Wilderness on a plate

Image source: The Hindu

Reposted from: The Hindu

With the foraging trend having caught on, we now have wild figs from Uttarakhand, Kerala mud crabs and mushrooms from Meghalaya making their way to restaurants like Masque and Meraki

Every time Prateek Sadhu, executive chef at Mumbai-based restaurant Masque, pays the mountains a visit, he returns with close to a 100 kg of sea buckthorn, a modest Himalayan shrub with numerous medicinal benefits. Typically used by locals to construct fences, he converts the plant — also known as the Leh berry — into flavourful concoctions like citrusy-creamy sea buckthorn with black pepper mousse. Since Masque’s launch in 2016, exotic culinary delights — with seasonal foraged veggies like fiddleheads, wild cherries and tree tomatoes — have become top favourites among food enthusiasts. “When you have such amazing produce, ideas come easily. The focus of Masque is to scale up the farm-to-table concept in India, and with people open to experimenting, the concept has caught on. Initially, our audience was restricted to Mumbai, but now travellers from across the globe recognise us as a dining destination,” says Aditi Dugar, CEO, Masque.

Inspired by Rene Redzepi’s (of Copenhagen’s Noma) foraging exploits, food lovers across India’s culinary landscape are bringing wild produce such as mud crabs and ghingharoo berries to city kitchens, and the trend is here to stay. According to Mumbai-based food writer, Vikram Doctor, the monsoon serves as the perfect season to forage, especially for tribal and farming communities. “As they can’t fish or farm, foraged food comes to the rescue of many communities who face a food crisis during this season,” he says.

For Pooja Pangtey and Teiskhem (Tei) Lynrah — the folks that started Mumbai-based pop-up restaurant, Meraki, last year — the art of foraging allows them to present unsuspecting Mumbaikars with a glimpse into the culturally rich kitchens of the North East. “The knowledge handed down from our village folk has kept us connected with our culture,” says Pangtey, who has introduced dishes with timila (wild figs) and kafal (red bayberries).

In typical community-style dining, every edition of Meraki’s pop-ups follows a storytelling format where dishes like Wa khapa (Garo ginger pork) are presented coupled with a brief anecdote about their ingredients. “When you read a book, you imagine what the author is trying to say. We wanted to create a similar experience, and we’re happy to see a change in the way locals think about what they grow, forage or eat, and what the city folk think about this type of food. Perceptions like ‘people from the North East just eat a lot of meat’ are also changing,” says Pangtey.

Culture pop

Foraging in India is anything but a new-age phenomenon, explains Doctor. We have a very long tradition of using foraged foods, and even today, women from tribal communities harbour most of the available knowledge on such edibles. “Urmila Pawar, a Dalit writer from Konkan, writes about how women in her community would look for oysters on the coast; a treat they relish,” he says. Foraging has also remained an integral part of religious rituals across the country. “In the Angalaamman legend in Tamil Nadu, the goddess cooks a dish from Agathi leaves and chicken blood. Apparently, this dish is still prepared in certain temples as an offering to the deity,” he adds.

Beyond kitchens

The potent exercise of foraging isn’t simply restricted to the kitchen. Kush Sethi, who heads digital communications for the Delhi Walk Festival, conducts foraging walks (between September and February). Venues include Lodhi Garden to discover edible plants — like wild amaranth and common mallow — that have been labelled ‘weeds’. Sethi’s motivation stems from his interest in studying ‘weeds’ in an urban landscape, free from interventions like fertilisation and irrigation. “Labelling a plant as a weed renders it ‘useless’ and encourages people to litter in such spaces. But if someone promotes a particular plant as medicinal, the whole perception changes,” says Sethi.

Mumbai-based travel company, Kipepeo, also incorporates foraging walks in all its community-based tour itineraries. The idea stemmed from a conversation the founder, Piran Elavia, had with a tourist; and what followed was the creation of a product that emphasised on local cuisine of the North East. “I was surprised by the kind of vegetarian food people there forage and consume. They boil produce like the stinging nettle and flowers of the Nakima plant with rice, herbs, and some even add meat,” says Elavia, who conducts foraging walks every six months.

Fresh experiments

The flavour these wild edibles lend to dishes and their presentation is what makes foraging a much-loved activity for chefs. Dugar, for instance, talks about their experiments at Masque with chestnuts. “We foraged them along with the thorny shell and now have a range of dishes, like the chestnut brûlée served inside a chestnut’s shell, chestnut and cacicovallo cheese (from Andhra Pradesh) and wild wood sorrel,” explains Dugar. This foraging philosophy often finds its way to their bar as well. “The bartender will try to use the same ingredients the kitchen is working with. For instance, while getting the sea buckthorn back in a carton, a lot of the juice had settled at the bottom. The bartender sieved it with a muslin cloth and infused it with gin-based drinks.”

Pangtey, who interacts with botanists who connect her with locals, explains how being well versed with local traditions is important, especially when exhibiting facets of a culture not many know of. “In Uttarakhand, for example, there are close to 230 varieties of kidney beans. A lot of this produce is consumed by the families who grow them.”

Tracing the tightrope

Foraging, as enriching and lucrative as it sounds, presents its practitioners an equal share of challenges. The biggest being the short shelf life of the edibles.

Countering this uncertainty, the people at Masque avoid getting a standard menu printed. The menu is often planned according to ingredients that reach the kitchen table. “While there is a wishlist and it’s disappointing if we are not able to get that produce, we love the uncertainty that comes with foraging,” says Dugar. For Sethi, explaining a seemingly unknown concept like foraging to commoners in order to get permissions to conduct walks, is the biggest hurdle. “But we’ve got our secrets to deal with it!” he says.

Meanwhile, food historian and critic, Odette Mascarenhas says foraging demands a fair share of responsible execution. “Our new-generation palate has been more open to exploration, and chefs are catering to that. But the preparation’s authenticity must remain intact,” she insists. Though everything is subject to experiment, being the traditionalist that she prides herself to be, for her it’s imperative that something of the past is retained.

The article was first published in The Hindu

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