Oota: Karnataka on a platter with Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

A journey over 20,000 km across Karnataka, covering 10 food circuits, 100 days of travel over two and half years resulted in Oota in Whitefield, Bangalore. A trail which celebrates a living food traditon, kept alive by locals, flavours which burst upon you unexpectedly, the stories of migration, trade and extreme awareness of the connection between land, food and health.

Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy were celebrities even before Oota. Popular radio hosts, authors and travel writers they have given the regional cuisine circuit the much needed leg up, putting Karnataka on the world food map. In this conversation with CSP, they provide a engaging tale on how they have documented, preserved and promoted regional fare. (All photographs courtesy Anurag and Priya)

Link to the Oota journey:  https://youtu.be/EomGI6-5Dks

Anurag and Priya

As avid travellers and writers, which states of India, according to you, have successfully captured the essence of their regional cuisines to international acclaim?

For the longest time, India’s diverse cuisine has been broadly segregated in very binary terms as ‘North’ Indian and ‘South’ Indian. While the north is summed up as the land of dal makhni, butter chicken, tikka and tandoori, the south is dismissed as idli-dosa-sambar territory. Indian food is popular wherever there is a strong Indian expat population – US, UK, Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Caribbean. Yet, the very term Indian cuisine is a misnomer as it is too generic – within it are states made up of distinct regions, home to different communities, each with their own well-defined cuisine. Yet, this separation or specialization is not reflected internationally. Moti Mahal Deluxe played its part in popularizing Punjabi cuisine the same way Saravana Bhavan did for South Indian cuisine. Karnataka’s ‘Udupi’ is an internationally recognized brand standing for sattvik vegetarian fare with the Indian thali and banana leaf meal being a great culinary mascot. Since Kerala is India’s most well marketed and globally popular destinations, Kerala or ‘Keralan’ cuisine as they call it, is quite popular. Despite the perception, not all things Dravidian are pure veg, with Chettinad and Andhra cuisines well equipped to sate even a hard-core carnivore. While Bengali is well known nationally, Odiya, Assamese and North Eastern cuisines are gaining popularity. Even rarities like the black-skinned Kadaknath chicken are steadily making forays into five star menus. Many of India’s street food items like bhel puri, pani puri, chaat, ragda pattice and vada pav have undergone a swank makeover with modern interpretations. India is in a transformational phase where it is rediscovering and appreciating its own regional cuisine. This renaissance of the regional food scene will lay the foundation for international exposure and acclaim.

Coast Kamalashile Saraswat Brahmin cuisine, Durga Parmeshwari Temple Bhattre Sheshagiri Hebbar

Benagi Vegetable shop in Dharwad

What inspired you to undertake the adventure of capturing the unique cuisine of Karnataka? Could you share a few anecdotes from that iconic trip which led to Oota?

As travel writers, we have done numerous guidebooks on different regions and states for Outlook Traveller, Stark World, Rough Guides and Michelin and have crisscrossed Karnataka several times. In 2014, we were commissioned by Total Environment to curate, research and document Karnataka’s regional cuisine for a new restaurant above Windmills Craftworks, their microbrewery in Whitefield. As part of our culinary research, we travelled with two ace chefs Chef Suresh Venkatramana and Chef Manjit Singh and a video crew. It was an epic 20,000 km food journey where we covered 10 culinary circuits over 100 days of travel spread over two and a half years! We started with Coorg, an area we knew well, followed by the coast from Mangalore to Karwar (in three sections), Malnad (two trips), North Karnataka, Hyderabad-Karnataka region, North West Karnataka and Mysore/South Karnataka. From kashayas and tambullis (herbal coolers) to kismuri (salads) and an array of pudis (powders) and rare dishes like kalees ankiti (pork offal curry) and chigli or fire ant chutney, we cooked 350 dishes and consumed countless more at homestays, eateries, roadside shacks, temple kitchens and the homes of nearly 25 communities.

