The return of homely ingredients to restaurants

Comeback queens: Reviving time-honoured culinary practices in India is the norm today. Chefs explain which homely ingredient is their restaurant favourite and why

Long before Halloween and Thanksgiving became trendy in India and superfoods became buzzwords, the pumpkin was a regular in Indian homes, served as kaddu with puri and often passed off by mothers as potato. Makhana or fox nuts were the unpretentious evening snack and aubergines were simply called baingan, starring in the baingan ka bharta, baghare baingan or begun bhaja that we all knew and relished.

As beloved as they were at home, for decades, eating out meant escaping them. Not any more.

These humble foods have now acquired fashionable status, and staid seems to be trendy, owing to enterprising chefs who have given these ingredients a comeback on kitchen shelves and are using them to jazz up menus.

Diners are lapping it up, owing partly to their health benefits and partly to their intriguing makeovers, in terms of recipe and presentation.

Global trends impact popularity, and chefs unanimously agree. Chef Vineet Manocha, Senior VP – Culinary, Lite Bite Foods says, “Healthy, sustainable and traceable ingredients, is the biggest food trend these days. A successful chef understands his ingredients thoroughly and knows how to create a balance by combining these with other ingredients.”

Anirban Dasgupta, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency, Pune, elaborates, “Vegetables have by and large come back because we have realised both the importance of eating right, and the imbalance that we are creating to our bodies and the planet by eating way too much meat. And as a chef, vegetables present a wider spectrum of cooking opportunities for me.”

The golden ingredient

Chefs have elevated the status of this rustic, flavour-packed vegetable that was relegated to the background, and pumpkins have finally got their due on menus in India. Roasted pumpkin soup, pumpkin fritters, pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin tarts now stare back at us from several menus, even as gourmands experiment with this vegetable at home.

Stems and leaves of fruits and vegetables have always been a part of our cooking tradition, with a view to curtailing food wastage, as well as imparting unique textures and flavours.

In Bengal, pumpkin skin is fried and used as a side dish, while some restaurants use the skin to add flavour to stock or as crisps to garnish the food.

There are also ingredients that are more surprising. For years, chefs never thought of using the red leaves of choulai or amaranth, grown abundantly across India. Rajgira, the grain of the same plant, is an equal treasure trove, chefs are now tapping. From rajgira puri to rajgira coconut barfi and nachos to rajgira halwa, chefs are exploring the infinite possibilities that this grain presents.

Gouri of Gouri’s Goodies, Mumbai, says, “You’re probably seeing amaranth pop up with increasing frequency, but it has been around for 8,000 years.” She adds, “A source of protein for those who don’t eat meat, it has a great advantage in India with its high vegetarian population. Try roasting or popping it for a bit of crunch, malty sweetness and add it to granola, salads, or even as a crisp coating to meats.”

Augmenting the aubergine

At home, the baingan, termed as aubergine or eggplant on restaurant menus, has acquired star status. Owing to its versatility and texture, it lends itself easily to a lot of cuisines like Middle Eastern and Italian, apart from Indian.

Moringa or drumstick leaves too have been rediscovered by chefs, and from methi moringa ka jhinga to moringa soup, its subtle flavours, now, tease palates. Other ingredients, such as makhanas and millets, have found their rightful place back in kitchens. Rich in protein, with a low glycaemic index, makhanas or lotus seeds, a humble snack or used when one was fasting, is now back in various forms.

Chefs use it to make chaats and chikki and, at home, people snack on peri peri-flavoured makhanas instead of a buttery popcorn.

Chef Vishal Atreya of The Pump House, Bengaluru, acquiesces, “Given the fibre, essential vitamins and antioxidants they provide, these ingredients are indispensable in a kitchen.”

Millets too are seen making a return in an array of dishes. Ragi halwa, is what Chef Atreya proudly serves on his menu. Chef Anirban concurs, “I make a conscious attempt to use ragi, amaranth and jowar at our European Bistro, Zeta, in tacos and sourdough.”

Punjab Grill too, does its share. Chef Vineet lists out, “Amaranth mutton seekh kebab, kathal ke kofte, kali gajar di kanji, bajre di khichadi, ragi te khubani da halwa are some unique dishes we serve using these ingredients, and guests enjoy them.”

Chef Milan Gupta of Taftoon, Mumbai, says chefs have a pivotal role to play in popularising these ingredients. “Although, for years, restaurants and commercial kitchens have stuck to only a few ingredients that they use daily like a formula, things are changing now.”

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 8:43:28 AM |

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