The Taste of  tradition

Anjali Jhangiani
Sunday, 30 June 2019

Add excitement to your dining experience by chucking the regular menu and indulging in an authentic spread that represents the culture of a community. Anjali Jhangiani explores the rise in popularity of such community cuisines

India is exceptionally diverse when it comes to culture, history and consequently, food. With cuisines changing every few hundred kilometers, regular restaurants serving Indian food prefer to stick to common dishes on their menus.

But as millennials are moving away from everything mainstream, lesser known community cuisines — traditional food made at home with local ingredients cooked in a distinct way specific to a particular region — are becoming popular. Oh and that’s not all, along with a scrumptious spread, the millennials also want to explore the culture and ethos of these communities out of a restaurant set-up.

Khrisha Shah, co-founder of Dysco, a professional networking platform and community, designed to facilitate discovery between people, brands and agencies, says, “The food industry is too focussed on restaurant chefs and restaurants. But it’s about time the focus is extended to those peripheral to the industry like home chefs. To start this conversation, we’re organising Bread & Butter — What’s on the Table?, a new take on traditional food-focused events, designed to create dialogue, sharing and sense of community for anyone passionate about food.” 

The event will be held at WeWork (BKC, Mumbai), today (June 30) 10 am – 9 pm.

Bountiful Bohri 
The Bohri Kitchen’s home dining experience is quite a thing in Mumbai with everyone from film stars to renowned doctors making an appointment for a feast. Munaf Kapadia, CEO or chief eating officer, The Bohri Kitchen, who will be participating in Dysco’s event Bread & Butter — What’s on the Table?, says, “Our home dining experience is 50 per cent food and 50 per cent culture. It is believed that Bohris originated in Yemen and then migrated to Middle East, and from there to Surat in Gujarat. Not only our practices but also our food reflects the journey the community has had. The Bohri food is not spicy, but flavourful.”

The Bohri Kitchen aims at giving patrons a first-hand experience of the community’s traditions. “Bohris begin the meal by tasting salt from a namak dani (salt container) to cleanses palate as it is a natural anti-bacterial and activates the taste buds. We alternate courses with kharaas (savoury dish), meethas (sweet dish) and jaman (main course) to reset the palate and break the monotony of the flavours,” he says.

The itinerary for this experience includes the menu, the dress code, parking space, address and timing. “We like to give our guests a gentle heads-up by mentioning that they wear something expandable. Our clientèle includes anyone, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, who is willing to come to Colaba, does not mind climbing up two floors, and is okay with the idea of eating at a stranger’s house only to feel like home.”

The dishes, and the format in which they serve it, reflects the values of the community. “Bohris believe in eating together. It’s like a bonding activity for us where we help each other to pull off some meat from the bone while engaging in a conversation. This is represented in our legendary Raan. Our slow-cooked Bohri Dum Biryani, not only reflects our patience but also our perfection. That is why we proudly say that it’s the best biryani one can find in India. And our Kheema Patti Samosa is the most popular Bohri dish one can find,” says he.

Homely Mangalorean
Prabha Kini is a home chef. At her flat in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, she hosts people who want to indulge in a lavish Mangalorean meal while finding out more about the culture of the small coastal city in Karnataka. “The food that you make at home is completely different from what you get in restaurants. It is my native place, so my recipes reflect our history,” says Kini, who has been taking her guests on a culinary journey down the southern coastal regions of India for the last four years.

The session starts with a welcome drink. “This isn’t your ordinary nimbu paani. This version is served at Mangalorean weddings and at temples. It’s made with kesar, cardamom, sweetened with jaggery and seasoned with pepper. Then we head to the dining table and start our conversations over the starters. There’s some talking followed by some eating throughout the main course and the dessert too. We chat about all things Mangalorean — what is grown there, the spices we use, how it is a misconception that we end up using coconut in absolutely everything (we do have many cashew-based curries, you know). We also talk about common dishes that are made in different ways in different states, take baigan ki subji for example. Though there is a lot of fish and meat involved, we also do vegetarian spreads,” says Kini, who currently has her hands full with the monsoon pop ups where she plans to use jackfruit and raw mangoes, ingredients that are indigenous to the region.

This is a big hit with travellers and foreigners who want to learn more about the many sub-cultures of India while they are visiting, but even locals are up for it. Talking about how her Tender Cashew and Tondli (ivy gourd) Stir Fry represents the nuances of Mangalorean culture, she says, “This dish is made during festivals, and it is a very important preparation. So important that your reputation depends on it. People judge you on the basis of the ratio of tondli to cashew in your preparation. If there are more cashews, then you’re believed to be affluent.”

Her vegetarian stew called Valval, which has mixed vegetables in coconut milk, is a hot favourite during the monsoon, while her Fish Ale Pio Ghashi, made with ginger and onions, is an all-season hit. “My food represents a small part of Mangalorean cuisine. The food culture also includes the Catholic recipes and Shetty food. Sometimes I include these preparations in the meal, but I mostly stick to the recipes I’ve grown up with, because that’s what authenticity is about,” says she.

