Explore Incredible India. through its food
Janice Rodrigues goes on a lip-smacking journey through India's capital with the Tasting India Symposium
I was sitting in an elaborate, luxurious farm that looked like a fairtytale garden come to life. Lush greenery contrasted with colourful flowers, birds chirped and crooned above and more than one stray peacock had wandered in and were now picking on shrubs.
"Pests," my host for the day, cookbook author Sumeet Nair, confided. "Don't get me wrong - they're beautiful. But they eat everything they find."
I was on Nair's private two-and-a-half acre farm on the outskirts of Delhi, thus explaining his protectiveness. The gorgeous farm was one of many, and it was shocking that spaces like this could exist in one of the biggest, most populous cities in India. Taking it one step further, Sumeet had put a ban on the use of pesticide and insecticide in his farm in 1998, thus going organic when many still didn't know the meaning of the word. All waste here was composted. All plastic recycled.
As a guest of the Tasting India Symposium, I was on a mission to rediscover everything special about Indian food, right down to its roots so to speak. And there was no better way to do it than with the help of a passionate foodie like Sumeet. Although he grew up in Mumbai, it's Chettinad cuisine he specialises in, and that's what he was whipping up this afternoon.
"Chettinad is a small area in South India that comprises about 75 villages in Tamil Nadu," he explained to a group of guests at the Tasting India Symposium. "They were travellers, traders and moneylenders and they visited countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Burma. Although strictly vegetarian, they took in flavours from all these regions and made a cuisine which is basically unlike any other."
Step by step, Sumeet showed us how to prepare a basic beans poriyal - a simple stir fry. As we watched, he blanched the beans in salted water, sautéed it in a mix of spices and grated coconut - and viola, the dish was done. My troop, who mostly hailed from Sweden, oohed and aahed, eating spoonfuls directly from the pot and double dipping as well. It was a dish similar to what I've seen before in Indian households. But it tasted far better here somehow - crunchy, fresh and flavourful - perhaps because of its organic status, the lush surroundings. or the accolades from visitors. We never appreciate anything until someone else wants it, right?
(Sumeet whips up a Chettinad dish of beans poriyal)
Celebrating local cuisine
"Walk 100 kilometres within India and you'll find that the cuisine has changed drastically," said Sumeet - and quite rightly so.
As I've been told time and time again, Indian cuisine is so vast and diverse, clubbing it all together is virtually impossible. I'm not surprised - 29 states, each with its own climate, indigenous ingredients and culinary techniques? And yet, all people have heard about outside India is the butter chicken and the chicken tikka masala.
"Every state is so rich in culinary traditions - and we haven't explored that at all," says Sumeet. "Go to Kerala and you'll find a different cuisine in every community. Chettinad is just one of the many cuisines in Tamil Nadu and its completely different from food found in Pondicherry! Hyderabad is known for its dishes but even then, it's drastically different from Andhra food. And even if you explore the Andhra region, you'll find a variety of cuisines."
So, is it finally time regional food stepped into the limelight? Absolutely, says Sumeet who cites the example of SodaBottleOpenerWala - a restaurant popularizing Parsi food in India. As word of the food and its authenticity spread, the restaurant found itself opening branches in other cities across the country.
"I think it's all about going back to the basics," says Sumeet. "Traditional food is really gaining popularity right now. If anyone were to start a restaurant that serves good food from a particular region, I think it would do very well."
The organic factor
Go to any developed or developing country around the world, and the most common complaint against organic food will be that it's too expensive. Maybe even unaffordable. And then there's the disregard or suspicion. "What exactly is organic food?" is a question most sellers are asked. "Why is it so much more expensive?"
India shifted to a system of industrial agriculture during the 1960s Green Revolution in an attempt to increase yield for its quickly growing population. And while there isn't a lot of scientific backing when it comes to nutritional benefits of organic food, it's a given that organic produce is less likely to be contaminated with pesticides.
Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment, who launched her book First Food: Culture of Taste during the Tasting India Symposium gave an impassioned speech on the day of the launch, urging people to support organic food within the country - while it's still available.
"You don't destroy livelihoods of marginalised farmers and then worry about how to feed them. You don't first destroy biodiversity and then worry about climate control. In the same way, you cannot first contaminate food with pesticides, antibiotics, toxins and insecticides and then think about cleaning it up. This is the elite organic food movement we should not be asking for," she said.
There are several reasons behind the high cost of organic food - it's labour- intensive, yields less produce and has a shorter shelf life. Add to this the fact that most fetilisers are subsidised by the Indian government, and it's easy to see why organic farmers find it impossible to compete in the market. The only way to get the same profit level is to mark their prices higher.
