For as long as she can remember, Sapna S. has been in love with food. When the Mangalore-based medical practitioner isn’t attending to patients, she is sifting through her mother-in-law’s diaries or roaming the Karnataka countryside in search of authentic recipes from her native Bunt cuisine.
Settled in the region around Udupi and Mangalore, the Bunt community is particular even today about how it prepares its food. “They prefer to use grinding stones, whole spices, plenty of coconut milk, and plenty of vegetables in chicken and mutton preparations,” says Sapna.
Lost flavours: (from top) At the ITC Grand Central, Mumbai, Kulsum Begum of the Salar Jung family cooks only recipes handed down by her ancestors; bangude masala fry served by food expert Sapna at the Bunt festival in Delhi; and chefs at Soma, Grand Hyatt, used clay pots and sand to replicate the cooking methods of the Thar. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Proud of her culinary heritage, she was only too happy to help organize a festival dedicated to the cuisine at the Fire restaurant at The Park, New Delhi, late last year. “Chef Bakshish Dean, a friend of my brother-in-law, came up with the idea and they got in touch with me,” says Sapna.
Tables are going local with a vengeance as upscale Indian cuisine restaurants, previously restricted to butter chicken-biryani staples, compete to serve authentic regional food from Kashmir, Kerala (Moplah), Karnataka (Bunt) and sundry other dusty stops in between.
The Lalit, New Delhi, alone has organized 16 festivals of regional Indian cuisine over the last two years—from the standard-issue Punjabi, Mughlai and Awadhi to the less famous Rajasthani and Malayali to the virtually unknown, such as Himachali and Bundelkhandi. At the Flavours of India festival hosted by the hotel this February, Himachali food shared the limelight with Kashmiri and Punjabi cuisines. It was the rare occasion when the Himachali bhaturu ( chapatti made of fermented dough) was not overshadowed by its deep-fried Punjabi brethren.
“Himachali cuisine is a confluence of three cooking traditions—Kashmiri, Dogri and Punjabi. But it’s simpler, the masalas don’t overwhelm. It’s healthier too—a lot of dahi (curd) is used,” says K.P. Singh, master chef, Indian cuisine, The Lalit. It scored in its similarity with Punjabi cuisine. “It is not radically different from the food that you get everywhere in Delhi. So even conservative eaters liked it,” Singh adds. One of the popular dishes was rajma ka madrah that looked like your regular kidney bean staple, except that the madrah was made with yogurt and cooked overnight.
If familiarity was the key to the success of the Himachali festival, an earlier one themed on Maharashtrian food played on the novelty factor. Komri chicken (a Kolhapuri dish favoured by the Marathi manoos) or baida paratha—classic comfort food made with leftover chapattis and eggs—may be standard fare in Maharashtrian homes, but in the Capital they added a dash of the unusual.
Rather than dedicating a significant part of their daily itineraries to the hunt for ghar ka khana (home-made food), middle-class Indians are learning to savour local flavours while travelling. This is forcing restaurants to innovate. “Even about a decade ago, food at restaurants and food cooked at home were completely different. Chefs used to make one basic gravy with lots of onion, tomato, garam masala, cream, etc., and add it to every possible dish. Aloo gobi tasted the same as chicken masala. Now that won’t fool anyone,” says Shivanand Kain, Delhi-based senior executive chef, Jaypee Hotels.
True to original: (above) Maliyawala murg, a Bundelkhandi smoked chicken dish flavoured with mahua; and chefs Naruka (left) and Rehman ensured the authenticity of the Awadhi spread at Fire, The Park, Delhi. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Chefs at Jaypee’s Paatra restaurants, which focus on “cuisine from Lahore to Amritsar”, are sent on research trips to the two Punjabs. A dish that appeared on the Paatra menu after one sojourn across the border is kunna gosht, which Kain learnt in Chiniot, near Lahore, in Pakistan. The authenticity of Paatra’s Amritsari chhole kulche is vouched for by Sucha Da Dhaba from the town that lends the dish its name. “This dhaba sells only chhole kulche. So we decided to get the owner over to train our staff,” says Kain.