We went beyond culinary hotpots of Mysuru, Mangaluru, Kundapura, Karwar, Davangere and Dharwad to nondescript villages.

Imagine wading across a stream to cook with an African origin Siddi family at the tribal hamlet of Kalleshwara near Ramanaguli – rare dishes like Sangolli roti (like a set dosa), aamey soppu – literally ‘turtle greens’ (fiddlehead fern) and mahle bachhe – fish barbecued on coals using Sanekatta salt from Gokarna. We cooked pancharatna and marasanige palya (tree colocasia) with Bhattre Sheshagiri Hebbar, a Brahmin cook at Durga Parmeshwari Temple in Kamalashile. They were so finicky about purity, we were divested of our shirts and donned a dhoti to enter the kitchen!

At Hulerabbi we did Gowda hunter style sand-baked fish by the Bhadra river and Brahmi or ili kivi (mouse ear) soppu palya, so named after the distinct shape of the leaf. At Mekanagadde, we cooked with farm help Kiran’s family using the headlights from our vehicles because there was a power cut in the village and the added threat of rampaging elephants on nearby plantations. Because of the need for speed, we ended up making 13 dishes in a matter of hours! In Dharwad, we met Gangamma Kashiyappa Benagi, an octogenarian vegetable vendor who caught a bus after tilling her field and patted out 18-inch jolada rottis by hand. She treated us to folk songs and vegetarian Sravana masa (monsoon) cuisine using hyper-local vegetables like karjikayi and gulgayi! At Banavasi, a serendipitous conversation with a stranger led us to his home where his mother Indira Phadke taught us Chitpawan Brahmin dishes like pineapple gojju and a rare grandmothers’ recipe called kalbutthi. The curd rice sizzler is seasoned with ghee and mustard sprinkled on heated flintstones embedded in the rice, which imparts a wonderful smoky flavour. When it comes to mutton, we’ve eaten every part from head to toe – from Gowda style tale mamsa (brain) and paya (trotter) soup to everything in between – batti (spleen) chutney of the Iduga community to rakti (blood) of the Saujis. At Rattihalli, we even ate goat testicles as they insisted it’s good for vigour! Wherever we went, we were welcomed with open homes and hearths. We had so much food, our constant refrain was – “Hum pet pe kafan baandh ke nikle hain” (We have set out with a shroud for our stomach)!

The langar or free-kitchen at Gurudwara Nanak Jhira in Bidar exemplifies community service

Dharwad peda making process at the Mishra Pedha factory

What are the factors which account for such a vast diversity... is it the agriculture patterns or the proximity to other states spilling over? Are these recipes preserved by word of mouth or are there historical documents additionally?

Karnataka’s culinary diversity is a result of many factors. Firstly, the varied geographic spread and geology dictates agriculture and diet patterns. The Karavali or Canara coast from Mangalore to Karwar leans heavily on seafood, coconut and cashews. In the Western Ghats stretch of Coorg and Malnad pork, spices, bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, soppu (greens) and herbs are widely consumed; because of colder climes, kashayas, tambuli and steamed rice preparations (puttu/kadabu) are popular. If ragi (finger millet) is the staple in South Karnataka, in North Karnataka it’s jola or jowar (sorghum). Being an arid region with limited vegetables, they supplement their diet with protein-rich powders made of agasi (flax seed), gural or ucchelu (Niger seeds) and shenga (groundnut). Since it’s hotter, people eat spicier food, which makes them perspire and keeps the body cool. Davangere and Gangavathi have several rice mills so akki (rice), mandakki (puffed rice) and avalakki (beaten rice) are popular across Central Karnataka. The border area of Hyderabad-Karnataka region exhibits culinary influences from Andhra like meat, spice and use of gongura (sorrel) leaves. In Hubballi-Belagavi area, people love sweet and spice and you find a touch of Maratha influence with fiery mutton rassas.

