Food

Indian micro-cuisines and where to find them

A few years ago, when Tanushree Bhowmik’s 96-year-old grandmother gave her a book of handwritten recipes from Assam’s plantations and clubs, she knew she had something special. “If you read about Anglo Indian food, the state doesn’t come up as a reference point as much as Kolkata, Chennai or even Mussoorie. It is puzzling, because as one of the largest tea gardens set up by the British, several officers would have resided there for long periods,” says the Delhi-based development professional with the United Nations. The dishes have now been curated into a menu for her destination pop-up, Gora Sahib’s Table, in October. “We’ll be staying in a heritage tea property and I’ll recreate a ‘Planter’s Lunch’ from what is one of the last remaining documentations of these recipes,” she adds. Meanwhile, in Bengaluru this month, Himayath Khan and Azra of Ghiza Kitchen will be holding a pop-up a week, showcasing their Pakhtooni food.

This focus on micro-cuisines is in line with what the Godrej Food Trends Report 2019 predicted — “conversations, events and dining experiences inspired by specific sub-regions, communities, and even family kitchens” across the country. Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, who has curated the report for the past five years, says there is an increased interest in the unexplored food from the coasts, the Northeast and even the South’s non-vegetarian communities. “We’re seeing mothers, grandmothers and home chefs become ‘subject matter’ experts. Not only are they hosting at home, but professional chefs are looking to them for recipes, and restaurants are opening up their kitchens for pop ups,” says the food historian.

Home-style tours

One example is Anoothi Vishal, the Delhi-based food writer and author of Mrs LC’s Table: Stories about Kayasth Food and Culture, who is in Milan with her Kayasth Khatirdari pop-up this weekend, at chef Ritu Dalmia’s Cittamani. Having curated similar showcases (of the traditional food of the community of medieval scribes) at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent in London in June and Mumbai’s ITC Sonar last May, she says, “They’ve gone from being a homely concept to a highly-stylised one. And, at each stage, the challenges are different.”

Elsewhere, in Kolkata, home cook-turned-food consultant, Iti Misra, 78, has turned her passion into a profitable hobby. She has served her Bengali rajbari (colonial-era zamindar havelis) cuisine at Bengaluru Oota Company and Monkey Bar, and has collaborated with Thomas Zacharias, the executive chef of The Bombay Canteen, for a pop-up featuring 27 dishes. This included a number of vegetarian offerings to break the notion that Bengali food is only about fish. Shukto, for instance, is a mix of summer vegetables like bitter gourd and drumsticks. Meanwhile, Zacharias continued his deep dive into India’s lesser-known cuisines in his recently-concluded ‘A Taste of the Wild’ menu. It featured recipes and ingredients indigenous to the tribal farmers of the Sahyadris — think seasonal greens like gharbandi and sauteed mountain crab.

Connecting kitchens

Technology is also helping further the trend. When Aashi Vel and Stephanie Lawrence co-founded Traveling Spoon in 2013, the San Francisco-based venture was aimed at travellers who wanted to experience life outside tourist traps. In India, this meant traditional Syrian Christian meals in Kochi, or an East Indian cooking experience in a 135-year-old bungalow in Mumbai. More recently, platforms like Authenticook have been expanding the agenda in the country. Founded in 2015 by husband-wife duo Ameya and Priyanka Deshpande, with their friend Aneesh Dhairyawan, the Mumbai-based website hosts over 400 families across 30+ locations. “They say in India, food changes every 50 km. Even if you go by the fact that there are over 700 districts, that’s a lot of cuisines,” says Dhairyawan. The majority of their customers are either from the city or local travellers who want to explore what fellow Indians eat. A quick scroll through the site shows Saoji, Franco Tamilian and East Indian options.

