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The importance of community and communal dining

Mr Biryani’s owner chef Govinda Rajan on turning to community during turbulent times.

There’s nothing quite like tucking into mouthfuls of basmati rice and succulent, tender chunks of meat suffused with the heady aroma of spices – lots of spices – after spending hours slow cooking in a massive pot. There’s also nothing quite like sharing said pot with friends and family.

Communal dining during a pandemic might seem a little contradictory – after all, we’re limited to groups of five, and the ever-present spectre of masking up and social distancing looms at the back of everyone’s minds when we do venture out of home. But it’s impossible to refute how important communal dining is to our Singaporean identity.

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Govinda Rajan, owner chef of Mr Biryani, is well aware. Having grown up as sibling number eight in a family of 11, sharing is nothing new for the chef. Nor is communal cooking – grinding spices, preparing ingredients and cooking as a family, were all big parts of his childhood.

“Coming from a big and poor family, giving back to society has always been close to my heart,” he says. “If I have, I will give.”

Chef Govind and the team

Chef Govind and the team

The chef put his words into action throughout the month of August, donating one set of Hyderabadi chicken dhum biryani to a family in need with every order made at his restaurant in Little India. They managed to hit their target of 1,000 donated meals in collaboration with Free Food for All on August 25. Providing these shared meal during the National Day month, he says, is part of his contributions to Singapore.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t face his share of problems during the earlier days of the pandemic. Like most in the industry, he had to adapt quickly to the circuit breaker measures and travel disruptions – including its effect on his supply chain.

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A big part of what makes Mr Biryani’s Hyderabadi biryani, well, Hyderabadi, is the spices. And like many, Rajan faced serious supply chain issues thanks to the travel restrictions. From the procurement of curry powder from Guntur, a city in India, to the availability of ginger, which tastes slightly different depending on whether you’re getting it from Bangladesh or Bangkok, Rajan had to adapt quickly to deliver the same authentic grub day after day.

He also found time to hire a few of his friends from the hotel industry, which ground to a halt once travel restrictions kicked in. Having worked in the hospitality industry since he was 19, he has had plenty of fond memories to reminisce over with new-hires-slash-friends.

Improving on what Mr Biryani offers is a continuous process, says Rajan. When making the transition from hotelier to restaurateur, for example, he didn’t just have to learn about running a business: he had to get up to speed on social media as well.

That, as well as Govinda’s commitment to providing a Hyderabadi experience that is about as authentic as it gets (this side of the border) is part of the chef’s self-described semua boleh (which roughly translates from Malay to everything can do) attitude.

Hopefully, part of that everything includes bigger and better communal feasts – complete with requisite serving spoons and plenty of elbow room – for years to come. After all, in his own words: “Life is better when dining together.”

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