Sushi! It Is A Changing

Few images evoke Japan as powerfully as sushi. Well, some may like to place Mount Fuji, Cherry blossom in full bloom and an elegant kimono clad hostess performing the tea ceremony but for foodies give them boxful of assorted sushi with wasabi, pickled pink ginger with chopsticks and it echoes Omar Khayyam – a flask of wine, a loaf of bread, a book of verse and thou, wilderness is bliss now!

There is something about a dainty disc rolled lovingly on sushi mat enclosing within sticky rice a morsel of raw salmon, an irresistible bit of tuna or maybe a prawn peeping out of the exquisite finger food.

Truth be told sushi is not a newcomer in the subcontinent. Indians had started getting a wee bit bored with various regional renderings of ‘Chindian’ when the sushi began to tempt them. As with most trends, at first it was an acquired, exotic taste that only the ultra rich well travelled could indulge. What we are witnessing at the moment is an almost wild craze for sushi not only in India but all over the world.

The reasons are obvious. The portion size is small, eye appeal is great and the ingredients used are believed to be super healthy–mostly fish rich in Omega oils. Add to this list of virtues that it can be prepared in no time and all the right boxes are ticked.

Sushi in India had its tryst with fusion destiny and few shining moments in culinary history when it was served to the then now late prime minister of Japan during a visit to India. Our PM has a penchant to embark on a charm offensive whenever a state guest is around and part of this is a vegetarian menu rustled up of Guajarati delicacies khichadi-dhokla sushi made its appearance at this particular event. We don’t know if Shinjo Abe asked for seconds or complemented the chef with his autographs on the menu but this triggered a heated debate in gastronomic circles. A standup comedian (India) set the car among pigeons by warning Japanese friends that if they didn’t watch out in time Indians would do to Sushi what they have done to dim sums, and momos. It will be scorched in the tandoor and emerge after the ordeal by fire unrecognizable! Draped in mint chutney and drizzled with chaat masala.

Pretentious Indian foodies threw more fits and made more fuss than puritanical Japanese who are believed to be very touchy about tradition. At the outset it must be pointed out that it was in Japan that the transformation of sushi had started. Youngsters growing in Japan had perforce acquired a taste for Yankee fast food – burgers, hot dogs and pizzas. Some of these flavours seeped in to sushi. Realizing that it is children who control the purse strings of parents sushi makers gave the kids what they wanted–ice cream sushi, multi-coloured kit kat sushis and more.

Why then blame the foreigners? In the USA an enterprising cook has blended Tex Mex with Nippon to create Sushirito. The name sound odd but the chef is laughing all the way to the bank. An Indian- American chef has come up with a curd rice sushi laced with a thin strip of mango pickle. The palate and texture of this dish don’t violate the spirit of sushi–simple yet subtle and sublime.

Sushi’s journey in India hasn’t been smooth till a couple of years back. Many Indians are squeamish about eating raw fish and prawn. Then beef and pork are excluded as they are prohibited for Hindus and Muslims. This has not deterred chefs from plating a rich harvest of vegetarian sushi. The ‘Cauldron Sisterss’ were the first to introduce shakahari sushi in a city of rich vegetarian diners. Then an invitation offer– a box of 8-10 assorted sushis with high quality condiments that matched the best sushi platter in the Capital’s specialty restaurant. Sabyasachi Saby Gorai the gifted chef and food anthropologist likes to stay on the straight and narrow path. This is what he practiced when working at Ai. However, he has an open mind about improvisations and innovations. After all, this is how food evolves. The chef must give satisfaction to guests and not try to dictate terms to change their palate. Forget Chindian, Italian, Thai, Korean all have had to adjust guests taste buds, The corporate chef of Senin, the group that operated N from the Tamarind Court, has introduced vegetarian and non vegetarian sushi platters in ‘Street Stores’ in Bangalore, Connaught Club in Delhi. He follows a no holds barred philosophy. He just stops short of those daredevils who serve insect crested–scorpion, centipede or a crisp cockroach- sushis. He has done well we think to keep away from biryani sushi or sushi in makhani gravy.

Gone are the days when sushi bars were a USP for de lux restaurants. Most pan Asian mid market eateries offer you a choice of fairly decent stuff wrapped in weed–sea weed we mean. The Covid lockdown also popularized sushi as a delivered at door step option. Sushi may be changing but it’s here to stay.

Nuts & Nutrition — For Brain & Brawn

Abdul Halim Sharar, in his classic work Last Phase of an Oriental Culture has provided a vivid description of exotic dishes prepared by the bawarchi employed by Nawabs of Lucknow. He mentions a khichdi cooked with almonds slivers and bits of pistachio substituted for grains of rice or mung lentils. It was so heavy that even a wrestler employed in the court could not have more than a couple of mouthfuls after a workout. Nuts have always inspired legend and lore creating a mystique around them.

From prehistoric times, nuts and seeds along with fruits and roots have provided essential nutrition to humanity. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on them to almost the same extent as they did on the flesh of animals, birds and fish they could trap. As agriculture was mastered and wild grasses and grains were domesticated, animal husbandry flourished. Nuts and seeds slowly receded into the background. Their use was confined to additives and garnishes. It is only recently that they are enjoying a robust revival and some nuts have even acquired the status of ‘super foods’.

Botanists insist that many of the nuts can’t be categorized as true nuts, but we shall let that pass. Strictly speaking, a nut is a seed covered by a hard shell. Chestnut, Walnut, Peanut, Pine nut, Pistachio and Cashew nut may all be cited as suitable illustrations. For the purists, among the indisputable is the Brazilian nut. Even the coconut falls in the twilight zone. Most of the nuts in India are given the name ‘mewa’ and are lumped together with dried fruits like raisin, sultanas, apricots, dates and figs. In recent years, imports have made exotic nuts like hazel nuts and Macadamia nuts to urban Indians.

