Slow is catching up, slowly!
By Anoothi Vishal
Good, clean and fair”, eco-chic, locally-sourced and traditional cuisines find a firmer footing within Indian restaurants—long after trending globally.
Terra Madre, Mother Earth Day, is still some time away (that’s in December) but even on Earth Day (this month, April 22), it is fitting that we spare some thought to what is increasingly becoming an overriding concern on Planet Food: Slow Food — “good, clean, and fair”; the opposite of “fast”, cooked using traditional methods and ingredients grown cleanly, traded in fairly by producers and consumers. It seems like an obvious proposition, only it isn’t.
Ever since it was kick-started by Carlo Petrini in Rome, in the mid 1980s, the Slow Food movement (initially, a response to the McDonaldisation of the world, championing traditional ways of eating) has been garnering steady support from different quarters: chefs, activists, farmers and diners themselves.
In recent years, “slow” has steadily become a red hot fad too—with everyone from the world’s top luxury restaurants to chefs at the culinary cutting-edge, pop-up planners in forests and fields, hosts of foraged lunches and ladies-who-lunch, all espousing the philosophy. Every April, for instance, sees a fair bit of these activities all over the world based on such ideas of sustainable eating. And, now, gastronomy in India too, it seems, is waking up to the magic words — even if they may leave some of us who’ve always bought our veggies from the mandi and gur and mustard fresh from the farmers, a wee bit perplexed. But we will come to that.
Last month, an India chapter of the Slow Food chef’s charter (a voluntary collective of chefs who work with the tenets of Slow and sustainable food) was launched in the country and we had a slew of introductory dinners—from Mumbai and Delhi to Shillong (where chefs from 10 Meghalaya tribes prepared a showcase dinner in the presence of Fabio Antonini, a leading Slow Food chef based in Amsterdam)— to ostensibly spread the idea of using locally grown, fresh ingredients in menus based on not just regional but “world” cuisines too.
Already, trend-setting restaurants in the country are attempting such specially-crafted menus. At Olive Bar and Kitchen, Delhi, for instance, chef Sujan Sarkar is all set to roll out a nine-course, paired-with-wine Slow Food menu every Thursday, for a limited group of 20, in his studio kitchen. Ahead of its unveiling – first to a bunch of American Express Black Card holders, I tasted the menu and came back impressed not just with its inventiveness but with the sourcing too.
From fermented gooseberry (it’s a 13-day process; hence also “slow” food) with a faux-Oreo (charcoal, cheese and flour cookie sandwiching local goat-cheese) to a palm-heart and “mitti-aloo” (a yam-like tuber) cornetto to a stellar plate with the Kashmiri kalari cheese with morels and walnut-thecha, the tasting menu showcases ingredients from within the country and serves up contemporary cutting-edge food, at par with any modern restaurant in any dining capital of the world.
But what is most striking is the ascribing of origin to each ingredient: There’s “Gayatri-farm” chicken, “4S” buttermilk, “Jaya” rice et al. It’s what you usually see only on international menus —where “Maine” lobster or “Kobe” beef or “Iberian” ham get pride of place. In India, on the other hand, menus may still tom-tom provenance but only of luxury imported ingredients: Australian lamb, North Atlantic salmon…; ironical given the country’s own vast produce.
Part of the problem, of course, has to do with quality procurements domestically. “If I gave you ‘yamuna fish’ on the menu, would you eat it?” asks chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, rhetorically. In Sarkar’s own nine-course menu, there are only three non-vegetarian plates because of the difficulty in getting hold of steady and quality supply of local meats. “I have been trying to get sting ray, but I need to be sure that I will get enough regularly… suppliers overpromise…” he says. That is something all chefs in India battle.
