Chefs talk about how the once behind-the-burner concept is becoming a mainstay on dining tables as well.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Chef Vikas Seth & Chef Pawan Bisht
Three years ago, when Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sanchez) decided to create the burrito bowl, it was for a single reason: a good number of diners were looking for options where they could not only shun the extra layer of carbohydrate but also have a different burrito experience. Thus, was born the Burrito Bowl that did little more than deconstruct a classic burrito, it created a format where the diners could design their own bowl too. Little did the Mexican cuisine specialist realised that in doing so he had somehow set the trend of Buddha Bowl – a term that was gaining mileage in the arena of healthy eating on the other side of the continent – in India. Years on and with the Burrito Bowl now a well selling dish in the menu, the culinary director finds the correlation fascinatingly amusing. I will be honest with you, says Chef Seth, “I had never thought of the bowl that way till I got around to read about this book called the Buddha’s Diet written by data scientist and Zen priest Dan Zigmond and digital strategist and wellness writer Tara Cottrell, which speaks about how Buddhist monks not only followed a plant-based diet but had a system of measuring their balanced intake by using a bowl. Interestingly, it is a standard eating practice that nutritionists have been advocating for a long time, where they say to eat food that fits into your palm. Or in other words, a bowl that fits into the palm.”
Curiously, Chef Seth isn’t the only one to discover the trend that took its footing in 2016 thanks to the book that not only advocated that Buddha was vegetarian, but also that he was thin and used to follow a frugal but balance diet; eating in a bowl has been a standard kitchen practice for ages. Says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) who first began eating in a bowl as a junior chef to save precious time and complete work – and still loves having his work meal (usually lunch) in a bowl even today, “the practice of eating in a bowl came out of the convenience. You just had to dump everything in a bowl, sit in the corner, mix it well, and eat it. A good bowl would often have rice, curry, some salad (kachumber or kimchi), and a piece of chicken or two with one papad stash on the side. It made for mess-free eating and quickly too.”
Concurs Chef Salil Fadnis (currently Hotel Manager, Sahara Star), who calls the tradition of eating in a bowl also a way that young chefs learnt about interesting food pairing, even today. Often eating in a bowl meant, says Chef Fadnis, “that there is precious little time between two services in a hotel or it is pretty late in the night for a sit-down meal. So, it is whatever can be cooked instantly, or a meal rustled from what has been made in the kitchen – in either way it is a little bit of this and that which goes in a bowl. However, given that chefs too love tasty food, there is a method to the process that may appear to an outsider as a ladle-by-ladle filling of the bowl.”
But is in fact, says Chef Seth, who often had to have his meal in a bowl during the cruise line days, “is a careful pairing of food that sometime has a fried egg thrown in or bits of bacon for texture and taste.” Incidentally, explains Chef Fadnis, “the habit of eating in a bowl in India is ingrained in us during childhood when mothers make this perfect balanced meal in a bowl by mixing the right amount of dal, rice and sabzi that is given to us as a kid and even as an adult when we have little time to spare. In fact, most of our composite meals at home are just deconstructed version of a bowl.” A practice that many anthropologists say predates Buddha and the advent of Buddhism. A case in point of this, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby) is the way meals were had during the Indus Valley Civilisation. “Most meals were served in a bowl considering that having porridge was a standard fare back in time. It was on this that other accompaniments were piled on to be had alongside the gruel. The bowl concept dates to the head-hunting days of the tribes where a bowl was meant not only for eating but also portioning. And given the common practice of eating as a community, usually in a space in front of the chief’s house where the day’s special – usually the hunt of that day - was made a bowl was a handy tool.” It is a practice that still runs at many villages in the North East that follow this practice of eating as community once a week and every occasion. The role of bowl was so important that eventually it was adopted not just by traders and travellers, but also soldiers on foot for whom the bowl doubled up as a cup and for meals. And the tradition of setting the bowl came from the need of a nourishing, tasty meal that warranted an inclusion of at least three dishes that were different in texture. Many believe that the reason raita or salan was introduced with biryani, which served as this perfect one bowl meal was the need for crunch and nourishment. In fact, most of our two-dish meal often had a third version purely because it completed the circle of a balanced meal, and this includes the all-nourishing Khichdi as well, which often is served with dahi/pickle and papad.
In that sense, says Chef Pawan Bisht (Corporate Chef, One8Commune), “most of our regular meals are all designed on the principle of Buddha Bowl, which as per food anthropologist and traditional food practitioners, is more of a thought of eating right, in the right quantity rather than a unique style of eating or presenting food.” Chef Bisht who found a semblance of the concept in the traditional food practices followed in Uttarakhand is of the view that the idea behind the Buddha Bowl trend is to advocate the practice of “eating in moderation.” Concurs Chef Seth, who has spent years working on eating habits of ancient civilisation like that of Mexico and the Orient and finds the idea of Buddha Bowl as something that teaches how to eat as per one’s need and of intermittent fasting. If you look at India where Buddhism took roots before traveling the world, one will realise that the initial founders of the religion survived mostly on alms and would spend days meditating, which meant, continues Chef Seth, “they needed food that would keep the mind calm, and constantly keep the body flushed with energy so that it didn’t interfere with the activity. And given that most practitioner then survived on alms, the bowl is bound to be made of simple food, mostly seasonal, which had to be shared with the peers. They ate as per the need and fasted when required. That is the core idea of a good Buddha Bowl.”
Surprisingly, it is an eating philosophy that has been followed by generations with sporadic moments of over-indulgence and gluttony, which, say nutritionist and lifestyle specialist is on the rise given the easy access to not only food, but cooked delicious food in large quantities. This OTT of food, says Chef Gorai, “is the reason that the principle of Buddha Bowl, which not only teaches the virtues of portioning but variety as well along with right kind of pairing, becomes a must.”
So how does one prepare the Buddha Bowl? Much like the Ramen bowl, says nutritionist Sveta Bhassin, “depending upon your primary activity the food is decided. If you are someone who has a physical demanding job, the portion of carbs and protein should be high vis a vis vegetables and salad; if that is a sitting job each portion must be the same small portion, so a quarter is left to add food that are naturally high on fat and vitamins like avocado, slices of mango or even a small portion of mixed nuts to be had few minutes after the meal. The composition changes if there is mutton, which takes a long time to digest and hence has to have a mixed veg with drumstick and bitter food to reign in the portion size.”
A good way to start this, says smoothie in a bowl expert Chef Bisht, “use a bowl with a wider mouth but tapered base and start building by placing the main carbohydrate of the meal first and then extra protein or fat-rich food at the end. And look for maximum colours. Pair with buttermilk or any digestive and you will start on your first Buddha Bowl.”