Not all nuts are born or created equal. In the Indian mind, pistachio, almonds and cashew nuts are arranged at the top of the heap in descending order. Mostly they are used in the preparation of expensive sweets. Some traditional cooks claiming a linage traced back to princely kitchens used to prepare a shahi gravy with almond and cashew paste. The same gravy is used to glorify any vegetarian or non-vegetarian delicacy. At times corners are cut and ground nut paste is used to adulterate the ‘shahi’ gravy. Chilgoze ki Kheer using pine nuts for long-grained rice is perhaps the most exotic of kheers. Peanuts have always been treated as the Cinderella of the nut family, it was once referred to as the ‘chiniya badam’ (almonds from China) and this was at a time when during the colonial period Chinese and Japanese imports were considered ‘sub-standard’. A lowbrow Punjabi play once had a snide comment about a character at the expense of poor peanuts. The pretentious lady, it was said, ‘gorged on peanuts but belched of almonds’.

In the era of globalization the range of nuts available has expanded even when one takes almonds, one can snack on honey roasted, pepper roasted or Peri Peri-tinged almonds. Salted, roasted and fried spicy cashew nuts seem to have lost out to this competition. Surprisingly, peanuts have been reinvented, many companies market them in different avatars, deep fried, draped in batter or shelled in different flavours. Even the plebeian peanut salad, the staple accompaniment in down-market bars has entered the five-star eateries and has been tweaked to become special. Boiled peanuts continue to be served on the bed of crisp papar drizzled with diced tomatoes and chilis sprinkled over with olive oil and enriched with black and green olives along with sun-dried tomatoes.

Salan made with pistachios was believed to be an aphrodisiac recipe created for the ravenous appetites of the princes in Patiala. The best quality peanuts came from Kabul and were valued for their delicate colour and taste. Piste ke longie ranked much higher than any other barfi. Very little sugar syrup was used to bind the flavours of the nut together.

In southern India, Kaju continues to be the most preferred nut that is added to almost everything to make it special from halwas to upma and in the western coast, kaju curry and kaju pulav are also made. This is understandable as it was in Goa where the Portuguese first introduced cashew nut to India. The Goans distilled a delectable alcoholic beverage feni from the cashew fruit as well. No one in India has made a liquor like amaretto from almonds, but badam-rogan shirin has for generations been valued for its therapeutic properties.

In Sindh (in undivided India) it was customary to prepare reinvigorating nuts and dried fruit paste called majoon to be served to the bride groom as breakfast on the morning after the wedding night.

The nuts have come into their own in the wake of Veganism gathering momentum. Milk made with nuts– almonds and cashew nuts — is preferred over the run-of-the-mill soyabean milk. Peanut butter is a popular substitute for the dairy-based counterpart.

Consumers are suddenly getting interested in the history of different nuts and are curious to know if scientific research has validated their nutritional claims. The oldest trace of cultivated wild peanuts is found in Peru dating back about 7600 years. Cashews are said to be native to Northern Brazil and Southern Venezuela until they were distributed around the world through colonial expansion. Pistachios are believed to have come from Central Asia, more precisely near Iran and Afghanistan. Archaeological evidence corroborates that pistachio seeds were a common food in this region as early as 6750 BCE. Almond fruits found in Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt depict that they were domesticated in the fourth millennium BCE. Walnut travelled from Byzantine Empire (where it was commonly known as royal nut) to Kashmir through the silk routes.

A handful of nuts pack a lot of nutritional punch. A 100g of raw peanuts contain about 567 calories, 25g protein, 49g fat. Walnuts have higher micronutrients like vitamin E, Omega-3’s, and Manganese while cashews have magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, and phosphorus. Pine nuts are a great source of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fat and Omega-6.

All this is reassuring but the cost of nuts-including peanuts- continues to keep their consumption restricted to the affluent section of society.

Nothing Cheesy About Indian Cheese

Long ago, before the dawn of the selfie age, cameramen used to instruct the group being photographed to say ‘cheese’ to make the subject’s lips break into a forced happy smile. That was the closest contact that many Indians made with edible cheese. Even those who were anglicized and liked their sandwiches with slices of cheese were restricted to processed cheddar that came in small round tins. This was the stuff that was grated and spread over macaroni and baked vegetables (to melt in the oven).

However, there always has been a minuscule minority of cheese snobs who talked of other cheeses, more expensive and exotic. French blue cheese like gorgonzola (that had blue veins), Roquefort, Gruyere and harder cheeses like edam, gouda, parmesan, and the rest. They remembered nostalgically when they could enjoy to their heart’s content, different varieties of cheese, with crackers at breakfast or opt for the non-sweet dessert course of a cheese platter post-dinner.

It was not only the French cheeses but the Swiss cheeses with holes that had made themselves familiar to the audience of comic-reading kids. Wedges of Swiss cheese were encountered more often on the TV screens where Jerry the mouse would be seen scheming to steal cheese from the mouse trap set by his arch-nemesis Tom on the dining table. Of course, in classier fine dining restaurants, the ‘continental’ chefs took delight in showing off their skills with table top fondue cooking. Feta cheese made with a strictly prescribed mixture ewe and goat milk is increasingly popular with health-conscious salad eaters. Non-dairy cheeses prepared with oil seeds have been created for the increasing tribe of vegans.