Beyond culinary chauvinism

With Indian food being broken into its smallest expressions, based on location, community or culture, questions of provenance are surfacing. The debate on whether the rasgulla belongs to Bengal or Odisha is just the simplest of them. Can a particular cuisine call itself exclusive, when it has adapted and incorporated ingredients and techniques over the centuries — from Mughal to the colonial, and beyond? Home cooks and food writers are increasingly addressing this today. As Vishal wrote in The Wire last month, with each dish at her Kayasth Khatirdari pop-ups, she wants to “highlight the fact that food is without boundaries, as is a people’s culture”. Reiterating that the intention of micro-cuisine pop-ups is to share it with a larger audience, Chef Zacharias says, “When you talk about spreading regional cuisines, it has to be in the larger context of the country, rather than the microcosm of the cities.”

In these divisive times, as home cooks welcome strangers to their table, making connections that transcend borders, language and shared experiences, we explore some addresses to add to your travel list.

With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar, Nidhi Adlakha, and Malavika Balasubramanian

Plavaneeta Borah, New Delhi | Assamese Kayasth: While Delhi is no stranger to Northeast cuisine, this freelance writer wanted to offer more insight into the food from the region. At Borah’s home pop-ups, you can sample a seven-course meal featuring dishes she grew up with. “It starts with khar, an alkaline dish made with raw papaya, which cleanses your palate,” she says. While the menu includes signature pork dishes, she also highlights seasonal vegetables, especially xaak (leafy greens) like punarnava (red spiderling) and mora paat (jute leaves). “At a recent one, I served fiddlehead ferns, which none of the guests had heard of.” She occasionally makes a few alterations, keeping the local palate in mind. “We don’t have the concept of boneless fish, but diners here prefer that,” she shares. Borah pauses her monthly home dining events during the Delhi summer, and ties up with restaurants instead. “It’s all very different from cooking at home. At Whisky Samba in Gurgaon, they have an elaborate Sunday Brunch, so we made over 30 dishes. At Jamun in Lodhi Colony, we went traditional, since they have a thali.” Find @plavaneeta_borah on Instagram.
Two Rainbows, Mumbai | Seasonal Ayurvedic: For food blogger Amrita Kaur — who hosted her first pop-up, Vasant, in March this year — it is all about blending her love for cooking with Ayurvedic principles. She starts off by revisiting Ayurvedic texts on a particular season, and then speaks to farmers and makes “multiple visits to vegetable markets to spot less popular ingredients. I also approach grandmothers to find seasonal recipes in their communities,” she says. The most enjoyable part is tapping into nostalgia through her creations. For instance, when she decided to make bhutte ka kees (a street food dish from Indore that she’s grown up eating), she tried the tamale style, using Indian white corn instead of sweet corn. Though not a dessert person, her first course, as per Ayurveda, is always ‘sweet’. A popular dish is her mother-in-law’s santre (orange) ki kheer with almond milk, as pairing sour fruits with dairy is incompatible in Ayurveda. At ₹2,800 per person. Follow @tworainbowsbyamrita on Instagram.
Bengaluru Oota Company, Bengaluru | Gowda and Mangalorean: When Divya Prabhakar and Vishal Shetty decided to give up careers in the hospitality and retail sectors to pursue their culinary dreams, they decided not to go down the restaurant route. Instead, they focussed on bringing authentic flavours from their roots — Gowda for Prabhakar and Mangalorean for Shetty. Their tasting room at Cambridge Layout hosts three- and five-course meals customised to diner preferences. Signature dishes include kaima unde (seen here) and marwai ajadina (clams). Details: bengaluruootacompany.com, 9448302628
Vanakkam Mumbai, Mumbai | Tamil Nadu’s regional fare: Though born and brought up in Mumbai, Kalpana Mudliar has a strong connection with her roots and a fierce loyalty to her food. “There is so much to Tamil cuisine than just idli, sambar and lemon rice,” she exclaims. The former corporate communications executive — who, for the last 18 months, has been running a catering service, Vanakkam Mumbai — is now planning to explore the state’s various regions and its micro cuisines through pop-ups. Her July début was an exploration of Chettiar cuisine, in collaboration with a local restaurant. “I curated four thalis from recipes I’ve learnt over the years from my mother and grandmother.” Next up is a pop-up exploring the various culinary influences that make up Pondicherry’s food. The future could include foods from Tirunelveli, Kongu Nadu, and more. Follow @mudliark on Instagram.
