A lot has been happening since I met culinary experts Professor Pushpesh Pant and Chef Nishant Choubey at the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi last December 2017. At that time, Chef Nishant was curating food experiences at the elegant aero-city Roseate House.
Soon after, Chef teamed up with the Professor to go full-speed on a mission redefine what Indian cuisine means to the world! A mission inspired by Tasting India’s Indian Food Manifesto. Globally, Indian cuisine suffers from pretty much the same fate as Chinese cuisine. The extraordinary subtlety and diversity of Indian cuisine is often lost in globally standardized dishes. Chicken Tikka Masala might make good business and comforting takeaway food for a Brit like me, but too often this kind of fare just ends up confining the image of Indian cuisine to an inexpensive, greasy afterthought.
The term curry was adopted by the British East India Company, from the Tamil word Kari, meaning sauce. The menus at most Indian restaurants in the UK are usually an extremely simplified version of Mughlai/ Moghul cuisine, which is just one type of north Indian food. That cuisine is again reduced to two or three rich sauces and types of stews. These flavours do not begin to represent Moghul cuisine, let alone the rich heritage of the Indian continent. Dr. Pant calls this phenomenon ‘The curse of curry!” This is not to dismiss all the food of the Indian diaspora, but the world has so much more to experience when it comes to ‘Indian cuisine.’
Chef Nishant and Professor Pushpesh Pant shopping for fresh produce in Delhi.
The Holy Grail: nurturing a nations food heritage.
“There is an urgent need to document the dishes of the Indian continent before they disappear forever,” says the Professor.
Already so much has been forgotten. Even the diversity of ingredients is slowly disappearing as people move away from an agricultural way of life and food is increasingly mass-produced for supermarkets. India’s socio-economic landscape is also taking its toll. In the past, cooks were often servants, and recipes were handed down orally, with subtle variations from household to household, let alone region to region.
Food is the strongest expression of our humanity. In Europe, food is recognised as the guardian of a nation brand’s identity and a main driver of the economy. A huge emphasis has been being placed on protecting, sharing and communicating food heritage in France, Spain, and Italy, for example, so that the plethora of industries connected to food can thrive, both for export and also as attraction.
Food museums are also starting to appear, to try and help to preserve global and local food heritage in archives. Restaurants and chefs, inspired by the likes of El Bulli and Noma, are researching locality to explore the meaning of food for future generations. Food heritage has become synonymous with quality as well as quality of life. The European Union has schemes to protect and distinguish traditional regional specialties, such as the protected designation of origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG) certifications.
To consider what is happening to centuries of knowledge and rich culture of war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria is heart-breaking. The loss is hard to fathom. Food heritage runs so much deeper than the recipes you find in restaurants. It’s in people’s homes and hearts. Food provides the earliest knowledge of locality, interconnectivity and sustainability, that enabled our ancestors to thrive and trade internationally. It includes site-specific knowledge about wildlife, plants and animals and the methods of food production and resources that enabled farming villages to appear. These farming communities were by nature ‘integrated ecovillages': communities that grew diverse crops and grains, tended to cattle and orchards, made their own crafts and textiles, and supplied local networks of breweries, artisans, markets, hotels and inns.
Food heritage is a dynamic spectrum that gently evolves and changes form over changing geographies and landscapes. But it is a story that is continuous and connects us all and refuses to be contained within national boundaries.
Ladies from the village of Machkali, Uttrakhand, cooking at Vrikshalaya centre. www.foundnature.org
Currently, the Chef and the Professor are curating food experiences for an upcoming festival in Delhi hosted by the Asian Heritage Foundation in association with World Bank. One of the meals curates a selection of dishes that were loved by the great Mahatma Gandhi, to commemorate his 150th Birthday.
The meals that the great Mahatma Gandhi loved.
“It really is time the world learns that there is so much more to Indian food than Mugalia cuisine!” says the Professor! “India is a vast continent with ingredients and dishes and techniques as diverse as the people, cultures and languages from which they originate!”
One of the first pop-up events the Professor and Chef did this year was at the famous Indus restaurant in Bangkok. Indus has been in service since 2006 and making waves with fashionable international crowd since winning its place in the Michelin guide. Indus is one of the few restaurants to introduce quality Indian cusine to the west via fine dining. Inviting the Professor and Chef to curate a menu outside the known Moghul dishes was a statement in itself. A provocation, perhaps, and a gateway invitation to Michelin to go and experience India?
At Indus: Kadala Byas Minu, or Kombdicha motla, representing Mangalore. The fish is marinated with kokum, a plant in the mangosteen family.