For the majority of Indians, cheese has meant paneer (aka cottage cheese often confused with cream cheese). It is only in recent years that Indians have also tasted cheese cakes and other varieties of cheese traditionally made in India in Himachal Pradesh or among the Parsi communities like (Kalari and ‘Topi wala’ cheese). Chenapod is a traditional baked cheese cake in Odisha that has for centuries been offered to Lord Jagannath at Puri.

Most Indians have unquestioningly accepted that cheese, much like many other goodies, was brought to India by the Portuguese or Dutch as Hindus considered curdling milk as inauspicious.

It is very difficult to concede the claim that cheeses were unknown to Indians before the advent of Europeans. How on Earth can anyone explain a Bhutanese dish like Ema Datshi (molten cheese and chilis) this land hidden in hard-to-reach heart of the Himalayas was terra incognita till the 1960s. It remained forbidden to ordinary travellers and traders for decades after that. Obviously, the cheese made with Yak milk and highly pungent local chilis owes nothing to the much-hyped Columbian exchange. Another cheese that has traditionally been prepared and relished from Yak milk all the way from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh is called Churpi.

It is a hard toffee-like substance that keeps the mouth moist and the jaws working. Even if one keeps Chenna out of this controversy other Indian cheeses like kalari from Himachal Pradesh can legitimately claim to be a child of this soil as perhaps can the Kashmiri Chaman. Other Indian cheeses like Bandel and Topi Wala Cheese are certainly adaptations and improvisations on the French or the Dutch Cheese theme.

Cheese is widely used in Mediterranean, Central Asian and Turkish cuisine. Milk was curdled in leather bags and the cheese so obtained was pressed to drain off moisture, matured, smoked and flavoured.

A turning point in the cheese story came in India when western fast food entered India and proliferated in all corners of the subcontinent with great speed. McDonalds was the first chain to insist on quality standards for the cheese supplied to them. They were large enough a buyer for the cheese makers in India to clean up their act and to strive to become the chief vendor.

The same happened when Pizzas — Pizza Hut, Pizza King and Dominos — lured the younger generation of Indians with seductive extra-cheesy toppings and cheese-filled crusts around the rim. Mozzarella came to its own and Amul the legendary milk cooperative started producing it. Likewise when Italian pastas of different sizes shapes and flavours were included in the menus of specialty restaurants drizzling of hard Parmesan became another acquired taste.

In recent years, with growing affluence among the urban elite cheeses like wines, have become aspirational. They are symbols of an exclusive exotic delight to the masses – privileges of like, special status symbols.

Many Indians, past middle age suddenly are drawn towards golf and cigars. A platter of cheese to be paired with wines or a cheese platter as an option for dessert is a clearly discernible emerging trend.

It is on this cheese platter that one finds the more expensive and the more exotic sharp smelling and sharp-tasting French blue cheeses. However, few Indians have the stomach to try the maggot-infested Casu martzu or the crawling cheese from the Italian island of Sardinia. Because the larvae in the cheese can launch themselves up upto 6 inches when disturbed, diners have to hold their hands above the cheese to prevent the maggots from leaping away!

The turn of the century witnessed the advent of artisanal cheese makers mostly in hill stations or in areas where Europeans have settled for generations like Kalimpong, Pondicherry, Ooty and Bhimtal. Some like Mansoor Khan, director of Bollywood hits like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak took a break to pursue their passion. Khan moved to Coonoor in 2003, to start making Gouda, Colby, and other cheeses. In Pune, ABC Farms’ has been producing versions of Gorgonzola, Cheddar and mozzarella for over three decades now. They supply tonnes of cheese a month, to leading five-star hotels in Mumbai and Pune.

The Indian Cheese story continues to be written.

Gizmos To Reduce The Drudgery In Kitchen

Ever since our prehistoric ancestors stumbled upon the joys of accidentally cooked food, there had been no let-up in inventions of implements that reduce the drudgery in the kitchen. The art and science of cooking have explored new horizons with gadgets and gizmos that sizzle. We have come a long way from a pair of palaeolithic knives, mortar n pestle, grinding stone and tongs, to air fryers, smart slow cookers, sophisticated food processors and even fully automated fulka-making machines.

Just as one trend appears to subside another surge tempts us with the latest kitchen aids that promise to deliver a wide range of mouth-watering and healthy delicacies in a jiffy. What we are talking about are accessories and gadgets for the home kitchen. Commercial kitchens are a different ball game.
Over the years an array of kitchen appliances have appeared and disappeared with monotonous regularity. Assorted sandwich makers, battery-operated hand mixers, slow pot cookers, non-aerosol oil sprays, rice cookers and curd-making machines. Most have passed into oblivion without a trace.

It’s not always a necessity that is the mother of invention. More often than not, it’s large companies that fuel our greed and create an aspirational need. Celebrity chefs and nutritionists become brand ambassadors to push slicker and smarter stuff. Taking an informed decision is becoming increasingly difficult.

To our mind, the most useful gadget in the kitchen which takes over the dirtiest and most humiliating chore anyone is assigned to do is the dishwasher. It is surprising that they have not made steady inroads and even now are some kind of a status symbol included in the package of an ultra-modern modular kitchen.

It is not only the cost ranging from Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 50,000 that works against them, many people feel that the vessels used in Indian cooking – patila, degh, karhai and metallic thali katora and tumblers do not lend themselves to proper cleaning in machine. While utensils used in the western style meals where the main course is a dish served on a plate and the glasses used for wine and water can be given the dishwasher treatment, the Indian housewife or the cook can only be satisfied when the final rinsing is manually done.

The washing machines, when they first appeared, met with similar resistance and we feel that with a little tweaking, the dishwasher too can become indispensable in most urban homes. As for the cost, with the sales increase in volume, the prices are bound to come down. Of course, issues about the regular supply of electricity and running water would keep raising.

