There’s Kokum in my Cocktail

Pooja Pillai
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Chaanar Dhumpko served at Goa’s Mustard restaurant.

Over the last decade, even as Indians began to eat out (and ordering in) with greater frequency than before, one of the most striking developments has been the foothold that regional Indian food has gained over a very monolithic idea of what constitutes Indian food. Over the next year, Indian food professionals believe, the engagement with the country’s rich food heritage will only get deeper, exploring aspects that have, until now, been overlooked or marginalised.

“There was a time we explored food from the global perspective. Special occasions and celebrations meant eating at an Italian or Chinese restaurant. That attitude has changed,” says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. The writer and food consultant, who has recently authored the ‘Godrej Food Trends Report’, says that adventures in eating don’t have to come from outside now. “That attitude has changed. We want more Indian food on our plate, but with a more ‘global’ way of serving.” Indian Accent and Comorin in Delhi, and Mustard in Goa and Mumbai, adds Ghildiyal, are good examples of how Indian restaurants have both incited and served the curiosity of diners regarding Indian food, while retaining a sophistication that anchors them in the here and now.

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Kukura Khorika (Assamese-style barbequed chicken).

Manish Mehrotra, Corporate Chef, Indian Accent, says that 2020 will see restaurants dig deeper into the culinary heritage of the country, moving from regional to sub-regional and community traditions. “For example, it’s not going to be enough to just do Konkani food. You’re now seeing people researching and serving food from Malwan and Sindhudurg, or, say, food from Goan Catholic community and Goan Hindu Community. Restaurants are beginning to get that specific,” he says. Additionally, Mehrotra says, people are becoming more curious about regions that have typically been ignored on menus. “You would never see Bihari or Odia food in restaurants before, but restaurants and their customers are realising that you have all these rich traditions here that deserve to be explored,” he adds.

Shilpa Sharma who, along with Punam Singh, runs Mustard, says, “Such explorations are a way of breaking stereotypes about cuisines. People’s immediate reaction when hearing that we serve Bengali food, is to assume that we don’t have enough dishes that use vegetables. But Bengali food is as creative with vegetables as it is with fish and meat, and this is something that we show through the food we serve.”

Importantly, she adds, foraying into regional food is also a way of highlighting the similarities in the food we eat and the way we cook them. “It could be anything, from the way coconut is used in food, to how different parts of the country have used leaves such as that of turmeric to make food parcels,” she says. Another factor, according to Sharma, is a rediscovery by chefs and consumers, alike, of the unique properties of Indian ingredients. “The West is now telling us that turmeric and moringa are superfoods but these have been used in India for centuries. In the south, for example, different parts of the moringa are used in different ways. So why should we have to hear about these things from outside? We already have this knowledge, and chefs and consumers both are interested in digging deeper,” she says.

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A kokum-based cocktail.

In 2019, as Indians developed a taste for cocktails, they’ve also been adapted to desi flavours. At places like Sidecar, Ek Bar and Together at 12 in Delhi and Masque and the Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, ingredients such as falsa, kokum and curry leaf have found their way into cocktails. Mixologist Yangdup Lama of Sidecar in Delhi — maker of the popular gondhoraj lebu and aam papad-flavoured Camac St cocktail — says, “Indian flavours are far more intense in food than they are in drinks, and that gives us the chance to make some really interesting experiments with cocktails, which consumers are now increasingly open to,” he says. One of the cocktails he’s designing for a bar in Houston, Texas, uses an infusion made from papad paste. “You no longer have to worry about whether or not consumers will accept this. Consumers will try it long as you know how to present it. And that includes being able to give them the story behind each dish and drink,” he says.

Storytelling and research have, perhaps, become a tool in the arsenal of chefs and mixologists to sell the rich diversity of Indian flavours. The Camac St Cocktail, for example, is used to evoke a sense of nostalgia among those who have visited the famous street in Kolkata, and curiosity among those who haven’t. Chefs also use recipes sourced from their staff, adding a name and face to the final dish as it appears on the menu. This, according to Chef Megha Kohli of Lavaash by Saby, Delhi, feeds the consumer’s need to know that what they are eating is “authentic”. She says, “One of the mutton curries on our menu is made with a lot of pepper, but it’s not enough to just put a description there or give it a generic name, like Pepper Mutton Curry. So we call it Rajdev’s Mutton Curry. Rajdev works with us and this is how this dish is made back in his home town in Bihar. So the consumer knows that this dish is specific to a particular place, and is authentic. Consumers no longer just care about the taste of the food. They care deeply about the stories behind their food.”