Chef Nishant explains: “The concept of our popup menus and events is to make the world aware of the diversity of India’s culinary heritage, whilst encouraging chefs to learn about all these forgotten stories and adapt and innovate with them.”
Chef and Professor curated a meal for Indus which they called: Past, Present and Future; 10 courses inspired by 10 regions. Each course told a special story about the history of the region it represented, and a special ingredient that is at risk of being forgotten. In contrast to the impeccable meal at Mrs. Radha Bhatia’s Roseate Farm last December this meal was not pure vegetarian – but contained seafood, meat and poultry.
Nomads on a mission.
The Chef and Professor continue to travel India researching traditional recipes and ‘lost gems’. They travel to a region, follow locally known food trails looking for local superfoods, they forage in forests and meet food producers and talk to local people about food celebrated in folklore. Most recently, they have focussed on the hill state of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, as well as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.
Professor Pushpesh Pant talking to young chefs at Indus, Bangkok.
“We work together like conjoined Siamese Twins!” says the Professor. They have two more members in their core team; Zuber Baigh helps them with archival documentation and media, and Govind Singh Kirola is in charge of the ethno-botanical and cultural anthropological research. The Professor and Chef travel together following the leads of the researchers who support their fieldwork with ongoing research.
“Our dream project is to set up a culinary institute specializing in Indian vegetarian cuisines,” says Chef Nishant.
The Professor concludes. “And for India we wish three things; That there should plenty for everyone to eat, with freedom of choice to eat what one wishes to eat. This is a matter of distribution. We have plenty.
Secondly, food should be healthy and free from all artificial flavors, colorings, preservatives, and synthetic additives of any kind.
And lastly, the food on our plates should be produced with dignity for everyone involved, relating organically to the people and places who produce it.”
Tasting India Symposium: http://www.tastingindiasymposium.com
Video on Pop Up event at Indus, Bangkok, in Thai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SvNggnlWDM
Thai blog post about the popup event at Indus: https://www.gudfoodblog.com/indus-nishant-pushpesh-pant/
Incredible India: http://www.incredibleindia-tourism.org
Roseate Hotels: www.roseatehotels.com/
El Bulli: http://www.elbulli.info/
The Vrikshalaya Center, Uttrakand, www.foundnature.org.
Dr. Pushpesh Pant – email@example.com
Chef Nishant- firstname.lastname@example.org
Text by Tanya Kim Grassley
How I first met Chef at the Roseate Hotel, Aerocity: I have never had such a delicious Tarka Daal, and to this day I do not understand what Chef did to elevate such a simple and well-known vegetarian dish! We soon got talking, about food of course.
The inauguration lunch of the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi, last December 2017, was at Roseate Farm; a venture into small-scale organic farming and the ‘heart project’ of Mrs. Radha Bhatia, Chairperson of the Bird Group that owns the family of Roseate hotels. The farm supplies the Roseate hotels in Delhi with organic produce. Tasting India is a platform and symposium founded by the Cultural Curator, Sanjoo Malhotra and Food Writer, Sourish Bhattacharyya.
Sanjoo and Sourish are on a roll, to say the least. Tasting India has the highest ambitions to create a sustainable food culture in India. It is actively connecting all types of stakeholders working within organic food production; from small-scale farming that builds local community resilience, to food distribution such as independent food brands, farmers markets, coops for local crafts and traditions, to experience promoting regional and cultural diversity, such as education, chefs working with seasonality, eco-tourism and environmental sustainability, and last but not least- NGOs working with human ecology, from gender and identity to food sharing.
A happy day for Roseate Hotel’s Chef Nishant Choubey.
The symposium’s launch meal was a tasting menu and journey into Ayurvedic thought, designed by Chef Nishant Choubey, as representative of the produce from the idyllic farm settings.
Renowned food expert Professor Pushpesh Pant explained: “The concept of the meal is from ‘farm to plate’ – in times gone by everyone in India ate like that. Whatever was grown in the kitchen garden came directly to the dinner table. But right now, it’s only the super-rich who seem to be able to eat completely organically grown, pesticide-free, fresh food, grown from a nearby farm, with all the nutrients that rich, clean soil gives.”
Everyone can still eat like this if they keep two things in mind, the professor says.
“Eat seasonally, and eat regionally. Eat what you get locally in that season, buy your produce and then explore your creativity to see what you can do with what is in season.”
The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit, meaning ‘life-knowledge’. It’s a complete system of how to maintain health and balance in life, the philosophy of health at the heart of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and permeates every aspect of life, not least of all, food.
Simple yet delicious Gobhi Keema Adraki, Cauliflower and minced ginger.