One of the earliest culinary textbooks in Karnataka is the 12th-century Sanskrit work Manasollasa, composed by Chalukya king Someshvara III. With an entire chapter dedicated to food, wine and sweets, it precedes European cookbook writing by a century!

Another reason for such gastronomic diversity is that Karnataka is home to many communities. Within Malnad, you can have Gowda, Jain, Lingayat and Haviyak cuisines. Take a place like Mangaluru; we realized there’s no monolithic entity such as Mangalorean cuisine – it has distinct cuisines of the Bunt, GSB or Gaud Saraswat Brahmin, Catholic and Beary communities. On the same coast, Beary Muslim cuisine is very different from other Muslim communities – be it the Mapila cuisine of North Kerala or the Navayathi cuisine of Bhatkal.

Malnad Arshina Tambulli Turmeric-cooler

Malnad Chakramani soppu: Multi-vitamin-leaf-chutney

One of the earliest culinary textbooks in Karnataka is the 12th-century Sanskrit work Manasollasa, composed by Chalukya king Someshvara III. With an entire chapter dedicated to food, wine and sweets, it precedes European cookbook writing by a century! The 15th century text Soopa Shastra of Mangarasa III showcases the culinary traditions of Medieval Karnataka. Though ingredients and techniques have been simplified over time, some recipes have been passed on orally, and several more forgotten. Rasachandrika, the Saraswat Cookery Book, first published in Marathi in 1943, is a classic cookbook that has been trusted by generations of housewives. Several people have authored a range of regional recipe books that are popular within that particular community. However, with TV shows and renewed interest in food, publishers are finding readers with a huge appetite for recipe books.

Lingayat style oota meal at Guru Khanavali in Byadgi

 

Do you replicate the dishes as is or have you worked out any variations as Chefs who travel abroad are wont to do.

The focus was always to bring authenticity to the table. Not enough was known about Karnataka cuisine and its hyper-local variations to begin with, so the idea was to present classic regional/community cuisine without necessarily putting a spin on it. We kept all the recipes as close to the original though we had to standardize the ingredients and quantities since many home cooks used approximation. Every home has its own way of preparing a dish and we did many versions of popular items like Coorg (pork) curry, Kundapur Chicken and Yenne Badnekayi but finally chose what hit the right notes. We did tweak the presentation to cater to a fine dine audience. For example, the Sauji curries and Maratha style mutton rassa were toned down a bit in terms of spice levels to make it more palatable without losing the essence.

For Khara Boti, we chose better cuts of lamb shanks. Oota’s range of kashayas and tambulis (traditional health beverages) are quite authentic and traditional too – sourced largely from the Haviyak Brahmins of Malnad. They have a very scientific approach to food and a deep understanding of how ingredients are used and their effects on the body guided by the principles of Ayurveda. The hilly forested tract of Malnad in the Western Ghats is rich in herbs and spices but has a cold rainy climate, so they fortify the body with hot shunti bellada kashaya (ginger jaggery drink) and vonagiru nellikayi tambuli made of dried amla or gooseberry. Long before Turmeric Latte became fashionable, arshina tambuli (turmeric buttermilk) has served as the perfect immunity-boosting aperitif.

However, we took total creative liberty in Oota’s cocktails, which are based on ingredients local to Karnataka – bella (jaggery), majjige (buttermilk), karive soppu (curry leaf), kotmir (coriander), sabakki (dill leaves), vettiver (khus), chakota (grapefruit), dasavala (hibiscus) and spices. We worked with in-house mixology whiz Neil Alexander to develop and name a mind-boggling array of infusions and cocktails – Shanka Sautekayi or ‘Brine Damage’ uses native cucumbers pickled in gin and salt air made of Saneykatta salt from Gokarna served in a conch shell. Gokarna salt air also features in the popular and quirky Varathur Overflow, our take on the Margarita with khus-infused vodka conceptualized as Bengaluru’s infamous frothing lake. Hogeynakall (literally ‘smoking stones’), inspired by Karnataka’s well-known waterfall named after the fine spray as waters cascade on the rocks, has barrel aged kallu (blended scotch), pine needle infusion, smoked with pine bark. Mandya Sour is a tribute to Karnataka’s sugarcane belt with honeycomb infused whiskey, sugarcane juice, honeycomb, honey dipper, complete with sugarcane stick. At Oota the food is sacrosanct, but the cocktails are sacrilegious!

