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What did your granny eat?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-05-2017 Neha Bhatt

A yellow house, a red door and a little board that reads “Bengaluru Oota Company”. Should you be looking for an authentic “Karnataka experience” in the IT capital, this could well be your ticket to one. Here, on a couple of homely dining tables, you will find a thoughtfully curated menu of a mix of Gowda and Mangalorean dishes chalked on a blackboard by two cheerful hosts. This is Divya Prabhakar and Vishal Shetty’s Tasting Room, where the oota (food in Kannada) is laden with family memories.

“Over a bottle of gin one evening, we decided to do something with soul food, food we grew up with, but that is perhaps too tedious for people to prepare at home,” says Prabhakar, who, along with Shetty, gave up a steady corporate job to showcase the culinary traditions of their families. When they found an empty house to rent near their homes in Cambridge Layout, with a huge kitchen, and architecture that lent itself to being divided into individual dining rooms, it seemed perfect for what they had in mind: to serve absolutely fresh, lesser-known traditional food tailored to their guests’ tastes, in an intimate, reservations-only space. For unaccustomed palates, they tweak the dishes—for instance, serving marble-sized ragi mudde (finger-millet balls) to initiate them into the Karnataka staple.

Prabhakar and Shetty’s venture may have come at just the right time, adding another layer to the trend of “unusual” dining experiences, as regional and community cuisines in India get their turn on commercial dining tables.

Four years ago, when a copy of the non-governmental organization Centre for Science and Environment’s publication First Food: A Taste Of India’s Biodiversity landed on my desk, bursting with glorious photos of dozens of culinary wonders, I was instantly smitten with its quaintness. As someone who has always lived in a metropolis, many of these dishes, like bhang or jute leaves pakora, were eye-opening. But the buzz around the book was nothing compared to the buzz the follow-up book received at its launch in February. First Food: Culture Of Taste contains well-informed pieces on using leaves, flowers, fruits, vegetables and seeds in everyday cooking, while talking about promoting indigenous produce, reviving kokum (a souring agent) and the frenzy around makhana (fox-nut seed).

Bannur Mamsa Pulav from the Bengaluru Oota Company.

Clearly, we have travelled a long way back into our culinary past in the last couple of years. It has become nearly as fashionable to post a photo of a forgotten recipe rediscovered as a Michelin-star restaurant meal. We have had hit shows like The Epic Channel’s Lost Recipes, where host Aditya Bal travelled across the country in search of little-known recipes and stirred the pot with his hosts in rustic settings. Online, groups like Lost Recipes of India, blogs like Banaras Ka Khana, and offline, pop-up events and food festivals at hotels and big-banner restaurants on Rampuri cuisine, Anglo-Indian fare, Kayasth food, ancient Parsi recipes and many others are championing this movement.

Behind the scenes, though, and in the kitchen, putting your weight behind a project like forgotten food is serious work. Literature on old culinary traditions is hard to come by, as those who have looked far and wide for it will tell you. When Prabhakar chanced upon her grandmother’s old recipe book after her death a year ago, she was delighted. “My aunt discovered it among her stuff. I visit her regularly now and we pore over the recipes in the book, mostly my great-grandmother’s, to translate them. My aunts and uncles are helping me get the recipe measurements right,” says Prabhakar, who will then incorporate these into her menu at Bengaluru Oota Company.

Tava Shrimp & Calamari Kothu Roti from The Bombay Canteen

The Bombay Canteen’s chef Thomas Zacharias, well-known in food circles for his love of local, seasonal ingredients, has found another way to tap into India’s rich culinary traditions: mining complete strangers from remote pockets for their kitchen secrets. On a trip to Thoothukudi, for example, he came across the kothu roti—minced, flaky paratha tossed on a griddle with onions, meat, eggs and a generic sauce—served as an accompaniment with drinks at multiple local bars. Gifted the recipe by obliging kitchen staff, Zacharias turned the dish into a stylish one-bowl meal, the Tava Shrimp & Calamari ‘Kothu Roti’, with sautéed shrimp and calamari topped with a refreshing salad and a fried egg.

Among other such inclusions with a twist are the Kundapur Ghee Roast Liver On Toast (a boneless version of the original, folded in chicken liver pâté spread on toast), and the Steamed Tingmo Garlic Bread from McLeodganj, served with a Maharashtrian garlic chutney to spice up the original.

Aleti Paleti from SodaBottleOpenerWala.

Zacharias says he tries to travel every couple of months to explore what’s out there, and connect with local home cooks. Then he’s back in Mumbai, trying to make sense of his discoveries in a commercial kitchen. “I travelled across Europe four years ago and realized that the way people over there celebrate their culinary diversity, we don’t. There are so many stories to be told here.”

Indeed, what many of the curators of “lost recipes” are trying to do is this: to tell a story, fuelling the imagination of some, stirring a pot of memories for others. And adding a wealth of resources as they go along. “I realized there was no literature I could even refer to while working on my cuisine,” says Anahita Dhondy, chef-manager at the Parsi diner SodaBottleOpenerWala, in Delhi and the National Capital Region. “So I decided to work on a book that would be cultural representation as well, with bits of religion, culture, led by the secrets of Parsi cuisine, with popular dishes as well as recipes which are long forgotten.”

