How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bathua

Manu Chandra
Grist Media

As soon as the news of the rupee free fall hit the networks, I knew that the reaction from importers would follow. Within a week of it passing 66 to the dollar, emails arrived about the calamitous consequences the importers faced, and subsequent requests for an immediate and non-negotiable hike of 20 to 30 percent across the board for all imported products and condiments.

My questions as to how they could raise prices on existing inventory were largely dodged with a conciliatory 8 percent discount on the quoted increase. It was an opportunity to make money, even though the larger grounds were justified, and one can’t really blame the importers if their pecuniary interests supersede those of their buyers: it’s a free market, after all.

Equally peculiar were the recurrent emails from an importer who specializes in ‘exotic’ vegetables sourced primarily from Thailand – from rambutans, pomellos, enoki mushrooms, java apples and choy sum to the more ubiquitous eggplant, taro root, lemongrass and green peppercorn. Initially, these used to be listed with their prices, which ranged from Rs 1,200 to 3,500 per kg, making the onion’s hundred-rupee-breach feel like a rude joke.

If truth be told, I was tempted by the imports – before I saw the rate list – because there is something very endearing about Thai produce. It looks good, tastes better and always seems to come in the kind of perfect shapes and sizes that are frequently a prerequisite at fine restaurants: no one wants to be presented a plate full of asparagus in different thicknesses, or cherry tomatoes the size of walnuts.

The same importer had once mentioned to me that some chefs had even asked if they could get cauliflowers and potatoes imported since those vegetables, they said, either lacked flavour or starch, essential for their end use.

We’re not talking about potatoes that are imported as a result of a trade agreement between India and a neighbouring country because of an acute shortage in the market, but some fancy American-strained Rs 1,000 per kilo potato that is airlifted and supplied at the doorstep of a five-star establishment – because the stuff from Gujarat makes terrible mashed potatoes.
 
Over the many years I’ve been running kitchens in India, I have had my fair share of angst with the largely substandard quality of produce that used to arrive at the restaurant door every morning.

After 16-hour workdays, I really didn’t see myself daring Bangalore traffic on a Vespa, armed with a vegetable basket, TV chef-style, hunting for the plumpest red tomatoes, large onions with saturated hues of purples and pinks and palm-sized bell peppers that looked like they’d simply walked across the organic vegetable patch and perched themselves on the display shelves.

More importantly, they simply didn’t exist! Or, if they did, in small retail pockets, they were very expensive. The sporadic supply only added to my woes, even with the advent of the hippie organic farmer with his boutique biodynamic and organic endeavours. Something was still amiss.

There would be patches when the produce would be delightful and a pleasure to both cook and eat, but they were few and far between. The pressure of creating consistently good food with the limitations at hand was always there.

I remember a guest feedback form left behind by a well-travelled woman who was familiar with the nuances of western cuisine. She said, “Mediterranean food should sing with flavours; a tough ask when the tomatoes are bland, the zucchini overripe, the asparagus stringy and the peppers tasteless.”

I clung to my philosophy of not using tomatoes out of a can and peas that were not frozen, but that, as it turned out, was a losing battle. This was eight years ago, and though things may have improved marginally in the ‘exotic’ or ‘English’ vegetable category from local purveyors, the fact is that getting a consistent supply of something best enjoyed in its freshest, most optimum form, is still a struggle.

Or have we been looking in the wrong places?

* * *

Like others in my community of chefs, I was so preoccupied with trying to replicate the biodiversity of the region my restaurant showcased, I was losing track of the fact that what made Mediterranean cuisine – or any cuisine – what it is is its soil, its climate, the water and the food habits of its people.

Our respective efforts to be original and unique in our endeavours were also prompting us to embrace techniques that would set us apart, instead of staying focused squarely on sourcing the best. Relying on picture perfect imports is only an easy way out.

Through conversations with some friends and customers who are food writers and commentators on food, I started to realize that we all treasured memories of the many wonderful things that we used to eat while growing up in our respective parts of the country. Little of it was seen anywhere anymore. Friends from Coorg would tell me about the wild mushrooms they often had during the rains.

I had incorrectly thought that morels were the only wild mushrooms found in India, but what did I know – I later learned of the khumbi from Rajasthan, a cepe-like mushroom from the north, and of the bamboo mushroom available in the northeast and other places. Bengali customers would tell me tales of how Calcutta’s markets had the finest produce and everything just tasted better, and how no green could match the pui saag.