Fresh off the Farm
While travelling through Delhi, a Swedish journalist raised the question: "Why don't people in India want to become farmers? Are the living conditions bad? Or is there an invisible bias against the people who grow our food?"
A similar opinion was voiced by Puneet Jhajharia, cofounder of Crop Connect which works closely with farmers to create sustainable supply chains. While in a village, he asked farmers how many of them wanted their children to follow in their footsteps. Not a single person raised his or her hand. And part of the reason growing crops - especially healthy, organic, types that are not genetically modified - is so difficult for farmers is because of consumer demands.
"For example, cauliflower grown in the outskirts of Delhi is naturally off-white," says Puneet. "But in Delhi, farmers noticed that cauliflower that was white was selling better and for more money. So, farmers started taking white colouring agents and dipping their produce in it - and that's what consumers are eating. This is happening because people don't understand the food they eat."
Co-founders of Crop Connect Puneet and Ishira Mehta have spent years working with farmers and farming cooperatives. According to them, consumer demands shape what most farmers sell. And what consumers want isn't always good for them - or the planet.
"In Ladakh, farmers were told to stop growing black peas which is indigenous to the region - and to start growing green peas, instead because that's what consumers are used to," explains Puneet. "Go to any restaurant in Delhi and you'll find quinoa - but you won't hear about the grain amaranth which is just as nutritious as quinoa - and locally produced.
"We've been drinking turmeric milk for years - but it's only when it's rebranded as turmeric lattes by Starbucks that people in India will pay to drink it. Farmers understand that traditional crops are good for the soil - but they can't find a market for their produce."
In order to convince us of the many benefits of eating local, we were invited to a 'farm-to-fork' lunch at Fire restaurant at Park Hotel - a six course meal with only locally-sourced ingredients. When I noticed that my first course was a burrata salad, I couldn't help but do a double take. After all, this famous semi-soft cheese originates from Italy and has to be eaten fresh (it's best 24 hours after being made).
Also on the menu was a delicate barley risotto - a healthy alternative to traditional risotto - with those much-talked about black peas. Rasam (a traditional South Indian soup) made an appearance, served within a shot glass. Every dish was innovative, fresh and delicious.
"Are all the ingredients available in India?" I asked Ruchika Mehta, the corporate director of communications who luckily, happened to be sitting right next to me. "Even the burrata?"
"Brought in from Bangalore," she said happily. "But don't fill up on it - you need to save space for dessert. We have chocolate mousse, made with cocoa from Mysore. It will make you forget all about that Belgian kind."
I tried the mousse - dark, creamy and intense - and couldn't agree more.
Taking to the Streets
We had heard a lot of people talking about traditional Indian food. But there's no better way to discover it than taste it ourselves. Which is why I found myself wide awake at Chandni Chowk - one of Delhi's oldest and busiest markets - at 8am, with Anubhav Shapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks. "If you go beyond the posh restaurants found in Delhi, you'll discover a whole new food culture," said Anubhav, and I believed him. The market seemed to just be waking up, but there was a treasure trove of joints serving freshly cooked breakfasts.
We started out with a North Indian breakfast of bedmi puri - a fried dish made with lentils and spices - and combined it with nagori halwa, a sweet made with saffron, semolina and ghee, the sweetness of the halwa contrasting wonderfully with the crispiness of the bread. With the Jama Masjid in the background, our team found itself navigating through narrow corridors and vendors, stopping to taste something or the other along the way. The lachcha parantha - a layered roti made with whole wheat flour which could be eaten by itself - was a huge hit with the group. The biryani with buffalo meat, less so.
One of the highlights was discovering Karim's which I'm told is something of a legend in the narrow alleyways. It's obvious the place is popular - the restaurant has three separate sections, and the seating area was packed even though we were there on a weekday. Kebabs are their speciality - but since we were there in the morning we feasted on their breakfast instead - mutton nihari stew. It's a wonderfully spiced concoction that's stewed overnight and eaten with bread. This is, apparently, the breakfast of Mughals.
Three hours later, we had made our way through the spice market as well as what is apparently the world's largest wedding card market. We sipped on lassis with extra cream and scalding hot chai as we watched the busy markets come to life.
At the beginning,of the journey I was told that food is one of India's biggest soft powers. And it is hard to disagree when you go into its heart and understand the cuisine, intricately linked to history as it is. My group of Swedish nationals undoubtedly thought so. Now, if only more consumers could believe it - and take pride in it.