Meet Your Neighbor: Anamika Khanna
By bayareadesi team on 21 Jul 2011
Anamika Khanna, a British-born, lawyer-turned-mother-turned-chef & partner of Kasa Eatery in San Francisco. Anamika's been cooking Indian food since she was a little girl growing up in London and India, Kasa is her vision of Indian food with a broader audience. They have got accolades from local media and numerous awards. She has also written a children's book “The Mischievous Monkey ”, teaches cooking classes in SF and a good poker player. Get to know Anamika as he talks to our team on all things bay.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you come to bay area?
Born in London. Only child to a very strong independent single parent mother. Studied in the hills of India (Panchgani) at boarding school from the age of 6-12yrs. BA in Law and Anthropology from the London School of Economics. Trained as an attorney and worked in London as an attorney until 2000. After a five year stretch of being a stay at home parent, opened Kasa Indian Eatery with my business partner Tim Volkema and husband Suresh Khanna.
I moved to the bay area in 2000, when I married my husband Suresh, who is from the Bay Area. I have two amazing children aged 6 and 9. Karam and Jiya.
What inspired you to become a chef? What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
My mum and I were quite financially strapped, so we rented out one of our bedrooms in our two bedroom apartment to a chef from India who had come to try his luck in London. We had the tiniest of kitchens, and he could create the most delicious things and at such amazing speed out of it, I was blown away! I was very young, but was really interested in the process of cooking and knew that I loved it! The dish that I was in love with was Butter Chicken.
What I enjoy most about being a chef is the control and feeling of ease in the kitchen. The ability to lose yourself in an all encompassing task using all of the senses is really appealing to me. I also really enjoy feeding people and making them happy with my food.
Food is a strong way to connect with family, friends and generations past and I enjoy being a vital part of those connections. It's also a way to continually create art with each and every meal.
Name some of your favorite chefs?
I really am a huge fan of home cooking. I don't have too many favorite celebrity chefs. My all time favorite chefs are my aunt, my mother in law, my grandmother, my sister in law, my best friends Sabina and Anu's mums.
I am a fan of Jamie Oliver's relaxed, caring and humble style of cooking. I used to watch his shows as a kid on TV, and then play pretend cooking show host:)
Do you have a culinary specialty?
My specialty is really cooking with bright, fresh flavors and simple ingredients.
Why are How did you start Kasa Eatery? What type of food is available in the restaurant? What’s your top seller?
I started Kasa because when I was pregnant I was craving simple Indian food. I did not have any family right by me and I was on bed rest so could not cook. All the restaurants that I would order from were just too rich, and not hitting the spot. I really wanted simple sabjis and daal with roti. I could not find that ANYWHERE. I missed my cooking and my family's cooking like crazy.
When I opened the restaurant, I really wanted non-Indians to be exposed to true authentic Indian home cooking. I also wanted Indian people to be able to come and eat food they are craving but are too busy or unable to cook for themselves.
Tim and Suresh came at it from slightly different angles. They both love Indian food and wanted to start a place that would offer quick, delicious and affordable Indian food and make it accessible to Americans.
We offer Kati Rolls and Thalis at Kasa. The food is traditional homestyle Punjabi food with an emphasis on rotating Daily Vegetable specials, including eggplant, turnip, okra, spinach, green beans and zucchini.
Our absolute TOP SELLER is Chicken Tikka Masala. It's tender grilled marinated chicken in a spicy tomato sauce. Our customers are huge fans of the CTM Kati Rolls with onions and a little of Kasa's killer hot sauce.
How do you maintain the quality of ingredients and restaurant in general?
We are extremely involved, passionate and caring owners and hold ourselves, our servers and our cooks to very high standards continually. For instance, we only purchase good quality ingredients. Grass fed lamb, all natural chicken and turkey (for our kebabs), locally sourced produce when available.
You also take cooking classes in San Francisco, how & why did you start that?
I love to teach and pass on the traditions of Indian cooking. It's very rewarding to pass on generations old knowledge to a receptive audience. People are also have so many questions about Indian culture, which it is a pleasure to answer.
