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Stone Age menus reinvent the wheel



The true wisdom of food lies in the past. Even fads. Executive chef Amninder Sandhu’s menu proves it. Rhododendron seekh, a carrot and beetroot kebab drizzling with rhododendron flower syrup, the mousse-like naga mushroom gilawat served on a crisp saffron-flavoured biscuit, chicken makhmali that bears a white cloud of whipped egg whites, and the iconic deomali, a mutton dish cooked in bamboo, are all made using natural heat in Arth, Mumbai. Sandhu says most base ingredients such as paste, smoked meat, charring and even vegetable purée are made in-house by passing minimum heat through the vessels.

Arth has  a slew of awards for promoting sustainable cooking. Chef Sandhu has replicated her kitchen in Pune, along the “no-frills” methods, making the food “nutritionally and taste rich.”It is no new culinary revelation that stoneware and metal dishes boost the mineral content of food, while leaves and bamboo add chlorophyll. Applied as retro health chic, handi and pestle is au courant trendy. Chef Vikas Seth of Sanchez, Bengaluru, started using locally produced avocados instead of the imported variety, which did not have the same “mouth-feel”.

The chef found the solution in the Mexican tool emolcajete (stone mortar pestle) made from volcanic stone. He says, “It has a unique ability to bring traditional flavours to a guacamole.” And the guacamole at Sanchez, which began as an experiential pilot, is now a highlight. Sanchez has a moist Mexican grill that uses emolcajete to make live salads at the table. The “novelty value” along with the boost
of flavour egged Chef Seth to introduce another traditional tool—the Cambodian Khmer grill— in his oriental restaurant, Sriracha.

But are experiential and novelty the only guiding lights of the revival of traditional cooking tools? Chef Akshraj Jodha, executive chef, ITC Windsor, Bengaluru, disagrees, “Many regional foods like idlis, baati and nihari come out better when cooked in the traditional style. They allow the dish to mature while cooking without altering its basic composition.” This perhaps explains the sudden explosion of chattis, presses, chapati makers and such, in restaurants.

“Traditional tools are a step to clean, healthy eating and sustainable cooking,” says Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, St Regis, Mumbai, who has been using them to reinvent moringa pestos and a series of dips. But the real difference, says, Chefpreneur, Chetan Sethi of Ustaadi, “is the flexibility that the traditional tools have vis-a-vis modern technology.” He was among the first to use sigrees in the kitchen to ensure that the kebabs remained moist—“only chicken tandgi was cooked in the tandoor that needs a blast of heat”.

Zero wastage in the kitchen is the new conscience-cooking. The pressure cooker is back in many commercial kitchens. Chef Ravi Tokas, Executive Chef at Prankster, Gurgaon, says while the idea, “was to recreate nostalgia, the equipment allows us to experiment with country chicken and hardy vegetables like elephant foot with ease.” This could also explain the sudden interest of chefs in mandolin —an elaborate version of the home kitchen grater. This traditional tool, says Chef Megha Kohli (Head Chef, Lavaash By Saby), is perfect for making a single dish.

Cast iron tools like the skillet, tawas and slabs, according Chef Sethi, “are better conductors of heat and are good alternatives to modern ovens and grills for baking, roasting or speed scratch cooking (an Indian version of the stir fry). Chefpreneur Sabyasachi Gorai, whose kitchen at BygBrewski and Bob’s Bar, Bengaluru, uses a mix of traditional and modern tools, says using traditional home tools gives chefs a crash course in sustainable, healthy cooking while discovering more effective ways of boosting flavour and aromas—the two essentials of gourmet cooking.”

Agrees Prem K Pogakula, Executive Chef, The Imperial New Delhi, who uses an array of cooking vessels and appliances to give his food the “authenticity” that diners desire today. Yet, most traditional tools are not adopted blindly. Says Dharmesh Karmokar, owner, Thangabali, Mumbai, “Sometimes slight tweaking is all that’s needed to meet the demands of a commercial kitchen.”

Thangabali, which replicates Udupi restaurant kitchens from the 1930’s, uses a traditional stone grinder to make dosa batter and chutneys but with a motor-operated pestle. Likewise, for Biryani By Kilo, biryani is both cooked and served in jaggery-seasoned handis and pots. Says Executive Chef Ritesh Sinha, “It is a practical way to keep the rice moist and the flavours intact while the handi is being delivered.” Both offline and online, sustainable cooking has caught up in India.

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