The item high on the wish list of yuppies is the Air Fryers (which carries price tags in the range of Rs 8,000-25,000.

We Indians love our deep-fried stuff, be it samosa, pakode-bhajiye, bade, kofte-kachori. Well, to be honest, the air fryer can’t help us with puri kachori or parantha, but with little imagination and resilience on the consumer’s part tasty samosa, pakoda, fried chicken and fish can be enjoyed at home without the hassle of deep-frying. The first generation of air fryers was rather bulky and deterring. The second generation occupies a little more space than the good old microwave. The trouble here is that those who love samosa pakoda prefer to buy them from the favourite halwai shop next door or round the corner so addicted are they to the taste of the local tales fix! They choose to forget all about trans fats as they stray from the path of virtue and swallow the piping hot stuff.

A few months back considerable buzz was generated around the launch of a fully automated roti maker for NRIs. Some well-heeled Indians picked one up in Dubai more to show off than to use. All you have to do was measure the flour and water and press the button. The dough was kneaded, divided into patties, rolled into chapatis and after 5-7 minutes you could start collecting fulkas from the outlet. The contraption costs a little over fifty thousand and is yet to be launched in India. Maybe due to the lukewarm response the launch has been delayed.

Making raw vegetables and fruits safe enough to eat was once entrusted to the ‘pink solution’ made with potassium permanganate. Now, the done thing is to have the bowl of fruits and vegetables infused with ozone, with the aid of a special gadget. No fruit, we are told, remains forbidden after this. You can play around with an Ozone Vegetable bathtub shelling out between Rs 2,500-8,000.

Since the advent of globalisation, the younger generation has become addicted to foreign snacks like Pizza and barbecued meats and vegetables as well as real coffee as opposed to the instant cup.

Tempting them are a whole range of portable barbecues costing Rs 7,500 and above that can be set up even in a small terrace or a crammed balcony. These firang tandoors can be fired with charcoal pellets and satisfy the cravings of those carnivores who yearn for the aromas of the jungle.

Small gas-fired and wood-fired pizza ovens are attracting interested glances

from potential buyers. With other ingredients readily available on shelves in food marts, the temptation is almost irresistible to have this tasty treat at home whenever fancy strikes. However, these are exorbitantly priced and not likely to enter Indian homes.

For the real coffee lover, nothing matches the high provided by real Espresso. Nescafe has come out with a machine which replicates the espresso made in Italian baristas very closely. Here again, the cost of consumables makes the ‘total cost of ownership’ quite steep at present. Most people opt for the French press, the filter-percolator or the south Indian coffee decoction maker.

Advances in technology simplify life, saves time and energy but at the same time take something intangible away from the enjoyment of good life. Science and technology in the kitchen are akin to using software to create graphics as opposed to painting, to make ‘cut and paste music’. While this may allow more people to indulge in the culinary arena mindless application of ‘smart ‘gadgets can imperil the art of cooking.

Vertical Farming: Climbing Up The Ladder

It was at the turn of this century that Dickson Despommier an American microbiologist and Malaysian architect Ken Yeang jointly coined the term ‘Vertical Farming’. What they proposed was an ultra-modern way of urban agriculture. Simply put, it meant stacking ‘crop-crates’ one on top of another other instead of laying out farm beds horizontally.

Using hydroponics and taking advantage of augmentation of the incoming sunlight as seen in a greenhouse this process eliminates the need for any chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The keyword in this context is sustainability. Their idea to grow all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and flowers in high-rise towers 20-30 stories tall seemed Utopian two decades back but today it is inspiring and energizing farmers small and big all over the world.

The UN estimates forecast that by the year 2050 another three billion people would be added to the present seven and half billion and approximately 70% of the world’s population will be living in already congested cities. Sprawling urbanization would swallow agricultural land and the world would be confronted with a serious food security challenge. Vertical farming, aka urban agriculture in multi-storied high-rise buildings envisions the cultivation and sale of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants in unused urban spaces reducing the transportation costs dramatically.

Those advocating vertical farming tell us that a high-rise building 30 stories tall with a basal area of 5 acres has the potential of producing crop yield equivalent to 2,400 acres of traditional horizontal farming. In other words, 1 high-rise farm is equal to 480 traditional horizontal farms!

It is not surprising that the idea of vertical farming has caught the imagination of many concerned citizens in developed nations like Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, and the US. Governments and real estate developers from Abu Dhabi to Beijing and Bangaluru to Los Angeles are getting interested in vertical/urban farming. It is estimated that approximately US $1.8 billion were invested in vertical farm startups between 2014 and 2020.

India has been admittedly a bit slow in catching up with this emerging trend despite the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) striving to revolutionize Indian agriculture through vertical farming. Though experimental farms set up in Vishwavidhalaya in Nadia Bidhan Chandra Krishi have successfully grown brinjals and tomatoes and in Punjab potato tubers through vertical farming have been produced these are very small steps considering India’s size.

State of the art climate-controlled Greenhouses, combined with advanced horticulture and engineering techniques optimize crop production and enhance crop quality and food safety. Hydroponic produce from vertical farms is increasingly popular with consumers favouring organic fruits and vegetables. Others value them for their freshness. Harvested weekly these are delivered from rooftop to thali in hours. For instance, roots are kept intact in the lettuce which is referred to as ‘living lettuce’.

Large players in this arena use artificial intelligence and data analytics to monitor their vertical farms all across the globe. They claim to run extensive quality checks, laboratory tests, and traceability techniques to ensure the quality of what they market.

