“The bowl was warm, and I inhaled the comforting aroma. It was kesari bhath, a dessert Mom had learned to make from her mom, who’d learned it from hers in India, and on and on and on for who knew how many generations. It was made with semolina, sugar, milk, and ghee, flavored with saffron and cardamom, and studded with raisins and cashews. I tasted a spoonful of the thick, golden pudding. It was perfect” This is how author Rajani described the Kesari Bhath which is Karnataka’s famous festival sweet dish, made especially during Ugadi, the new year day, in her book Midsummer’s Mayhem further adding -“I let the sweetness of the sugar and ghee, the sunniness of the saffron, and the gently grainy texture of the semolina play in my mouth. It was the perfect combination of sweet and savoury, smooth and gritty, fragrant and the tiniest bit bitter. It tasted like home.”
Globetrotters are coming back home, quite literally. After taking a plethora of rounds of global cuisine, people are coming back to local flavours and regional tastes and choosing it over other world-inspired trends and cuisines. Food aficionados have started valuing the taste of their age-old wisdom, grandma recipes, the taste of humble dishes. Chefs are looking back at their roots and deprived diners are craving home flavours- this nostalgia has started an “inward movement”, with more and more people exploring, cooking and eating regional dishes.
Today regional is the new national. For a long time, Indian food only meant kali dal, naan and butter chicken. But things have gone for an overhaul. Traditional recipes are gaining ground and people are willing to try native food. Says Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi, “One thing was certain at least ten years back in Delhi and North India, that anything with coconut would not work. It was a strict no but now it is being accepted. People are looking at experimenting with what they eat.” He gives the example of his own restaurant in Delhi where even in a lounge bar, they have appams which are well accepted by the crowd. When it comes to authentic regional cuisine, he says a bestseller in his Delhi restaurant is his mother’s recipe of traditional Masoor dal ki roti which is close to besan ki roti. He has also introduced the peethi wali roti which is the stuffing of dal ki wadi into the roti and is widely appreciated in his eatery.
Says Sokhi, “People in North India are very open to trying elements of South Indian cuisines and Bihari cuisine. Whereas if you look at cities like Goa and Chennai, it’s the other way round. In Chennai, when people go to restaurants, they go for something beyond the usual. For example, I find that in Chennai, people would love some butter chicken, some shahi paneer, some out of the box biryanis, and not their typical short grained biryani but the long grained perfumed biryani from Lucknow. This cross-cultural thing and love for regional cuisine is something that I have been experiencing in my restaurants and it’s a good trend.” Analysing how it played out in reality, Sokhi says – “In order to retain the economics of running a restaurant, people will certainly have those popular dishes which are saleable but at the same time, they would add the regional cuisine in some form or the other.”
How to try regional cuisines
In India, the range of different cuisines is also impressive. Each region in India has its own ethnic foods and dishes. The idea should be to be open to experimentation and not look down on anything. Says Jyotika Sahai, a 32-year-old Mumbaikar, “For a long time I thought mustard oil was a dirty word and only refined was good and olive oil is best. But ever since I embraced Bihari cuisine and even Bengali cuisine, I love the taste of raw mustard oil in the dishes just as I like dipping my breads into virgin olive oil. We Indians have been distant from our very own legacy of regional cuisine but now are reclaiming our roots and food is no exception.”
And it’s unapologetically Indian food which is gaining ground. What does that exactly mean? Chef Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka New York explains, “Unapologetic to us means the food that all of us have grown up and enjoyed eating. Meat and seafood on bone and nothing boneless. Spice as we like it and not dumbed down to please. Eating with your hands and not to be scared of what people will make out of it. All this and many more are examples of being Unapologetic.”
Pandya alongwith Roni Mazumdar of Dhamaka New York recently concluded their tour in India in association with Masters of Marriott Bonvoy and Culinary Culture. The global food scenario had limited offerings when it came to Indians so far. Says Roni Mazumdar, “In most of the US, there is an Americanized version of Indian cuisine being served. This comprises a generic version that mixes Mughlai and Punjabi cuisines but doing none of which with utmost integrity.” Talking about what they are bringing to the fore, Mazumdar says, “We are looking into regions that are often overlooked even within India like Meghalaya, Bihar, Orissa, etc. and our best sellers happen to be from these regions like Doh Khleh, Champaran Mutton, Chhena Poda.”
There was a time when regional food meant pav bhaji from Maharashtra or idli sambhar from Tamil Nadu. But now regional penetrates far deeper than this and people want to know the roots of their cuisine. People want to try everything from Garhwali and Kumaon thali when they go to North Indian hills. Says 65-year-old Anita Ghai who recently went to Lansdowne and tried a new dish, Kafuli. She says Kafuli is such a healthy dish-To prepare this dish, two main ingredients namely spinach and fenugreek leaves are cooked together in an iron pot, after which salt and spices are added to accentuate its flavour. The gravy for Kafuli is prepared by making a paste made out of rice or wheat and adding water to it.