Karchikayi, a native vegetable used to treat diabetes in folk medicine

Do different communities use spices differently? Could you explain if yes.

Each community has some key ingredients or spices that it uses in a particular way. Gaud Saraswat Brahmins use a lot of hing (asafetida), Mangalorean Catholics have their baffath powder, the Kodavas have their signature kartha masala (black masala made with individually roasted and ground spices) used in pandi curry, the Lingayats/Veerashaivas of central and north Karnataka have red chilli karindi (chutney) while Navayath cuisine of Bhatkal rests on the twin pillars of lon-miri (red chili) paste and aale-lehsoon (ginger garlic) paste. Chili is one ingredient that can give a lot of variation in terms of taste. Different chilis have different taste profiles – some give colour, some give heat and not knowing which dish uses what kind is tantamount to its undoing. Byadgi chili is used for Karnataka classics like Bisi Bele Bath or sattvik Udupi cuisine to non-veg Mangalorean cuisine. It imparts a fiery reddish color and one could be deceived into believing that it is really spicy, but some soak it in water to mellow the spice levels before making a paste while others use coconut as tempering that imparts a creamy texture to the curries. Some use it in combination with the spicier ooru mensinkayi or Kumta chili.

With most ingredients, the difference lies in technique. The Navayaths fry sliced onions for beresta (caramelized onion) and use the same oil for preparing the biryani. Saujis, who operate primarily family-run non-veg eateries, like to dehydrate the onions in the sun as it intensifies the flavour and reduces cooking time. We discovered a big difference in the souring agents across regions – while South Karnataka uses regular tamarind, in neighbouring Kerala, they use kodumpuli (Malabar or fish tamarind). In Kodagu (Coorg), Kodavas use kachampuli (Garcinia gummi gutta) for pandi curry and other non-veg fare as it is believed to cut fat. Towards Mangalore and South Canara they use the tangy, green succulent bimbli (tree sorrel) for fish/prawn curries and dishes like Bhuthai Sukka. The Navayaths prefer sirka or cashew vinegar while in North Canara/Uttara Kannada, it’s the Konkani staple of kokum (Garcinia indica) and teppal (Sichuan pepper) that’s mandatory for fish curries – it is also called jummankayi because of the tingly numbing sensation it causes.

Paddy fields of Sirguppa (top), Jowar Fields (below)

How can India market regional cuisines successfully at the international level?

Food and travel shows with celebrity chefs instantly draw focus to local fare. They might do their take on it or add these ‘inspired dishes’ into their menu. We recently did the creative inputs and location hunt for the India episode of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Uncharted: Season 2’ covering Malabar and Coorg, so no doubt it will put the spotlight on the region and its cuisine. Right now, global knowledge about Indian food is rather basic defined by ‘nan bread, chai tea, spices and curry’ – anything hot that makes you sweat! This has to change to a more nuanced approach. The key is awareness. Taking part in international food festivals and making regional Indian flavours more accessible to a global audience is important. Pop-ups have become rather popular and critical in promoting regional or community specific cuisines – from Odiya, Kashmiri, Kayastha, Parsi to Dawoodi Bohra.