In Italy and other parts of Europe, agrarian economies combined with this new global barometer of hipness means that provenance plays an important role in selling plates. There are both enough small producers of craft cheese, meats, organic growers and fisheries and enough chefs sourcing their ingredients from these to provide top-of-the-line dining experiences. The scale of what’s available for chefs (as well as individual consumers) to play around with is, in fact, bewildering. At the 10th Salone del gusto in Turin in September last year, I was witness to an almost endless array of European hand-crafted agri-products; all “special”: From Cevrin di Coazze, a rare raw milk cheese (only produced between March and November and aged for a minimum of three months, it melts in your mouth like hazelnut cream) from the Sangone valley to fried olives from Marche to the niche granular Modica chocolate… Almost 1,200 exhibitors showed off their wares and offered tastings of such artisanal products.
This focus on micro-regional and often heritage ingredients may be part of the Slow Food network in Italy and southern Europe, but in other parts of the world these are getting equal recognition with local gastronomy in general being the incredibly chic trend ruling kitchens—much more than, say, what dazzles us in India currently: molecular gastronomy.
For a while now, modern cuisine all over the world has been increasingly focussing not just on technique but quality and provenance to define itself as “cutting edge”. Scandinavian cuisine, for instance, is bed-rocked in local gastronomy—elk, ants and all. As is everything else from Australian to Californian. It is not enough to suspend belief with the magic realism of liquid nitrogen.
What is considered chic may, in fact, be something that takes you back to basics. Brothl, in Melbourne, is a much-touted venture by eco-enthusiast chef Joost Bakker. It is a restaurant devoted to only broth—produced by using unused bones and offal from Melbourne’s top restaurants (that are named). The recycled ingredients are stewed in rainwater — from Monbulk, a nearby town (notice the attention to provenance) for 48 hours to create Joost’s sustaining and sustainable broth!
If that is an extreme example, what is fairly regular now in most top gourmet regions is chefs devoting time, attention and resources to things like their own vegetable patches or bee hives (for rooftop honey). They are also carefully hand-picking farms and working alongside farmers to give you the freshest in your glass or plate. In fact, anyone associated with luxury dining is working this trend—including airlines. British Airways, that I travelled recently, for instance, makes it a point to tell you that all ingredients in its club class menu are responsibly sourced, including fish from Marine Stewardship Council-certified sustainable fisheries.
In India, on the other hand, such things are hardly easy. We may have a huge biodiversity but the pressure on the land means that traditional (and often sustainable) farming practices come few and far between and are thus expensive.
Also, “while we may grow the best tomatoes in Gulbarga, the best lime in Rangpur or the best hapus in Ratnagiri, most of these is exported and there’s hardly any available for the domestic market”, points out Chef Manu Chandra of Olive Bangaore, The Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar. Chandra, who, in his understated way, has worked with local ingredients, incorporating the likes of bathua in soups, cholai, local cucumber and amaranth in high-end dishes, serving Lakshwadeep yellow fin tuna, Kerala beef carpaccio and local mozzarella in his Med-led menus, talks about the challenges of sourcing the best Indian ingredients without necessarily becoming elitist.
Chefs can trawl the local mandis for seasonal indigenous produce or invest in teams to work out credible supply chains “but only very few small, chef-led restaurants can do this”, he points out.
The new trend of young, foreign-educated or hobby-turned-professional farmers working with organic or sustainable practices has helped upscale restaurants source their requirements (including for foreign vegetables and herbs) but because these are necessarily small-scale farms, prices are quite high. You can see some of these producers at the also trending farmer’s markets in Pune, Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and other cities. But like F&B professional Kunal Chandra, who studied at the Slow Food International’s university in Bra, Italy, adds: “The point is also to make things accessible to regular users and not just high-society ladies… in Italy, we once bought an entire crate of damaged tomatoes for just one euro at a farmer’s market and made sauce for pasta for three months… we need things like these in India.”
Actually, India does have them. Much before the advent of the fashionable farmers’ markets, the mandis, omnipresent in almost all Indian towns, including the metros, served that function of being the authentic interface between growers and consumers. Because of the lack of storage facilities and limited organised retail, they, luckily for us, still abide. It is simply a question of rediscovering them.
