Last year saw many a young and upcoming chef return to rediscovering their culinary roots’ legacies and bringing it back to their kitchen. Is it finally a renaissance for Indian heritage food? Here’s the back-of-the-burner dope on it.
Last year in March, when Chef Pawan Bisht (Corporate Chef, One8Commune) decided to head back to his hometown in Uttarakhand to spend time with his family and live the farm life, it was a rare luxury. Hailing from a family of litchi growers and farmers, Chef Bisht’s first introduction to food was in the orchard that often doubled up as a picnic spot where his aunts and grandmother would cook up a storm with some of the most interesting, in-season dishes. What, however, started as a welcome vacation for the corporate chef who until then would spend nearly 18-20 hours managing the various brands, soon turned into a lesson in not just understanding his Pahari heritage but the legacy cuisine and its finer nuances. “Initially,” recalls the award-winning chef, “I thought, let me learn a few dishes because I constantly crave for them. Then, it was about keeping myself engaged but slowly, it turned into a lesson where I not only began cooking our traditional food on a regular basis, but also began documenting it in any form possible – social media posts, YouTube videos and even talking about it with writers and friends to share what I was learning every single day.”
Such was the fascination and renewed respect that Chef Bisht inculcated over the weeks he spent in his ancestral home, that on his return, the Chhoi native carried not just the ingredients but also some of the utensils that he loved cooking in. Such as the bhaddu, a hand-beaten metal pot that is used for cooking across the state. “The food cooked in this native vessel,” adds Chef Bisht, “tastes infinitely better and richer.” The hard work that the Uttarakhand lad put into learning about his heritage food culture paid rich dividends as he went on to host a hugely successful and widely appreciated Chefs’ Table based on his legacy early this year and also became the culinary spokesperson for Uttarakhand Tourism – and now an expert on the food culture. But for Chef Bisht, his biggest takeaway was the novelty that knowing his cuisine brought with it, in terms of techniques and ingredients such as jhakiya seeds and stone cooking that he now could easily introduce in his kitchens to make food tastier and healthier. “Thanks to that vacation, I have learnt the art of simple cooking and how to use techniques to harvest richer flavours instead of using added flavourings; and the secret of using native seeds such as hemp to elevate a dish’s persona,” says the culinary genius who plans to incorporate more ingredients into his menu on a seasonal basis.
Fascinatingly, Chef Bisht wasn’t alone in his journey of discovering heritage food. Bengaluru boy, Chef Sandeep Sadanandan (Head Chef, Byg Brewski) too had his lessons while exploring the little hamlets of Coorg on a bike. “It wasn’t the first time I had visited the picturesque land of the Kodavas, but this time, thanks to the partial lockdown, I had the will to wade into these old guest houses where I learnt more about the food, the way they used spices for that enticing aroma, about pork, and one of my favourite topics: lard.”
“Lard,” he continues, “which was once a favoured way of making meat dishes today is a dying practice thanks to the array of oils we have. But in few traditional Coorgi homes, it is the ‘secret sauce’ to making finger-licking food. The art of slow rendering the fat to get that sweet caramelisation on the pork that not only cooks it but makes it even better to taste. Those stored fat cubes are brilliant in not just cranking up the flavour profile but the rich gloss of a dish too, especially those made of pork such as the Malnad Pork, Pandi Curry and even the Kerala Beef Stew. But making those lard cubes is something few people know and even fewer have mastery on.”
Another fascinating bit was the way they used oil and spices to manipulate the smoky effect in their dishes – steamed, grilled and curries. Back in his island-style kitchen in Byg Brewski, Chef Sandeep worked to master some of the techniques that he learnt to make his cooking more “taste efficient”. And one of them was the reusing of rendered fat to add that stunning glaze to his dishes. “I wouldn’t say that our Malnad Pork today is better than what we did before; it isn’t, as it is a heritage food recipe that we follow. But with the traditional knowledge learnt first-hand, I now know how to extract more off my meat and do a better dish than before.”
