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In May, Mumbai-based chef Thomas Zacharias quit his job as executive chef of Olive Bar & Kitchen in Bandra and took off on a 45-day food tour of India, chomping his way through 21 cities and towns, feasting on regional staples, home-cooked meals and street-food favourites, even sampling a few wince-inducing local delicacies.

His whirlwind trip—consisting of quick pit stops in Mysore for the original Mylari dosa, Surat for the Surti locho and Agra for its prized petha; longer home stays at a coffee and spice estate in Coorg and at a friend’s home in Kolkata; and medium-sized guided food tours of New Delhi, Amritsar, Shillong, Dimapur and more—was a lot like an Anthony Bourdain-style quest to devour all the culinary specialities and oddities of our land.

Except, Zacharias guarantees, there were no cameras rolling during his food safari and there is no book deal in sight. The travelling is a part-research and part-passion project, Zacharias explains, to prepare for his next restaurant, Bombay Canteen, by New York-based celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz, best known for his win on the third season of Top Chef Masters and for successfully helming the kitchen at contemporary Indian restaurant Tabla on Madison Avenue in the US for over a decade. Bombay Canteen, designed to “celebrate the food and ingredients of India", will launch at Kamala Mills in Lower Parel, Mumbai, towards the end of the year.

Though Cardoz encouraged Zacharias to take up the tour before the opening of their new restaurant, Zacharias says he had been planning such excursions even before he took up the position of executive chef at Bombay Canteen. In fact, the 28-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate says culinary travelling isn’t new to him at all.

Just last year, he trekked across 36 cities in France, Italy and Spain as part of a four-month-long food expedition to sample first-hand the cuisines he’s been learning and cooking for the past decade.

“This trip (across India) happened as a result of a combination of determination and serendipity," says Zacharias, who worked at the Michelin three-star seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin, in New York before moving to India in 2010. “During my travels in Europe, I was overwhelmed by this guilt of not having explored various regions of India and their cuisines. So I committed to myself then that I would make it happen. I didn’t realize my next sabbatical would present itself so soon but it just made perfect sense to travel now, especially since I had the time in between jobs to do it."

Another advantage of the pan-India tour following the European trip so closely, Zacharias says, is that he now has an aptitude and a discipline for travelling just for food. Skipping most sightseeing attractions to visit local markets, dining at the most popular restaurants, street-side stalls, and digging out hidden gastronomic gems at every stop requires both dedication and compromise.

To tackle the uphill task of reaching those pockets of the local culinary landscape that are usually out of reach to travellers, Zacharias has also mastered the art of crowdsourcing his itineraries. Throughout his 45-day trip, Zacharias used his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages for tips, leads and suggestions from friends, family and fans.

Unlike the European trip, Zacharias was forced to break up his tour of India into smaller regional legs, using Mumbai as a base, because of the large distances involved. Abroad, it was also much easier to include multiple home stays, thanks to Couchsurfing.org, and working stints, though Zacharias says he managed to snag time with a couple of home cooks in Coorg, Kolkata, Shillong, Dimapur and Guwahati.

The first leg of Zacharias’ sabbatical started with a couple of days each at the Elephant Corridor home stay in Coorg, and at a friend’s family owned salt pans in Tuticorin, with short detours to Mysore to sample the Mylari dosa at the Hotel Original Vinayaka Mylari, and to Bangalore for quick tastings at military canteens. In Coorg, Zacharias cooked a few traditional Kodava meals alongside Nimmi Chengapa, the owner of the 20-acre Elephant Corridor homestead, who happens to be a friend of his mother.

Zacharias admits that disclosing his motive for tours often results in access to live demonstrations and family recipes. For instance, in Coorg, Chengapa showed him how to rustle up an authentic pork curry and master the paputtu, a fluffy steamed rice cake made with milk.