At least the Indian consumer seems to be rediscovering a taste for the local, over the aspirational imported. And it extends to not just ingredients but cuisines too. Some of the hottest restaurants around these days are neither luxury nor foreign-cuisine driven. Instead, they present traditional food in different guises. Café Lota in Delhi, overwhelmingly busy every day of the week (you are sure to run into at least three people you know, if not more, it’s become such a buzzing hotspot), serves up bits and pieces of pahari food, UP kathal ki biryani, Assamese and Kerala style fish curries and more. There are other casual restaurant chains, all attempting Indian regional cuisine, from dabeli to berry pulao in younger formats.
In Kolkata, chef Joy Banerjee of Bohemian uses local, seasonal ingredients to do his version of Bengali-fusion, while there is also The Bombay Canteen’s chef Floyd Cardoz, visibly working with a larger vision of creating an internationally chic restaurant with Indian ingredients, flavours and techniques.
Catering services like Caara in Delhi and restaurants like The Table in Mumbai also work with fresh and local ingredients (the later sources much from its owners’ farm in Lonavala) and have made eco-chic dining a new trend.
Finally, there are corporate behemoths taking an interesting new direction too. ITC hotels, for instance, has recently mandated all its menus to have colour-coded dishes categorised as “local”, “forgotten grains”, “heart healthy” and more. All the seafood is colourcoded too to represent fish that you can choose but that may be endangered, overfished, or freely available. “We leave the choice to the customer, but at least it is a process of education,” says Chef Manisha Bhasin.
All this seems to be part of the larger philosophy driving F&B experiments at the chain, whose corporate chef Manjeet Gill is one of the biggest proponents of Slow Food in India —from the whole wheat amal naan at Bukhara to field-fresh mustard used in the new “Mewati” cuisine incubating at the Grand Bharat, where chefs in fact have been going to local farmers to buy their mustard and to village shops to buy other groceries from the region.
Meanwhile, at Olive Delhi, Sujan Sarkar now has a list of 160 ingredients that can be reliably sourced from local producers and used in his menus. He also has a dedicated chef to research these linkages. With so much invested in going green-chic, Slow is bound to catch up, fast.
The bar-crawl through SOBO’s poshest
By Miss Marmalade
Disclaimer: Advance apologies for excessive use of ‘air quotes’. Reader discretion is advised.
Every now and then, one has to prove that one is ‘happily’ single. And to do that, one has to do ‘single’ things. Go to a nightclub and dance till the ankles hurt because one is wearing heels after a year. Get drunk and stare at an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile picture and laugh because he now looks older than you, and cry because he is holidaying in Crete and you are stuck with shoddy company. Buy clothes that make you look ‘hotter’ when there’s no chance in hell that you’ll succeed.
See the thing is, being single is a lot of work. You're dealing with bad dates that should end before they begin, good dates that won't go anywhere because you're simply unfortunate, and the worst - mediocre dates because you are inching towards 'fine! I'll settle this time'. Plus, you’re constantly suspecting other singles who want to 'de-single' you. Which is why, the most important thing you can do is take a holiday with another single friend, just so you can leave all the shenanigans of romance behind for a change. I did the last one with absolute joy. Actually I’ve done all of the above, but the last one is the least painful.
My Dilliwali friend – let’s call her DF - needed a break too. She didn’t decide that. I did. So I ‘arm twisted’ her to come to Mumbai with me. “Arrey, we will eat and get fat. Drink and get dirty,” I told her. My sales pitch, no matter how sleazy, worked!
Checking into a posh hotel, complete with an absolutely useless bowl of terrarium in the room – actually I stared at it for a really long time and wondered of its purpose in life – and divine soft towels, we planned our ‘gastronomical’ vacay.
First stop was this lovely little joint in Bandra. In fact it is so little, that eavesdropping is almost customary. No one will frown at you if you overhear your neighbouring table talking about their friend’s bizarre romantic escapades. I love eavesdropping – it makes me feel human. I know so much about so many people that I don’t know, that I could start something called ‘wikipeople’.
