As you get adventurous with your gastronomical exploits, exploring the cuisines of the homeland is worth a shot. It’s time to return to your own roots, a ghar waapsi for your plate if you will. Through our series, Lost & Found, we speak to various culinary experts who are at the forefront of this culinary revolution, the one that involves reviving regional cuisine of India. After deep-diving into Parsi and Bannuwali cuisine, the next stop on the revival train is Assamese food and cuisine from the royal kitchens of Malwa. Gitika Saikia of Gitika’s Pakghor and Anuradha Joshi Medhora of Charoli sheds light on the two respectively.
Anuradha Joshi Medhora
As the chef and founder of Charoli Foods, Anuradha is on a mission to save food from the royal kitchens of Malwa and bring it to the forefront through her delivery kitchen. Growing up in Indore, Anuradha was surrounded by a family who comes from a royal lineage. Her paternal grandfather was an officer in the Royal Indian Navy and served in World War II, whereas her maternal grandfather was a zamindar from central India and grew up with princes. But it was the flavourful cuisine of royalty that enamoured her more than the royals themselves. Although the royal cuisine was restricted to her family, it soon began dying even from within as the younger generation didn’t seem to take effort of cooking the traditional way anymore.
So in 2015, she began her venture and pursued her childhood dream of reviving an unspoken cuisine. “Rajasthani, Lucknowi, Hyderabadi and even Rampuri royal cuisines are well documented in India. Located in the centre of India, the Malwa region has been left out of this illustrious list. Can you imagine what delicacies must have come from a region of abundance whose name itself is derived from Malav? It literally means ‘a part of the abode of Lakshmi.’ A region and cuisine influenced by Mughals, Rajputs and Marathas,” Anuradha shares. “Whilst everything has changed and evolved, food is the only thing that takes you back in time as soon as you have that first bite.” And this is exactly what gave birth to Charoli, which is named after a secret ingredient used by her mother in her favourite mutton dish.
The Birthplace Of Malwa Cuisine
To actually trace the recipes and the cuisine one must do a deep dive into the history to the times of the Delhi Sultanate of Malwa in the 1400s which introduced an Afghani influence to the cuisine–think dry fruits, grilled meats, saffron. “After Rana Sangha of Mewar conquered the region, traditional cuisines of the Rajputs came with them. Then came the Mughal armies under Babar and with them came the Shirazi influence from Ferghana. Under Baji Rao I, the Marathas brought the use of coconuts, beans, rice and milder flavours from the Maratha empire,” Anuradha says.
“Expect a chicken curry cooked in a thick besan gravy- Murge ke kadhi, a Shirazi style korma from the courts of the Begums of Bhopal, a coconut flavoured mutton curry from the Maratha kingdoms. A region invaded by the Muslims, controlled by the Rajputs and ruled by the Marathas. Dewas, Jaora, Ratlam, Sitamau and Sailana, a large part of Gwalior, parts of Indore and Tonk, and about 35 small estates and holdings all contributed to Malwa’s culinary heritage. Till today, the recipes remain the same, but the flavours undergo slight change due to the locally available spices, vegetables and meats.
The Road To Revival
The only way to make people aware of what’s lost is by introducing the flavours to their palate. And Anuradha has been doing just that and beyond. “It has been my endeavour to introduce this glorious cuisine with so much history to food lovers in the city. We’ve been constantly curating new menus in our kitchen. From the 21 item Dussehra feast, The white Maharanis Christmas feast to the Bhopal Darbar ki Eid. The idea is always to recreate a bit of history. We also have been hosting interactive pop-ups. Also, we have tried to make this cuisine more relevant to today’s palate and tried to bring to life the many ways in which it can be presented,” she says.
“To understand the cuisine one must understand the time, the royal women, the architecture, the history of the region itself. That’s why, we are constantly giving a peek into history on our social media that goes beyond just the items on our menu,” she adds.
To Learn & Unlearn
No road to access comes without challenges and Anuradha had her share of roadblocks initially. “It has been an uphill battle to introduce people to Malwa and its royal cuisine. A lot of people have, in the past, confused it with Malvan food (from coastal Maharashtra) as they sound very similar. Eating from Charoli is like taking a bite into history. We have constantly tried to keep our social media buzzing with little details about the history of the region and even add little tidbits of information to our packaging,” she explains.
Anuradha plans to open more kitchens, do more pop-ups and experiences, and possibly plan a culinary journey through Malwa. She has also been putting her learnings in the form of a book, which she hopes to release soon.
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If you want to get the taste of authentic Assamese flavours, you don’t need to head to Assam. Just place an order for your meal from Gitika Saikia’s Pakghor. The home chef is on a mission to revive her native cuisine in urban cities and she’s at the forefront of it. You can try out dishes like Sojina Paat Maas’or Khar (Moringa Leaves Fish Alkaline Curry), Borali Maas’or Phisa Patla Jool (Catfish in a thin tomato potato curry), Chutney Main Dei (Bitter-gourd Fermented Fish & Bhut Jolokia Chutney), among others. Till today, she sources all her ingredients from Assam and sheds light on it through her recipes on Instagram. Ahead, we talk to the chef about all things Assamese cuisine, what propelled her to get on a journey to revive it, challenges faced, and more.