I often learn so much from the students and many of them are my current customers or become future customers, so it's a great way to connect with Kasa's customers in a small group setting. I am able to share with them to passion for homestyle and simple cooking. I teach periodically at Real Foods in San Francisco and via classes at Kasa itself.
What are the top 5 cooking tips for a novice.
Focus on what you are doing and give yourself time. Don't multi-task whilst cooking when starting out.
Have all your ingredients prepped and ready before you start cooking. Timing is critical in cooking!
Relax and enjoy the process, don't worry too much about exact quantities. It's not like baking.
Start with good fresh ingredients.
How has recession impacted your business?
We opened in a recession, and still really are in one. We are unsure as to what it would be like during a boom time. We try and be frugal and not waste money on unnecessary things.
What are some of the challenges you are facing?
One of our biggest challenges is that a lot of people have stereotypes about what Indian food is. Some think Indian food is unhealthy, heavy, greasy. Or that Indian food is always super spicy. We also have the challenge of introducing people to new dishes they may not have heard of, such as roti, or baingan bharta.
At times people come in and ask for Lamb Korma with Naan, mango chutney and a Samosa. We can only giggle, as we don't serve any of those at Kasa. People can often be mystified as to why an Indian restaurant does not serve these dishes, but we are sincere about focusing on simple, homestyle Indian food.
What does future holds for you?
I don't really enjoy looking at long term future goals. I stick to the immediate future. One step at a time. Enjoying my family and life. With regard to work, it's launching the Kasa Indian Truck next month (now on streets), as well as participating in some great outdoor festivals such as Outside Lands and the San Francisco Street Food festival.
Do you feel bay area locals have been supportive to your endeavor?
Bay area locals have been extremely supportive to our endeavors. We won numerous awards when we launched, including Best Meal Under $15, Best Indian and Best New Restaurant.
The Indian community has also been very supportive. They have been true ambassadors for Kasa, often bringing in their non-Indian friends and out of town family to eat. We get lots of Indian families coming into SF on the weekends to eat our food, and our favorite examples are when regular Indian customers bring their parents in. We usually are able to make the moms feel happy that their sons are getting good Indian food when they're not around!
Kasa really belongs to our customers as much as to us. We are a local, neighborhood restaurant where people can come to get good wholesome food at reasonable prices while feeling proud in introducing non-Indian people to a piece of their culture.
Has being a South Asian affected you in either good or bad way in achieving your goals? Do you feel being in the Silicon Valley accelerated your career goals?
The Bay Area has driven us in a couple ways. Food-wise, being in San Francisco where you are surrounded by excellent food definitely pushes us to our absolute best. This is a world-class food town, and you have to be excellent to survive here.
Beyond the food, Silicon Valley's culture has inspired us to take risks, to start this whole venture and put ourselves completely into fighting for its success. Ultimately, this is a part of the world where even failure can be a badge of honor as long as you are pushing boundaries, and we really feel we are in turning people on to simple, delicious homestyle Indian food.
Are you involved with any other organizations / non-profits? If yes, can you tell your involvement with them?
We work with a number of local non-profit organizations, primarily in the Castro neighborhood. We are a neighborhood restaurant and like to get very involved locally. We do fundraisers with local schools and libraries, sponsor local sports teams and have done fun events with Trikone, The South Asian Film Festival and other local non-profits.
You are also a good poker player, how did you learn that?
I've played cards since I was very young at boarding school and all through college. The game of poker was a natural progression. Texas Holdem to me is the ultimate and most beautiful of all card games. I don't play as much any more, as it is too much of an obsession. I don't want to focus on that for now in my life.
You have also written a children’s book “The Mischievous Monkey ”, how does it feel?
The book was written in collaboration with a dear friend and artist Annie Mathew. We simply wanted to start and finish a project from idea to completion. I also wanted to write it for my children, so that they could have stories and characters from India to relate to. I wanted them to feel comfortable being an Indian child in America, knowing that stories are also written about little brown kids!
What activities you enjoy the most?
Currently I'm in love with Yoga and the Yoga Tree in the Castro is an amazing studio to practice in.
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians, what would it be?
Tip well! We have given ourselves a dreadful reputation in the service industry for being terrible tippers and the most demanding of customers.
You can stay connected with Anamika via