DF and I gushed over a raw papaya salad for a while, and only because everything else we ate after that was so ‘meh’ that she and I began talking about another restaurant instead. Apparently, it’s rude. The crispy fried pork is the reason I need dentures. And what’s with people adding capsicum to things all the time? It’s like ‘when in doubt, add capsicum’. And there was no daaru to help us forget that afternoon either. But there was no way we were going to let our holiday be ruined by over-fried food.
Comfortably tucked under our blankets in the hotel room later in the afternoon, we decided to that we could do better than that. And better we did.
Bar hopping is always a solution to emotional problems. And you could be a teetotaller too. Who cares? Just walk into a hip bar, order the quintessential lemon soda because most bars in this country consider the simply syrup to be the key ingredient of a mocktail, and watch people. Also eat. Eat so much that you need to be sent home in a taxi later.
But DF and I had ‘posh’ plans.
Bar #1: An evening in a classy new bar means blow-dried hair and lots of lipstick. DF and I looked rather dapper, even if I say so myself, as we made the bartender change her one cocktail only about three times. They simple wouldn’t get it right. I on the other hand couldn’t decide between a whisky and a Bloody Mary, and therefore I had both. Now I love popcorn - how delightfully plebeian you’d think – and can eat them even when it’s flavoured with exotic spices. But some of the other appetisers were more complicated than my last relationship. Now here’s the thing – I love experimenting with food. But I never did well at chemistry. And when it comes to art, I prefer stories, not abstract ‘colour blocking on canvas’ that sells for millions. But a lot of the food, while it tasted good – good textures, flavours, and even portioned right – went wayyyy over my head when it came to the complexity of the presentation. Probably because I was a little too tipsy to notice the little nuances, and we really had to get to the next bar.
Bar #2: Here, my dear friends, ‘haleem’ was on the menu. Now, unless you absolutely trust the haleem maker, you must never eat it after midnight. It’s not written anywhere, but someone ought to. That haleem was the worst I have ever had. And not because it was bad, but because it tasted of, guess what, NOTHING. My cocktail was equally blah, for the lack of a more appropriate term. So I let both of them ‘age’ on the table. DF and another friend, who’d joined us by then, were much nicer to their drinks. The three of us then tottered out in the lovely rainy night of Mumbai – never wear a white dress when it’s raining – because Sia sang Never Give Up. It goes something like this: “But I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no. No, I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no.” You get the drift right?
Bar #3: WHY? Why would you have a cocktail menu where the drinks have more description under their names than one can read? And why would these cocktails taste like a bad film where the lead actors should have never been paired together? Something like a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar flick. This is when selfies come to the rescue. Take enough photos of yourself so that the trauma of having to drink something more complex than the Cold War is alleviated.
Tottering outside at a godforsaken hour, we went back to our hotel room, feeling so delightfully single.
We also switched to diet soda the following day, and ate a cheese platter and stir-fried crabs – like posh people – at a lovely restaurant at one of Mumbai’s suburban business districts. That’s when DF and I realised that many restaurants don’t want you to pay for what you eat. We tried all sorts of gestures – except the obvious one – to ask for the bill. But no, these blokes were completely unwilling to oblige. Ideally, I would have walked off, but we aren’t in college anymore. Why is the service industry in this country as efficient as our country’s civic workers?
We also decided not to eat like that again. I don’t know about DF but my whole enthusiasm towards “let’s eat and get fat” had gone a bit far. And now I am munching on carrots and celery sticks and wondering what to wear to rather weird date tonight. More on that later…
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our new humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to both food and people)
In which Miss Marmalade makes toast of a youthful breakfast/pub/who cares place
By Miss Marmalade
There are a few places in town one should not even think of going to after one has crossed 30. I only wish that this thought had come to me before, and not after, I was already at a place that I should not have thought of going to, now that I am way on the wrong side of 30. This sentence ought to confuse you as much as it confused me when I wrote it. If it hasn’t, you have achieved inner peace. Congratulations.
