Varanasi: It's nearly lunch time and homemaker Sangya Pandey is busy in the kitchen. An everyday routine for millions of women in India - but there's a difference here. People awaiting food cooked by Pandey are not family or even friends, but guests at a five-star hotel.
While the eating out culture has caught on like never before in India, weary travellers are constantly on the lookout for home-cooked food, or 'ghar ka khana' that offers comfort to the body and soul.
Feeding this particular thought and the fact that home-cooked food is the most authentic representation of a region's cuisine has brought homemakers to the kitchens of the Gateway Hotels and Resorts of the Taj group across India.
And when the menu says "home style food", it means just that.
"The only difference between cooking at home and cooking for hotel guests is that I have to cook slightly bigger portions," said Pandey, a chef at the Gateway Hotels in this Uttar Pradesh temple town.
Pandey specialises in saatvic food - pure vegetarian cuisine devoid of garlic and onion - and has been popular given the ongoing Maha Kumbh Mela in nearby Allahabad, about 120 km away, with devotees sticking to vegetarian food.
"I come to the hotel around noon after my household chores and start cooking lunch. I cook what I want to, depending on the availability of seasonal vegetables. In winter I make gobhi matar, kadhi pakoda and aloo methi," Pandey told IANS. "In summers, the menu will change," she said.
"I usually make food for about 20-25 thalis (plates). Sometimes guests request a particular dish, and I make it accordingly," she added. In general, these homemaker chefs cook about eight varieties on the menu.
If Pandey specialises in vegetarian food, Husna Khanam, another homemaker, is an expert dishing out Muslim home food at the same hotel. Working for about a year, some of the hot favourites from her kitchen include mutton korma, shammi kabab and chicken dhaniya wala. Most of the spices are grounded, just like they would at home, and not bought off the shelf.
The customers are happy.
"When you travel for weeks altogether, hotel food everywhere starts tasting similar. Nice, but rich. The saatvic food here in my hotel here was like a breath of fresh air. It tastes good, is light, and healthy. And my local guide here says it is just the way his wife cooks it at his home - so I have tasted the authentic stuff!" said Sarah Franklin, a German tourist in this temple town.
According to Anup Gupta, the executive chef of the hotel, ingredients like mustard, corn, rice, wheat, fruits and vegetables are grown on the property.
Housewife chefs have a separate kitchen, complete with utensils and a domestic burner, and the tall chef's cap.
Gateway Hotels corporate chef Natarajan Kulandai said the home style food is only on the a la carte and buffet menu so that it can be served "fresh and piping hot".
"We will soon have room service for home style food, which will be in tiffin carriers, just like people take home food to work," the Chennai-based Kulandai told IANS.
In their 22 properties across India, the five-star hotel group has 19 homemaker chefs who cook 17 types of cuisines.
"The hiring of housewife chefs is on a word-to-mouth basis. In Chennai, we found a lady from Trichy who prepares typical Tamilian Brahmin, or Tam Brahm, food, including chutneys and papad. We are on the look-out for a lady in Kolkata who can cook east Bengali food," Kulandai said.
They prefer women with no hotel industry experience.
"Regular chefs come straight from catering colleges and have a tendency to make fancy food. They add ingredients and make it rich to suit foreigners and other guests. We wanted to deviate from this and serve actual home food. We started this concept in 2009 with two hotels in Varanasi and Calicut, and it has been a success ever since," Kulandai added.
The women 'home chefs' are not regular staffers but taken on contracts that are renewed if necessary.