Only a couple of months old, it is still difficult to get a reservation at The Bombay Canteen. The Lower Parel restaurant serves Indian fare, but for us, what sets it apart is the usage of local ingredients that might be found at home, but aren't often thought of as worthy of swish eateries.
So, while the drumstick is the star of their Mallu Drumstick Soup, kathal (jackfruit) and kohlrabi add robustness to the Vegetable Coconut Curry. Similarly, bathua (Chenopodium album) is used as a substitute for spinach, and green peas are swapped for green tuvar (pigeon pea) in other dishes.
"These ingredients are indigenous and seasonal, which makes them far better in quality. They are also more affordable than their western counterparts. If the demand for these local vegetables decreases further, there is a fear that farmers might stop growing them and they might be lost as species altogether," says Thomas Zacharias, executive chef, The Bombay Canteen.
He adds, "We have such a plethora of fresh produce in this country and we must be proud to use and showcase them not only in restaurants, but also in our homes."
A handful of other restaurants may be following Zacharias's ideology, but cautiously. "I'm not sure whether use of these ingredients will increase rapidly after people see them being used in our restaurants. It depends how glamorous we can make them seem. I don't see those becoming household names," says Chef Paul Kinny, group director of culinary services, Palladium Hotel, Lower Parel.
Earthy yet delicious
Kinny cites the example of the hotel's Indian restaurant, The Sahib Room & Kipling Bar. "We didn't want to open another Butter Chicken restaurant. Cuisine from the North Frontier would have been easy for us to serve. But we wanted to do something unique yet relatable. It's not easy to source lesser-known local ingredients, but we found suppliers. Some of our vegetables, like bathua, are flown in from the north every second day. Patrons are surprised when they taste these ingredients," he says.
But the challenge lies in getting people to order such dishes in the first place. "When people go out to eat, they want something fancy. If the ingredients aren't glamorous, it becomes difficult for restaurants from a business point of view. It's very easy to charge money for a portion of caviar or Pâté, but it's difficult to sell kamal kakdi (lotus stem), which I'd love to use," explains Kinny.
Among the dishes one can sample at this restaurant - which opened last year - are Purvanchal Ka Saag, which uses six greens - including bathua and suva (dill leaves) - and Chow Ke Aloo, where curry leaves get a lead role, as opposed to being used only for tempering vegetables.
With Indian restaurants steadily progressing beyond mainstream fare, and opting to serve dishes from around the country, the use of under-utilised ingredients has shot up at the Trident, Bandra Kurla Complex, too. The hotel's executive chef Ashish Bhasin attributes it to hiring chefs from various communities.
"Since they hail from different cultural backgrounds and diverse regions, each one introduces a unique style of cooking, inspired by his or her experiences and inspirations. This is a big factor in coming up with innovative dishes," he says.