In Paris, I showcased nine kinds of rainfed rice from India: Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar

The chef and restaurateur on how she is making indigenous produce the centrepiece of her cuisine

July 31, 2020 01:53 pm | Updated 01:53 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

She has a Ph.D. in cognitive linguistics and has worked across the globe — but not as a linguist. Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar is a professional chef who can conjure up mouth-watering plates of food with ingredients that are fast disappearing.

Always interested in local produce, Dastidar’s desire to focus on them gained force after she trained in Italian, Japanese and Thai cuisines, and learned how chefs in those countries promoted grains from their own regions. She quit her job as a sous-chef with Diva, a popular Italian restaurant, to research, collect and archive different varieties of indigenous rice. And what better way to share this knowledge than serving it hot? Edible Archives, her newly opened restaurant in Goa, showcases local produce and knowledge through inventive recipes. “Goa is losing its biodiversity. We are mapping the local ingredients and will be able to find out what is disappearing because of climate change. We want to promote love for regional diversity, not just through rice, but even indigenous vegetables and preparations across the country,” she says.

Safety first

But in March, just as her restaurant was beginning to make its presence felt, Dastidar had to shut up shop as the country went into lockdown. Luckily, Goa soon eased its restrictions and restaurants were allowed to reopen a month later in April.

However, although other eateries opened, Dastidar kept Edible Archives closed. “The safety of my staff was more important. However, Shalini Krishnan (co-owner) and I decided to open only for takeaways, something we had never done so far,” she says. Adapting to the new situation was necessary, not just because safety concerns were paramount, but also because the lack of revenue during the lockdown had hit the business. Now working with reduced staff strength, Dastidar is considering salary cuts for the coming months until the situation stabilises.

Her dream of putting indigenous food back on the table has been the driving force behind Dastidar’s career choices. After beginning her culinary journey in a Japanese restaurant in Delhi and learning the ropes for a few years, she realised it was time to do her own thing.

A learning experience

She opened the Big Bong Theory, a small restaurant in Delhi, to showcase homemade Bengali food in a more professional setting. However, when this move didn’t work out as well as she wanted, Dastidar joined Diva, the popular Italian restaurant owned and run by chef Ritu Dalmia in the capital. Here, she learnt the intricacies of fine dining and worked on modern interpretations of classic Italian food.

During this stint, Dastidar had opportunities to travel across Asia, participating in various food exhibitions and sharing the taste of India. At one such show in Suzhou, a Chinese city west of Shanghai, Dastidar was fascinated by a book given to all the participants. The book highlighted how the city had revived its indigenous water plants and the importance of these plants in protecting biodiversity.

“It inspired me to start exploring the rich biodiversity of India. In Paris, I showcased nine kinds of rainfed rice from India. These are indigenous plants which do not use groundwater. But these varieties are not popular in our country because the government hasn’t taken the initiative to popularise them. Instead, hybrid rice has been promoted because it is easy to harvest. Although it is claimed that hybrid rice has greater yield, this is a myth. Bohuroopi, an indigenous variety of rice, has much more yield. Yet, it is not being promoted. We once had over one lakh varieties of rice , but since the seeds do not stay forever, they have to be preserved properly. We have lost 90% of our indigenous seeds since the 90s,” contends Dastidar. While she was mulling over how she could raise awareness of these forgotten and rapidly disappearing varieties of rice, Dastidar received a phone call that was to provide the answers. “When I was invited to co–curate Edible Archives, a food project at the 2018-19 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I gave up my job at Diva. While working on Edible Archives, I found that Kerala had 40 indigenous rice varieties that even the people in the State don’t know about. One such variety is called Tavalakkannan, or frog’s eyes. By the end of the Biennale, after creating 108 different menus for 108 days of the festival, I knew I was going to open a restaurant to showcase indigenous produce,” says Dastidar.

Vanishing diversity

When she chose to open her restaurant — also named Edible Archives, aptly enough — in Goa in December 2019, it wasn’t just because she wanted to tap into the huge numbers of tourists the State attracts, or the local food lovers. It was also an opportunity to highlight the State’s depleting biodiversity.

“There are documents showing that 30 types of mushrooms existed 13 years ago. But in 2019, we found that more than half of the varieties had disappeared. The knowledge of which of these mushrooms are edible is also being lost. The chewy jhall found in Bengal is an edible creeper. But if we didn’t know that, it would be considered a weed and never get on our plates. So we work with tribal women who have knowledge of the biodiversity of Goa, and try to incorporate it into our food,” states Dastidar.

As the name of the restaurant suggests, diners are served not just a variety of food using local and native ingredients, but also a helping of history. Dastidar reveals that along with creating cultural and food memories, Edible Archives shares nutritional information about the produce and the rice of the day. “We did this at the Biennale to dispel the myth that rice is just a bad carbohydrate. For example, Kattuyanam and Seeraga Samba are two varieties from Tamil Nadu, a State where rice is the staple food. Kattuyanam has a low glycemic index that makes it ideal for diabetics, and Seeraga Samba is a source of high fibre and rich in selenium to fight colon and intestinal cancers. Many people are unaware of their good properties. For Edible Archives, spreading knowledge of this indigenous produce is the main goal, not merely consumption.”

The independent journalist writes on development and gender.

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