A Mangalorean employee once brought me chutney made out of a local sweet cucumber and coconut, which was so nutty and delicious it was the closest thing I had to a food epiphany in years. The cucumber was taute and made me wonder how come I hadn’t had it before.

 Around the same time, I discovered and started romancing the extremely powerful and aromatic kachampuli, a black vinegar from Coorg most famously added to their pork curry but incredibly good on fish as well. I even once tried it with zimikand, but that’s one of those kitchen episodes you don’t talk about. But hey, I tried.

All of which took me back, deep into my memories that had been overlaid by years of cooking a foreign cuisine in the US. I made an effort to try local foods and as many vegetables as I could.

I remembered eating mahua flowers in Khajuraho, where the only road that leads to the temple town was always crowded with women and children bent over and picking the blossoms from the mahua trees on either side. It was a driver’s nightmare – ironic, given that it was the only stretch of decent road in that part of Madhya Pradesh – but the entire road was always perfumed with the sweet, intoxicating smell of the flowers.

I later learned that it was also the source of the local moonshine. Then there’s the ker sabzi which I once had on a visit to Jaipur, and the chaulai ke laddu that the tea vendor used to keep in jars in Najibabad. I remembered tenti ka achaar and kaanji (fermented black carrot drink) and the kuttu (water chestnut flour) that my daadi would turn into incredibly earthy and delicious pooris, and sometimes even pakoras, during her days of fasting.

Then there was the charanamrit, a milk-based, sweetened beverage made with makhana, tulsi and chironji during the pujas, wholly unique, and made in larger quantities than the ceremonial tasting required because we would drink it by the mug-full. None of which was to be seen much anymore.

One thing was clear: There has certainly been an erosion of the food culture in India because of a number of reasons. But could there be a revival?

When it became evident that traditional weaving methods and entire cottage industries faced extinction in the face of cheaper machine-made fabrics and styles, when the saree itself seemed to be in jeopardy, a bunch of fashion designers stepped up to the plate and incorporated those fabrics and the associated craftsmen into their designs (even though it may not have been in the truest sense).

If not in any large way, this did breathe fresh life into something that may have unfairly perished at the hands of rapid, unstructured growth. Clearly, then, going by the number of people who yearned for the food of their past, we weren’t the only people longing for a return of variety in our food.

Could one bring back the rich heritage of ingredients by adapting it to new recipes that might gain wider acceptance?

* * *

I began to experiment with as many local ingredients as I could lay my hands on, and realized quickly enough that there was much more on offer than the little that I had dredged up from my memories.

Despite being in Bangalore, I was able to find bathua and chaulai, which I remember my family making faithfully, along with a bunch of other naala saags (anything that grew near canals or water bodies) that the winter season offered in Delhi.

Cooking it down and incorporating it into ravioli made for a more exciting option than just spinach; topping it with charmagaz (the toasted seeds of three types of melons and cucumber) took the dish to the next level. I didn’t have to rely on frightfully expensive pine nuts anymore. Bathua and chaulai suddenly became accessible to people who may have forgotten them, or not even tasted them yet.

At a dinner that I cooked for celebrated MasterChef Australia judge Matt Preston, I put the results of much of this experimentation to the test. The French-style soup was made with the sweet flesh of drumsticks after they had been boiled to remove their bitterness. The garnish was tender drumstick leaves and toasted drumstick seeds. Local mackerel was brushed with kachampuli and served along with braised kohlrabi and its leaves. The dinner was a hit.

Lightning struck a second time soon after when Chef Alain Passard decided to come by for lunch to one of the restaurants I headed in Mumbai with a two-day warning, and insisted on a vegetarian meal.
Now this was a chef who an entire generation of chefs had grown up worshipping: he had broken away from the predictable formats of French restaurants and opened, not far from Paris, an all-vegetarian restaurant called L’Aperge, which went on to win three Michelin stars, the highest rating a restaurant can get. Needless to say, there was no way I would cook anything western with ingredients that I was now critical of. So I turned to what I could source locally and present in a contemporary manner.

On the menu for his lunch were: local beetroot roasted in cow dung cakes (which had him a little hesitant, and understandably so) and dressed with kasundi mustard and served with nasturtium greens; kakrol stuffed with khoya and braised in milk, a carpaccio (thin raw slices) of tindli in three different degrees of ripeness brushed with kalonji, heeng, jaggery and mustard oil. There were other dishes too, but the raw jackfruit pulao – very old Basmati rice baked in small terracotta pots with saffron and fermented soya bean – was the point when he asked me to come out of the kitchen. I was sweating profusely from a combination of stress, heat and nervousness and was totally unprepared for the joyous thumping on my back.