With increasing awareness, some intrepid individuals have decided to take the plunge. Khetify Solutions was founded by Kaustubh Khare and Saahil Parekh both IIT Kharagpur graduates. The startup sought to popularise food sustainability among city dwellers. They estimated that 16,000 square km of rooftop space is being wasted in urban cities in India and the youngsters campaigned tirelessly to develop this space s small rooftop farms. The venture was generating a lot of interest and was gaining traction in the NCR when Covid 19 hit. The heartbroken entrepreneurs had to close shop. However, they continue to dream and are determined to revive Khetify when times change.

Five hundred kilometres away in Sat Rakbe, a village in Uttarakhand, Darban Singh Parihar has discovered that poly-houses can be profitably used to increase the production of seasonal and exotic vegetables. The government is giving a subsidy of up to 90 per cent of the costs of installation. The terrain in hill villages has little space for conventional farming. Cutting out terraced fields is laborious and irrigating these makes the challenge more formidable. Controlled temperature, drip irrigation and scientific application of nutrients make these portable greenhouses an attractive option. Results here and elsewhere have been encouraging.

However, many crucial questions remained unanswered. True, that vertical/urban farming can optimally use land and water resources but can the poor farmers in rural areas find not inconsiderable resources to take up vertical farming. Can all employed in traditional agriculture be accommodated in vertical agriculture? What about crops that can’t be grown vertically? The subsidy is tied up in knots of red tape and the relevant know-how isn’t easily available. Can we turn a blind eye to the crucial role played by birds and bees in the pollination of crops?

Vertical farming can’t be seen as panacea for all that ails Indian agriculture.

Fruit Preserves Business Comes Of Age

It was almost three decades back when India heard the footsteps of artisanal handcrafted hundred per cent naturally preserved ‘fruit conserves’.

An English woman married to an Indian who hailed from Bhuira, a small village in Himachal Pradesh, started on a very small scale with multi-fruit and bitter marmalades and preserves with chunks of luscious fruit that eschewed synthetic colours, flavours and preservatives. But people’s palates were not used to the natural taste of these products. They were addicted to brilliantly coloured (artificially) and cloyingly sweet mixed fruit jam. Even single fruit jams strawberry, mango were enhanced with added (synthetic) flavours.

It was about the same time that Karen Anand started her venture of gourmet foods near Pune. Both Bhuira and Karen’s kitchen attracted a small but discerning clientele. Karen catered to the uppermost crust of First Class passengers in International airlines and super deluxe hotels. Bhuira carved a niche for itself by introducing new flavour blends and attracting the upwardly mobile Indians who had acquired a taste of homemade preserves and were worried about the added sugar in mass-produced jams.

The words preserves and conserves gained currency during the 1990s to differentiate these from the run of the mill jams. Tatas had come out with an interesting strawberry preserve but it failed to make a mark. After another decade ITC of Welcome Group Hotels fame came up with a line of preserves and conserves that was branded as a product far superior to ordinary jams.

All this while the battle for brands was fought in the marketplace and popular Indian labels changed hands and multinationals with muscle pushed out smaller competitors. Several factors combined to impart a powerful thrust to artisanal fruit preserves. Sustainable became a buzzword. ‘Farm to Fork’ was another phrase that captured the popular imagination. Small once again became beautiful and conscientious citizens were inspired to support village-level enterprises that generated livelihood at the grassroots. Dr Paul set up a women’s cooperative Umang near Ranikhet and trained local women to produce high-quality jams, jellies and pickles from fruits sourced locally. These were sold under the Kumaoni label.

Inspired by these pioneers a group of youngsters tired of corporate life set up Him Nectar Foods in 2015 in Bageshwar and slowly stepped out to the village Pilkholi near Ranikhet. Sushma Nambiar and Jatin Khetrapal remember gratefully the advice and assistance rendered by Bhuira to them when Him Nectar was experiencing birth pangs. Finally, a small factory cum training unit was established in Kalika amidst a cluster of fruit trees. Another corporate dropout who had set up an NGO Himjoli placed his confidence in the new hundred per cent natural product.

This region is famous for its apricots, plums and pears and there was a time when apples were abundant in the Chowbatia Gardens.

Luscious Alexander Pears, Dark Purple Centosa Plums and many varieties of apricots–morpankh, badami and gola are sourced locally. This is the philosophy followed by Bhuira and Karen’s Kitchen. Upgrade skills of local villagers, empower women and come out with a product that matches the global quality.

There are many chefs who use these natural conserves in innovative dishes. CauldronSisterss in Jaipur delight their guests with Alphonso Kalakand made with Alphonso Preserve.

The duo Ratika and Richa prepare natural fruit preserves (strawberries, bael, phalsa, jamun) to enliven cakes and other desserts.

Nishant Choubey loves to work with natural homemade handcrafted in small batches fruit preserves. He firmly believes that marmalades and jams may have been accompaniments to buttered toasts, the use of preserves is restricted only by the chef’s imagination. He has used chunky apricot preserve in his rendering of khubani ka meetha in Michelin plated Indus in Bangkok and has worked the magic of Jamun preserve in smoothie fortified with oats.

Many people harbour the misconception that handcrafted preserves are an exorbitant and unaffordable extravagance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Top of the line products are available in the range of Rs. 275- 375 for a 330 g jar. You need a small blob–a teaspoon full to taste the nectar!

Ripple effects are clearly visible. It’s an idea whose time has come. From Himalayan hinterland to Sahyadris and the Nilgiris Ranikhet, Pune and Bangalore the preference for artisanal fruit conserves is registering steady growth. The post-2000 generation is given threading labels carefully– ‘nature identical’ flavours are losing ground. Who needs chemical preservatives if you can keep the small jar after opening it in the refrigerator?