Chefs are scouring big cities and small towns for local ingredients, digging up half-forgotten recipes, cajoling wizened khansamas (chefs) to part with their secrets and even peeking into the kitchens of housewives to see what’s cooking—all with the happy result that food which was lacking in cool quotient till recently is finding itself on five-star menus.
Like the Bundelkhandi festival at The Lalit, New Delhi, in January last year. The cuisine from this semi-arid region makes up for lack of variety with its wholesome homeliness. Pronob Barua, executive sous chef at The Lalit Temple View, Khajuraho, says north Indian ingredients such as cashew, cream or ghee play only bit roles in Bundelkhandi cuisine, which makes extensive use of pulses such as toor and various kinds of flours (lapshi), a dessert, is made with water chestnut flour. The influence of Rajasthani and Bengali cuisines is evident. Dishes such as lochai (puris )similar to the Bengali luchi or bafla (boiled and fried dumplings served with toor ki daal, like the famed Rajasthani dal baati churma) are testimony to lines blurring between culinary traditions.
Food has also become a great leveller, resulting in Rajasthani nomad cuisine finding its way to a plush luxury hotel. In late 2008, the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai hosted a Khad food promotion, where the nomadic style of cooking was recreated. At Soma, Grand Hyatt’s Indian restaurant, a sandpit was heated with coal and pots of marinated chicken, mutton and quail were buried in the pit. This cooking method took 4-5 hours; chefs started cooking for dinner at 3pm.
At Mumbai’s ITC Grand Central, festivals are a highlight of the hotel’s culinary calendar. A recent Bohri festival focused on the cuisine of this small Muslim community whose members are predominantly found in Mumbai and parts of Gujarat. The cuisine focuses on dry items such as “cutles” (the Bohri way of pronouncing cutlets), and dishes such as dal gosht (dal ) cooked with mutton to make a wholesome meal) and dabba gosht (mutton cooked in white sauce, macaroni and mild spices).
The ITC Grand Central has a database of clients who are informed of their various festivals. “Our Bohri clients came in large groups. Not everything is made at home these days, so entire families came for the festival to sample their delicacies,” says executive chef Bhaskar Sankhari. The hotel also has another devoted group of followers—members of the south Indian community. Their hero at Grand Central is 80-year-old chef Rajan, a master chef who started his career 30 years ago with the Chola Sheraton in Chennai. Regular guests often schedule their stay at the hotel depending on chef Rajan’s availability.
He recently hosted the Amudu Padai festival, which in Tamil means spreading the nectar of the gods. It replicates the royal cuisine of the erstwhile states of Tamil Nadu. Kings used to have feasts for their courtiers or subjects and it was like prasad given by the king. “It was uncomplicated, simple food that focused on indigenous and seasonal ingredients,” says Sankhari. So a predominance of coconut, varieties of chilli, rice, ghee and jaggery was used. Sankhari says residents from Matunga, a south Indian stronghold in Mumbai, flocked to the hotel for the festival.
Kulbhushan Talwar, operations manager, Mosaic, Noida, says the key to Mosaic’s festivals is “home-made”—instead of trying to jazz up dishes whose hallmarks are simplicity or understatement, the chefs follow the original recipes. To ensure they get it right, Mosaic gets experts from outside. So if it was veteran Lucknavi chef Ghulam Rasool who designed the menu for its Awadhi festival in January, a Rajput lady who lives nearby was asked to help out for a festival on Rajasthani food. Her presence meant that the gatta curry, dal baati choorma, mutton bhootha or laal maans served at the festival tasted as they would in a Rajasthani home.
The Rajasthani version of even a staple north Indian dish such as the kadhi-pakoda tastes very different from, say, Punjabi homes. “The Rajasthani kadhi is milder; the curd used is not as thick. With so much variety even for staple dishes, it’s necessary to have someone on board who has intimate knowledge of the food,” Mosaic’s executive chef Vipul Mathur says.
Chef Naren Thimmaiah from Karavalli restaurant at the Gateway Hotel in Bangalore makes an effort to delve deeper into the cuisines of Kerala and Mangalore. “We have conducted three food festivals in the past year and I realize every time that people are now prepared to explore and don’t shy away from experimenting,” says Thimmaiah. The most recent 10-day food festival in February was of Syrian Christian food from central Kerala. “Through some regular customers we learnt of Suja Zachariah, a homemaker whose friends love her cooking. So (we) invited her here to guide the food festival and she gladly agreed,” says Thimmaiah, adding that food served at the festival was not tweaked to suit palates but was presented exactly the way Zachariah would make it for her family.
