And why this Slow Food online catalogue of the multi-diversity of produce and traditional proceesed food could be our answer to the better food system in the future. Seasoned Chefs muse.

By Madhulika Dash

Five years ago, when Relais & Châteaux and Slow Food – a Carlo Petrini movement to promote biodiversity in food and traditional eating habits – decide to forge a partnership for the Food For Change campaign, the idea was two-fold: First, it was to use the 21 stunning properties of Relais & Châteaux to help advocate the idea of Slow Food, which is into promoting traditional eating habits that include the old, nature-friendly ways of producing and processing food; and two, to help identify core species from across different countries that are core to their biodiversity. A major part of this association were the Relais & Châteaux chefs who would help raise awareness of the near-extinct foods that they nominated and explain to their guests and followers why biodiversity and culinary heritage matter as well as how to protect and cook the ingredients.

The chefs are in fact a part of Slow Food bigger coterie of culinary minds who have joined hands across the world, including India, with the same purpose. In India, the trend has been spear-headed by the likes of Chef Manjit Singh Gill, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai and Chef Joel Basumatary among others who have been advocates of traditional produce and techniques for over a decade now. In fact, Chef Basumatary is among the few in the world who today has revived, mastered, and documented the traditional practice of insect eating in Nagaland. His insect menu was in fact a big highlight at the Terra Madre festival in Shillong (Meghalaya) curated by culinary historian Dr Ashish Chopra a few years ago and has since helped revive the insect menus from many states of India, especially Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. The tribal state of Odisha in fact has a shared penchant of insects – and not just ants but flies too.

Similarly with Chef Gorai as well. As one of the oldest advocates of local cuisine, produce and processed products – almost all his restaurants are based on the Slow Food principle, especially that of Food For Change – the award-winning, multi-regional cuisine specialist and revivalist has been a game changer when it comes to changing the diner’s demography towards more regional cuisine. Over the past five years, more young chefs have joined this bandwagon including Chef Anurudh Khanna of Westin Delhi, seasoned chef Viveq Pawar, Rajasthani culinary custoadian Chef Akshraj Jodha, Radisson Nagpur Chef Anirban Dasgupta and of course veterans like Chef Nimish Bhatia and The Park Kolkata Chef Sharad Dewan among others. Thus, changing the dining landscape of India towards lesser-known and lesser-explored cuisine.

Adding to their effort has been the Ark Of Taste. Created in 1996, this online catalogue of Slow Food today has documented almost 5,500 foods (plant varieties, animal breeds and traditional processed products such as cheeses, cured meats, breads, sweets, etc.), and is considered an authority on biodiversity charting edible history thanks to Slow Food’s association with chefs, culinary writers, historians and food associations. And this year, to this illustrious list has been added two new names: Rajasthani Kumatiya and Tamil Nadu’s Seeraga Samba.

Kumatiya for the not in the know is one of the ingredients of the famous Rajasthani dish called Panchkuta; while Seeraga Samba is the first variety of rice grown in the state of Tamil Nadu, and is said to be the first stain. While both the ingredients have been identified by the chefs from the Relais & Châteaux properties, this has opened up opportunity for more produce and products to make it into the Ark of Taste – a platform that Chef Gorai calls the “best format to ensure revival and longevity of a produce that in every manner is made for not only our health but our taste too.”

Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan ( Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) who has spent the last few years in documenting the different rice varietals across Bengal, and in doing so has been able to bring forth many of the dishes – especially congee – that nutritional therapist today believe could be the key to better immunity. “The reason why rice has been so essential to our culture is because as a natural coolant and a rich source of glutamine, it is built to not just calm our mind and balance the dosha but also satiate the kind of energy we need to sustain ourselves in this kind of weather and the work,” says Chef Dewan, whose next project is to find short grain rice.

It is a process that Chef Bhatia has based his culinary philosophy and learning as a professional. “The beauty of Indian traditional food is that they are uber local when it comes not only to the ingredients that they use, the techniques, the processed products but also in terms of how well they can be adjusted to the local weather change and demands. Of course, what makes them unique is most dishes are hugely adoptive as well.

The reason why we have so many varieties of dal, chutneys, kheer, khichdi and such. But this was all possible because of the keen understanding our ancestors had about food and the biodiversity,” says Chef Bhatia whose recent work has been to showcase that “adaptiveness” of our dishes along with finding techniques and processed food that soon may make it to the catalogue.

It is a necessary exploration that even Chef Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent) too has been involved in for the past few days. “Food in India – or for that matter any ancient civilization – hasn’t been about eating alone. Its production, processing and preservation has been a part of sustenance not just for human life but for the biodiversity. And our culinary fabric is a prove of how it can all be done organically. One part of what made our ancestors do it so well was the understanding of the biodiversity and the native varieties of produce that would flourish in all seasons and transform as and when needed. It is a wisdom that we are constantly losing today, and that knowledge needs to be explored and preserved to help us built a food system that not only feeds but sustains us and the future generation. The Ark of Taste is just one of the ways to do so,” adds Chef Shantanu, who has spent the past few years deciphering the little nuances that made so many dishes classic and ensured their longevity.