Now ideally it would require a cranelift to get me out of the house on a Sunday. I keep the day for my domestic chores, and they are sacrosanct. For instance, not making the bed; ordering in coffee when it takes me only five minutes or so to make a mug; watering both my disgruntled plants and going back to bed; skipping breakfast; ordering lunch; binge-watching murder related things on the internet. I don’t always do these alone; there’s always another equally committed soul around to share these tasks.
But last Sunday was different. Firstly because I was going to check out a place everyone was talking about – mostly for its ambience – and secondly, I had made the plan four days earlier, and was threatened of dire consequences if I cancelled. Some of you might know how that feels. This joint’s other brothers exude a cool and funky vibe. And I wanted to be cool. The drinks are mostly rubbish, and the food makes little sense to me. Except for their cheese chilli toast. But it’s a place where you can hang out at without having to worry about your clothes. Plus the beer is cheap, and I have cheap friends.
So there I was, with my ultra-intelligent and ultra-single friend at this seriously pretty restaurant. Or is a café? Or a pub? Oh, who gives a damn. It was eleven in the morning, which typically would still be Saturday night for me. But I had promised. I also realised that once in a while one has to be mature enough to make exceptions. Plus the thought of bacon, scrambled eggs, crisp toast (I am quite allergic to gluten) with jam, and other delicious and forbidden things were as tempting as Tom Hiddleston. I got to the restaraurant/café/pub (GAH!) as fast as my Uber perennially-on-the-phone-driver could take me.
Dear chef, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not breakfast. Unless I order yoghurt with various exotic fruits and berries and seeds, or cereal with cold milk, or something similar.
Toast cannot be cold.
Scrambled eggs cannot be served at room temperature.
Bacon cannot be cold. Most definitely not. No way Jose!
But you chose the one day I lugged myself out of the house to remind me that I had reached my threshold for BS five years ago. And I truly am way on the wrong side of 32. They didn’t warn you about us at culinary school, did they?
Having said that, I have to give it to them for making hash browns the way I like it, because I don’t like hash browns. And the baked beans came out of a tin (hurrah!), and the scrambled eggs hadn’t yet begun to turn rubbery because the eggs were feeling a little slow that day, and probably also because bacon said: “Hey, it’s my turn to taste like cardboard today!”
The toast looked toasted, but tasted like it was done the previous afternoon. And they forgot the butter, and when they eventually did remember (after I reminded them twice), they gave the butter and jam in the same little dipping bowl. Together.
“This is a place for the youngsters. They don’t care if a tiny drop of jam touches the butter. Don’t be a punctilious b****,” my other self kept reminding me. My friend was blissfully unaware of this ‘breakfast’ that was sitting on the table. He’s the kind you can talk to about politics and art for hours – and I don’t know much about either. This was the only time the chewy bacon came handy. Stuff your face with it and no one cares to know about your political affiliations. He was sipping on cappuccino that, and I kid you not, comes in a goblet like thing whose handle is literally near the base. “The centre of gravity of this thing is all wrong,” he says to me. But I was in no position to respond. My mouth was stuffed with bacon that I had already been chewing for the last hour.
We managed to stay there for an hour and a half – chewy bacon, smoke breaks, waiting for that darn butter for the toast – and got out. I needed a seriously calorific chocolate éclair later from a place near my house to recover from the trauma.
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to food and people)
In a no holds barred piece, chef Floyd Cardoz tells us where to find the best Indian food in the US; and why he thinks restaurant in the “West” generally do a better job than Indian restaurants in India!
By Floyd Cardoz
When I moved to the US in 1988, the only good Indian food you could eat out was the dosa. I didn’t see any of the Maharashtrian or Goan Catholic food I had grown up on. It’s ironic that over the years the expression of Indian food in NYC only became all the more bastardised. It was the same saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, and theone-pot curries that were being adapted to fit many dishes. And that practice continues even today.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I never wanted to start an Indian restaurant back then.