Pride in our food is paramount. Perhaps we have been conditioned to believe that French, Italian, Japanese or Spanish cuisines are fancier or more tantalizing in appeal. In comparison the scope of Indian food is extremely vast, layered and complex. It is the same diversity that India exhibits in its cultures, landscapes, languages and wildlife that reflects in its food. Early Indian cookbook writers like Madhur Jaffrey and Tarla Dalal and celebrity chefs like Jiggs Kalra, Sanjeev Kapoor, Atul Kochhar, Gaggan Anand, Vikas Khanna, Vineet Bhatia, Ranveer Brar and many others have popularized Indian cuisine not just among Indians but taken it to an international audience. And that’s where plating and contemporary styling comes to play. Indian fusion is passé, while Progressive Indian or Post Modern Indian cuisine is in. Restaurants like Tonka in Melbourne, Gaggan in Bangkok, Carnival by TresInd in Dubai or Indian Accent and Kricket in London are repositioning Indian food by turning it on its head with bold unusual pairings and an irreverent approach. Who would have thought of a crab meat bhel puri or prawn balchão betel leaf with pineapple and anise or Vindaloo steak tartare with fenugreek raita and mathri or Guava and lemon Bombe Alaska with caramelised puffed rice? A few years ago, they would have called it mad; not any more…

You have reviewed and been on hospitality panels for different regions. What would be your top 3 recommendations to improve tourism in India?

a) Create more pegs and products.

Right now, you talk of India at a global level and the first thing that comes to mind is Ayurveda, wellness/healing and spiritual journeys, capitalized largely by Kerala who have artfully blended it with leisure (houseboats/beaches) and culture (Kathakali/dances). But India has many aspects that are unique to it that need to be promoted more aggressively domestically and internationally – royalty (palace stays/heritage tourism), crafts & textiles, nature/wildlife (endemics), photography (tribes/festivals), gastronomy tours (city specific like Mumbai, Bangalore, Mysore, Lucknow, Kolkata, Amritsar, Delhi, Indore or regional), heritage walks, cycling tours, winter tourism, farm/rural tourism (mango trail), city tours… Yet, these cannot be relegated to mere brochures and websites, but have to be actionable on ground. In the absence of Central and state governments taking the lead, it is private tour operators that create such products for the traveller.

b) Improve connectivity and travel infrastructure.

Opening newer airports and routes as per the Government’s UDAN scheme and increased flights are critical in boosting tourism and regional connectivity. Kannur Airport is already emerging as a key feeder to both Malabar & Wayanad regions in Kerala as well as Coorg. Better roads, bypasses and integrated pitstops will make road trips faster, smoother and more convenient. The overall cleanliness of a destination is non-negotiable. The redevelopment of the Golden Temple area in Amritsar has given the congested old town a facelift, offering hope to the pedestrianization of the Charminar Area in Hyderabad, Chandni Chowk in Delhi, the ghats of Varanasi and Agra. Like the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, the Yamuna holds an opportunity to be developed as a riverside recreational spot.

c) Encourage local experiences and promote responsible tourism practices.

Over-tourism is a reality. Places like Madikeri have become the next Shimla, Manali, Mussoorie, Ooty or Kodaikanal with traffic jams on weekends, water shortages, garbage disposal issues and increasing noise and air pollution. The plan should be to decongest well-known holiday destinations and promote lesser-known getaways around it. For every Shimla, there’s a Naldehra or Narkanda, for every Madikeri, a Mandalpatti or Kakkabe. We have to recognize and incentivize homestays, boutique stays and rural/farm stays that have lesser ecological impact than large resorts and offer more enriching and meaningful experiences. It is imperative to educate urban travellers about shunning plastic and proper waste disposal wherever they go.

How is Covid going to affect small hoteliers across regions?

Covid has definitely caused a major setback to the travel, F&B and hospitality industry, which may take a few years to recover. 80% of restaurants shut down within a year of starting so this huge disruption has put additional financial pressure on business viability. With an upheaval of migrant labour, several cooks, waiters and restaurant staff at many hotels have gone home. Many eateries may close down due to non-payment of outstanding loans. Hotels will have to up the hygiene quotient as people will be more wary about eating out in public places. They will have to adhere to new social distancing measures – spacing out customers will mean lower margins. As a result, the focus may shift from dine-in to deliveries and take-aways. Food had become a little eclectic and elitist so the limited means and resources may result in simpler menus, a democratization of food and going more local. It could be limited and back-to-basics sans the frills. Elaborate buffets could give way to fresh prepared ala carte meals to minimize mass contact. Smaller mom ’n pop setups and family run joints like Sauji eateries will thrive as they do not depend on staff – the food is prepared and served by the family members themselves.