Some exotic flavours are also available in sampler baskets in mini jars. Like the resurgence of other handicrafts, this trend is most likely to stay with us.

Tea Typhoon Is Brewing

It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was tea that spawned the British Empire. To pay for Chinese tea, the British grew opium and exported it to China and till they started growing tea in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), they depended on the Chinese produce using force to secure its supply.

The history of forestry tells a multi-layered tale of the growing requirement of wood for tea chests and railway sleepers. With the passage of time, Darjeeling became the Champagne of teas and teas from Assam, Ceylon carved a niche for themselves. Nilgiri, Kangra and Kumaon till recently were unknown except for the minuscule minority of tea aficionados.

Colonial rituals like High Tea, with the paraphernalia of Silver Service, fine bone porcelain translucent Chinaware were an integral part of life during the Raj. We in India forgot that the Asians have for centuries observed tea rites like the elaborate Tea Ceremony in Japan. Japanese prefer Chrysanthemum Tea while the Chinese sip Jasmine tea from small bowls throughout the multi-course meal. In the Valley of Kashmir hot cups of Kahwa prepared in a Samovar were relished at the end of the meal. Nun Chai and Pink Tea were paired with breakfast breads.

Then dawned the ugly age of CTC and Tea Bags that dealt a mortal blow to the gentle art of brewing a decent cup of tea. ‘Two Leaves and a Bud’ was recalled by students of Indo-Anglian Literature as a novel by Mulk Raj Anand.

The mystique of rare teas like White Tea, Yellow Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea and

Oolong has erased from memory once-beloved brands like Lopchu, Rangli Rangliot etc.

Tea-less teas like Tulsi Teas and herbal teas have also blurred boundaries.

Then came Floral Tea infusions from Dilmah company in Sri Lanka and following in its footsteps

Rhododendron and Roselle infusions produced in Panghut in Uttarakhand. It is the paring of teas with food that has highlighted the diversity of teas.

Decades back, if memory serves us right, it was Sanjay Kapoor who had opened Apki Pasand in Daryaganj to introduce the residents of Delhi to the joys of well-brewed tea. He had also launched his own blends labelled Swan Lake and Jade.

But he was a visionary far ahead of the time. It would be more than a generation for Chai to take on the wine snobs.

Those who pair teas with food use the same terminology as wine sommeliers -Body, Bouquet, Aroma, Flavour. They also tell us that different kinds of teas are either congruent or complementary. Don’t let the jargon deter you- it simply means that either the tea chosen enhances the taste of food or adds to its elements that enrich its inherent flavour. What the Indian Tea sommeliers agree upon is that pairing tea with Indian cuisines is far more challenging than pairing it with wester dishes as the spicing and flavour profile of Indian delicacies is far more complex.

Payalh Agarwwal was born and brought up in Munloong a small village near Darjiling and claims with an impish smile that she has more tea than blood flowing in her veins. In the same breath, she adds disarmingly that no one in seven generations in her family has had anything to do with tea.

She started as an undergraduate in the tea business and has pioneering work in tea pairing that is widely recognised and has helped us become an alum of IIMB. Everyone is born with a purpose in life and in her case teas have helped her realise what she was meant to do.

Fariyal was born in Bangladesh and wears many hats. She is a fantastic cook, outstanding baker, a gifted designer and now runs Planterie–a small gem-like tea boutique in the Capital’s Aurobindo Place trendy market catering to residents of Hauz Khas and SDA. Step into this tiny parlour and yield to the allure of wild teas and fascinating blends and infusions that blend tea with bhoot jholakiya chilli or time tested turmeric and ginger. The chique tea house beats the Chai Khana of yore.

Dipankar was a senior management executive in a multinational company when he decided to what’s heart called for. He left the metropolis to set up Beyonderie a company in a village near Guwahati that brings together produce from sister states in the northeast to enhance the seduction of exceptional teas that can be enjoyed by connoisseurs and also paired with Indian foods.

The storm brewing in the teacup is not confined to Metros. Rakesh Mishra in Allahabad has built a fairytale-like tea house to initiate his friends to the joys of legendary single-origin teal like Makai Bari. The words ‘second flush muscatel’ encountered by chance a couple of years ago fired his imagination and started him on this exhilarating journey.

The Tea Typhoon or, shall we say the surging Tea Tempest is not likely to subside soon. May its pairing with Indian food add another arrow to India’s soft power quiver.

Fermented Fad: Boosting Immunity, Naturally

There is general agreement that fermented foods are the next big thing. In fact, fermented foods are at the confluence of two current powerful trends — the increasing demand for natural foods and growing popularity of immunity-boosting superfoods.

According to trade journals, the global market for just one fermented product Kombucha Tea was approximately $1.7 billion as of 2019. This tea is prepared with black, green or white tea, flavoured with flowers like hibiscus, jasmine, fruits herbs and spices like ginger or mint. Attractively packaged in 250 ml bottles the ‘refreshing and reinvigorating’ beverage is priced from ₹120 to ₹250 a pop.

Chefs are excited about exploring uncharted territory that gives them a chance to show their creativity and restaurant owners are happy to ride the big rising wave that is bringing in health-conscious millennials to their tables. From cocktail canapes to desserts fermentation is casting its magic spell.

Just before the COVID pandemic hit us and threw life out of gear, modern fermenters had already started creating fizzy bubbles in India. Trendy eateries like restaurants Olive Bar and Kitchen in Mumbai, Delhi’s Greenr Cafe and FabCafe had started organizing fermentation workshops to raise awareness and sustain interest in kombucha and kefir, sauerkraut and much more.

Bengaluru was the first to come up with India’s first ‘fermentary’ called Kobo, an e-shop dedicated to selling ferments only. Qualia in Mumbai relied on its rich repertoire of fermented foods at the time of its launch.

