Imaginary Life
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The Professor, The Chef and an Epic Dream.

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.

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

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.

The meals that the great Mahatma Gandhi loved.

Pop-up stories.
“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, representing Mangalore. The fish is marinated with kokum, a plant in the mangosteen family.

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.

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.”

Links:
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/
Indus: www.indusbangkok.com
Incredible India: http://www.incredibleindia-tourism.org
Roseate Hotels: www.roseatehotels.com/‎
El Bulli: http://www.elbulli.info/
Noma: http://noma.dk/
The Vrikshalaya Center, Uttrakand, www.foundnature.org.

Email:
Dr. Pushpesh Pant – pushpeshpant@gmail.com
Chef Nishant- nishoo28@gmail.com

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.

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 Vedatya Institute. A new source of culinary knowledge for organic India.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Alumni’s organic honey brand is sold across India and overseas.

Business know-how.
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.

14. Wood fire cooking

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.

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.

4fresh produce

Fresh organic produce grown on site.

Organic India
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

Holi celebration, March 2018

Text by Tanya Kim Grassley.