Eating my way through India

A chef travels 15,000km for amazing insights – and some rather unpalatable ones


Photographs: Courtesy Thomas Zacharias
Photographs: Courtesy Thomas Zacharias

The travel bug is far deadlier than I had imagined. After my culinary jaunt through Europe in the summer of 2013 (read more here), I came back to India refreshed, recharged and brimming with energy. Soon after I settled back into my regular routine, I was itching to get back on the road, travelling and eating my way across the land. This time it would be in more familiar territory: India.

My learnings during the four months in Europe were immense and, in retrospect, indispensable in developing menus at the European kitchen I was running in Mumbai at the time. But, somehow, I suddenly felt disconnected with what I was doing. Here I was, so deeply in tune with the nuances of various Mediterranean cuisines, but so out of touch with the food of India, my homeland. Ironically, it had taken me four months of travelling through 36 towns and cities in Europe to realize how ignorant I was of our own country’s vast and varied cuisines. Armed with newfound vigor and an equal measure of guilt, I left my European kitchen and set out on a mission to explore as many regional Indian cuisines as I could.

By the time I set out on my India food trip, I had harnessed considerable culinary contacts across the country. That, coupled with the power of social media, helped me crowd-source not just suggestions and advice in each place I visited but also allowed me to connect with people who could give me deeper insight into local culture and cuisine.

In Coorg, I spent a few days with Nimmi Chengapa at her beautiful homestay called Elephant’s Corridor. Nimmi generously shared her knowledge on Kodava cuisine and taught me how to make dishes like paputtu (a super light, steamed rice and coconut cake) and kaad maange (wild mango curry), convincing me that there’s a lot more to Coorg than just pandi curry!

During my travels in the northeast, a friend connected me with Naga chef Joel Basumatari, who runs a restaurant in Dimapur. Joel took me on a gastronomic expedition of his hometown, opening my eyes to dishes made with bamboo, smoked pork, multicolored corn, frogs and beef intestines, which I couldn’t possibly have experienced on my own.

In Tuticorin, near the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, I reconnected with a college friend, Anjana. After a fun evening exploring her family-owned saltpans, she introduced me to their ‘night clubs’: late night roadside stalls that serve kothu parotta, a spicy mash-up of flaky, fried parathas, eggs, onions and the previous night’s leftover chicken curry – perfect food for a drunken soul.

Travelling in India was a little more difficult to execute compared to Europe. I couldn’t find any guidebooks that properly documented regional food in India, and getting from one place to another was either expensive or inconvenient. But what India lacked in accessibility, it more than made up for in sheer diversity. And in that regard, my food experiences during this trip were far more revelatory than the Euro-trip ever was.

I remember queuing up outside Jani Farsan in Surat before the break of dawn (try their famous Surti Locho, a kind of chaat I’d never tasted, made with a steamed mixture of chickpea paste and chutneys. I found out at a military hotel in Bengaluru that the Kannadigas make an excellent masala preparation of boti or goat tripe, which could very easily stand up against an Italian tripe stew.

And then there were the markets! In every place I visited, I was able to find amazing local ingredients that seldom make it to restaurant menus. Drumstick (moringa) leaves in Hyderabad, silkworms in Dimapur, peppercorn leaves in Guwahati, koorka or Chinese potato in Kerala, chhurpi cheese and fermented soybean in Gangtok, aam ada (mango ginger) in Kolkata to name a few.

My food travels were by no means exhaustive but they were quite extensive. From deep down south around the backwaters of my home state of Kerala all the way up to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and from the plains of Gujarat to the hills of the North East, I covered 15,000 kilometers.

However, it was rather upsetting to see that while home cooks from an older generation were very rooted to their own cuisines and took pride in them, local restaurants seldom did. It was sometimes easier to find western food in restaurants than local cuisine. This wasn’t the case during my travels in Europe. There, one could quite easily find seriously good local grub, both traditional and modernized with integrity. The chefs and restaurateurs in these places continuously explored the depths to which they could take their native cuisines.

I’d like to believe that such a reverence for one’s own food existed in India too. But somehow, over the years, we’ve forgotten or ignored it. India has such an abundance of culinary wealth both in terms of cuisines and ingredients that remains to be tapped.

Our food is as diverse as our people and our regions. In Kerala, where I grew up, the cuisine changes dramatically from one part of the state to the other. The Arab-influenced moplah cuisine in the northern part of the state contrasts starkly with the European-influenced Syrian Christian cuisine in the south. Coastal Kerala boasts an abundance of seafood dishes while in the interiors of the state, meats like beef, pork, duck and quail are more popular.

Fate would soon bring me to work with chef Floyd Cardoz at The Bombay Canteen, a restaurant that celebrates the regional diversity of Indian cuisine. Our restaurant, coupled with several other outstanding eateries in the country, is now making wholehearted efforts towards a revival of Indian food. Perhaps, for a true appreciation of our cuisines, more of us need to take to the road and travel to the far corners of this incredible country to see and taste for ourselves.

When he’s not on the road in search of the best markets or the most popular local dives, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.

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