A fresh taste of home

  • Priya Bala
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2016 21:28 IST
Chef Manu Chandra’s menu at Toast & Tonic revolves largely around local ingredients. (Nithin Sagi)

Matt Preston, the Virat Kohli of food TV, if you will, was asked when he was in Bangalore for a MasterChef

Australia jamboree: Best meal in India? “I had a great meal at Toast & Tonic recently,” he said. “I love it when chefs do something different.”

High praise, yes, but applause isn’t what the prodigiously talented chef-partner of Toast & Tonic is aiming for.

Chef Manu Chandra’s painstakingly wrought menu revolves to the greatest extent around local ingredients, bringing forgotten grains back in vogue, making indigenous vegetables modish, and showcasing local food artisanship.

So he makes risotto with Gobindo Bhog rice, spiking it with cold-press mustard oil for good measure, tosses up a warm salad of averakai, Karnataka’s favourite winter bean, smokes mackerel from Cochin and tops house-baked sourdough toast with it.

The philosophy behind the food at Toast & Tonic, with its East Village vibe inspired by the melting pot nature of the Bohemian New York quarter, goes beyond the need to impress. “I have no inclination for gimmickry,” says Chandra, a supremely self-assured chef. “You could say the direction I’ve chosen to take at Toast & Tonic is a conscious decision emerging from a certain consciousness.”

Manu Chandra’s concerns go way beyond the kitchen. “Our eating culture has acquired a definite homogeneity,” he says. “On the one hand, you have swathes of the urban population consuming industrialised, mass-produced, not to mention, tasteless food and are seemingly satisfied with it and, on the other hand, a slow destruction of indigenous produce which is killing biodiversity and creating undesirable monocultures.”

Chandra is pragmatic enough to acknowledge he is a small voice against a roaring tide, but he has the conviction that small steps will eventually lead not only to diners appreciating the effort that goes into sourcing and cooking with local, seasonal ingredients, but a significant number of chefs and restaurateurs adopting practices that will have a positive impact on biodiversity and sustainability.

And then, it’s back to his experiments with sweet potato leaves and dagar ka phool to see how they can be woven into his next menu.

Floyd Cardoz’s charcoal-grilled chilli calamari (Sanjay Ramchandran)

Chef Floyd Cardoz of Tabla fame and currently preparing to open Paowala in New York, brings a similar sensibility to the menu at The Bombay Canteen, one of Mumbai’s most talked-about restaurants. Contributing to the food anthology Chillies and Porridge, he writes of how, when he was growing up, the daily visits to the fish and vegetable markets determined what was put on the table on any given day, and how much the young Floyd looked forward to these meals.

“As I travelled and cooked in the US, I came to appreciate the extent to which people celebrated what was theirs,” says Cardoz.

The inspiration for The Bombay Canteen came from his personal food journey and was driven by the desire to showcase local ingredients, frequently overlooked by restaurants, and reclaim our culinary traditions. Which is why Cardoz has the not-so-glamorous yet delicious mandeli on the menu instead of insipid, easily-sourced basa or pricey Chilean seabass.

In the US, too, Cardoz is determined that Paowala will make a decided break from the naan-dal makhni-tandoori chicken that is the jaded repertoire of Indian restaurants abroad.

“Restaurants forget that we have so many culinary cultures and traditions within India,” he says. Paowala will bring to the fore Indian dishes cooked using entirely local – as in available in the US – ingredients. As is the case with chefs who are part of the avant garde movement of Indian food, it is more than another experiment.

“Going local takes work and commitment, but it is also the only way in which you can embrace your local community and work towards sustainability,” says Cardoz.

Chef Manish Mehrotra’s meetha achar spare ribs, sun-dried mango, toasted onion seed

Chef Manish Mehrotra of the award-winning Indian Accent agrees that Indian food in restaurants has become a commercial version of Punjabi-Mughlai cooking with no respect for the provenance of ingredients or for our diverse culinary traditions.

“Even if you went to Chennai, outside the South Indian eateries, it would be paneer butter masala,” he says. The philosophy behind Indian Accent has been to delve into our culinary heritage and bring ingredients, recipes and cooking styles from it to upscale dining, he says.

“Take something like the everyday chilli,” he says. “Understanding its rootedness means appreciating the different ways it’s used in, say, Kashmiri cooking and in a fish curry in Kerala.”

Mehrotra, who’s been wowing the New York set with Indian Accent there, says that while local and seasonal is the way to go, Indian diners had to be weaned away from the limited restaurant offerings they’ve been accustomed to.

“When we put kathal on the menu – and it comes as a delicious pulled kathal taco at Indian Accent – there were raised eyebrows, but it’s one of our hot-sellers,” he says.

For him, turning to local ingredients and dishes is also about celebrating food memories. Think of where you are transported to when you bite into an aam papad or an aamla murabba – both of which occur in Mehrotra’s creations. Only ingredients and cooking connected to a place and time can help you make that journey, not a mass-produced chicken nugget or characterless makhni.

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From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016

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