Gitika moved from Assam to Mumbai in 1998 and had a steady corporate career till about 2014. Throughout her time in the city, many people questioned her about her cuisine. “People often thought it is similar to Bengali food. Some would actually pass comments saying it’s only momos or noodles. And it’s more like Chinese food. Again, this is very wrong. Because we do not eat that in our families. Momos and noodles are not eaten in all the states of Northeast,” she shares. The lack of knowledge of her regional cuisine along with fact that Assamese food didn’t seem to have an identity of its own made Gitika want to educate people about it. quit her cushy marketing job and pursue her passion of spreading information on her native cuisine.
Post quitting, she returned to Assam and visited my mother-in-law’s house. There, she visited the Boro tribe (the community her in-laws belong to). They, along with other relatives, gave her new information on the Assamese food, and she realised there’s so much more to Assamese food than people including herself know. This only fuelled her passion to start building a platform that gave a voice to Assamese food. In 2014, she quit her cushy marketing job and pursued her passion of spreading information on her native cuisine.
Depending on the ingredients or the type of cooking process involved, there are two categories of Assamese cuisine. “The first is the food you get in urban homes or urban Assamese cuisine because it has influences from mainland India–you can see the influence of Bengal, Bihar or the Muslim communities,” Gitika explains.
“The second category is tribal cuisine or cuisine from the ethnic communities of Assam, which has a lot of similarities with the other northeastern states. I belong to one of the ethnic communities of a tribe known as the Kachari, which is the biggest tribe in Assam. The cuisine I have grown up eating has got a lot of fermentation processes. We also do a lot of cooking in bamboo tubes coupled with the smoking of herbs. For example, our cooking does not utilise much oil or masalas. And the herbs we use are also used in the other seven states of the Northeast and in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam. For example, the Vietnamese coriander known as Rau Răm is also used in our cuisine. We use fig leaves. I don’t think anyone else cooks with fig leaves.
I belong to the Kachari community. And that’s why I’m a little more biased toward tribal cuisine. While I love mainland Assamese cuisine, my menus feature more of the ethnic community cuisine. I learned a lot about my cuisine from my mother. We belong to upper Assam. I’m from the Sonowal Kachari tribe and I married into central Assam in the Boro Kachari tribe. So, I learned a lot of different things from both sides. For example, till the time I got married, I never knew that jute leaves are edible because we don’t eat jute leaves in Upper Assam. In the Boro community, jute leaves are an integral part and they taste better when bitter. In fact, they make use of papaya and moringa leaves too.
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When Gitika first started off, it was a complete disaster. “I had incurred so many losses. I get my vegetables from Assam (till today). I couldn’t estimate what people eat, because I don’t have a culinary background. So I didn’t know about the amount a person eats and used to randomly order food. While the price of the ingredients is nil as they’re grown on my own farm, the cost of the courier is skyrocket,” she shares.
“Also some people do not like fermented food. So I couldn’t introduce it in my first pop up. Then I realised there was a gap. I need to first educate people and talk about my native cuisine. They need to know the nuances of each and every ingredient. So people would become prepared before coming to my popup. I began telling people to come with an open mind. If I’m offering boiled chicken or fish, someone should not point out and ask why there’s no dhania, because I’m not going to add dhania. You have to close your eyes to get the flavour of the herbs because the magic is in the herbs and the fresh ingredients,” she adds.
I’ve also tried to make it a little more to suit the taste of Bombay consumers till now. And eventually, people started enjoying it. People have evolved. Customers want to taste the authentic food, just the way I make it without any changes.
Representation Through Food
Through her social media, Gitika has walked the extra mile to ensure people get to know all about Assamese culture and food. When she first started off, she spoke a lot about the big festivals of Assam. Over the last two years, the focus has shifted to the smaller known festivals. “If you go to my Instagram, you’ll find a menu in the month of November and December on No Khowa–the festival celebrated in the villages by farmers when the first paddy is cultivated in the winter months, for which we always do a community feast. The next I planned was based on Me-Dam-Me-Phi, a festival celebrated by the Ahom communities who ruled Assam for a very long time. Every year on January 31, the Ahoms pray for the wellbeing of their ancestors who passed away,” Gitika says.
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“I also featured a menu on Mising, the second largest ethnic community in Assam. Ali-Aye-Ligang is a spring festival associated with agriculture, especially with the beginning of the Ahu paddy cultivation and this community celebrates it. It falls on the third Wednesday or Thursday of February,” she adds.
“I received a few opportunities to teach in different institutes. So, I’m going to pursue that as they want me to talk more about the cuisine to young students in colleges or in hotel management courses. So, those talks will revive Assamese cuisine again. And of course, my menus will continue,” Gitika concludes.