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When teaching is on the menu

Chefs and food historians are now trying to educate, inform and create a taste for diverse culinary habits through immersive workshops and classes

A ‘Cooking with Friends’ session by Spudnik Farms.

By Ruth Dsouza Prabhu

LAST PUBLISHED 15.10.2023  |  09:35 AM IST

In March, I sat down to a yele-oota (meal served on a banana leaf) at The Courtyard in Bengaluru that was the culmination of a chef residency, “Rooted in Community", conducted by Spudnik Farms. The meal focused on indigenous tubers—like dhave kona (white yam), jhaad kannaga (plectranthus rotundifolius) and mudali (colocasia)—that were part of produce boxes delivered to subscribers. It opened up a world of ingredients and possibilities for the home cooks, diners and box subscribers who attended.

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“While there is curiosity about indigenous crops, awareness remains low," says Sumeet Kaur, founder, Spudnik Farms, a collective of small organic farmers across Karnataka. “This residency gave rise to ‘Cooking with Friends’, a platform to facilitate interactions between those who cook, to learn about indigenous vegetables and how they can be used. It’s about sharing our passion for sustainability and indigenous foods," she adds.

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The platform has seen Chef Nayantara Menon Bagla, a functional nutrition coach, make cooking more accessible for novices, teaching them how to clean local soppus (greens), blend flavours and build simple meal prep. Chef Taiyaba Ali, a consultant chef and writer, challenged the stereotype that meat dominates Lakhnawi cuisine and taught participants four main bases for vegetable kebabs. Chef Pranav Ullal, baker and founder of Loafer & Co, took the pizza route, creating dough with Paigambari, an ancient grain with roots in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Each session had 20 participants.

It was during the pandemic that food communities began to form organically as people went back to discovering their culinary roots, leading to initiatives that document micro-cuisines or give academic insights into food, from the history of native rice varieties to the many uses of locally available ingredients, and more. Brands in the food and beverage sector and professionals in tangential fields of research and writing have begun creating interactive platforms to connect with consumers and food enthusiasts.

Srijata Sengupta and Priya Joshi, co-founders of foodwize, curate dining experiences in Bengaluru. They have held six dining events, titled ‘Pop-Ups with a Purpose’, so far, each with 20-25 participants, anchored to a specific theme. These are two-hour learning and dining experiences for retail and corporate consumers, where participants learn about sustainable food systems and are equipped to think about eating well while protecting biodiversity, livelihoods and cultures. “We are reminding people that food is our richest multi-sensorial experience," says Joshi. In June, they began a monthly foodwize webinar series that focuses on practical aspects, such as how to read food labels on packaged foods, etc.

Read, research

During the pandemic, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, culinary chronicler and consultant, anchored an online interactive series, #SpiceChroniclesWithRMG, with experts from each state talking about their food and spices. Ghildiyal, who also offers a culinary chronicling course, has conceptualised, curated and edited the first edition of Stories Of Indian Food, an archiving journal project. The first journal on chutney is a compilation of stories, memories and recipes from kitchens across India, put together with the help of more than 150 culinary chroniclers. “Alongside archiving knowledge, we are also in the process of decoding age-old secrets of taste, flavour and culinary wisdom behind this essential Indian condiment," Ghildiyal says.

A foodwize ‘Pop-Up with a Purpose’ session.

I attended two online workshops in the “Studying Food" series organised by Kurush Dalal, archaeologist, historian and culinary anthropologist, and used a technique taught regularly to chronicle my own cuisine. Dalal’s advice was to speak to one’s family generation-wise, going back to the oldest to understand how they experienced everyday food. Simple but insightful.

Pankhuri Agrawal, founder of Yayavr (nomad in Hindi), a community for people interested in the history and culture of food in India, believes there is a desire to tell our own stories.

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In May, Yayavr started online classes for beginners, with sessions on how to effectively pre-read academic books on food— analysing the table of contents to understand their structure or scanning the bibliography for suggestions on further reading before even deciding to read the whole text; and a session on challenges in reading and writing about food across multiple languages. The 62 participants over eight sessions so far have included archivists, artists, chefs, food bloggers, journalists, academics, counsellors, software professionals, lawyers, editors and homemakers.

Know Your Beverage

For the longest time, wine and whisky tasting and pairing sessions have been a popular and practical way to introduce people to the beverages and get them to try something new.

When Hemanth Rao founded the Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) in 2011, he wanted amateurs who weren’t aware of whisky to learn and appreciate the beverage more. Scores of educational sessions later, Rao finds that brands see clubs like SMAC as specific target audiences that influence consumer perception and says, “We also take a lot of interest in understanding the style and preferences of our members, which is why we are the only club that produces private whisky bottles exclusively for our members".

Workshops also came about when craft beer made an appearance in the early 2000s and continue to this day. Pune-based Great State Aleworks has conducted several over the years. Their latest workshop in June was a collaboration with The Locavore’s Millet Revival Project which introduced their sixth millet (Jowar) brew. Here, they also launched an open-source handbook for breweries across India looking to work with millets.

In 2017, Vishakapatnam-based Vivek Patel graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering. However, the only jobs available at the time were in the software sector and did not interest him. He wanted to pursue something that was a mix of science and creativity. Microbreweries had just begun to pop up in his city. Fascinated with them, he spent time reading about brewing online and decided to attend a workshop at Independence Brewing Co. in Pune in 2018. "I met several brewers at this boot camp, tried products from Great State Aleworks and Moonshine Meadery that had just been launched and heard a lot about home brewing too," says Patel. This bootcamp became the first step he took towards a brewer's career. Today he is the lead brewer at Forge Breu-Hous in Hyderabad.

In August, to mark National IPA (India Pale Ale) Day and the launch of the Geist Picket Fence, a White IPA, I attended an online educative session for alco-bev writers that was organised by Geist Brewing Co. as part of their Raise the Bar initiative. While this online session was an intimate group of six people interacting with Narayan Manepally, Co-Founder and CEO, the offline session, at the brand’s Hennur outlet with 20 participants had Mitch Steele, Brewmaster and COO of New Realm Brewing Company, U.S.A join in virtually to speak.

“We do as much as we can do to educate because such a customer is a loyal one and can educate a few more," Manepally tells me when I ask him about the importance of informing the consumer’s palate considering the number of beer styles that come into the market.

Such educational sessions are not just about alcohol. Maverick & Farmer conducted their first edition of Friends of the Farmer (conducted every two months) in August. Ashish D’abreo, Q Grader, Coffee Roaster and Co-founder of Maverick & Farmer Coffee, says, “There’s a lot of hard work, thought and nurturing that goes into producing good quality coffee beans at the farm. Unfortunately, the farmer does not get to experience the appreciation that the end consumer has for the final brew. Our objective is to bring the farmer to the foreground, to add a face to the name, to get them to interact with coffee consumers and even get feedback or strike up a conversation that may lead to maverick experiments at the farm. It is also important for our customers to understand what it takes to grow good quality coffee, and to hear it directly from the farmer."

Finally, events like The Locavore’s Wild Food Festival, Nilgiris Wild Food Festival and Matters of Taste writing initiative by Serendipity Arts Festival go beyond food and drink to create greater awareness about the provenance of food. You can find these sessions on the social media handles of these festivals and groups and by word-of-mouth in like-minded circles. Most require online registration to secure a spot.

The hope: that such initiatives can create a love of diverse food cultures and build an appreciation for food beyond what’s tasty and convenient.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.

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