After taking the United Kingdom by storm, restaurateur Das Sreedharan comes to town. He talks about his food philosophy, and his love for the humble morukozhambu
As Das Sreedharan himself admits, the success of Rasa is not just about the food, but about the stories. Rasa is a chain of restaurants in the U.K. that opened up Brits to Indian food beyond curry and chicken tikka masala. The restaurant went into the un-treaded zone of food from Kerala. The six restaurants in the U.K. now have a younger sibling in India, in namma Bengaluru.
Das definitely is a zealous storyteller. He’ll go from story to story giving you one about when Andrew Lloyd Webber came visiting, or about feeding Anil Kumble and A.R.. Rahman. Or his shock, on his first job as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in London, when he found that the masala for the baingan and the chicken curry was the same.
“That’s when I decided change should happen. As an Indian you hate it that the first thing that comes to the tables is stale poppadom and a mango pickle, which is just mango drenched in sugar. India is a land of pickles and chutneys and it was unfair that this was the image of India,” says Das, sitting back in the pink-cushioned chair at Rasa India in Bangalore’s most bustling restaurant landscape, Indiranagar CMH Road.
A mom-to-be is surrounded by a gaggle of relatives at her baby shower the afternoon we meet, at this all-pink-and-white airy restaurant. The colours and brightness are in defiance of the image of “Indian” restaurants in London — so dark you can’t see your food.
“Rasa means an experience that can’t be described,” Das smiles his Buddha smile, looking over his restaurant with something between love and pride. While getting Londoners to appreciate Indian food may be easy, will it be the same getting Indians to taste home? “It’s actually better, because you are at the source. In London, the food had to travel. Dreams had to be recreated. Stories had to be told. When I managed to recreate India there, I felt I could do 100 times better here.” Moreover, he admits, that he’s old-fashioned and wants to take food back through time. What worked in London is that Rasa made the Englishman feel at home. The recession, he feels was a blessing in disguise — the first thing people changed was their lifestyle, people started worrying about eating out, creativity took a backseat. “There was so much rubbish in the market that got weeded out. It took people back to their roots, helped them resist the feeling of want.”
When you taste his mango or ginger pickle that remind you of your grandma, or when you eat the beetroot pachadi which works because it keeps drama to the minimum, you realise his mantra of minimalism has made him tick. His favourite dish on the menu, for example, is the morukozhambu. “I learnt to be the father of that. In one way it’s one of the most popular dishes across regions in India, in various forms. It’s the easiest and simplest of foods, very cleansing, subtle. It’s lightest on the tummy and its memory lasts the longest. I’ve learnt to do it in about 15 ways, with beetroot, pumpkin, spinach…I use it as an example to tell people of the feeling of spirituality.”
Das definitely worships his food. “Indian food is the future of the world because of the spiritual vibrance of our cooking…the love we apply while cooking. I want to commit my life towards that. All my learning of food is from my own childhood, from my mother. The only way we express love in India is through our cooking. Our mothers don’t know any other way!” His journey from hanging around in his father’s chai-kada (tea shop) in Kerala’s hinterlands to his raging success in London as a restaurateur is now the stuff of legend, and B-school lessons.
Das is also taking his own learning a step further by setting up the Rasa Gurukul back home in Kerala. He rues that we don’t have enough passionate cooks here; students who train to be chefs are interested in western food and in getting out of the country, he says.
Combining the thought of preserving traditional Indian cooking methods, and dishes, with his childhood desire to help the underprivileged, has resulted in his decision — to train 20 orphans in the culinary arts, and they in turn will open 20 restaurants. The Gurukul is set in an organic farm. “I’m slowly making all my restaurants organic. We will be the first organic restaurant chain in the world.”
For Das, food is not just a thing to eat; it meanders into the worlds of philosophy, healing and nurturing. “Every meal should talk about your future. That’s a mother’s philosophy while feeding her child. With every meal, she imagines her child grow. I do that with my customers; with every change in their life, I feel I also have ownership of it.”
Here’s a toast to thoughtful food.