Is Oota more than just a gastronomic experience? How important is it to preserve these culinary traditions?

Oota is a celebration of the state. You may have a North Karnataka eatery or a restaurant dedicated to a specific region like Coastal or Coorg cuisine but Oota is a culinary tour de force of Karnataka, a showcase of all its diverse flavours under one roof. Each table comes with a brass annapakshi platter that holds a set of five pudis (powders) and chutneys sourced from our travels in North Karnataka. In mythology, Annapakshi was a legendary bird that had a unique talent – it could separate milk from water and drink it! Hence, it is a symbol of purity. With temple bells doubling up as overhead lights and deepa stambhas or lamps as table legs, the all-wood interiors are inspired by the rich heritage of Karnataka.

Secret cooking techniques learnt in ancestral homes and heritage bungalows, grandmother’s recipes handed down over generations and a glorious culinary tradition; that’s Oota in a nutshell. Here you will find exquisite home recipes not commonly found in restaurant menus, least of all in a fine dine set up – kalthappa (fried onion and rice pancake) or naeveri (rice dumpling stuffed with prawn) of the Bearys, Shaiyya Jhinga Biryani (vermicelli prawn biryani) of the Navayaths, Sauji fare like khara boti to khara kadabu (steamed rice dumpling with spiced lentil filling) from Malnad and Sungta Song from the GSB kitchen – which is not a song, but a prawn curry! A lot of it is new to diners, so our well-informed stewards talk you through the order and often suggest correct pairings – eating a curry with the staple of the region.

Soute beeja huggi of North Karnataka pasta

It is crucial to document culinary traditions and community specialties because there was a lot of scientific knowhow and common sense in what we ate and when, depending on the seasons. Yet, it’s not just about food – through it you learn about the geology and culture of a place, the evolution of the palate through trade and the story of migration. Even within a community, food does not remain the same throughout the year, there’s seasonal fare, specific festival food and wedding feasts that are a category unto themselves. In Belgaum, the tiny shop Krishnamurthi Saralaya on Konwal Gali churns out mande or mandige – a crepe with a thin filling of sugar, ghee and khoa. Made like a roomali on an upturned tava but folded like a dosa, it’s a must in Brahmin weddings and is often displayed in large baskets, without being folded. Many a marriage has been called off because there was no mandige! No Mangalore Catholic function is complete without vorn (moong dal payasa). Among Lingayats, the wedding function will have exquisite dishes like soute bija huggi (broken wheat kheer), so called because it resembles tiny soute bija (cucumber seeds). Rolling out little pellets of broken wheat dough that are sun-dried and made into a porridge is tedious. Using simple combs and sticks, they churned out an array of the North Karnataka equivalent of pasta – the conch-shaped shankha is like the Italian ear-shaped Orecchiette. Many of these items were labour intensive and suffered because of a fast-paced urban life. Modern weddings must have the mandatory Chinese (or Pan-Asian if it’s fancy), pasta (or Italian) and chat counters, further marginalizing traditional wedding preparations. While nawabs and royal thikanas have documented dishes and secret recipes from royal kitchens prepared by khansamas and rakabdars, many home recipes and dishes made by a grandmother, aunt or chef who passed on, have been lost as it was left undocumented or untaught. From your granny to your mom to you, we can see this generational loss of traditional recipes in present times. With the onslaught of fast food, heat-and-serve ready-to-eat packs and Swiggy or Zomato delivering boxed bites to your doorstep, these culinary traditions are a fast vanishing legacy that must be preserved. Countries like Peru, Spain, Italy, Australia, Dubai, Singapore, Macao and Malaysia are capitalizing on gourmet/food tourism in a big way, yet a culinary heavyweight like India lags behind.