Southern Connection by Sangy, Goa | Suriani and Moplah: When the corporate grind got too much, Sangeeta Kuriakos relocated to Goa to give her hobby, cooking, new life. “Up till then, I only used to organise supper clubs on the roof of my Delhi apartment,” says Kuriakos. Initial plans to open a Kerala restaurant were quickly scuppered in favour of turning a travelling chef, with a (three year old) catering business and pop-ups. “As someone who has spent time in all the southern states, I want to promote regional cuisine. But since I am from Kerala, its cuisine — Moplah (think unnakai and erachi puttu), Hindu (from Thrissur) and Suriani (with Kochi and Kottayam influences) — is my speciality.” Her pop-ups have also travelled. At one in Delhi, she introduced tapas, with Kerala parotta and servings of potato mezhukkupuratti and mutton fry. Bengaluru can expect one soon, too. Follow sangeeta.kuriakos on Facebook for details.
Vrushali Miskin, Mumbai | Saoji: While there are two branches of the Saoji community — one from Nagpur and the other from Hubli — Miskin is very clear she is from the latter. “In Nagpur, they have both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. We are purely non-vegetarian.” Descendants of a warrior clan, the food of the community is known for being spicy and high in oil. “The masala is made using bedki mirchi, one of the spiciest chillies in India. You won’t find it in any shop; it is always made at home. The food itself is the kind you’ll find in Hubli households, and not in any restaurant,” she explains. Now settled in Goregaon East, she and her mother, Prafullata, have signed up with Authenticook to share their food with a wider audience, though they’ve been running a catering service for 18 months. At ₹1,300, guests are served a thali featuring signature dishes like khara boti (a mutton starter), mutton chops and gravy, served with edmi, a traditional flatbread made with spices. “For rice, it is biranjan bhaat made with basmati rice, pudina and garam masala,” she says.
ForkTales, Delhi | Assamese Planter: Food history enthusiast, and co-founder of ForkTales, Tanushree Bhowmik hosts several themed dinners at her home, ranging from 5,000 years of Indian food to a majestic meal from the Sanskrit text, Mānasollāsa (dating back to between 1126 to 1138 AD). But it is her heritage food that draws attention. Planter cuisine is largely unheard of, but in a 2D2N experience, you can go back in time to eat like the sahibs, albeit influenced by both British and Assamese cultures. “A recipe for lemon butter pabda — a very European dish made with a local fish, has a dash of aromatic ginger, which can stump you,” she says. While home-based pop-ups are priced an average of ₹2,200 (for 10 courses), the annual Assam trip is ₹35,000 per head, excluding travel and including accommodation, food, logistics and taxes. Details: forktales.in
Puliyogare Travels, Chennai | Prasadam edition: Rakesh Raghunathan has spent years bringing the lesser-known aspects of South Indian cuisine to a larger audience — through food festivals at star hotels and cooking demos. In Dakshin Diaries, his Living Foodz show that launched earlier this year, he showcased Kanchipuram idli, bun halwa from the Saurashtra community and samba saadam from Chidambaram. His latest, he says, “is a thematic presentation on Ganesha, where I talk, cook, sing, share culinary history and mythology, all around Ganesha prasadams”. This will feature dishes like the patoli, which is similar to elai ada. Follow @therakeshraghunathan on Instagram.
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, Mumbai |Garhwali: This food writer, and founder of APB Cook Studio, was inspired by forerunners like Gitika Saikia, who has been sharing her Assamese food with Mumbaikars for over four years now. “I’d started writing about Garhwali food (from Uttarkhand’s Gharwal region), but the only way to keep a cuisine alive is by cooking and serving it,” says Ghildiyal. At her pop-ups, the simple food, which she was introduced to after marrying into a Garhwali family, is accompanied by the stories of the people who taught her to cook. Like Papa-wala mutton curry from her father-in-law and Manji chachi-wali tamatar ki chutney from her husband’s aunt. And for all the hate bottle gourd gets, “I’ve had people work their way through bowls of the malai wali lauki,” she laughs. As for the ingredients, most of them are sourced when she travels to the region. The biggest compliment, she says, “is when Garhwali folk come for a meal, and go back reminiscing about their mothers and grandmothers”. Follow @rushinamg for updates on her next pop-up.