Food is at the centre of life. It is pleasure and it is nutrition. It is culture and identity. In the Ayurveda tradition, food functions to build a healthy metabolism, by moderating foods that can be harmful to the mind or body. When you consider the Ayurveda way of food, you will see an overlap with cultures from all over the world. Food is life, food is medicine. A nutritious and balanced diet can limit diseases stemming from internal inflammation.
The Professor concludes: “You do not have to choose between a healthy life and a pleasurable life; it is part of a healthy, balanced life to enjoy food! Life is meant to be enjoyed, and taking pleasure in life is part of finding balance.”
Ayurveda; 1000-year-old Systems Thinking
The Ayurveda approach to food is known as a ‘Sattvic’ diet or ‘yogic’ diet. It is supposed to be a conscious, holistic approach, from producing to consuming, that today we call ‘from farm to table.’ But from farm to table is nothing new- this is the way everyone used to eat and the way some rural communities still support themselves.
The diet itself has an innate awareness of the connectedness to nature and interconnectivity with community upon which we all rely. It places emphasis on nurturing the essential: using seasonal and local foods from your own kitchen garden or village farm. It’s about ethics and knowledge of where the food comes from and where the waste goes.
A Sattvic diet is, therefore, vegetarian, as there is no need to slaughter animals to maintain our health. Cows are an intrinsic part of the organic farm though; the bullocks are used for ploughing, the cows give milk, and both produce natural fertilizer from vegetable scraps. It’s the small-scale organic farming system that fed the whole of India until the 1960’s. It’s a system that could work today, if we value and support the work of our farmers, and create efficient systems and infrastructures that get their produce to market.
The pickles were amazing! To call them mere pickles feels like an injustice.
The Six Tastes of Ayurveda
Most of us who have heard about Ayurveda have heard about the three doshas, or three elements called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. When the doshas are in balance, a person can reach optimal health, while imbalance of the doshas provokes disease. Or as the saying goes: ‘You are what you eat.’ What was new to me were the 6 Rasas, or 6 tastes of Ayurveda, that balance the three elements in our bodies. These are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent.
A dish with humble origins; Khichra, a beautifully delicate and ‘more-ish’ porridge of lentils, rice and quinoa.
A chef working with Indian cuisine not only needs to know about the flavours of food, that make food pleasurable, but also the medicinal values of those foods and their effect on the body in combination. It’s a fundamental difference between traditional and modern eating habits all over the world. In the past, the person who prepares food is the guardian of our health. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives.
Chef Nishant Choubey adds: “Today, as we eat out in a variety of places, the responsibility for our health and nutrition has shifted to the individual. More and more, food is designed to be enticing but not nutritional. Food has to be both, or it is empty of meaning.”
Christmas Pudding and Jelabis for dessert!
Roseate Hotels. http://www.roseatehotels.com/
The Bird Group. http://www.thebirdgroup.com/
Tasting India. http://www.tastingindiasymposium.com/
Incredible India: http://www.incredibleindia-tourism.org/
Mrs. Radha Bhatia, owner and founder of the Roseate Farm and Chairperson of The Bird Group.
On the South of Delhi in Gurgaon is a technical college that has high ambitions to provide a new type of education within service and hospitality. Unlike others, this college has a strong focus on applied knowledge and circular economy within food, from ‘farm to forks and fingers.’
Food cooked and plated by first year students.
The Institute, called Vedatya, is still young but has already achieved so much. I arrived there on a sunny December day with Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of the platform and network Tasting India. It was towards the end of Tasting India’s 2017 symposium on food, where Sanjoo and his co-founder Sourish Bhattacharya, had collected some of India’s leading influencers and change-makers. The missing piece at the symposium, until that day, had been education; how to create a new integrated learning model for organic food businesses that would teach theory in a practical and experiential way.
Sanjoo Malhotra, co-founder of Tasting India on the grounds of Vedatya, December 2017.
From star chefs to culinary entrepreneurs.
I didn’t expect to find an organic farm on campus. Sanjay Sharma, Head Chef at Vedatya explains: “For a chef to be able to work effectively and maximize their creativity, they really need to know how food grows; what local ingredients are available, what is the seasonality, how are they grown, and which parts can be used.”
High tech buildings of the Vedatya Institute.
Vedatya currently has 4 acres of farmland, a herb garden, lots of fruit trees; mango, lychee, lemons, oranges, chiku, and papaya. And to complete the full ecosystem of sustainable practices, the institute is going to keep cows on-campus, for both compost and dairy and develop an 100 percent organic fish farm that can also create natural fertilizer. This integrated approach to applied learning allows current students in training, as well as industry professionals, to really value local, organic produce, and explore more sustainable culinary practices.
