Food has always been an integral part of India. Not only does it bind people together but also represents them. The traditions and cultures are entwined with the age-old recipes that our ancestors had left for us as a legacy to take it forward. In a telephonic interview with Chef Ashish Bhasin, Executive chef at Leela, he spoke about the significance of home chefs to revive regional and local cuisines and how it is imperative to get to know about the history and heritage of any cuisine to revisit it.
Why do you think it is important to give home chefs a platform?
The world is changing and we want new and different things. We went all around and tried international dishes but chefs are going to basics. The movement has started. I started bringing home chefs in the kitchen in 2014 and got amazing responses from customers.
In India, we feel proud to present our food. Everyone is getting educated and wants to reduce carbon footprints and going towards healthier and fresh food. Fresh food and Local food is healthy. Keeping all these things in mind, I have no second thoughts on this.
When I started this thing of bringing home chefs to the kitchen in 2014, I will be very frank, I was scared. But now more and more people are doing this. More and more hotels are bringing regional and home chefs. And they are doing pop-ups. So it is right in front of us. You see Kadaknath chicken, which is from the tribal regions of MP, is already rocking the boat. People don’t want complicated flavours, they want simple, rustic, and unique flavours.
Why northeastern cuisine is not being recognized, revived and revisited?
The positive movement has been started. Tell me 10 years back how many northeastern festivals have you ever heard of. There is a northeastern restaurant and there are restaurants, which are doing northeastern pop-ups.
People are not educated in terms of culinary knowledge. The movement has to start. When I went to Bhutan and was posting pictures of dishes on social media there, people were connecting with it. They were commenting that the same kind of dish is also there in their region. So, people are getting educated but you can’t expect a sudden change, it is not a switch on and off kind of thing. Gradually it will happen and it will take time.
Foreigners consider Indian food as spicy and oily, how has this perception changed now?
I agree with this. Indian food has been labeled as the spiciest cuisine. However, Indian cuisine is all about balancing of all the aromatic spices, when you can’t balance the spice, you increase the chilly and then the taste gets numb.
Dishes like Butter chicken, Garlic Naan, and Samosa, none of these are spicy. Even you see that chef Atul Kocchar has opened a northeastern restaurant in the UK. So, things are changing. More and more Indian restaurants are opening, a lot of Indian chefs are conducting pop-ups and are getting Michelin stars. Look at how Saransh Goila demonstrating Butter Chicken and Rumali Roti at MasterChef Australia.
What culinary trends are we seeing today?
Our Butter Chicken, Dal Makhni, Rumali Roti are not going off the menu. Other things are coming up. We see a lot of flavours, which are coming up; also we are going back to basics. The culture of farm to fork is happening.
How challenging it is to convert non-veg to veg dishes and why is it important? It is all about understanding the flavors and playing with the spices. If you understand cooking then nothing is difficult. You need to understand what you are substituting with what.
If I am putting Obogine (eggplant) in an Andhra Fish Curry, now both are soft and Obogine has a natural taste, so I need to add extra spice to it to counter it. Now, why is this important? It is important because like, for example, I am a big fan of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhni but at the same time I will say that these are the best and the worst that happened to Indian cuisine.
The good part is that these dishes went around and put an Indian tag on the global market. But the worst part is that because of these things, none of the other things could flourish. So, if you pick up the 10 years old menu, we had these 10-12 dishes.
Now we are getting bored and want different varieties. So, one of the important things is why don’t we give a flavor to vegetarians that non-vegetarians are getting. For a chef converting non-veg dishes to veg is a little challenging. And it also gives them a chance to provide options to vegetarians for they often complain that they have fewer veg options on the menu.
What are the cuisines which are not being revisited?
There are a lot of cuisines that have not got their due credit. The movement has started. Like the state of Uttaranchal has great dishes, I did a pop-up kind of thing and received great reviews. Northeast region has also started (to bring out their cuisine) but still, there is a lot to do. Then Orissa also has some great dishes.
Our temple cuisine is hidden somewhere, I think it is in books only. There is a lot of history and heritage that is getting lost. I organized a festival in the month of March, for which I researched for a few months on Mughal Cuisine.
In India, what we serve as Mughlai cuisine is not Mughlai. Then I researched when Aurangzeb came, what kind of food he liked. And how when Humayun came back, he brought some Persian cooks with him. So that gave the Persian influence in the cuisine. Then Akbar came in and got married to a Rajput princess and how then the cuisine changed and evolved during that time.
When chilies came in 1498 in India via Vasco Da Gama, and how did it influence the cuisine. Then in the late 16th and early 17th century, potato and tomato swept the Indian market. Before that, these two vegetables were not a part of our cuisine. Tomato was called vilaiti baingan. So, people are getting to know about these things and chefs are reading about it as well.