Local ingredients and sustainability are at the top of my list
The one thing Chef Megha Kohli steers clear of—and advises others to follow as well—are fad diets
I don’t know if it was my age or my gender that made my starting years in the food industry difficult,” says Megha Kohli, 28, head of operations and the executive chef at Lavaash by Saby, a popular Armenian restaurant in the capital. Kohli feels strongly about how women are treated in the kitchen and laments the absence of strict policies or guidelines for sexual harassment in the food industry. A recent Instagram post by her describes the anger she felt when someone joked to her about people coming to the restaurant not to eat food but to see her. “If you think about it that way, not much has changed. In an earlier job, there was another officiating male chef with me. And whenever he would correct people, they would listen. If I would ever correct them though, they would challenge me, saying things like, ‘Why don’t you show us?’”, she says.
She has struggled since then and has made sure her own kitchen is different. “More women are now entering the hot kitchens, and that makes me excited about the future of the food industry,” she adds.
The changing palate
There would be no point of chefs experimenting with food, if there were no takers. And Kohli is happy that the Indian palate has evolved, what with more families travelling and being exposed to international cuisine. After all, a small country like Armenia would not find a place in the gastronomic map of Delhi, if that did not happen. Global street food, she feels could well be the next food trend for India.
“Almost all big restaurants now have a dish which is inspired by some part of the world—be it Vietnam, India, or anywhere else. For example, the Asian broth and the Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich has found different varieties elsewhere. Even Indian restaurants have deconstructed the popular samosa in chaats and appetizer menus,” she explains. Lavaash, as a matter of fact, serves a restaurant version of corn-on-the-cob and shakarkandi (sweet potato) chaat that can be found in Delhi streets in winters.
However, the young chef is also confident that the next big thing is not international but local and regional cuisine and ingredients. Lavaash’s menu uses only local ingredients, from the cheeses that come from West Bengal and Kodaikanal, to using Indian superfood grains like Amaranth instead of the global favourite Quinoa, and palm jaggery or nolen gur in place of sugar for the desserts.
There is this notion that only restaurants or professionals can do this. But it is easy to make these at home. As a matter of fact, Kohli says, her family members often use these recipes too.
“I think people need to be more aware that the stuff that is available in your own country is good for you. Have it in the season when it is naturally available—because there is a reason why it is growing at that time,” she puts in. This reflects in the seasonal menus she creates for Lavaash as well.
It helps that both chef Saby and Kohli travel often and are therefore, able to experience regional cuisine. Inspired from his travels in the north-east, the duo has started using anishi —a spice from the north-east in their meat gravies. Her recent road trip around Karnataka has also got her excited about the regional cuisine that is yet to be explored in full strength. “I want to try the Bohri cuisine. Being a half-Dogri (a Punjabi tribe from Jammu), I also think people should taste the Dogri food,” says Kohli who is planning a pop-up on it in February. She adds that the capital has a good following for new food and experimental cuisine. “When we were starting Lavaash, we often wondered if we should make it more likeable for the north Indian palate. But we stuck to the original and now diners come because they like that the food here is different from the rest (of the places),” she adds.
Moving towards zero waste
Another thing that regional cuisine has made her aware of is the way each part of a vegetable can be used in the cooking process. This helps to move towards more sustainable food practices. “Oh, this is not completely new. We have seen our grandmothers and mothers doing it. We are just reinventing it again so that we can have a future which is sustainable,” she adds. Take for example, how in Bengal pumpkin skin is fried into a vegetable. At Lavaash, the same skin is used to give flavour to the stock or turned into crisps to be served as garnishes on the food. The radish leaves can be tossed or cooked in the daal, or can be sautéed along with meats.
“Another trend that is catching up in India, though I have only tried it partially, is fermentation and pickling. In Bangkok, Gaa has a menu completely dedicated to fermentation. So has Noma in Copenhagen,” says Kohli, who has not yet tried her hand at fermenting. She has, however, started pickling vegetables and has received positive feedback from guests.
Health trends: to follow or not
A curious reader, Kohli is quick to pick up on global trends. But the one thing she steers clear of—and advises others to follow as well—are fad diets. “There can be no quick weight loss diet that is good for your health. If it’s making you lose weight fast, it will come back just as fast,” she says. Having lost a lot of weight herself, she believes in eating healthy and working out. “Don’t sacrifice on food—it does not make sense! Just eat more intelligently”.
A Year in Food is a series that looks at food trends (and concerns) of chefs around the country.
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