Vedatya chefs in the farm.
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya explains: “India’s population is over 1,2 billion, almost 18 percent of the world, and yet we are a nation of mostly male engineers. 90 percent of those engineers are unemployed. We need to change our education system quickly and develop new types of skills. India’s education system is still in silos, and very gendered, and class divided.”
Amit Kapur, Managing Promoter of Vedatya.
Kapur continues: “We really wanted to create something that will last beyond our lifetimes.” Ved means knowledge in Sanskrit, and Aditya means Sun. Vedatya, therefore, is a coined name that sounds like ‘Source of Knowledge.’ Its goal is to become a model for higher education and a hub of interdisciplinary knowledge with industry – where scientists and philosophers can work alongside farmers, gardeners, artists, chefs – and even engineers.
Chef Megha Kohli, Head Chef at the restaurant Lavaash Delhi, holding a class on how cuisines are reborn.
At Vedatya, a chef isn’t just a chef anymore. A culinary student could work anywhere in India’s food business – from being a hotelier or restaurateur, to re-branding and distributing local products to support small scale farmers and communities. Students need to know about locality, seasonality, and heritage – as well as all the soft skills of service design. One of the Vedatya’s alumni, Preet Singh, went back home and became an organic honey producer, selling his brand across India and overseas in Singapore.
Alumni’s organic honey brand is sold across India and overseas.
Another way that Vedatya is promoting applied education is by partnering with different industry players through an industry-academic partnership model that is quite unique in India. Industry partners are potential employers of Vedatya’s graduates, and so they can be an integral part of student’s curriculum that is reviewed every two years. This initiative has led to partnerships with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), one of the world’s largest hotel companies, and with Columbia Asia Hospitals, one of Asia’s leading hospital chains, in the healthcare industry, to name but two.
Most of India cooks over traditional wood fire ovens.
Class inequity – a major challenge.
“The Institute is in a rural setting, so every year we give 2-3 scholarship to young people from the neighboring local village,” adds Kapur. “Slowly we are getting young people interested in coming here to get an education but it isn’t easy.”
Vedatya has great plans for maximizing its land with organic farming.
India has huge inequalities and a very complex caste system. The villagers come from backgrounds where they have absolutely no exposure at all to rapidly changing urban life. It’s a huge sacrifice for a youngster get an education when they are expected to help their families survive.
“One of our scholarship students wanted to quit after only a few months,” Kapur explained. Eventually he told the director that the reason he wanted to quit was because he is being bullied by his friends about the formal way he is required to be dressed at Vedatya. Even his family teased him for looking like a ‘plucked chicken’ because he was following Vedatya’s dress code to be well-groomed and wear a uniform.
“It sounds funny to us, but he was deeply ashamed. There is a conflict and context that even we don’t understand. We are talking a difference of 20 kilometers. We need to support rural communities and give them a longer perspective. We also need to help these communities survive,” concludes Kapur.
Fresh organic produce grown on site.
When Vedatya and the Tasting India platform talk about food, they mean everything from the production of food, to food on the plate. Vedatya believes that organic food is second nature for India and it has the potential to be the new economic driver for a sustainable future, to getting people into the workplace and tapping into new industries such health tourism. Organic farming has the ability to feed India through new distribution channels, and offer solutions to major challenges, such as how to deal with food surplus, nurture cultural diversity within the vast continent, and create major export crops and produce that can take more than India’s current 1 percent of the growing global organic market.
Holi celebration, March 2018
Text by Tanya Kim Grassley.
Many of us dream of quitting our jobs and leaving the city, but how many of us manage to do it? I asked Innovation Strategist, Karina Vissonova, how she and her partner Aron designed ‘the good life.’
Karina and Gazsi, at home in their cottage. Gazsi is a local Pumi dog. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I grew up in Latvia. I played in our family vegetable garden since I could walk, and was outdoors all year round. As a teenager in Riga, I spent every free minute with my friends making fires on the beach or partying in the forest.
Q: Why did you move away?
A: I studied in Copenhagen and was recruited right away into a job in innovation, that was still a relatively new field at the time. I got to work with some amazing professionals – architects, designers, and thought leaders. It was like working with rock stars! But Copenhagen was never really ‘my town,’ despite all the ‘goodies’ that came with life in the city. It felt like my lifestyle was bought, somehow.
Q: How did your job evolve your thinking?