On a separate trip to Kolkata a few weeks later, a friend’s mother and expert home cook, Iti Misra, hosted him and treated him to masterclasses on Bengali dishes like daab chingri, freshwater shrimp baked with the flesh of tender coconut in the coconut shell; khosha bhaja, a dish made entirely from leftover peels of vegetables like potatoes, pumpkins and gourds; and doi begun, fried brinjal slices cooked with yogurt.

In Tuticorin, Zacharias visited “nightclubs, or makeshift street-side restaurants with strange signboards featuring photographs of lusty-looking lips, specializing in kothu parotta, a spicy mince of fried bread, eggs and meat.

He returned to Mumbai with a bottle of sea salt packed right at the source on a midnight run to his friend’s salt pans.

On one trip Zacharias made short stops—at Surat, to sample the famous Surti locho, as well as snacks like khandvi, pattice and sarasiya khaja at Jani Farsan; at Vadodara, to try the butter-loaded omelettes at the Raju Omlet Centre, during a drive to Ahmedabad to hunt for an authentic Gujarati thali experience and the best of street-food snacks. In Ahmedabad, Zacharias used his crowdsourced tips to sample the extravagant thali spreads at Vishalla, a village-themed restaurant, and the Gordhan Thaal as well as a more basic thali at the Gopi dining hall; dabeli at the popular Shreeji Dabeli Centre; a traditional jalebi-fafda breakfast at Oshwal; and golas at Bhavgir Sharbatwala. He returned to Mumbai before flying out to Hyderabad for the famed biryanis at Bawarchi, bheja roti at Shadab Hotel, and multiple versions of haleem at restaurants like Sarvi and Hotel Niagara.

In New Delhi, Zacharias enlisted the help of his friend, Saransh Goila, a popular TV chef, and food historian Pushpesh Pant for a citywide street-food darshan (tour) before leaving for a road trip with his college roommate to Amritsar, Agra, McLeod-ganj, Shimla and Chail.

While Zacharias was visiting most of these places for the first time, he admits that Amritsar was a particularly important stop for him. This is not only because “Punjabi khana is one of the most widely misrepresented cuisines in the country", but also because growing up in Kochi, he had very little access to the real thing. Highlights from his Amritsar stop include Amritsari kulchas with chhole at the nondescript Chungi Kulchewala, a homely thali at Kesar Da Dhaba, and lassi at the Ahuja Milk Bhandar.

Zacharias says it was a real challenge to sample local fare on his stops in Himachal Pradesh and the final leg of his journey to the North-East. “Certain parts of the north, like McLeodganj and Shimla, cater primarily to tourists, hence finding restaurants that serve local cuisine took a lot of searching, sometimes in vain," he explains. “The only place in Himachal where I sampled any local food was at the tourism department’s restaurant called Ashiana, where out of the 105 dishes on the menu, only five were actually representative of the state’s own cuisine."

In Nagaland, Zacharias hit another hurdle—for the first time in his life, he stumbled upon a type of meat he simply couldn’t get himself to stomach. “I’ve boasted that I’m the kind of person who can eat absolutely anything for the last several years," he says. “This was until I reached Nagaland and saw dog carcasses on display at the local market. I guess since I’ve had dogs as pets, psychologically I just couldn’t get myself to take on this delicacy."

Still, Zacharias says, the favourite parts of his tour of Shillong, Dimapur, Guwahati and Gangtok were fiery dishes made with assorted offal, and trips to the local farmers’ markets, where he spotted produce like coloured corn, plenty of sticky rice varietals, wild mushrooms and herbs, otherwise hard to find in cities like Mumbai.

Zacharias says that he’s already spent over 80,000 on his travel, 25,000 on just food alone, but his pan-Indian tour is far from over. He’s already plotting visits to Rajasthan and Goa. To find out where he travels to eat next, you can keep a tab on his Instagram feed. After all, his itinerary could very well be the menu you’re served at Bombay Canteen.

Follow chef Thomas Zacharias @cheftzac on Instagram and Twitter.

Also Read | Chef Floyd Cardoz: Back to the future

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