Remember the time when the elderly in the house would labour hard, grinding masalas and preparing pickles for the household, to be used all year round? The time when food was not just about tasting good, but served as the basic source of nutrition, goodness and taste. Who does that any more? In our fast-paced lives, all we care about is convenience and about food being delivered or served fast (without a hint of what goes into the making of it). Traditional cuisines, in the process, seem to be losing their appeal.
The gravity of the issue hit hard at the first edition of the World Heritage Cuisine Summit and Food Festival 2018, held in Amritsar last month, where chefs from over 40 countries joined hands with the motive of preserving traditional cuisines. Every chef who graced the summit brought to the plate one unique element from his/her palate that represents their traditions best. So while chefs from Portugal cooked seafood in their traditional cataplana (a copper dish) that enhances flavours, Kenyan chefs made their signature drink mursik, which is made with fermented milk and ash of trees.
Chefs from Lebanon, on the other hand, used an assortment of traditional Indian spices like cumin, cinnamon, coriander powder, black pepper and bay leaf, which they ground on the spot to prepare their dish of fish and rice. “We want everyone to discover their food, practice their way of cooking and pass it on to the next generation. Having travelled across the globe, we have found that traditional foods are very dense in culture and very healthy because these have evolved with the times… it’s not fashionable food. Hence, it is imperative that we do not lose this (traditional) food,” said chef Manjit Gill, president, Indian Federation Culinary Associations, the host of the event.
When the who’s who of the culinary world raises the alarm to value traditional cuisines and not adopt fusion and modern cooking methods blindly, it makes one wonder what exactly went wrong over the years. Globalisation can be one culprit, which is helping people and trades transcend boundaries, resulting in the culmination of cultures and, hence, loss of ancient traditions. “Neo-colonisation is taking over some old traditions,” agreed chef Avraj Singh Marwa from Kenya.
Fellow Kenyan chef Joseph Macharia Kimani agreed, “The smoking of food, drying of food, hanging of meat—who does that any more in this new gastronomical age of cooking? The idea of drying herbs is dying, spices are just packed and chefs are using them without knowing the right procedures.” So what’s the solution? “Food has driven history and we should go back to all those values and set everything right,” Kimani opined.
Hence, it wasn’t surprising to see chefs deploying age-old techniques of grinding hard masalas and preparing meat by smoking, marinating, leaving to rest to absorb flavours, etc, as opposed to rushing the process.
Besides globalisation, the second culprit for the disappearance of traditional cuisines is the rapid influx of technology and social media in our lives. With recipes of traditional and exotic dishes alike freely available online, everyone thinks they can cook, experimenting and adding new elements in the process. In the end, the original dish gets camouflaged with its modernised version. “How can you cook (looking at a) photo and think it would taste nice? That’s why I maintain that social media is sometimes very helpful, but probably the biggest poison for the food industry in certain other cases. Fusion is very important, but only as long as it makes sense. This is perhaps the biggest deficit that we’re facing… that chefs globally don’t understand the basic roots and cooking techniques,” said chef Thomas Gugler, president, WorldChefs, the summit organiser.
But the fact that chefs from over 22 states and regions across the country chose to present their regional flavours bears testimony to the acceptance that traditional cuisines still enjoy in the era of fusion and modern cooking. From disclosing a 300-year-old lamb recipe of Chettinad cuisine to preparing India’s traditional sweet halwa using turmeric as the hero ingredient in Haryanvi-style, the chefs left no stone unturned to give the world a glimpse of their roots.
Indian chefs also threw in a couple of interesting elements that are usually unheard of. For instance, chef Dev Kasalkar, who prepared dishes authentic to Kolhapur, said they prepare meat from underaged lamb, as lamb that’s a tad older or younger does not give the right kind of taste.
For chefs from the north-east, food has to rank high on the health parameter first. “We use very little oil in our dishes and prepare a balanced meal of sour, bitter tastes to serve the everyday requirement of the body,” said chef Sanjukta Das from Assam.
For chefs from Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, it was all about relishing the organic and vegetative flavours of their places of origin. “Almost 81% of the population in Haryana is vegetarian and we have no dearth of dairy or land to produce. So we use everything—green and Ayurvedic—we get from the land to prepare our food,” said chef Shiv Parvesh, a native of Haryana. Cholai ki subzi, sangri ki sabzi, haldi ka halwa were just some delicacies they prepared.
As for chef Sanjay Thakur, the cuisine of Himachal Pradesh is all about being organic. “Since the climate in the mountains is relatively free from pollution and dust, the food is more nutritious,” said Thakur, who prepared a dish called nettle leaves siddu, a favourite in the state.
Thakur, who recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records for setting up a fine-dining pop-up restaurant at 6,189 m above sea level on Mt Everest, said the current era of fusion in culinary space is marred by confusion. “Currently, creativity is about using liquid nitrogen, black charcoal and similar elements that have no taste. They are just appeasing to the eye, but hold no nutritional value,” he said.
Thakur recommended setting up an encyclopedia of sorts that would have a detailed breakup with steps of every traditional dish in the world for chefs and cooks to refer to. “We must go back to our past… study what ingredients go well with what and break down the steps to enhance a dish. Creativity can come later,” he said.