A: I found it challenging to accept that so many great ideas, which would truly help people to live a better and more sustainable everyday life, would get chiselled down to fit into existing production systems. It’s as if we design for machines rather than people. We have all the technologies we need, but we have heavy, outdated systems that are resistant to change. I started wondering what else I could do.
Q: So you decided to leave your job?
A: Not immediately, but I knew I needed to change my own path. I wanted to be able to seek answers to the ‘big’ questions. Eventually Aron and I decided to make the leap and move to the countryside in Hungary. Aron is half Hungarian, but it wasn’t particularly about living in Hungary, it was about pursuing a quality of life with less, and rediscovering ourselves without a professional identity tag. We moved in the middle of winter, without TV or internet. It was the most silent 3 months of my life!
PAP Wines Garden Restaurant- Under the Volcano.
Q: How did you cope with that silence?
A: Just by giving it a chance. We missed our friends, but we were also in love with our new home on the hill. In the Spring, I started gardening. Portuguese friends had told me about permaculture, and so I spent hours on YouTube learning everything I could. My first garden was a mandala garden; a beautiful, unruly patch. I was the laughing stock of the neighbourhood at first, but when my neighbours saw how my garden was flourishing, even during periods of drought, they switched to permaculture methods. I also practice companion planting, where you pair plants that can support each other with nutrition and healthy insect populations; my strawberries grew together with spinach, for example. It’s pretty in its own wild way.
Aron selling at the Farmer’s Market – from chai and chutney to wine, 2017.
Q: So your food brand evolved almost by accident?
A: Yes! Suddenly we had all this surplus produce so we started making condiments to sell at the farmer’s market. We made our own labels and suddenly we had a brand!
Q: What came next?
A: One day, Aron announced, “Do you realise we are living in one of the world’s very famous wine growing volcanic regions? We should make wine!” My response was a hesitant ‘OK…’ Aron went to work for a local wine maker, to learn the ropes. A year later, Aron made his first wine, a ruby coloured Pinot Noir. We made 300 bottles. It was excellent. We couldn’t believe it. It was like we had the volcano gods on our side!
A selection of PAP Wines.
Q: And it’s organic?
A: The wine is organic, yes, and with a low sulphite content, but for us it’s not about labelling our product as ‘organic’ or getting expensive certifications, it’s just about being true to the traditional, artisanal wine-making methods. We want to make the most honest and highest quality wine we can, while caring for the land. Many of the new wine makers here follow regenerative farming methods – it’s far less costly and far more effective.
Aron in the kitchen, January 2017. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: When did you decide to open the restaurant?
A: Our wines became commercially successful within 2 years, and our garden was abundant. It was a natural progression to pursue Aron’s dream of having a small restaurant. He is an exceptional chef, albeit with no formal training. Aron had learnt to cook regional dishes, in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, and in Himachal Pradesh, up in the North, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This influenced our concept – Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean vegetarian tapas-sized dishes served with local wines . We just offered our own home cooking. We opened for guests last summer and it turned to be the busiest summer of our lives!
Q: How does your life today compare with life in the city?
A: Countryside offers an unveiled life, a connection to oneself and the systems that let you survive. Leo Tolstoy wrote about the division of intellectual and physical labour, and the need to experience both to acquire true wisdom. I couldn’t agree more. I scribble away about sustainability, but I feel that it is the experience of working the land and being part of a community that entitles me to write about sustainability.
PAP’s ceramic plates and Aron’s samosas. Photo by Alexandra Heim.
Q: What are your plans now?
A: I want to continue writing and consulting. I still have more questions than I have answers, and I get the feeling others do too. But we need to ask the right questions. If I can attend to the vineyards and the garden during the season, run our little home restaurant, and write for the rest of the time, I will be a very happy and lucky person.
Karina and Aron, Pinot Noir harvest 2017.
Q: Any advice to someone wanting to make a total change in their lives?
A: Dream! Plan big and trust your intuition. Life is unpredictable but it’s also full of opportunities. You just need to have the courage to believe in yourself.
These days, we have a false sense of security because of social transparency, where events and emotions that used to be very private are always on a display on social media. We have an impression that we are emotionally connected to other people, which also gives the false impression of a safety net. I find that such a net, if it indeed exists, is very thin.
Despite social media, we are more dependent on relationships in our physical communities than we realise – and the support that they can provide. Nurture real connections. Value where the things in your life come from and go to. When taking a life changing step, make sure your ties are offline as much as online.
Images: Alexandra Heim and otherwise, Karina’s own.
Karina’s design and innovation consultancy https://www.vissonova.com/
The restaurant Pap Wines https://www.papwines.com/
Photographer Alexandra Heim www.heima.hu