Saturday, December 10, 2016

Going local: Chefs can show the way


I am at the idyllic Vedic Village, an hour’s drive from Kolkata. This weekend, this otherwise quiet, close-to-nature spa resort is alive with the buzz of The Market Place, a gathering of farmers, celebrity chefs, Ayurvedic healers, yogacharyas, dedicated to natural living. Curated by writer and food lover Salmoli Mukerji, it’s designed to be an event that creates awareness, educates and enables interactions that will all eventually lead to a sustainable, holistic way of life with food at its axis.
I’m aware that ‘organic’ has increasingly come to mean elitist, expensive or plain wacko. But when I interact with the women from Nayagram, which lies in the red corridor, who are reviving rice varieties in danger of becoming extinct and turning them into the most delicious muri, or puffed rice, and taste the fantastic kiwi from Mirik – you will never eat the imported version in supermarkets once you do this – and chat with  the simple farmers who’ve grown them, it seems local and natural is so within reach. It’s a direction that can enrich our food, our lives and the planet.
One of the highlights of this unique venture – and it went way beyond the staged farmers’ markets we see pop up in cities from time to time – was the presence of celebrity chefs and their interpretation of the Market Place theme. I sat down to an al fresco locavore lunch created by Chef Sujan Sarkar, the avant garde chef known for his edgy, but purist style. There was soup, a silken Pumpkin Veloute enriched with local Bandel cheese, which also featured in the accompanying cauliflower croquette; a perfect salad of beetroot, radish and local greens, some of them bitter (in picture); and the most delicious and unusual risotto I’ve tasted, made of five ancient grains and tomato. For dessert, Chef Sujan took inspiration from a French classic, but owned it and made it local, serving up a Banana and Jaggery TarteTatin. The jaggery was nolen gur, now in season. It was a simple, sophisticated, spectacular meal.
At a quick demo Chef Abhijit Saha, of Caperberry, Fava and his signature restaurant Saha in Singapore, infused Bandel cheese with smoke, added the kiwis I mentioned earlier and stirred in popped black rice to create a superb salad, elegant enough for any gourmet table.
Dinner with ‘Revival Food’ as its theme was created by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Saby to his many fans and friends. Memories and stories unfolded as he served Sil Batta Yam, a Bengali classic, with Baked Sattu Kachori, Kasundi and Yogurt Fish, Black Chicken, marinated in black sesame paste and cooked over charcoal, Long Bean & Local Asparagus Jhaal and Chinatown Beggar Pouches with fantastic Portobello mushrooms, again from Mirik. He carried the local ingredients into dessert with a Crème Brulee of Govindabhog riced that had everyone raving, Caramelized Farm Orange Upside Down Cake and Mango and Red Rice Payesh.
As a diner, I had met the farmer, seen the produce and watched it transform into utter deliciousness in the hands of talented chefs. You do not have to buy into ‘organic’ concepts; you will taste the difference in food grown the natural way. But there’s a connection there that satisfies not just the taste-buds, it fills the soul. Good food can only come from good ingredients. And you cannot get better than local, natural, seasonal.

My food prayer for the New Year is to see more chefs make conscious, mindful choices when sourcing ingredients and let nature gently guide their creativity.

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