Interested foodies can book a meal session through the portal or reach out to the chef through her Facebook or Instagram page called Prabhalicious. “My daughter-in-law helped me set up my social media account, but those who have already eaten at my house give my contact to their friends and then they call me to set up a session,” she says.

Scrumptiously Saraswat 
In 2017, Gauri Apte hosted her first Saraswat food pop up in Aundh. “I always wanted to start a restaurant, but I didn’t really know whether people would accept the cuisine,” she says, adding, “I started pop ups to gauge what people think of the cuisine.” The feedback was so great that the home chef is now looking to start a full-fledged restaurant.

“People think Goa is all about fish, the Konkan cuisine is just generalised. I ate Goan Fish Curry at a restaurant in Pune, and it was not an authentic deal. There was nothing Goan about it. But people in Pune don’t realise the difference — they could be served basa in a coconut curry and they wouldn’t be able to recognise that it wasn’t pomfret. I wanted to make people taste the difference by serving authentic recipes,” she says.

The Saraswat community is believed to trace its roots to North India, from where they followed the banks of the river Saraswati and finally settled in the Konkan region. And unlike other Hindu Brahmin communities, they are non-vegetarian. So much so that they just can’t do without fish. Shedding more light on her Saraswat culture, Apte says, “Saraswat people just need a reason to eat seafood, even on Mondays when they are usually fasting or the monsoon when good fish is difficult to find, they will add dry fish to vegetables,” she says. 

Apte believes that Saraswat cuisine is an acquired taste. Though similar to CKP and Mangalorean cuisine in some ways, it is distinct in terms of spices used. “The use of certain ingredients such as turmeric leaves and coconut is essential for all coastal curries. But Saraswat cuisine incorporates the use of tirphal, a berry-like spice, which is not used in CKP food that much. Its flavours are distinct, it is not hot, but you get a taste of sourness, a bit of spice, all soothed by creamy coconut milk. We don’t like to spice up our curries and ruin our fish. In fact, we seldom use ginger and garlic in our recipes. These aromatics are used only on special occasions,” says Apte, who is particular about how her fried fish must be crisp and appropriately spiced.

The home chef cooks pre-paid meals and serves them in various formats such as set thalis and a la carte. “I can do a sit-down meal for about 60-70 people. And when it’s an a la carte pop-up, I make limited food that could serve about 80 people and see how it goes,” she says.

Apart from all the finger-licking good fish recipes, Apte gives her community credit for Patoli, a sweet preparation made with rice flour and jaggery wrapped in turmeric leaves and steamed. “You might find various versions of this dish in different coastal communities,” she says.

Persian perfection
Quirky and fun, just like the unoffensive stereotypes of the community, SodaBottleOpenerWala serves authentic Parsi delicacies to introduce patrons to a rich cuisine that goes beyond Dhansak and Farcha. The restaurant tells the tale about how a thousand years ago, Parsis made their way to India from Persia, bringing with them a unique set of flavours, which gradually became a part of the Indian palate.

Anaida Parvaneh, chef and partner at SodaBottleOpenerWala Powai, says, “Before entering the hospitality business, I didn’t realise how influential food can be. You learn about culture, habits, even dominant beliefs and rituals. We are what we eat, in more ways than one. Our menu caters to just about anyone who wants to have a good time over good food. Parsi food is slightly different from typical India food, but over years enough fusion has happened to Indianise the cuisine and make it familiar to the Indian palate, while still retaining its original identity.”

She shares that authentic Persian food appeals a lot to expats and well-travelled locals who like to consume non-spicy, more flavourful dishes. “No other place in Mumbai serves such authentic Persian food. For example, my Riceless Esfahan Beryani. Yes, you heard it right — original beryani, which means ‘roasted on fire’ in Persian, originates from city of Esfahan in Iran, and it doesn’t contain rice. It was much later that Indians made their own version with rice and made it world famous,” informs Parvaneh. 

No matter how much you love biryani, we bet you didn’t know that. And just like that, the restaurant gives its patrons a glimpse into Persian culture. With so many alterations and revisions made to original recipes, it’s pushed into oblivion. But nothing is going to stop Parvaneh from tracing the roots of the dishes and presenting it to her patrons. 

“Our authentic Berry Pulav is super famous too. The Berry Pulav served in India is neither Iranian nor Parsi, but a very Indianised version of Iranian Zereshk Polo,” says she, adding that customer favourites still include quintessential dishes. “Dhansak would be the most famous Parsi dish to non-Parsis. Chicken Farcha is another favourite, we often joke about it and call it KFC for Kekus Fried Chicken. Our Salli Boti is another typical known Parsi dish,” she adds.

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