Ghiza Kitchen, Bengaluru | Pakhtooni: Pashtun couple, Himayath Khan and Azra Himayath, are breaking boundaries. “I’m a third generation Indian with roots in Afghanistan, while my wife’s family is originally from UP, but moved to Pakistan before the Partition,” says Khan. Egged on by a friend, who convinced them to start something along the lines of The Bohri Kitchen in Mumbai, they launched Ghiza Kitchen in March last year. They host weekly lunch pop-ups at their home, showcasing Pakhtooni delicacies like charsi tikka, mutton nihari and Karachi biryani to guests who sign up for the experience. “We’re generally very private people, but we share stories of how each dish relates to our lives, and a little bit of history about what we’re serving as well,” he explains. The advertising professional says that, besides visitors to the city, “we have a lot of local residents who are happy to come in, just way they'd go to a restaurant”. At ₹1,550 per head. Follow @ghizakitchen on Instagram and WhatsApp 9591958918 for details.
Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, New Delhi | Mughal flavours of Nizamuddin Basti: In 2012, a group of mothers banded together to make homemade alternatives to the basti’s junk offerings. While this was part of a Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative (by the Aga Khan Development Network), in 2015, they started a catering wing. “Today, they’ve grown into an independent women’s enterprise owned by 11 chefs adept at the cuisine of Nizamuddin,” says programme coordinator Swati Batra. “The first pop-up, held last March, was a step towards regaining their lost identities and rising up in hierarchy, both family and social.” With menus that include achaari biryani (scented rice with a pickle in the meat) and lauki gosht (bottlegourd in a traditional mutton gravy), apart from an assortment of kebabs, the meals usually come with a heritage walk/performance, by Sair-e-Nizamuddin, a cultural group supported by the same larger project. One paid tribute to poet Mirza Ghalib, while another gave guests a traditional kabutarbazi (pigeon flying) experience. They also take on pre-booked lunches and dinners. Pop-ups are priced around ₹1,500. Follow @Zaika.e.Nizamuddin on Facebook for details.
Ambrosia Kitchen, Mumbai | Bihari: Rachna Prasad goes beyond the litti chokha that Bihari cuisine is known for, to bring diners the food of her Patna upbringing. While she has been catering for nine years, her pop-ups began a couple of years ago, and the demand for mutton goli and Bihari-style rice dishes has not died down since. “At a recent pop-up at the Bombay Gymkhana, people wanted to know why I hadn’t made more of the champaran mutton. I had to explain that it is a lengthy process, which involves cooking the meat in clay and on dum,” she laughs. As always, ingredients can be tricky, especially the spices that she sources from the state. “We get organic sattu (a mixture of ground pulses and cereals) here, but it might not give the taste we grew up with. So I prefer to source this from back home,” she says. Prasad is also full of stories about rare dishes. “There are things you just can’t do here: like a chicken dish that is baked underground in a hollowed out watermelon.” Find @ambrosia.in on Facebook.
Pop-Ups by Devika, Mumbai | The Homecoming Series: Chefs like Devika Manjrekar, who generally serves Italian fare in monthly pop-up dinners, are also trying out cuisine that’s close to their heart. When a health issue kept her out of the kitchen, Manjrekar turned to her roots to keep her business running. “I’ve always thought home-cooked Indian food is the best. So why not get the cooks I know to make what they do best, for paying customers? Since I’m 1/4th Manglorean, and it is my favourite Indian cuisine, I started with that,” she says of her newest venture, The Homecoming Series. The brass lunch thali includes hot idlis, chicken sukka, mutton stew and kadlimanoli (a mix of tindli and channa). A vegetarian Kokanasta Brahmin lunch cooked by her mother, aunt and their friend is also in the works. Follow @popupsbydevika on Instagram for details.
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