Chef Nilesh Limaye, executive chef, Meluha The Fern believes that learning and reviving the Mother Cuisine has to be the top priority of every chef who joins the profession
In all our experiences as restaurateurs or hoteliers, the Consumer has always dictated the terms. All our expertise has always been utilised to please them. Today that is the norm. Be it an entrepreneur from IIT or a self imposed chef, doing a market survey, a feasibility study is important before starting a new venture. Mostly it is about how the guests will perceive our restaurant, the target audience and finally the path to achieve the budgets.
Rewind to say five or six decades ago. When the hospitality industry was just taking shape. When the then students who today are stalwarts joined because either they didn’t get the desired marks to get into the science or medical stream or because they didn’t want to do the same ol’ degree course. This year’s Chef’s Connect organised by WICA, was an eye opener for all of us cause we had various speakers who shared their valuable experiences. Chef Manjit Singh Gill, president, IFCA made a very important point and emphasised on the Mother and Father Cuisines. It’s not the first time probably that an authority on food spoke about going to roots. Finding our roots. But this time it made an impact. Till such time that the comfort zone doesn’t scare you and make you realise from within you won’t feel the pain.
Those were the days when we read stories about how the dining houses came up because when people migrated they had left all their life’s savings or lost it in the partition riots, they came empty-handed. All they could offer was their expertise in cooking. The tasty dishes that was their everyday meal became their livelihood. That’s how the new cuisines were developed,. Look at Indo-Chinese, Udipis, Punjabi dhabas, Irani cafes all tell the same story. Even in Mumbai the vada pav was born out of a desire to make a living.
Then as the economy grew, became more liberal and as people travelled more and more people became rich and wanted to enjoy the niceties. Food travelled faster than it did before. International cuisine was the norm. Aspiring chefs like us in the 90s wanted to learn Western and international dishes. Cruising became the buzz word. migrating to UK or Australia was the norm. More and more students joined the industry. Suddenly it was the glamour that attracted everyone. But behind the glitzy cosmetics, we students forgot our cuisine. Our Mother Cuisine. We looked down upon our own dishes of litti chokha or chhole bhature, dosas and poha were no longer in vogue. Polenta, khowsuey, Thai curries, Mexican became the in thing. Global had become the New World.
It’s the purest form of cuisine…It’s Honest to God food. It’s the food that we grow up with. It’s the food that we connect with – since that is what we have been eating throughout probably even before we came out of our mother’s womb.
When we use all our experiences to create what we learnt from our region of our community and we
maintain the harmony of the ingredients by using the ingredients which grow in our region, the water which we use for cooking is drawn from our own local rivers, the taste that we create by cooking with our own hands can be termed as Mother Cuisine.
The cuisine that we learn over the years from various Masters, then inculcate it in our own style, export our expertise as we progress and eventually teach what we learn, share our knowledge for more better and diverse tastes and textures.
Back to basics
Today after spending considerable amount of time and money and exploring the world, we realise that in our quest to gain knowledge and make career paths we didn’t look for our own hidden treasures and the wealth of our regional cuisines. So when Chef Gill spoke his heart about going to the roots, it couldn’t have been more relevant to us and a great learning for the younger GenX to find importance in the cuisine of their community, region, state.
Learning and reviving the Mother Cuisine has to be the top priority of every chef who joins the profession. We have realised if we learn the Mother Cuisine, which like our mother tongue is not actually difficult to learn, we will get to know the knack of cooking. Once we understand the nuances of cutting, chopping, roasting, basting, grilling, costing, balance it will be much more easier to learn any cuisine of the world. Look at the team members who have been working for years – be it a South Indian breakfast mate or the one who is in the Tandoor section. They have gained expertise in their food. This expertise has been achieved through commitment and consistency over the years. If they wish they can adapt to any other food. We as chefs have adapted so many cuisines after spending much time in the kitchens. But as we look back we can say it would have been easier and much more quicker to learn. The time is just ripe to first find expertise in our own khadya-sanskruti. If we ponder and scratch the surface of it, it opens up a pandora of hidden gems. Sustainability, science, creativity, nutritional elements are all hidden in the bhakris and rotlis, pepper fry’s and rasams, amaranth and millets have always been a superfood in our diets. An array of seasonal dishes based on the festivals which are based on seasons is not a mere coincidence. The monsoon greens like shevle growing in the wild can be equivalent to the truffles of the world. Why Southern India used tamarind, Goa based its curries on vinegar and in Konkan, kokum was the tang. There can be immense information which can be gathered on commodities, on various dishes popular with the cities and small towns.
We always admire the Italians for even today being so true to their pastas, pizzas and wines. The French are so passionate about their macroons and croissants but do we feel the same pride when we can make the chapatis puff even without the leavening agent. Do we get curious about the chirota or have we tried to study the science behind use of urad dal to ferment the batter? Who could think of using rice semolina and urad dal in the right combination to make idlis? Every region can have a multiple of such examples. And these are just the recipes which our ancestors used to cook, in which even the cleanliness in the kitchen was important. If this was ancient and we haven’t even got to the surface of it how can we claim about making Indian food progressive?
So there is lot we as chefs have to offer. There is lot of work for us.