The craze for probiotic drinks and other fermented superfoods is building up once again as we resume life if not after then with COVID. Kombucha, Kimchi, Kefir, Doogh and Sauerkraut from distant lands are available and appear irresistible.

How easily we forget that the process of fermenting was well known to our ancestors who used it to enhance the shelf life and improve the taste of what they consumed. Pickles, cheeses and wines are all fermentation’s gifts.

Fermented foods have long been a part of the traditional Indian diet, especially in rural areas. In Gujarat it is dhokla and in the southern states of India idli, dosai and appam are prime examples of fermented breakfast items. In the east in Bengal and Orissa pantha bhaat aka pakal is slightly fermented rice (cooked the night before and soaked in water) is considered the perfect light meal during the summers. Buttermilk-based dishes are many- Kadi, Kulu, Mor Kuzhambu, etc.

Fermented dishes are prepared with cereals and lentils, milk and dairy, vegetables and fruits. Sweets like jalebi are prepared with fermented batter and Gundruk is immensely popular in Sikkim where the farmers first wilt green mustard and radish leaves for a couple of days then pound these adding a little water.

Greens are then packed in air-tight containers. After fermentation, the leaves are taken out and dried in the sun to be used as required. The ubiquitous condiment in North-Eastern states of India is fermented fish paste ngari its vegetarian rendering uses black soya beans. Hawaijar is prepared by fermenting cooked soya beans in banana or fig leaves packets that are put in a closed bamboo basket for three to five days.

This is considered adult food not fit for young children due to its rich protein content. Enduri pitha is a fermented batter based pancake that is steamed in turmeric leaves and served ritually on the Prathamashtami festival. Singal in Uttarakhand (called Seli roti in Nepal) is prepared with semolina or rice flour soaked overnight and mixed with sugar to help fermentation.

Much before Greek Yogurt was a twinkle in the eye of gifted marketers, dahi a rich source of folic acid, riboflavin, vitamin B-complex, and lactic acid bacteria was used by Indians in their daily diet. It is rich in probiotics, or good bacteria, thereby improving gut health. It further impedes the growth of E. coli and other bad bacteria in the gut.

Advocates of fermented foods maintain that fermentation increases the nutritional properties of ingredients enhancing the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body. Many of these claims are validated by scientific research.

Fermentation helps break complex carbohydrates and sugars making these easily digestible. Probiotic foods certainly improve gut health. But to accept that all fermented foods are superfoods that dramatically boost our immune system and retard ageing or that these can be magic bullets to cure diabetes, blood pressure, etc. doesn’t seem very wise.

The Cold War Over Frozen Desserts

For almost five hundred years Indians have chilled out with Kulfi in the summer season. Legend has it that the frozen dessert was created to please Emperor Akbar and the recipe is mentioned in contemporary texts like Ain e Akbari and Akbarnama that describe a relay race conducted by expert riders to bring slabs of ice from Chur Chandra Dhaar in present-day Himachal Pradesh to the imperial Capitals- Delhi and Agra.

However, it seems more reasonable to agree with the view that the coolant was born in Iran (aka Persia). The word Kulfi is of Persian origin and translates as a sealed/locked container. Kulfi is usually prepared by freezing condensed flavoured milk in tightly capped metal containers that are prised open to serve it. The Iranians are known to have mixed snow with sherbets and myriad fruit juices as early as the 6th century BCE. The cold confection travelled west with Greek and Arabs and spawned the palate-cleansing sorbet.

The Chinese prone to claiming priority of invention and creation of all things point to evidence of a kulfi like dish that was enjoyed more than five thousand years BCE. What is well documented is that Emperor Nero relished wine mixed with crushed ice/snow though his physicians didn’t approve of this practice. Later a Medici princess carried with her the recipe for cool desserts to England wherefrom the Quakers transported it to the New World. American presidents like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin consumed it in large quantities and also served it to their guests.

Though freezing is common in preparing ice creams, gelatos and kulfi the differences are significant. Kulfi is far denser as the milk used is not whisked to pump in the air. No stabilisers or preservatives etc are used. Nor can it be stated that the ‘ice cream’ made in a hand-churned wooden bucket inspired it. Much before the pushcarts introduced firangee ice creams or ice cream parlours opened in big cities countless cities and small towns had acquired a taste for kulfi.

Many cities in north India claim that they have the best kulfi in the land. In Delhi, Kurhemal in Chawari Bazar is the oldest shop (set up in 1906) specialising in kulfi and is famous for its fruit kulfis. The flesh of fruits like mangoes, pomegranates, guavas and apples is skilfully scooped out and refilled with kulfi prepared with it. The fruit retains its original shape and appearance. Roshan di Kulfi in Karol Bag dates back to early 1950s and is as famous for its kulfi as Chole-Bhature. Madhu Kulfi in Agra offers both matka and tinka kulfi and thanks to improved refrigeration and transportation now can be tasted as far away as Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand. Kanpur’s Badnaam kulfi unabashedly boasts of its addictive lure.

In past decades India has witnessed a churn in the ice cream business. Big international players have entered the market to swallow local brands like Kwality. Mother Dairy Amul and Vadilal continue to defend swadeshi turf. There are many regional niche players. Parsi Dairy in Mumbai, Natural and Havemor tonnage are just a few. In Tamil Nadu the legendary reputation of Dasprakasha chain owed a lot to its ice creams. The world of kulfi is also changing. Quite a few have branched out into ‘manufacturing’ (mass producing in a factory) popular kulfis as well as trying their hand at softies in a cone and even ice creams. The younger generation is opening branches and focusing on exports within India and to foreign countries.