Oota, Bengaluru

Would you suggest that Oota be replicated for every state?

Yes, of course! Oota showcases the pick of local delicacies drawn from various regions and communities of Karnataka. We’d be as keen as mustard to undertake a similar journey anywhere! In a way, the thrust on regional cuisine is happening already – whether it’s Paati Veedu in Chennai digging out recipes from a Tamilian grandmother’s kitchen including a 25-course Poorna Bhakshanam, Mrs Meiyyappan’s curated Chettinad cooking course and food trails at The Bangala in Karaikudi or CGH Group researching Chola Nadu cuisine around the Cauvery delta for their ethnic resort Mantra Koodam. In a journey that’s similar to Oota, Chef Reji Mathew (of Ente Keralam fame) did extensive food research through Kerala and after numerous pop-ups, started Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Chennai and Bengaluru. From a cache of a few hundred recipes, only 90 dishes made it to the final menu, featuring Malabari, Syrian Christian and Namboodri cuisines. It’s a mix of home-style mum’s cooking, chai kada (tea stall) fare and toddy shop ‘touchings’ or thuttu-nakki, ‘touch and lick’ accompaniments served at kallu shaaps.

Five star hotel chains like ITC lay a lot of emphasis on regional flavours – be it Nizami cuisine at Dum Pukht Begum’s at ITC Kohenur, Hyderabad or Kongu Nadu cuisine at ITC Welcomhotel Coimbatore. At ITC Royal Bengal in Kolkata, they have researched the lesser-known Sheherwali cuisine of the Jain Oswal community in Murshidabad. Settled in Bengal 300 years ago, their food is a confluence of cultures where veg Rajasthani flavours blend with Bengali spices like paanch phoron and Nawabi ingredients like saffron, rosewater and dry fruits – on showcase at Royal Vega restaurant. Every meal begins with kewra water and madhur swad (sweet) to trigger the secretion of gastric juices, followed by a platter carried by the steward on his head like an offering.

The exquisite repertoire includes unusual flavours like kheera shimla mirch tarkari (cucumber with capsicum), khatte ki pakauri (gram flour fritters in tamarind water), barbati dahi (long beans in yoghurt), bhutta khichdi made of corn kernels and Gobindbhog rice and kachha aam ka kheer. The Grand Market Pavilion has a specially curated ‘Discover North East’ menu featuring Sikkimese kauri (hand made sea shells in broth), awoshi ngo tsu (Naga black sesame pork), masoor belahi tenga (Assamese sour fish curry), Mylliem chicken (a roast onion gravy from Meghalaya) and chakhau anuba kheer (Manipuri black rice porridge). The only place you’ll get such an extensive North East repertoire is Delhi! Humanypur, a one square mile maze of bylanes in Safdarjung, is home to a sizeable North Eastern population and mills with speciality eateries – The Categorical Eat Pham (Manipuri), Hornbill & Shilloi (Naga), Mizo Diner, Bhansaghar (Nepali) and everything between Oh!Assam and Yo Tibet!

The Bombay Canteen has a brilliant take on regional cuisine with an ever-changing seasonal menu. From research, locally sourced ingredients, detailing, textures, flavours to presentation, Chef Thomas Zachariah and the Hunger Inc team have got it right. There’s Chintus (bar snacks), Chhota (small plates) like Red Snapper ceviche with sol kadhi and crunchy black rice murmura and Bada (big plates) from Sindhi dal pakwan to Bhavnagari mirch salan. Also run by the same management, O Pedro in Mumbai’s BKC does Catholic and Saraswat cuisine of Goa with a contemporary twist. Going by the trend, a concept like ‘Oota’ in every state that puts the spotlight on its local cuisine would be a big draw.

(All photographs courtesy Anurag and Priya, Oota)