SOME RENOWNED CHEFS – INDIAN AND EXPATS – REVEAL WHAT GETS THEIR GASTRIC JUICES FLOWING DURING THE FESTIVE SEASON. BY NEETA LAL
Scrumptious food is the pivot around which festivities seem to flow. It is also the warp and weft of the Indian cultural fabric. Diwali, Dussehra, Onam, Christmas… India is a land of many colourful festivals celebrated by a diverse mix of people. Families bond over food, guests eat off tables groaning under the weight of countless goodies and talented home cooks and chefs bask in the glory of their beautiful creations.
But even as the chefs lay out these tantalising treats, what is it that tickles their own taste buds? Do they have any festive favourites? If yes, what are they? Some renowned chefs — Indian and expats — tell us what gets their gastric juices flowing, what flavours they’ve grown up with and what good food means to them.
MANISHA BHASIN, EXECUTIVE CHEF, MAURYA SHERATON, NEW DELHI
I was pottering around in the kitchen from the age of 12 and have not looked back since then. For me, my biggest inspiration (and the world’s greatest chef) is my mother. Before her, my maternal grandmother impressed me by running an immaculate kitchen that fed a gargantuan joint family. Those were the good old days when meals meant entire families congregating around the dinner table, laughing and joking.
My mother and grandmother’s typical Punjabi recipes had a great impact on me in my formative years. Diwali meant sweets and then some. The aroma of besan (gram flour) getting slow roasted for our family’s Signature Burfi (a must for Diwali) and the pounding of elaichi (cardamom) seeds filled the air. Those delicious smells bring back fond memories for me. Gajar Halwa was another family favourite. In a true division of labour, all kids were allotted the task of grating mounds of carrots. These were then slow-cooked in milk for hours to get that perfect creamy taste and balance of flavours, and then finished with slivered almonds.
Diwali vacations in grandma’s house were bliss. We would be pampered endlessly that would result in a few added pounds. But we didn’t care. Those days people hardly went out to eat. Spending time with friends or relatives and celebrating together at home wasthe done thing. Be it numerous cups of tea or sherbet (sweet drink) or an elaborate multi-course meal. For most womenfolk, the conversation during festivities centred around food and expansive menus. I was a keen observer of all these discussions. And I can say that while I’ve learnt enormously from books and conferences, it was my mom’s kitchen that gave me my first informal induction into the larger world of pots and pans.
In retrospect, I’d say my grandfather too played a sizeable role in developing my culinary interest. I was often an apprentice to him. He taught me how to choose the best recipes and ingredients for each occasion while from my mother I learnt the virtues of patience. And from both of them I learnt that no matter how few ingredients you may have, if you put love, passion and hard work into your creations, you can never go wrong. I call this “Soul Cooking” and my guests appreciate this approach a lot.
IVAN CHIEREGATTI, EXECTUIVE CHEF, HYATT REGENCY, NEW DELHI
Festival time back home in Italy was a time when flavours from my mother’s kitchen would come alive and fill the house. Christmas, especially, was a family favourite and most of my nostalgic smells and flavours are rooted in that holiday. My all-time favourite Christmas recipe is Panettone, a type of Italian sweet bread loaf. The dish is extremely close to my heart as it ties together my entire childhood and life back in Italy in a fond remembrance. The dish, much like myself, hails from Milan. I’ve spent most of my youth in Milan and it is also the city where I mastered the art of cooking and hospitality. As a young boy, I remember my house smelling of orange candies around Christmas — a smell that is characteristic of Panettone.
My mother would bake fresh Panettone every few days to entertain guests who visited our home during the holidays. As soon as the baking process started, all of us in the house would gather around the kitchen, waiting eagerly for the bread to rise and land on the table. We had an unlimited supply of the sweet bread— it was a house speciality and a staple in our home. The sugary smell of candied oranges would fill me with happiness for it marked the onset of Christmas time and more importantly of celebrations.
The conversations, laughter and sense of bonding that came with good food are forever embedded in my heart. I try to recreate the same warmth in my own kitchen time and again. I still share a very special bond with my mother, who played a pivotal role in inculcating in me a love for Panettone. A seasoned baker herself, she was my first guru.
RAYMOND SIM, MASTERCHEF, R.E.D, RADISSON BLU MBD, NOIDA
As a Singaporean, my favorite Christmas and Chinese New Year dishes revolve around seafood and different meats. Mayonnaise Prawns is a dish very close to my heart. When mom would make it, the house would be redolent with its richaroma. Apart from this, Mala Fish — finger cut fish cooked till it is golden brown in colour — is another family favourite. I also love Crispy Honey Noodles in dessert which is a delectable amalgamation of ice cream and crunchy noodles. This dish sparked off my interest in experimenting with different ingredients and textures which has really helped me develop new dishes.
However, my all-time favourite dish for Christmas is duck stew. It was prepared by my father with his own secret recipe. The ingredients — apart from that one secret ingredient which I’m afraid I can’t disclose — include water, soya sauce and Chinese herbs. The dish was labourintensive and involved simmering all the ingredients with duck for hours. But it tasted heavenly and to this day I still miss that excitement when dad would cook the dish with so much love for us during Christmas. Ours was a big family and I had seven siblings. My father was a street hawker in Singapore and despite being the youngest, I would tag along with my father to his roadside stall and help him out. I was really impressed by my father’s meticulousness while cooking and the satisfaction on his face after preparing a good dish. This inspired me to take up cooking and become a good chef myself. From the family stall, I slowly graduated to working in restaurants and hotels in Singapore and now I’ve been at Radisson Blu for 14 years. When I am at home with my family in Singapore, usually during Christmas and New Year, my wife does all the cooking and indulges me with all my family favourites.
VELUMURUGAN, MASTERCHEF, DAKSHIN, SHERATON, NEW DELHI
Kerala Style Raw Mango Fish Curry, or Meen Manga Curry cooked with raw mangoes, spices and green chillies is my favourite festive dish. It is a must in my house in a Kerala village during Onam. My love for the dish is rooted in my childhood when I would eat raw mangoes with salt. My grandma would often make Meen Manga during the harvest season. And I would eagerly wait for her to finish making the dish, so we could all dig in.
Meen Manga is an authentic South Indian dish with robust flavours and its heady aroma brings back fond childhood memories. In South India, fish curry is a festival staple, especially during Onam. It has a distinct and lingering flavour and tastes delicious. The tang in the curry is usually from tamarind paste or juice. However, the best taste comes from combining the seer fish with raw mangoes especially when the fruit is in season. My mom used to try making different types of fish curry with tamarind, coconut milk, curry or spices. But my favourite was the one she made with raw mango. The piquancy of mangoes combined with fish pieces, coconut paste and spices, makes this dish so special. Any type of fish can be used to make this curry, but it should be fresh. One can also use Kora (Indian Salmon/ threadfin) or sardines (mathi) and barracuda (sheela). But for me seer works best for Meen Manga.