Restaurants across the country are turning to indigenous ingredients and techniques for lucrative business
Walls displaying images of local ingredients and cookware used in a typical Garhwali kitchen welcome patrons at Garh Bhoj, a fine-dining establishment in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Adding to the rustic charm is information on dishes made with finger millet or ragi, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), red rice and barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta) that peep from under glass-topped tables.
Manager Rajbir Bisht says an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes contributes to the soaring popularity of the restaurant set up two years ago. A typical Garhwali vegetarian platter, or thali, costs Rs 250 and the non-vegetarian variant is priced at Rs 350. Gulab jamun prepared using the millet kodo, laal bhaat made from local red rice, biryani prepared from jhangora or barnyard millet and buransh or rhododendron sharbat are a part of the menu. But Garh Bhoj also faces the challenge of drawing customers.
Bisht says people prefer home delivery and tourists hesitate to try the local cuisine. But the profit is good enough for Bisht to think of ways of increasing the footfall.
He is not the only one experimenting with traditional cuisines in restaurants. After winning a cookery competition, Aruna Tirkey established Ajam Emba in Ranchi in March 2017, serving Jharkhand's tribal cuisine. In Kurukh language spoken by the Oraons, ajam emba means great taste.
Some popular dishes here are wild rice kheer, ragi momos, country chicken, pitha and dumbu (rice balls made with jaggery). Other nutritious items served are sanei flower bharta or mashed Crotalaria juncea flowers, chutney made of beng (Bacopa monnieri) and mashed elephant foot yam.
Today, despite high logistic and transportation costs and difficulty in finding trained chefs, Tirkey generates Rs 6,000- Rs 8,000 profit per day. On some days, the gross turnover touches Rs 12,000.
Bengaluru-based Millet Mama also follows this strategy. The outlet is a hit and serves an average of 350-400 customers every day. Owner Abhishek Beeraiah has employed local women as chefs to popularise millets among the younger generation. The restaurant is a go-to place for health-conscious professionals. Millet Mama is now planning on two more outlets in the city.
Mumbai-based Gitika Saikia is trying to popularise traditional food in a different way. Her venture, Pakghor, has a select clientele. She started her journey in 2014 to spread awareness about northeastern cuisine. In the initial years, she incurred heavy losses but slowly found her way out and now hosts food pop-ups for five-star hotels and restaurants. Every month, a menu is fixed and bookings are accepted through social media. In May, for instance, Saikia had planned a menu to mark Bihu, the harvest festival of Assam.
She says that this year's vegetarian platter will offer black chana (Bengal gram) with tender banana blossoms, stir-fried baby potatoes with Indian olive pickle, stuffed teasel gourd and black dal with rattan shoot accompanied by red lentils, pond fish chutney, coconut and peas salad and steamed rice. The non-vegetarian platter will serve red ant eggs, chicken cooked with tender banana blossom, smoked pork with leafy greens, coconut topped with fresh cream, puffed rice and liquid jaggery. The vegetarian platter is priced at Rs 1,200 and the non-vegetarian platter at Rs 1,500 per person. Saikia explains that though her profit margins are not too high, many of her partners either work on a profit-sharing basis or pay her a lumpsome.
Hornbill Restaurant and Cafe in Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi, is very popular, especially among northeastern students, for serving authentic Naga cuisine. Set up in 2015, some of its popular dishes are smoked pork with sesame seeds, frizzled pork, pork cooked with seasonal vegetables, fish fry and liver fry. Pork thali, fish thali, chicken thali, pork with bamboo shoot, smoked pork with bamboo shoot and pork with khollar (kidney beans) are available every day. Hornbill has an outlet in Majnu ka Tila as well. This north Delhi outlet also serves Tibetan and Chinese dishes. A happy meal box is available in five variants and priced between Rs 200 and Rs 300. Raj Rai, a founding partner, admits the challenges. "To recreate authentic flavours, the ingredients have to be shipped from Nagaland," he says.
Indigenous restaurants also face a major operational challenge. "Steady supply chain is a problem," says Sunil Kumar, director, food and beverage, JW Marriott Walnut Grove Resort and Spa based in Mussoorie.
"We began serving Garhwali cuisine in 2017. Even for simple recipes such as aloo ke gutke, or potato tempered with jakhiya (Cleome viscosa), we have to think about the supply of jakhiya seeds. The hotel has adopted a community participation model where women from nearby villages bring farm-fresh ingredients," he says.
This model has been adopted by others too. Tirkey relies on local farmer markets or weekly haats for the ingredients. "I make weekly visits to markets within a 10-40 km radius and stock native varieties of grains like brown rice and finger millet," she says.
Beeraiah also works closely with farmers based in and around Bengaluru for sourcing organic vegetables, grains and condiments. He shops in weekly markets and provides free food to farmers. This is how he has established a network of farmers, who supply seasonal greens and vegetables.
Saikia's ingredients are also mostly local. "Back in my village, I have made arrangements with the farming community to grow food for me. For the May pop-up, I served baby potatoes and required 40-45 kg potatoes, so farmers had sown them early. Pakghor is not only reviving traditional flavours but also boosting the rural economy," she says.
(The author documents indigenous foods and works on nutrition and health issues. The views expressed are strictly personal)