Come, tell me how you feast

Pop-ups by home chefs and experts are bringing lesser-known regional cuisines into the spotlight

Picture these.

A few generations ago, Garhwali families would break down entire carcasses from a hunt, for consumption. Then eventually, cuts of meat began to be commercially available, and what was once a regular feature on menus, gradually disappeared from mainstream family tables.

Traditionally, in Kerala, all temple prasadams were coconut-heavy. In Karnataka, sugarcane and jaggery would dominate. If you go further South, you will find rice-based prasadam. Whatever people grew there, based on climatic conditions, was first offered to the temple and then fed to the people. It was a happy ecosystem.

Come, tell me how you feast

And then there is the food of the Kayasth community: a perfect example of a syncretism, with its Hindu, Muslim and British colonial elements, yet not a cuisine commercially found.

These are not titbits of information that you will come by with some casual reading. But this may change soon, thanks to a growing band of home chefs and food experts, working on pop-ups across the country to spread word of the food of their people and enlighten us about the bountiful heritage that is Indian food .

“I began to research Garhwali cuisine of Uttarakhand, as a new Gujarati bride married into a Garhwali family, completely enamoured by the food of my new family,” says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, author, food historian and owner, A Perfect Bite Consulting and APB Cook Studio, Mumbai.

Here, there and everywhere

Come, tell me how you feast

“My pop-ups were limited to two a year, because my access to ingredients was based on my visits to the Garhwal region,” adds Ghildiyal. “I did small pop-ups at my studio and then did the Garhwali sojourn with the JW Marriott Mussoorie, where we worked together to create a Garhwali menu, and invited food personalities from across the country on a four-day sojourn. I do pop-ups on Garhwali and Kutchi Bhatia of Gujarat now, every two-three months and have even done one on Shravan food. My approach is more to keep different cuisines alive rather than just the one.”

Anoothi Vishal, a Delhi-based author, columnist and curator best known for her over 40 pop-ups of Kayasth Khatirdari, feels it’s all about the narrative.

“You see the mixing of cultural influences — Hindu, Mughal courtly and British colonial as well — in Kayasth food. So it becomes a part of a larger narrative when I do the pop-ups,” she says. Vishal’s pop-ups are in multiple formats — from small intimate meals where she does all the cooking, to working with larger brands curating tables for 20-25. Vishal stresses that the key is to offer guests a complete experience. “Food is important, but is only one part of it. We’ve always served wine or cocktails with our meals, and there is always one engaging activity for people to interact. I also always talk about food history. So it becomes like an arty salon. In fact, at one of my pop-ups at a resort in the depths of Chattarpur, I had my music teacher come in and sing different holis in various ragas. We served holi food and people travelled for more than an hour to get to the place!” Taking his guests through an experience — the thought process of putting a dish on the table and its back story — is something that Rakesh Raghunathan, a food heirloom curator based in Chennai, likes to do as well. With over 10 varied pop-ups to his credit, Raghunathan focusses on thematic menus that make up the South Indian culinary fabric.

Time and place

Come, tell me how you feast

“I did a pop-up we called the Pilgrim’s Palate with a premium hotel recently. This was about food from temples and temple towns across South India, and was a vegetarian festival with no garlic and no onion. The idea was to get people to understand the history behind a temple recipe and the reason why certain ingredients are used or not, in them. For example — you will never find dishes with tur dal, chillies or asafoetida, as these are not native to us. Temple recipes are all region-inspired.”

Raghunathan also has stories to share on the cultural relevance of dishes in his menus. For example, kootan choru, a rice-based dish made in Tirunelveli, is made during the harvest season, when people from all over the area bring in various ingredients, cook it and then eat it as a community.

This love for the rustic, perhaps, is what Ummi Abdulla, a food consultant based in Kozhikode and the doyenne of Mapilla cuisine, credits for the surge in interest in the food of the Malabar region.

Come, tell me how you feast

With dozens of pop-ups across premium hotels to her credit, Abdulla says, “People read reviews of my pop-ups and I see a larger number come in to try the food each time I do one. They are interested in understanding more of its history and how it is made. Dishes like pathiri, a rice pancake, or the Thalassery biryani use minimal ingredients but have the most flavour. People are always curious to know about the origin, cooking techniques and ingredients.”

“People love it when we say our Assamese cooking is more ingredient-based than spice-based,” says Kashmiri Nath, a Guwahati-based food consultant, recipe developer, blogger, home chef and baker. Nath has worked on several Assamese pop-ups across the country, and finds that people now have open minds towards cuisines they are unfamiliar with.

Ghildiyal sums up such food pop-up experiences saying that the wealth of Indian food and cooking is in the kitchens of our homes, it’s in the hands of our women and men, who have been cooking that food for years. You may be a Masterchef, but you will not be able to replicate something that a home chef has made. And it is through these pop-ups that cuisines we have grown up with are kept alive.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 11:15:38 PM |

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