There is an explosion of regional restaurants in the town. Take the case of Potbelly, the Bihari cuisine restaurant with Ranchi ka pulao and Bhojpuri thali in New Delhi or Bagundi, a one-of-a-kind restaurant with a wide range of Andhra delicacies like the classic Hyderabadi biryani, traditional Andhra thalis and the gongura chicken and mutton, or Rajasthali, the Rajasthani thali restaurant or Juggernaut the South Indian restaurant, local is the new global.
Or take the case of Paati Veedu at Chennai, which focuses on digging out recipes from a Tamilian grandmother’s kitchen that have been forgotten over time. Ones that are an equal mix of folklore and flavours. With a 25-course Poorna Bhakshana, 12 varieties of rasam and a roster of dishes such as puliyodharai with capsicum pachadi—tamarind rice with bell pepper yoghurt relish and idiyappam and sodhi, the 112-seater restaurant will directly transport you to a wonderfully warm paati’s kitchen. The Salt House, Kolkata pays tribute to the flavours of Bengal with khichuri and bhaaja, and Mishti Doi or the Kerala Cafe in Pune’s Kalyani Nagar. In Gurugram at 32nd milestone, there is a restaurant called Bhawan which celebrates local Indian recipes such as golgappas, chaats to crisp prawns marinated in yummy Goan spices and aromatic coconut – all sure to transport you from the Hindi heartland to the coast in no time!
Five-star hotels are not far behind and recently Taj Palace launched Loya. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the flat terrain of Punjab, to snow-laden Kashmir, Loya is a confluence of flavour, passion, and influence, all culminating exquisitely on your plate with a gathering of the North’s most cherished recipes.
Says Taljinder Singh – Senior Vice President and Brand Custodian – Indian Hotels Company Limited, “Guests today are well travelled and understand the complexity of Indian cuisine. They are welcoming to regional food and like to experience it in its full flavour. The enthusiasm we see in our guests at Loya encourages us to provide an unparalleled experience every day. Guests are inquisitive about regions, history, music, preparations techniques etc. At Loya we have seen the shift in mindset of our audience who does not have any complaint for not including the conventional dishes to the menu. Loya, in every sense, is a journey through the North. Our chefs have meandered through the diverse terrains — and unearthed the eating habits of native communes, streets, cultures, and their forgotten recipes along the way.”
Says Singh, “Our menu showcases authentic and long-preserved dishes that bring to the forefront robust flavours and traditional cooking styles. A delicious coming together of fresh, seasonal produce, farm-raised organic meats and our own spice blends, ground in-house. They spotlight the inherent uniqueness and theatrics of time-honoured cooking techniques of the North – the drama of “dhungar” or smoking, the aromatics of “baghar”, in which spices are tempered in hot oil, “dum”, the richness of slow-cooking and the energetic pounding of spices by hand. Loya offers the warmth and comfort of the past intersecting with the energy of today. We go back to their culinary traditions, of processes, of cooking utensils, of ingredients and bring the everyday of this extraordinary region. Every care has been taken to keep this great culinary culture pristine and authentic.
He recommends five vegetarian dishes that all must try. One is Sepu Wadi, a Himachali dish with split urad dal dumplings in a fresh tomato, yoghurt sauce; Kathal Baingan ka Bharta, smoked and spiced eggplant and jackfruit; Dal Jhakiya Moong and arhar dal with a pahadi jhakiya seed tempering; Kale Moti Gucchi ka Pulao Kashmiri Morel pulao and Gud ke maan or their Chef’s own grandmother’s recipe for badam kheer.
The cost of regional cuisine can range from very affordable to very pricey depending on how it is positioned and packaged. If it is your home style idli sambar it can come cheap. But if it’s something for which a separate set of ingredients are needed, then restaurateurs command a higher price with almost a 20 percent markup. In hotels, the average spend per person is upwards of Rs 2,000. For example at Loya, it is INR 3200 plus taxes (food only).
The chart below gives a low down on prominent Indian regional cuisine and the key dishes
|Cuisine||Highlights||Cost (in Rs)|
|Bihari||Litti Choka, Pakoda Basket and Makhana Thali||Cost For Two: Rs. 1,100|
|Garhwali thali||Bhooda (dal fritters crusted with sesame seeds), bhunni (mountain goat braised with onions and ginger), bhat ki churkani (Himalayan soybean curry)||Cost Per Thali: Rs 700 to Rs 2,000|
|Kerala South Indian||Chicken Chettinad, Mutton Curry, Malabar Fish Curry, Appam||Cost For Two: Rs. 1,800|
|Marathi||Vada Pav, Kolhapuri Chicken, Sabudana Khichdi||Cost For Two: Rs. 1,700|
|Gujarati||Khichdi, Dhokla, Custard, Dal Bati, Gujarati Kadhi||Cost For Two: Rs. 1,500|
|Rajasthani||Rajasthani Thali, Panchmel dal, Sarson Ka Saag, Gatta Curry, Dal Bati Churma, Shikanji||Cost For Two: Rs. 3,000|
|Bengali||Chicken Egg Roll, Paneer Roll, Laccha Paratha, Kathi Roll, Mutton Kasha, Mishti Doi Kosha Mangsho, Crab Curry||Cost For Two: Rs. 1,800|