For this, Dhondy decided to travel solo to towns with a significant Parsi presence, starting at the port of Sanjan in Gujarat, where Parsis landed around 716 AD. “From there, I went to Udvada, a sleepy town on most days but one that wakes up with much culinary gusto on festivals. There are many priestly families there, which gave me a chance to learn what the ladies of the house cook. I was befriending complete strangers between the ages of 60-80 and they would open up to me about family recipes, which I recorded on video and also took notes.”

Based on her travels, Dhondy worked on a three-day fun Lost Recipes pop-up event at the Gurgugram outlet of her restaurant from 31 January—the menu featured dishes like Boombla, or shallow-fried Bombay duck, Aleti Paleti, or spicy chicken liver with pao, Chicken Maiwalla, a custard-like chicken dish, Granny’s Pulav (based on a 122-year-old recipe), desserts like the lip-smacking Doodh Na Puff, a Parsi equivalent of Daulat Ki Chaat. She is currently working on a book which will blend personal and community memories of food.

In a similar strain, food critic and consultant Anoothi Vishal’s 2016 book Mrs LC’s Table: Stories About Kayasth Food And Culture, published by Hachette India, delved into the secrets of the Kayasth kitchen, giving us access to dishes such as Yakhni Pulao, Badam Pasanda (a special-cut meat curry flavoured with almonds) and Takey Paisey (besan, or gram flour, “coins”, similar to the Rajasthani gatte), all livened up with vivid backstories. Vishal showcases many of these dishes at pop-up events in Delhi.

Sophlang from ‘First Food: Culture Of Taste’

But does promoting traditional cuisines make business sense? Vibha Varshney, editor of First Food: Culture Of Taste, thinks so. “If we promote indigenous foods, not only do we promote healthy food, we provide a reason to conserve nature and also avenues for livelihood. Books like First Food showcase new entrepreneurs who have found business opportunities around local foods. With lifestyle diseases on the rise, people have a renewed interest in good food. So far, information about good food has come from the West and we have had a period when olive oil and quinoa were promoted to Indians.

“However, First Food provides local alternatives, and we are optimistic that they would soon be part of mainstream food,” says Varshney.

Food writer and entrepreneur Osama Jalali has seen a fair amount of business come his way over the last two years, after he started reviving the cuisines of Rampur and Shahjahanabad through food festivals in Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai. “My interest in this field started when I went out for a meal with my daughter, and the chutney came in the form of foam. She asked me, ‘Where is the chutney?’ The foam is chutney, I said—this is progressive Indian food! I realized then that our own traditional Indian food might be in danger of getting lost. So I started doing research, meeting food historians like Salma Husain, Pushpesh Pant, the descendants of the nawabs of Rampur, their old khansamas, translating Farsi texts and converting old styles of measurements (tol, jhatak) to contemporary terms of grams and teaspoons to try and rebuild authentic recipes. During my research, I found out that Aurangzeb was vegetarian!”

Rasam from the Bengaluru Oota Company

Currently, Jalili is working with UP Tourism as an ambassador for the state’s efforts to conserve its food heritage, and is busy with The Masala Trail, his new eatery on Janpath in Delhi, which presents a mix of under-explored regional eats like Banarasi tamatar chaat or Gujarat favourites such as panki and dabali pao. His favourite story from his adventures in Old Delhi involves nothing less than…Gosht Ka Halwa.

“An 82-year-old man living in Turkman Gate, Old Delhi, recounted an episode from 60 years ago, when his mother-in-law made him this halwa on his wedding day. I couldn’t track down the recipe, though, as it seemed to be lost. So I tried to piece it together at home, based on the ingredients I was told about: mutton, milk, sugar, elaichi (cardamom). Even chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor and Manjit Singh Gill who have tasted it couldn’t tell it was Gosht Ka Halwa!”

The past, indeed, is full of culinary surprises.

Heti from ‘First Food: Culture Of Taste’.

On the lost recipes trail

■ The Lost Recipe Brunch at SodaBottleOpenerwala, Delhi-NCR

Savour traditional Parsi recipes like prawn ‘kevabs’, mutton ‘kevabs’, chicken ‘kevabschapat’ (Parsi pancakes) at a live counter, and sign off with the Parsi version of the dreamy Daulat Ki Chaat—Doodh Na Puff. The meal is put together by chef Anahita Dhondy based on research conducted while travelling through old Parsi towns across Gujarat. This brunch will feature on the menu on Sundays.

■ The five-course non-vegetarian Gowda+Mangalorean meal at the Bengaluru Oota Company, Bengaluru

Start with ‘kosambri’ (lentil-carrot-cucumber salad) and mutton cutlet, followed by ‘kori gassi’ (Mangalorean-style chicken curry), ‘neer dosa’, ‘gowdru mamsa pulav’ (a spicy Bannur mutton ‘pulav’), ‘kori ghee’ roast, ‘gujje ajadina’ (a dry Mangalorean jackfruit dish) and end with ‘rasam’, curd rice and ‘mensakai’ (fruit relish), plus ‘ammani jamoon’ (‘gulab jamun’) and filter coffee. All the dishes are based on the owners’ family recipes.

■ Tava Shrimp & Calamari Kothu Roti at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai

Chef Thomas Zacharias separates the traditional Tuticorin ‘kothu roti’ (a mishmash of flaky ‘paratha’, onions, eggs and chicken curry tossed together on a griddle) into three distinct layers: flaky ‘paratha’ with sautéed shrimp and calamari, topped with a salad and a fried egg to finish, with a Maharashtran shrimp curry gravy poured tableside.

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