India being the largest democracy in the world has a variety of cultures and traditions. That being said, it is also evident that people around the world relate Indian cuisine largely as Butter chicken and Masala Dosa, while local tribal cuisines with dishes such as Red Ant Chutney called Chapura in Chhattisgarh or Hornet Stew in Nagaland are not being heard. At the sidelines of the Indian Hospitality Expo 2019, Chef Asma Khan spoke about the bias regarding Indian cuisines and how it’s time to recognise and celebrate it.
Do you think that local and tribal cuisine will be the next big things in this culinary world?
Absolutely, it is long overdue. I think it is to do with the bias of the majority against the minority, which means that often together with the bias, the cuisine has been dismissed like a jungle. I think it’s about time that people understand the varied cuisines that India represents. Also, it is an opportunity to understand people through their food; it is actually about how you respect people, who are the same as you but may have different habitats, environment, religion, and language.
Now everyone in the west (as my restaurant, Darjeeling Express is based in London) is talking about sustainability and this is what travel food has done for centuries. They get their food in a sustainable way; they actually honor the soil on which they work. And you know we can actually learn from them. It’s about time they came on stage and got their voices heard. All of us who can cook can learn from this whole tradition because the west is harking on it and creating this whole idea whereas the tribal traditions actually have been doing it all along.
What are the cuisines which are not being revisited and revived?
I think the cuisine in the Northeast. I grew up in Bengal and I know that the Northeast definitely has been being ignored. And also the pahari food has its kind of richness with different kinds of herbs, ragi roti, all of these things which are very unique and interesting. Most of the people don’t know what a ragi roti is. And I think we will all be enriched by this exposure to food of the hills. Basically the food in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and the Northeast region have largely been ignored.
It is a very sad indication of our biases that those who are considered to be richer in their cooking style, such as using a lot of ghee, butter and cream, are seen as a very advanced and rich cuisine and I absolutely fundamentally disagree with that. I think the cuisines where there is a huge honor to the ingredients, soil, seasons, and rituals are rich. Food is sacred for us and the regions where food beautifully represents our festivals, seasons, death marriages are very rich food cultures. However, the media has been portraying Indian food mostly as the microscopically small North Indian cuisine. We are really lost out and it’s time to catch up and celebrate these regional cuisines.
What are the culinary trends you have observed?
I see trends like sustainability, seasonality, using local ingredients, trying to cut down the waste, not flying down ingredients and reducing carbon footprints. I am seeing kind of more responsibility in growing and cooking the food.
What is your comfort food?
My home cooked food only. I still love biryani the most.