Many talented chefs are concentrating on artisanal kulfi, experimenting with exotic ingredients like wasabi, green/blue tea, avocado and more. Some play around with cooling colours (shades of green, light pink and yellow) matching them with flavours recommended in Ayurveda for time tested cooling properties — sandal, mint, khus and rose petals.

Others have chosen the dairy-free vegan route. The health-conscious can opt for sugar free kulfi. Presentation is changing too. The frozen dessert doesn’t always appear on a bed of falooda (thick vermicelli) blushing pink after a generous splash of Rooh-afja. Some lighter than air frothy wispy confections like daulat ki chaat also known as nimish and makhan-malai, malaiyo earlier available only in winters have reincarnated as chilled dessert.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. Will ‘cool-cool, thandi-thandi‘ kulfi conquer the globe or lose its distinct identity as it imitates its distant Western cousins? How will this Cold War end? Certainly not with a thaw! In this instance permafrost will tickle the patron’s palate most.

Gourmet Fare — The Return Of Thali

There was a time when almost everyone in India ate out of a thali. The word derives from thaal, a large circular tray, and has some connection with thal/sthal–a place. This is where food was traditionally ‘placed’ for consumption. It was a paatra (literally a vessel or container) deriving from the Sanskrit word patra meaning a leaf. The earliest thali was obviously fabricated with leaves. The biodegradable pattal and the banana leaves commonly used as a plate in southern and coastal India remind us of this lineage.

Times change and so do our eating habits. Indians gave up metallic thalis and adopted plates of porcelain, melamine, plastic and stainless steel. They also stopped sitting cross-legged on the floor or on low stools and eating with their hands. Thali was slowly erased from our memory. For the present generation, it has become synonymous with a specific set meal.

Thali meals are prefixed with geographical indicators or a particular community tag. Gujarati, Jain and Madrasi thalis are encountered all over the land. Gujarati thali is vegetarian so is the Jain one that adheres to even stricter commandments eschewing garlic, onion, roots and tubers that grow underground. The Madrasi thali is also vegetarian and comes in two versions: limited and full meals. Catering to North Indian patrons, the Udupi restaurants from Karnataka lost no time in introducing a North Indian thali with paneer, chhole, mah di daal and choice of bread: tandoori roti, paratha or kulcha.

In recent years the non-vegetarian south Indian thali has made a strong debut. Karaikudi-Chettinad recipes from Tamil Nadu and delicacies from Syrian Christian or Mopla Muslim repertoire in Kerala have won a small but loyal clientele. Andhra Pradesh took the lead in showcasing its ultra-hot meat and exceptional seafood in its regional thali. Restaurants like ‘Oh Calcutta’ and ‘6 Bally Gunj’ have popularised culinary classics from East (present-day Bangladesh) and West Bengal with tantalising menus that include fish, fowl and flesh.

The array of thalis that we can choose from is bewildering with prices ranging from twenty rupees to a thousand times more.

The roadside kiosks and pushcarts sell a set thali with two parathas, dahi and achar or three puris and sabzi for 20-30 rupees. Add a fiver and you could have a more substantial meal of four rotis, half a plate of chawal, two vegetables and dal. In between, there are other options, kadhi chawal, rajma chawal, chhole kulche, veg paneer biryani. At the other extreme are multi-starred eateries that offer a unique fine dining experience to their guests foreign. The Taj group was the first to introduce de lux thali in their speciality Indian restaurants a few decades back. There has been no looking back since.

From time to time, a curated thali strives to take on the degustation of classy European eateries. The prices are deterring even for the well-healed–Rs. 7,500 ** excluding the wine pairing. If you like to tipple as you nibble that the bill may well soar to stratospheric heights Rs 15,000 ++ without gratuities. There are compensations. The dishes you eat off are silverware or bell metal at least with gold plated cutlery. Some of the dishes in curated thali are rarely encountered in the public domain. At the Marwar-Mewar-Malwa fest at the Oberoi Delhi Kr. Hemendra Singhji of Bhaisoragarh unveiled Hari Mirch ka Maans, Safed Kathhal, Shikar ke Alu and Malwa Gosht the rustic robust ancestor of the much-hyped Lal Maans.

ALSO READ: Experiments With Mock Meats

Some time back a TV channel launched a travel come food show titled ‘Utsav Thali’ hosted by celebrity chef Kunal Kapur. The programme explored different regions of India to rediscover forgotten thalis (vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian) each with a distinct identity and allure of its own. From Trami in the Valley of Kashmir to Bohri thaal in Gujrat and the sadya spread on a banana leaf it was a veritable mouth-watering feast for the eyes.

The greatest joy of eating a thali meal is that it allows the diner to compose his own symphony of tastes and take delight in arranging the course wise sequence as per preference like bespoke tailoring. The katori (small bowls) represent a wide chromatic spectrum that most of the time gives a clue to their taste and pungency of spices. Some items are hot while others are at room temperature or even cold.

Ratika and Richa two enterprising Marwari sisters from Jaipur have come up with the fascinating idea of shrinking the thali into a pocket friendly ‘platter’ that reminds one of the table d’hote price fixe meals. The Cauldron Sisters as they like to call themselves have assembled/created some unusual thalis: the Parsi thali and Banarasi Thali. The platters priced between Rs. 250-500 come to the table in a handcrafted basket adorned with a piece of handwoven fabric with the edibles in clay pots.

The Thali continues to evolve. Those in search of the Thali Holy Grail can look forward to taste bud tickling multi-sensorial delights on this trail. Is this trend going to have an impact on the preparation and presentation of Indian foods or is there a twist in the tale awaiting us?