Return of the Native
Did you know that the brussels sprouts in the Brussels Sprouts Roasted in Brown Butter, Chestnuts and Sauce Gribiche at The Table are the produce of a farmer in Pune? That the grouper in the Pistachio Crusted Grouper with Grilled Bell Pepper and Puy Lentil Ragout at Indigo Deli is from South India? That the arugula and squash in the Arugula Parmesan Squash Mascarpone Risotto at Ellipsis comes from farms in Pune and Nasik?
After waves of imported ingredients in the past few years, global cuisine has now become localised — the way food was always meant to be, fresh and native. In the last eight months, city chefs have cut back imports in their kitchen inventories drastically to just 10 to 15 percent. Instead, they are scouring local vegetable and fish markets and local village farms, planning small farms and garden patches and encouraging farmers to grow new things — all in search of the freshest ingredients.
Now brussels sprouts come from Pune, coloured peppers from Kolhapur, palm hearts from Talegaon, and seafood (rawas, tuna, baby octopus, squid, calamari, grouper and prawns) from south India, mainly Cochin.
“There is a greater impetus on health and freshness of food; chefs are also well-travelled and exposed to how the rest of the world cooks (with local produce), which is why this change has come about,” says Jeetesh Kaprani, vice president, operations, Ka Hospitality, that’s behind the new Mediterranean restaurant Otto Infinito. First there was awareness of the need for local produce, and now the produce is available, making it possible for chefs to cut back on imports. Trikaya Agriculture Pvt. Ltd is one of the key players that makes this possible. Trikaya’s roster of exotic vegetables doubles annually, and the company now grows everything from palm hearts, kumquats and rhubarb to edamame and 12 different varieties of lettuces across eight farms in the Konkan belt, Pune, Talegaon and Ooty.
With the growing availability of exotic veggies, Otto Infinito recently replaced an imported item with a local counterpart — cress, a herb that was being imported until two months ago. At Smoke House Deli, chef Glyston Gracias has added the Rocket Lettuce Arugula Salad to the permanent menu, a dish that was earlier available only sporadically. “Just because the meat is different, doesn’t mean it’s bad. We must respect the terroir of every place. Chefs abroad have always taken pride in cooking with what a place offers,” says chef Jaydeep Mukherjee of the Indigo Deli chain, who has started sourcing beef and free-range chicken from around Mumbai, and pork, mahi mahi, tuna, halibut from south India.
The influx of chefs from the US and Europe in the city has helped the local produce wave to grow. Whether it’s chef Sergi Arola of Arola at the JW Marriott, Juhu, or chef Alex Sanchez at The Table in Colaba, these chefs believe in respecting the country they cook in, and in respecting the local produce. “It is ridiculous to import. We use local fish and meat, including the lobster,” says the two Michelin-starred Sergi Arola, who spent six to eight months exploring local markets before planning the menu for Arola.
Adapting to local needs
At The Table, owners Gauri Devidayal and Jay Yousuf, inspired by the Californian movement of farm-to-table cuisine, brought in chef Alex Sanchez from San Francisco, who whips up global recipes using fresh local produce. “Alex adapts and cooks with what is available locally, and hence we have a menu that changes daily so there is a flexibility to knock off or introduce dishes if need be,” says Devidayal. Canadian chef Kelvin Cheung at Colaba restaurant Ellipsis also prefers to work with a daily menu, and enjoys using local elements to create his signature dishes. For instance, his dish Roulade comprises two very traditional Indian ingredients — arbi leaves and drumsticks. Thanks to this, what we eat at city restaurants has become more creative. Chef Sanchez whips up a Kohlrabi Risotto, made using kohlrabi only (no rice), a traditional Kashmiri ingredient locally called monj or nookal. Chef Mukherjee plates beautiful daily specials, which include Indian elements such as Puy Lentil Ragout (masoor dal), Kokum juice and Lentil Fritters. Mutt leaves or Red Amaranth leaves (chauli) are also featuring on Indigo Deli’s new dish as well as on chef Vicky Ratnani’s Fresh Trout with Red Amaranth Leaves at Aurus. “The shift to local and seasonal produce is great. Some of the local ingredients such as radish, lettuce and coloured peppers are even better than the imported produce. But we still need to reach a certain level of consistency with a few ingredients,” says executive chef Joy Bhattacharya, Trident Nariman Point. Chef Kelvin Cheung of Ellipsis seconds that. There are times when he receives six kgs of local arugula of which only eight gms are usable. But he is still a strong supporter of local produce. “The key is to train, guide and continuously support local communities and farmers as it is a learning curve for everyone,” he says. “That is the only way the local food industry will grow.”