. More recently, my children Ashmitha and Aditya regularly had their friends over while they were in school and college. Cooking for them and watching all of them enjoy the food was another really satisfying experience for me. I would make desserts or lasagnes and pastas which the kids loved, and watch them devour every last bite! Now, with Ashmitha away in Delhi and Aditya busy with his job, and their friends all over the world, I often sit back and fondly remember those times. Watching my children and their friends enjoy my cooking is a memory I cherish.
Do you think that beauty is an important aspect of your work, and if so, what is its role?
Yes, I do believe that food has to be beautifully presented. Creating a dish with balanced flavours and tastes is one aspect, of course, but I think that it also needs to look appetising. You can't have a messy looking dish, however tasty it might be. Presentation is also a reflection of the care and attention to detail brought to the cooking, so yes, beauty is very important in the business of food.
What does the sari, and the kanjivaram in particular, mean to you?
I have worn saris ever since I finished school, every single day. I come from an extremely conservative family, and we weren't allowed to wear anything else. It's only in the past two years that I have started to wear salwars and kurtas, but I'm still not very comfortable in them, and I feel very conscious. But in a sari, I'm completely comfortable; it feels natural to me. The sari has always been my garment. I'm very used to saris now, but I also think they are beautiful textiles. The kanjivaram is one of the most elegant drapes, I think; traditional and exquisite.
What's the story behind the Kanakavalli sari that you've chosen to wear for the Vignettes shoot?
The sari I'm wearing is one that I bought for my daughter Ashmitha's wedding, and it's one of my absolute favourites. We did all the sari and jewellery shopping for the wedding with Ahalya at Kingsley, and it was a wonderful experience. I really enjoy wearing this kanjivaram, and every time I wear it, it's much appreciated by everyone. It also has a lot of memories for me, reminding me of the wedding and of how Ahalya helped all of us choose our saris, putting everything together so elegantly for us.
Esther is wearing a gorgeous kanjivaram in a shade of deep magenta, with fine mustard stripes across the body, and a simple mustard border. The pallu in mustard shot with black has delicate gold bands, highlighting the simple elegance of the layout and the palette. As is the nature of kanjivarams, age mellows the silk, giving the sari a rich ad supple drape.
Esther has shared a quick and easy recipe for sweet puttu arisi (sweet red rice), one of her favourite sweet dishes and a Friday special at Kingsley, and she hopes you'll try making it!
1 cup puttu arisi (red rice)
1 cup water
1 cup grated coconut
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sugar to taste
Method: Soak the red rice overnight. In the morning, wash the rice, add salt and water, and pressure cook. After two whistles, turn off the flame, and let it cool. Add grated coconut and sugar, and serve.
- Esther Jasper, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant
Explore Esther's Kanakavalli curation here