India on a Plate: A journey of taste from East to West
Nowhere is India's universal appeal more apparent that in its wealth of cuisines. From the rich feasts of the Mughal courts that dazzled ambassadors and explorers such as Marco Polo to the colonial imports of spiced meats and kedgeree, the subcontinent has influenced world cooking like nowhere else. Travelling through today's India is to discover an almost limitless cornucopia of dishes from state to state. Long gone are the days when only butter chicken or lentil dal was the staple hotel menu for visitors. Hoteliers and chefs across the country are embracing the roots of traditional cooking methods. They are showcasing menus that explore the magic of India's food scene, from rural 'farm to table' to reinvigorated staples of both urban and village kitchens. In the first of our India On A Plate series, we meet two champions of grassroots cuisine based at some of our favourite properties in the hills of Darjeeling and the desert of Rajasthan:
HUSNA TARA PRAKASH, OWNER, GLENBURN TEA ESTATE, DARJEELING
Glenburn Tea Estate is owned by the fourth-generation of the Prakash family, locally known as ‘chai wallahs’ or tea people. The unique setting, framed by ridges, tumbling rivers and snow capped peaks, is breathtaking. Husna Tara Prakash came to Glenburn seventeen years ago after marrying into the family and has restored the two colonial bungalows at the heart of the 1600 acre tea estate into an internationally respected boutique hotel. She is passionate about guests both engaging with the local mountain cuisine and enjoying the family recipes handed down to her and produced with a Glenburn twist.
How would you describe the food at Glenburn and is it inspired by your location near Darjeeling and tea planter history?
We take great pleasure in sourcing from our own garden, such riches are available from the climate and soil we have, from herbs to spices and vegetables - and the taste is out of this world. Our family recipes, evoking our planter heritage and border location, include tea-leaf pakoras, tea smoked chicken, Tibetan momos and Burmese khow suey. We love organising picnics by the river and barbecues at the The Simbong Terrace Garden of The Burra Bungalow - there really is nothing like eating outside against the backdrop of birdsong and the soaring Kanchenjunga mountain, the third highest in the world.
In your several years running Glenburn, what interesting food discoveries have you introduced your guests to?
Flavourful local ingredients like watercress growing wild in the nearby streams, pumpkin flowers and our regional mountain cheese! And red hot chillies that add a gorgeous kick and grow in abundance here. Unexpected gifts from the rich natural tapestry around us.
With your new property, The Penthouse, opening in central Kolkata, what are your gastronomic plans for the menu there considering its position in the heart of Bengali cuisine?
Experimenting with Bengali delights like the Bekti fish, little lobsters, river prawns and exotic flavours such as the Gondhoraj lime. Our menu will reflect the fine tastes of the Bengali community. We will also serve the local rice - Gobindo Bhog (which is shorter and fatter than most rice grains and called Food for the Gods) as well as red and black rices from North East India. A recent passion is a smoked Bandel Cheese and quince, found only at a single shop in the New Market. Paired with the wine list we are curating, we are so excited to introduce a menu true to ‘the city of joy’ to our guests.
RANVEER BRAR, EXECUTIVE CHEF, ALILA FORT, BISHANGARH
The feudal turrets of Alila Fort, Bishangarh rise out of the scrub terrain near Jaipur like a mirage. An exciting new opening in Rajasthan, the property is owned by a local political family and has been restored to splendour, with contemporary notes, by the eco-conscious Alila Group. Chef Ranveer Brar, who is well known in India, is excited about working with the age- old cooking methods of the Rajput culture, a race of hunters and warriors. Brar has reintroduced the technique of ‘dungar’ or smoking, which infuses flavours of cloves and wood into meat, as well as sand-pit cooking, with game such as quail and rabbit and has already gained rave reviews from critics and guests alike.
With urban populations growing in India and around the world, rural food is under threat of becoming both irrelevant and unsustainable. How are you challenging this trend at Alila Fort?
This is something I am passionate about. We have set up an organic farm close to the fort and guests can select their ingredients and have them cooked to their taste. There is a power in connecting people with the food source which I think is rejuvenating and enlightening. The food of rural India has such a wealth of wisdom and health benefits. Visitors here can have the wonderful opportunity of taking away both memories of delicious and new dishes from the region but equally the gift of, perhaps, a new and exciting, approach to their diets and ingredients. On a more carnivorous note, I am introducing the Rajput version of Afghan tikka, called maas ke sooley, meat skewered on swords and roasted on an open fire. This approach is both authentic, echoing the starkness of the fort’s setting, and incredibly delicious eaten under the stars.
Where have you visited in rural India that has impacted you through its cuisine?
I spent time in a small village near Jodhpur lived in by the Bishnoi tribe, former nomads who are known for never cutting down trees and live in blissful harmony with their surroundings when not interfered with. As a side note - they are the only community allowed in India to imbibe Opium as it is deemed to be for religious use! I sat with a matriarch named Shanti Devi who could prepare at least 50 dishes with only three or four local ingredients, including buttermilk. And every one I tasted was like heaven. This is the spirit we have brought to Alila. Despite the grand setting, we are taking people on a journey through the very soil and heart of India.