Besharam announced late Saturday night that they are temporarily closing their doors. The note on Instagram read in part, “Partial dine-in and takeout dining has proven not to be enough to sustain the industry and continue to pay our staff fair San Francisco wages.” SF Weekly spoke with Chef Heena Patel over a week ago, before she and her team made the decision to close. On September 8, Patel will demonstrate how to make malai kofta in an online cooking class.
Chef Heena Patel reveals three essential things about herself on the menu at Besharam.
Growing up as a Hindu vegetarian, the cooking is, as she describes it, “veggie-centric.” Secondly, Patel was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and her flavors reflect that region. “When I was young, I never realized how the flavors back home were so balanced with the sour, sweet, salty, and spicy,” she says. A restaurant specializing in regional Indian, vegetable-forward cuisine isn’t that novel. What distinguishes Patel’s approach is that ineffable third ingredient — her culinary imagination.
For example, she has an atypical take on the samosa. Instead of that familiar bite of an encrusted creamy potato, Patel has dreamed up a fusion dish: a kimchi samosa. Explaining how she arrived at the recipe, Patel says it was born from her love of kimchi and ramen, which she didn’t have access to while growing up.
Besharam’s menu reflects Patel’s knowledge of cooking, her journey to San Francisco, and her personal evolution. But it specifically represents the kind of food she prepares at home. Patel simply wanted to eat pickled cabbage with her samosas.
“I do wake up in the middle of the night thinking about food,” she says. However, it wasn’t just a passion for satisfying her personal cravings or inventing new recipes that urged the chef to apply to La Cocina’s restaurant incubator program. When she was in her late forties, her daughter asked her a piercing question, “Mom, what do you want to do with your life?” Patel teared up at the time because, “It was like, what the eff? Why didn’t I ask this myself?”
Patel realized it wasn’t too late to pursue a new vocation. After being accepted into the program at La Cocina, she was encouraged by the reaction people there had to her food. As she was developing her business plan, Patel found a sense of purpose. “I’m very hungry for what I want to achieve. I’m not scared of long hours or working hard.”
One of the first things she learned at La Cocina was to write down the recipes that you want to make. “I knew how to cook,” Patel recalls, “but I had to take lessons about how to write a recipe.” She remembers that when she was growing up her mother, aunts and grandmother never wrote recipes. “They are very proud of what they cook but they also do not like to share [the recipes] because that’s what they have to show off,” she says.
A note on the restaurant’s website defines the Urdu word “besharam” as, “shameless… often used in South Asian culture as an insult, a label for a woman who dares to do things not considered ‘respectful’ or ‘appropriate.’” At this stage in her life, Patel is embracing her talents rather than doing what was expected of her. “Since I was a child, I felt like my life was set as soon as I was born, and what I was supposed to do,” she says. With Besharam, she’s entirely self-determined.
When the restaurant opened in 2019, Patel set the tone. “I want to give my guests what I like to cook, but also I want them to have the experience of hospitality. I am welcoming you into my house, how we eat at home and how we are.” The chef is justifiably annoyed when the subject of offering meat dishes on a veggie-centric menu comes up.
“I do get a little angry when there’s the perception that I don’t know how to cook lamb chops,” she says. “We never ask a chef who eats everything, ‘Why do you have so many vegetables on your menu?’” Even though she’s still a vegetarian, Patel says she knows when a chicken is juicy or dry. “I want to showcase my ability to cook and give customers something tasty.”
“I want people to try chicken marinated with Indian basil, tulsi,” she says proudly. “My coconut sauce is so light and flaky. I want them to have that with lamb.” Patel also adds that her husband eats everything so she cooks meat for him at home.
With all of the challenges that the pandemic has brought this year, Patel says she feels like she’s relaunching a second time. She knew that the to-go menu was never going to be sustainable. And even though business improved with the return of outdoor dining, she wasn’t making enough to cover the high cost of running a restaurant.
It’s unclear how long Besharam’s closure will last and in what form the restaurant will return. However, in addition to the virtual cooking class Patel is teaching on Sept. 8, you can try your hand at making her muthiyas (squash dumplings) at home by following the recipe below.
1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco
— 2 lb. shredded and squeezed out juice of Opo squash
— ½ lb. Handvo flour (lentil flour)
— ¼ lb. rice flour
— ¼ lb. besan (chickpea flour)
— ¼ lb. corn flour
— 3 tbsp. minced serrano chilies
— 2 tbsp. minced Garlic
— 3 tbsp. ginger juice
— 1 tsp. turmeric powder
— ¼ tsp. asafoetida
— 2 tbsp. lemon juice
— Salt to taste
— 2 tbsp. Sugar
— 1 tsp. ajwain
— 4 ounces chopped cilantro
— 4 ounces sesame seeds
— ¼ tsp. Asafoetida
— 1 tbsp. mustard seeds
— 4 ounces chopped green onion
— 4 ounces chopped cilantro
— 4 tbsp. vegetable oil
— ¼ cup coarsely chopped parsley
— 3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
— 2 ½ tbsp. minced garlic cloves
— 2 tbsp. oregano leaves
— 2 tsp. crushed red pepper
— ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
— Salt and pepper to taste
In a food processor, combine all ingredients. Process till smooth. Add salt and pepper. Transfer sauce to a bowl and pour oil over the mixture. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.
— Place flour in a pot first then add all ingredients. Mix well.
— Meanwhile, set up steamer. Roll out muthiyas in the shape of rolled bread. Put in a hot steamer and cook for 20 minutes or until the toothpick comes out clean.
— Cool down and cut them in rounders.
— Heat oil in a pot. Start with mustard seeds and add all the rest of ingredients. Toss muthiyas with the spices.
— Arrange muthiyas in a bowl. Serve with chimichurri sauce.