During a recent weekend spent at a friend’s home in Bangalore, we hit up the tastier part of town. Think wood-fired pizza with almost-burnt edges topped with grilled bell pepper and pesto; a butter masala dosa lathered with green coconut chutney; and a luscious salad of leaves, chevre and walnuts. It was good food, some of it even memorable.
But what I couldn’t get enough of was my friend’s kootu, a mix of vegetables and lentils, which she served with organic red rice. After lunch, I found myself sitting at her dining table taking furious notes. She had paired pumpkin and bottle gourd with tur dal for this Tamilian kitchen favourite, but assured me I could use “any vegetable—even cabbage”. I accused her of withholding a secret ingredient. “But it is that simple,” she laughed. “Cook the dal and vegetables separately, and just mix them.” Then, with a sly smile, she shared this bit of wisdom: “I can give you a detailed recipe but the magic is in the love—the way you stir the pot, the moment you decide the vegetables are cooked enough, and, of course, in the ghee.”
The tempering of the kootu determines its fate: A little coconut, mustard seeds and a dash of hing crackling in a generous pool of hot ghee is all it takes.
“Don’t get stingy with the ghee,” she warned.
How could I? The fragrance of ghee, after all, is the making of most Indian food. And in a Marwari home such as mine, it is a culinary imperative. Even as the calorie-conscious younger generation became wary of it, the elders steadfastly proclaimed the benefits and unique flavours of India’s clarified butter. They knew better than to fear the ‘fat’.
Consider that ghee is now being endorsed as a super-food in pop-health articles, and has made a comeback in its home country, and abroad. Take the US, whose relationship with ghee, points out Nina Martyris, dates back to well over a century. Ghee has received a big boost from the Paleo diet, the latest food fad in the house, whose startling No 1 guideline is that “a Paleo diet should be high in fat”, she writes.
Other Indian flavours are conquering the global palate too. And who better to talk about it than Vikas Khanna, who went from living in a homeless shelter to cooking for US President Barack Obama in the 15 years he has spent away from home. Though both he and his flagship restaurant, Junoon, are based in New York, this proud Punjabi’s ambitious dream is to make Indian cuisine the last word in luxury. “…maine Indian khaane ko $38,000 per person pe becha. Benchmark toh isi se he banta hai,” Khanna tells Kathakali Chanda.
Meanwhile in Mumbai, pastry chef Pooja Dhingra is setting benchmarks in desserts, having mastered the delicate art of creating the perfect macaron. “Living and working in Paris changed everything for me,” writes the owner of Le15 Patisserie. “I walked into some of the world’s best pastry shops and was always in awe. I was amazed by the way pastry was treated in France. Walking into those shops was almost like going to a museum to look at art. That’s exactly how pastry chefs treated their work—like craftsmen.”
Food is art alright, from Mumbai macarons to Kashmiri gouda. Venture to Laganbal in the Valley to see how the wheels of cheese being crafted by Dutch cheese-maker Chris Zandee and the local Gujjar community have set the wheels of change in motion.
Food transcends geography. We know that already. And these stories serve as a delicious reminder.
This is it from us at ForbesLife India for 2015.
Enjoy every mouthful till next year.
Editor, ForbesLife India
Twitter id: @abbykhaitan
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(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)