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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

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