“If this is the level of vegetarian cuisine available in India, there really is no point in me considering opening a restaurant here,” he said, before going on to interrogate me about tindli, kalonji, jackfruit and all the fascinating new things he had experienced for the first time. The dessert of gondhoraj lebu panna cotta was as much a hit as the others, but little did he guess that we hadn’t even scratched the surface of Indian biodiversity, or that the triumph belonged more to the raw materials and their traditional uses than my skills.

Which is why, while flipping through the new book First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity – a joint effort of the Centre for Science and Environment and Down to Earth, with inputs from luminaries like Dr Pushpesh Pant and others – I couldn’t help but smile. There they were, just what I had been hoping for: more champions of all things local.

The book is probably the work of writers who have been supporting and documenting the foods and recipes of this country that are at a risk of being lost, way before I decided to embrace those very same foods. The ker and sangri that I’ve been using in a meat pickle – unconventional yet very successful – had their pride of place in there.

As did kokum, amaranth, bamboo shoots, fermented soybeans and so many things that I have been adding to my repertoire in ways that my clientele can recognise and, more importantly, appreciate. It has given me further inspiration to try a host of other things that have been brilliantly documented with recipes.

Our country has incredible examples of terroir but, for reasons dictated by demand and supply and some reckless policymaking, we stand to lose much variety and diversity. For a recent article written by Sumana Mukherjee for Forbes Life, I said that we have so much exotic still left to explore in this country, looking westward will make little sense.

This sentiment is echoed in First Food, which brought to life even more memories that had been buried somewhere: the karonde ki chatni; the rhododendron juice that I used to have at teatime in the Aurobindo Ashram where I studied, packaged by their cooperative in Nainital; bel ka sharbat, which was mandatory at home during summers, along with drinks like aam panna; kababs and kofte that incorporated toasted poppy seeds for an incomparable lightness.

These are the memories of a boy who grew up in Delhi, so one can only imagine the sheer scale of things that existed across the country.

Chefs like Manish Mehrotra have made the litti cool by showcasing it in his contemporary Indian restaurant Indian Accent in New Delhi. Who could have imagined, before him, that sattu could be part of haute cuisine?

Then there is Chef Manjit Gill of ITC who has worked on preserving north Indian recipes; Chef Naren Thimmaiah of Karavalli restaurant at The Taj Gateway, Bangalore who does annual festivals to illustrate the nuances of coastal food; food writer Kaveri Ponnappa, who works tirelessly to resurrect Kodava cuisine and culture and has, even as I’m writing this piece, released an exhaustive and comprehensive book on Coorg based on 15 years of toil and research; and Jigyasa Giri, who has compiled her grandmother’s ayurvedic recipes with some fascinating ingredients. They are all attempting to revive lost traditions in their own ways.

This is exactly the kind of movement that is required to rescue ourselves from the monoculture we are fast heading towards.

Instead of attempting to ape western TV shows with more of the same, or work on the lowest common denominator formula, what we need is a celebration of our biodiversity. If someone tried putting ponkh chaat counters in every mall instead of the buttered ‘American’ Corn, even if it was just for the brief two months that it makes an appearance, one may just come away surprised by the collective taste buds of our country. But someone needs to try.

Millets can be mainstream again, and not from an organic, diet-conscious perspective, but as bona fide solutions to our daily routines. We must prevent young people from thinking that paneer is a vegetable and that it’s cooler to eat garlic bread than a methi paratha. Eat them both, and remember how much tastier methi can actually be – heck, put the saag on pizzas and in pastas, I say! If the ingredient is preserved, chances of the culinary heritage being lost are a lot less.

Purists may disagree with me on the adoption of indigenous ingredients in non-indigenous food. But that may be the only way to reach out to an entire generation that may have lost touch with the variety we have. Once it gains acceptance again, the process of reviving the recipes and culture may just be a simpler step, or they may both just coexist together.

But if you don’t reach out for the beet greens on your next trip to the supermarket instead of the spinach, you may never find out.

Manu Chandra is executive chef and partner at Olive Beach, Likethatonly and Monkey Bar in Bangalore. Follow him at http://twitter.com/chefchandra