Express News Service

In East Delhi’s Swasthya Vihar, Anita Tikoo, a landscape architect who’s also uber-popular among India’s food community for her sourdough bread, grows local, seasonal produce of various kinds. From the terrace of her rather art deco home, she has successfully cultivated things that you may not spot everywhere in Delhi — such as the malabar spinach and purslane. Though not rare, you wouldn’t expect to see these items feature in everyone’s everyday menus here.

Tikoo, though, is not the exception — at least not any longer. For, in our city’s burgeoning culinary merry-go-round, chefs of increasingly larger stature are finding ways to incorporate local, seasonal food items into fine dining menus. Such regional produce, in fact, is finding favour ahead of westernised items in such menus today. I experienced one such instance, where amusingly, the weather nearly mimicked my expectations of what was to be served.

It was a bright and sunny day when suddenly, rain clouds enveloped Delhi and it began to pour endlessly. Sitting inside Tres, a chic European fine dining restaurant in the Lodhi Art District, I indulged in some freshly-made bread with butter – so fresh that it still retained its warmth and softness. Hosting me was Chef Jatin Mallick, who helms the Tres kitchen alongside Chef Julia Carmen Desa – a stalwart figure of our culinary industry.

Speaking about his take on fine dining experiences, Mallick highlighted why it is important for chefs of today to “use and highlight our country’s local, seasonal produce—instead of always looking westward.” This served as the backdrop of ‘Pyramidini’, a stuffed pasta with water chestnuts, mustard and pesto. While all of the above are well within the purview of expectations, what stands out is the final ingredient of this dish — Indian gooseberry, aka amla. Despite the bewilderment of finding amla in a pasta dish, the taste was nothing short of a revelation – nothing like what I had tasted before, and something that will have me return to Tres in the future.

A second similar experience – this time of a full-scale menu, in fact, was at the inimitable Olive in Mehrauli. Here, the prolific Chef Dhruv Oberoi assembled salad leaves with a mango-ginger dressing, topped with fermented amla and garnished with a mango relish and poppy seeds granola. Don’t be fooled by how elaborately poetic the description sounds- despite its exotic undertone, in its essence, Oberoi’s salad is Indian to the core.

Some of Oberoi’s other creations put the spotlight on other similar and less-common fixtures such as seabuckthorn – a berry found in Ladakh, seasonal pumpkins, and millets. Truth be told, we’re not unfamiliar with any of these ingredients. However, their role in the makeover of fine dining menus means that modern-day restaurants are clearly swapping classic European produce for Indian ones. “It’s monotonous that whatever we created up until one point was inspired by the West – it was time that we realised the richness of our own legacy and heritage. It is this that pushed us to shift our focus from foreign ingredients to our own range of indigenous ingredients, which in fact have formed the basis of many unique recipes,” said Oberoi.

Looking deeper into this trend, the message is clear – dishes that we create with oomph and flair today clearly have ample room to glorify humble seasonal items found in abundance across India. Some such items include shevla bhaji from Maharashtra, kaali gaajar from the north Indian belt, gongura from Andhra Pradesh, and bok phool (Heron flowers) from West Bengal, among innumerable more such options.

Adopting such items is crucial today, for a lot of our culinary experiences have for long lacked regional, seasonal diversities. Depleting water tables and a rapidly reducing diversity quotient in soil have contributed to such produce receding even further. As a result, finding such regional items is left largely to local regions only– which is surprising, given the hyper-commodification and localisation of nearly all items within India.

Thankfully, there is an increasing community of takers of these items, who are also vocal about promoting their taste, contribution to biodiversity, and the addition of variety to home and fine dining food fare. Through numerous organic food ventures that have increasingly covered at least the urban regions of India, we are clearly seeing the return of seasonal vegetables – a sign that is always great for the fertility of the soil.

In the end, it feels great to see serious efforts being put in behind promoting local, regional fare within menus today. Not only for eaters and aficionados – this promises to be of immense value to local communities by bringing many regional items to the mainstream fold. This could even promote regional tourism within urban hubs, and in turn, even uplift sections of our community!

Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog
‘Delectable Reveries’

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