There were a few exceptions though. The erstwhile Raga by The Taj group, at Rockerfeller Centre had incredible food, for instance. It’s not that the chefs and cooks who came to work in the US in the first place didn’t know anything about Indian food – they were knowledgeable - but replacing them was arduous. And then immigrants, who were primarily famers and truck drivers started to work at the restaurants. Most of them had never cooked before, and the game of Chinese Whispers with recipes began. That led to guests who had practically no clue about about good Indian food. A wide gap developed between those who loved the cuisine, and those who didn’t. And therefore were probably more haters.
In 1997, Danny (Meyer) asked me to join hands with him to open the Indian restaurantTabla. It was an opportunity for me to introduce a new perspective to the cuisine, and to familiarize people with the flavours of India – one that was not really Indian per se, but had an Indian soul. We began to give Americans the food they hadn’t eaten before - Patrani Machhi for instance - and not the 6th Street (also known as Little India) versions. And these dishes were presented in a way Americans could connect with. We sourced local ingredients, and not ingredients only from India.
In fact, what I am doing today is sourcing farmers in the United States who are willing to grown Indian ingredients in the seasons they are supposed to be grown in the US – squashes and greens for example.
When Tabla closed in 2011, I thought someone would take over the work I had started and continue to cook food that was user friendly, but nothing happened. Smaller places came and went, and we reached status quo. Indian food went back to its good old place, and no one was willing to take a chance. But the most interesting part is that American chefs were all the while travelling to India to explore our amazing cuisine.
Americans are adventurous, and they are willing to try. Of course there are still those who go back for the curry and kebab, but a lot of them are now eating new dishes not seen in the West - fish reachado, sorpotol, pao and choriz for instance – things they’ve never seen anywhere else.
To me, modern Indian food (and I use the term loosely) is all about looking at food differently. Really old recipes that you pull out, ones that people haven’t really seen, and execute it with ingredients from that region, and serve it in a non-traditional way. For instance, you should be able to eat multiple small plates, such as a pakoda, balchao, and kebab, so that you can try more dishes. Traditional Indian food was not like that in the US – it was all about big dishes.
There are quite a few chefs here that are doing a good job with the cuisine today. There’s Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar at Oxford, Mississippi; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in New York, Asha Gomez (owner of Spice to Table, and Third Space) from Atlanta, and Srijith Gopinathan at Taj Campton Place, and Vikram Vij in Vancouver – all these guys are doing great things with Indian food.
Now if you look at Indian food back in India – I find that the chefs in the West do a much better job. There are of course a few chefs here who are doing good work too. They bring the knowledge and passion on to the table – something that’s extremely important. But restaurants in the West believe food should first speak to the soul of the guest, instead of trying to shock them. Very few chefs in India get the fact that it’s important to consider all the important elements in a dish. Chefs in the US are much better at balancing all the right flavours.
Restaurants in India use a lot of smoke and mirrors; it’s almost Bollywood-isation of the cuisine. But chefs who are successful connect with the soul, and it takes a lot for them to break down the barriers and say, “I have the guts to do things differently because I believe in them”. That’s what we wanted to do with Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. Our vision was simple; serve food we had grown up on, and source local ingredients. That’s what makes restaurants special.
Over time Americans have come to understand that Indian food is not just about flavour but also about health benefits. Take the turmeric drink for instance; it’s quite the rage here.My journey in this business has been a big learning curve. Today I am unafraid to present what I want to, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
And to get there, passion is key, at least nine out of 10 times. You just have to cook from a place within your soul.
Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American Chef, is the Culinary Director and Partner at The Bombay Canteen, Bombay. He is also Chef –Owner of the recently opened modern Indian restaurant ‘Paowalla’, in NYC. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 3 in 2012, Floyd is also the author of two cookbooks, One Spice Two Spice and Flavorwalla. A four-time James Beard Award nominee,Floyd regularly works with Share our Strength, City Harvest, C-CAP: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, and Young Scientists Foundation.