Early on a warm May morning in 2022, we wind our way between lush green bushes and neon-pink homes to the edge of the Shivalik Hills. This is Narendra Nagar in Uttarakhand. Ananda In The Himalayas rises on the southern horizon, casting its longitudinal shadows over the depreciating green cover on the sloping hillsides.
I’m the only journalist in a seven-member group, which includes the Masque team — the only Indian restaurant to be consistently ranked as Asia’s best — chefs and managers of Ananda, and a camera crew. This is the first in a series of trips across different states and hospitality properties in India, to unearth ingredients that are celebrated by the local communities but that rarely make their way onto urban plates. Curated by the Australia-based online travel aggregator, Luxury Escapes, this experimental and experiential trail will soon be available to tourists.
On the crew
On the edges of memory
Rediscovering: mol, timru, hisalu
Barely a few minutes into our trek, we stumble across bear food. “This is mol,” says Kamlesh Negi, the chef-mentor at Masque, plucking the round fruit with its greenish-yellow skin. “It belongs to the pear family and turns black when it ripens. It’s a sweet fruit that the bear loves. We can consume it, too. Try it?”
And sweet it is — a mashup between the fine-grained texture of a fig and the hardness of a semi-ripe guava. Within minutes of the discovery, the forest opens up its bounty. We come across the elusive timru, which can be interpreted in dishes as a crushed pepper or pickled peppercorns; the kilmoda (barberry), the roots of which are used to treat diabetes; and the golden-yellow Himalayan raspberries known as hisalu — sour, with a hint of mint. “Locally, people will just pick and eat them,” says chef Diwakar Balodi of Ananda. “But culinarily, this is a replacement for the raspberry. It can even be used in cheesecakes.”
A few kilometres away, we come across Himalayan trout in the Ghaggar river, which merges with the Ganga. A local dhaba serves us the freshly-caught fish, cooked in the mouth-numbing timru, in steel plates, alongside a generous helping of dal and rice. Back in Mumbai, chef Varun Totlani of Masque would interpret this with smoked barramundi, prepared with mountain masala (a combination of spices that includes turmeric, cumin, and fennel) and millets.
The Himalayan story is vast: from the promise of local ingredients in the biodiversity park to the creative ways that the locals incorporate them in their dishes — through age-old pickling techniques (using salt, oil, and even sugar), or fashioning them into pastes for the sacred Dham or temple food. India just hasn’t caught up with them yet.
Tales of resilience
Rediscovering: kachri, karwanda, chakotra
As a native of Rajasthan, one of the earliest memories of my hometown in Nagaur is that of my maternal grandmother cooking mutton in the style of my ancestral Rajput hunters — wrapping the marinated meat in a gunny sack and placing it in a freshly-dug pit, not more than a few odd inches in the ground, over hot coals.
It’s this technique that we celebrate when I visit Jodhpur in July, accompanied by teams from Masque and Mihirgarh (a part of House of Rohet’s boutique properties). But the attempt is with rabbit meat, or khad, instead of the mutton of my childhood. In Rajasthan, fresh ingredients are few and far in between. Between the sun blasting down on the city and the unforgiving desert encircling it, we find the stories of forgotten ingredients in the wild plants that grow on the wayside.
“The ingredient of our lives is kachri,” Hartnaram Devasi, a 72-year-old farmer, tells me. “It’s a small, wild melon but we use it to tenderise the meat, pickle it with red chillies, or simply use it as a paste in a curry.” But as chef Bahadur Singh of Mihirgarh says, kachri, which is often mistaken for a fruit, is resilient and one of the few vegetables that grows on khejri trees. Its vines climb the khejri, which often look ghostly during the dry season — they shed their leaves, leaving behind stark, skeletal branches. Incorporating kachri into a dish is tricky, as the lines between the ingredient turning excessively bitter are too fine.
For chef Totlani of Masque, kachri is a soulful story, one that blends it with other, less-popular ingredients from Rajasthan, such as karwanda (a flowering shrub), which adds a sour and tangy flavour to dishes such as chutneys, pickles, and curries, and chakotra (pomelo), which is well-suited to the hot and arid climate of the state, as it is drought-resistant. It is used in many Rajasthani desserts, such as halwa and kheer.
The nagfani, a thorny plant that grows abundantly in the streets and dunes of Rajasthan, we find, could be incorporated into the larger Indian palate by marrying it with kachri and green tomato. “The stories are all around us,” says Devasi. “It’s just about changing your gaze. We don’t have much in terms of plants, so we have to be creative with what we have.”
An ocean of green gold
A couple of months later, I’m in Nerul, gazing out over the Arabian Sea. If one looks closely at the amorphous, seemingly moss-covered rocks lining the shore, one will find it alive and green — with a treasure that India’s waking up to. Seaweed.
With over 700 variants, it grows on rocks below the high water mark and on the seabed. But unlike Southeast Asia, with its seaweed-rich cuisine, this diverse, mineral-rich marine algae gets little attention in India. I chat with Sebastian Menezes, a local fisherman, who says they look at seaweed as fluff — lacking culinary value, and used as bait to catch smaller fish. But then I meet Gabriella D’Cruz, a Goan marine conservationist, who is on a mission to wake Indians to this green gold through her initiative, The Good Ocean, which supplies a variety of dried seaweed to restaurants across the country. Totlani, for instance, recently created a seaweed cocktail in collaboration with Ahilya by the Sea, a Relais & Châteaux property in Candolim, and D’Cruz.
“Often, when we go into the sea, the fishing communities think we are occupying their space and fishing,” she says. “For Goans, the full potential of seaweed has still not been realised.”
The power of green
Rediscovering: pachakurumulaku, vazha
It’s October, and the final pit-stop in my ingredients trail is the vividly-coloured lanes of Fort Kochi, where the lessons from Rajasthan echo. As we make our way into the spice markets, we come across a pepper house breathing its last.
I am accompanied by chef Robin Thomas of Malabar House, a boutique hotel in Fort Kochi, and chef Vipin Joy of Purity, a property perched on the edge of Lake Vembanad in Muhamma 50 km away. I learn that green pepper (also known as pachakurumulaku in Malayalam), which is harvested from the hillsides of Idukki, is a key ingredient in Kerala that hasn’t yet caught up with India at large. Beyond its medicinal properties — it alleviates digestive problems, respiratory issues, and inflammation — it is used to spice many traditional dishes, including a few in the traditional Onasadya.
Then there’s the banana plant, or vazha. All its parts are celebrated in the South, but its holistic usage is lost in other parts of India where it is largely consumed as just a fruit. Around Purity, I observe farmers using the plant’s leaf as a cover during the rains, its roots as medicine, the peel as fertiliser, and its sheath to thicken their gravies. “We use banana flowers in our traditional dishes, such as vazhapoo thoran and aviyal [a mixed vegetable curry],” says Vijayan, 72, who owns a humble banana plantation. “The stem, known as the thor, is also used to make a thoran [vegetable stir-fry].”
Explore the trail
Future of indigenous
The story of India’s indigenous ingredients is one that has endless potential, but remains limited to their areas of origin. “Unfortunately, the idea [in urban India] is still that ingredients from abroad are better,” says Totlani. “Even at Breach Candy market in Mumbai, you see them parading imported fruits and not so much the Indian ones, because they are less consistent and not pretty to look at.”
So, from incorporating them in our larger supply chain to creatively interpreting their uses, the onus is on us to keep them alive and empower the local communities who are protectors of their tales.
The writer is an author and editor based in Mumbai.