That small but significant transformation as a chef is something Chef Vineet Bahuguna (Executive Chef, Hilton Garden Inn, Saket) has personally experienced too, when he visited his village to garner ingredients and know-how for a special Shepherds Table a few years ago. “As a Garhwali boy who has spent half of his lifetime running around the hills and farms in my home, until then, I thought I knew my food. But that one visit that left most of my family – especially aunts and granny and neighbourhood ladies amused – proved me wrong. The five days I spent getting the ingredients, some of which had to be procured from different villages, gave me a new respect not just for my heritage food and the ingredients, but also made me realise the ace to a delicious dish is not in the number of ingredients but in the way it is prepared. With little resources at my disposal, I had to learn the art by co-cooking every dish, even becoming sous chef wherever required.”
“The payback,” recalls the Garhwali food expert, “wasn’t just the success of the Shepherds Table that is still the talk of the town and not because we ran out of food due to repeat orders, but also because finally I could put them into the special menu for our guests.”
Since then, it has been a ritual with Chef Vineet to spend some of his free days making a dash to the village that earned him his blue stripe as a legacy expert. “Only now,” he says, “I travel to neighbouring towns to learn stories, special recipes and to sample more of what we today call Pahari food.” Luckily, most of the dishes such as Patyud (steamed and pan-fried colocasia leaves tempered with jakhiya seeds), Dal Ki Patudi (pancakes of mixed lentils flavoured with fennel seeds) and Bhatwaani (ground black soya bean pulses cooked for hours and tempered with asafoetida) have found a home in Chef Vineet’s special menu. These are often served to a guest who is looking for something fresh, and is also the chef’s secret stash when it comes to creating a special menu based on a guest’s dietary needs. “The one thing that all these years of learning my heritage food has made me realise is how advanced our culinary heritage is, and how forward-thinking our ancestors were. We have not just one dish but an array of them for people with all kinds of preferences and palates.”
But it isn’t just recipe, ingredients and techniques that have nudged these young minds to explore their heritage food and bring it to their respective kitchens. For many such as Chef Ajay Sahoo (Indian MasterChef, The Leela Ambience Gurugram Hotel & Residences), reinvesting in his Odia roots has also been about learning the art of pairing and elevating food.
“Odisha is among the few food cultures in India where you can still learn the old technique of not just creating wholesome dishes but also ways to elevate it in a manner that is in sync with the modern philosophy of creating those taste-perfect dishes. Take, for instance, our Santula, which is this flavoursome stew much like the ratatouille. A peasant dish, it only takes a few slicing techniques and the use of badi (sundried lentil dumplings) to take it from the commoners’ table to that of a gourmet sit down. Likewise, our desserts such as Khaja is a fine demonstration of how to create layers and the right amount of flakiness, so that it can be paired with our Khiri (kheer). It can even be served as a garnish on a chenna podo (India’s oldest cheesecake) to lend that rich, caramel velvetiness, an element of crunch.”
It is the search of such finer elements that takes Mohali-born Chef Harangad Singh (Chefpreneur, Parat) regularly to explore the nooks and crannies of Punjab, especially the little pinds that were once, says the North Frontier food specialist, “home to the finest innovations when it came to food thanks to the tradition of Sanjha Chulah where recipes, dishes and even knowhow was exchanged as women from the pind came to make their chapatis for dinner”.
“A rare sight today, these places,” continues Chef Harangad, “are still the best institute to know what made the food of erstwhile Punjab worth travelling for. It is here that the famous (now lost) Anarkali technique of making food was developed before it travelled to Multan and became a mainstay of the royal kitchens there. The Atta Chicken and the use of stones to grill was a privy of such places. In fact, the technique of lending of smoke to Parat signature Chole was inspired by one of my travels to Patiala where I learnt the art of making Pindi ke Chole in a tandoor. The other dish that came from travelling to the places which, back in time, were called the countryside, helped us develop the Meat Martaban – a dish that isn’t so much about the meat or rice but the achari masala and the Martaban, a vessel that was once the prized possession of both homemakers and khansamas and the secret to making delicious rice dishes.”