Rocky pushed Mayur. Mayur pushed Rocky. Rocky danced across the stage. Mayur pirouetted. Rocky flexed his muscles. Mayur flexed his muscles.
Lit For Life? Well, apparently writers come in all shapes and sizes these days. One thing’s for sure, though. These two haven't been starving in a garret. So much for classic artistic clichés.
But then Highway On My Plate is all about busting clichés. Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma — popular hosts of the NDTV Good Times’ food and travel show Highway On My Plate, which inspired their best-selling book of the same name — were in Chennai to participate in The Hindu Lit For Life festival. Opening the session Cooking Up A Storm: The Secrets Of Good Food with chef Dharmen Makawana and general manager Pascal Dupuis from The Leela Palace (Chennai), Rocky grabbed the mike to sing ‘Do, Re, Me…’ Random? Welcome to the show.
Once Farzana Contractor, editor of Upper Crust magazine and event moderator, managed to get the duo under control (“Rocky. I wish these chairs had seat belts so I could strap you down”), she began to talk about food writing. “I started Upper Crust 14 years ago. We had one writer who was our crowning glory — Behram Contractor (Busy Bee). He wrote about food because he really loved food. In the 50s, he wrote about hole-in-the-walls. Made slumming fashionable.”
Mayur nodded. “Well, Leibling said ‘The first requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite’… If Rocky carries on like this, we’ll win a Booker!” Rocky smiled proudly. “Well, I’m not stopping.”
Farzana flipped through a set of slides displaying a delicate goat’s cheese soufflé. “Is this good food?” she asked. “No,” said Rocky, “It’s very pretty though. I’d like to take it out to dinner.”
After spending 250 days of the year on the road, hunting down memorable meals, eating at 1,000 restaurants (and discovering 6,000 recipes) Rocky said they have found the best cooks are people with a passion for food. “This is the guy who has been cooking the same thing for 40 years. It may be a recipe passed down for three generations. He may do just one thing, but he does it beautifully.” Mayur talked of a dhaba in Mandwa, for example. “This guy comes, makes 300 dabelis. There’s a line of 200 people waiting, and in 20 minutes it’s gone. So we asked him, ‘Why don’t you make 500 or 600?’ He said, ‘No. To maintain consistency, 300 is the max I can make in the day. If I make even one more than that, I’m not doing the right thing by my customers.” Mayur paused. “Now, that’s good food!”
Rocky agreed, pointing at a picture of a bowl of chaat. “I think this could win a beauty contest if you put a bikini on it. I mean I would vote for it.”
They went on to talk about the need to respect and document India’s vast array of ingredients. “In Nagaland, we discovered akhuni, fermented soy bean,” said Rocky… The tunde kebab in Lucknow has 153 ingredients. Leaves, roots, spices, herbs, shoots... I don’t even know the 153 ingredients’ names!”
Mayur added, “That’s our concern. There are lots of plants, fruits and vegetables that we had access to traditionally. But a lot of those are dying out. In Mangalore, four brothers run a hotel called Ayodhya. One of their snacks is made from a special kind of leaf that only grows three weeks after the monsoon. And then you have to process and dry it. So we asked them, ‘Why go through all the effort. Is it really worth the 12 rupees?’ And they said, ‘These are foods we grew up on. If we don’t do it, the youngsters will forget’.”