“On a regular day at the restaurant, we add some coconut milk to Kerala food and sometimes a little sugar to the Mangalorean food so as to not overwhelm diners who are not used to spices,” he says. He points out that this was not the case at the festival, which was a huge hit mostly because of the tharaav roast (duck roast) and meen vevichathu, red fish curry in a watery spicy gravy.
Thimmaiah has in the past year also organized a Mangalorean food festival and a Moplah (Kerala Muslim) festival for which he invited Umi Abdullah, who was introduced to him as a household authority on the cuisine.
“Authentic” is Awadhi chef M. Rehman’s calling card too. The Lucknow-based Rehman has been researching the courtly cuisine for close to a decade and heads a team of khansamas who have been practising their craft for generations. At his insistence, Fire restaurant, where Rehman helped organize an Awadhi food festival in February, installed a cast-iron tandoor brought from Lucknow for the breads and kebabs. “If you don’t have the right tools, you don’t get the right flavours,” he says. A philosophy Fire seems to endorse wholeheartedly. For its Naga-themed food festival some months ago, the restaurant sourced the hot Raja mirchi from Nagaland.
Rehman’s point was underscored by the perfectly done parathas Fire served during its Oudhi Jahaan festival, which made an effort to focus on the less-known dishes of this regal cuisine. For instance, the sheermal, the famed sweet bread that is served in Delhi eateries such as Karim’s, is a Mughlai dish, says Rehman. “The Awadhi version isn’t sweet,” he adds. Also on offer was the gilafi kulcha which, according to Rehman, signifies the unique synthesis of a royal repast with the food the khansamas had. It’s made with two kinds of dough, a base of lean dough of curd and flour topped by a ghee-enriched dough, and was usually what the royal chefs dished up with leftovers from their master’s meal.
Among Grand Central’s gems is Kulsum Begum, who belongs to the Salar Jung family—once very close to the seat of power in the princely state of Hyderabad. She only cooks from recipes handed down by her aristocratic ancestors, and this cuisine is not available anywhere else today, not even in Hyderabad. Kulsum Begum’s creations are different from Hyderabadi food—they have a touch of Andhra cuisine. There’s a large focus on seasonal produce and eating according to the seasons and weather. Kulsum Begum doesn’t remember eating vegetables or fruits out of season. “Dry fruits are hot so (they’re) eaten only in the winter, never in summer. We used to eat watermelon only in summer because it cooled your throat and chest. Sitaphal (custard apple) was eaten only after Dussehra. Even if they appeared in the market before that, we were not allowed to eat them. Mangoes were eaten only after the first rain shower,” she reminisces.
The dishes she creates today stay true to these old rules. In summer, a predominance of sour flavours and ingredients is used. Ambada (small sour leaves) and small raw mangoes were some of the seasonal ingredients she used for a recent festival which heralded the coming of summer.
Another factor helping the cause of regional cuisines is the rising awareness about lifestyle diseases. The everyday food cooked in Indian homes has little in common with the ghee- and butter-laden elaborate concoctions listed in the “Indian” section of menus. So the young and the diet-conscious are trying out healthier options, giving simpler cuisines with subtle use of spices such as Bundelkhandi or Bunt an edge over their richer, more renowned cousins such as Punjabi, Mughlai or Awadhi.
Mathur says chefs have been forced to adapt even these cuisines. “Mughlai and Awadhi dishes were traditionally cooked in animal fat. That’s unthinkable now. We don’t even use too much ghee these days. For our Shaam-e-Awadhi festival this time, while making a kakori, chef Rasool, whom we got as a consultant from Lucknow, kept brushing away the fat. He used papaya instead to act as the binding agent.”
As another concession to changing tastes, chef Rasool went easy on low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-rich ingredients such as cashews and substituted them with the healthier alternatives of almonds and curd.
With inputs from Pavitra Jayaraman.