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A chef who championed sustainability before it was trendy

Chef Manisha Bhasin is a champion of sustainability and Dehlavi cuisine, which brings together dishes from the multiple communities of the capital city

Chef Manisha Bhasin
Chef Manisha Bhasin

Back in 1996, when terms like ‘seasonal produce’, ‘farm-to-table’ and ‘eating local’ were unheard of, chef Manisha Bhasin was in charge of the kitchen at Westview by ITC Maurya in Delhi. It didn’t have a printed menu but a blackboard one — a trend that hipster eateries in the West started around that time but was completely new to India — and the dishes were planned depending on the produce available. 

Her work was recognised last week when Culinary Culture awarded and recognised her as a notable chef who had pioneered sustainability in the kitchen as part of its ‘Food Superstars: India’s Top 30 Chefs' awards. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Bhasin focussed on energy efficiency, green practices and use of local ingredients even when Peruvian quinoa, Italian truffle cheese and Norwegian salmon were most sought after at five stars.

In an interview with Lounge, Bhasin talks about sustainability, Dehlavi cuisine and fondly recalls her grandmother’s cooking.

What does sustainability mean to you?

For me, sustainability is not limited to food, it is a way of life. I get hassled if something as small as paper napkins are wasted, and people might perceive it as being miserly, but it isn’t. I try to not waste any part of a vegetable and if trimmings are left, they are used to make a stock to add more flavour. Sustainability also means using local and seasonal produce. I strongly believe we are what we eat. While Norwegian salmon is okay once in a while, one is better off eating whatever is grown locally. You are also helping farmers by doing so and they are the ones who determine how good a chef’s food will taste.

What does one need to know about farming?

Become aware of seasonal produce. For instance, don’t ask for broccoli during summer when it’s not a hot weather vegetable. Farmers might grow it because there is a demand, but it is foreign to the soil and season. There is Urdu term taseer which means effectiveness and a warm vegetable like broccoli is not good (or effective) for your body or the soil during summer, whereas eating seasonally will benefit your health and the planet.

When did you discover your signature style of cooking which encompasses sustainable practices?

There are two parts to it: one is about my learnings with local produce followed by Dehlavi cuisine. When we opened Westview in 1996, we didn’t have a printed menu because the dishes changed daily and the emphasis was on fresh produce. I remember visiting supermarkets and staying away from the shelves with imported items. It was an interesting phase of my career. Then I moved to Sheraton in New Delhi as an executive chef and they needed someone who knew Indian food. The hotel had a pan Asian and south Indian restaurant. We felt we needed to fill the gap with a restaurant that's unique to Delhi. We introduced the restaurant Dehlavi featuring food from the city’s four communities—Kayastha, Vaish, Muslim and immigrant Punjabis like myself. The Kayasthas were the book keepers of the Britishers and they cook meats with vegetables, just like the sahibs, which translated into bhindi gosht. Vaish are the business community who introduced the city to bedmi aloo. We have raan ki haleem and Dilli ki nihari from the Muslims and Dilli ka butter chicken from the immigrant Punjabis. In the research process, we visited several homes and met mothers or grandmothers who knew about their community’s cuisine. With these learnings we created a menu at Dehlavi which had Serai ki biryani, nimona pulao, paneer lavang latika and my grandmother’s adrak ka halwa. We strictly stayed away from chaats, chole-bhature and tikkis which are so stereotypical to the city, whereas the food is much more than that.

Tell us about adrak ka halwa?

It was to die for. I am a Delhi girl and during summer vacations, I would visit my nani’s place in Kanpur. She was an exceptional cook who would make the best parathas and halwa for breakfast. The halwa was made with course atta, sugar, ghee and ginger which was her innovation to some extent. She always had a different take on food. She was also ahead of her times for she encouraged my parents to send me to the Institute of Hotel Management in Bengaluru in the early eighties. Also, she taught me the tastiest food is often the simplest. For instance, the parathas she made has only wheat flour, salt, ajwain and lots of ghee. She would knead the dough for sometime on a warm tawa with lots of ghee till it was semi cooked. Then she would take the dough off the girdle, roll the parathas and cook again on the tawa which yielded the flakiest parathas. When I was planning the menu at Dehlavi, I realised that each dish needed just two or three ingredients to shine, just like those parathas.

Manisha's family recipe of shalgam gosht 
1 kg goat meat, cut into one-inch pieces
2 large onions, finely sliced
2 tbsp ginger garlic paste
Half cup ghee
2-3 cloves
10-12 nos pepper
1 inch cinnamon 
3-4 whole black cardamom
150 ml yogurt whisked
One-fourth cup browned onion
Salt to taste
1 tbsp red chilli powder
Half tbsp Kashmiri red chilli for color
1 tbsp freshly ground coriander powder (preferably from the Dhar region in Madhya Pradesh)
Half tbsp Lakadong Turmeric
1 tbsp garam masala ( blend of powdered cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and cloves. Keep aside for garnishing.)
4 medium winter turnips, peeled and cut into halves
1 litre drinking water
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped

1. Heat ghee in a wide lagan.
2. Once hot, add the whole spices and let it perfume the ghee.
3. Add finely sliced onions and sauté till brown.
4. Add the ginger garlic paste and cook till the raw flavour disappears.
5. Add cleaned washed goat meat and bhuno (cook) till each piece is evenly browned from all sides. Add the salt and rest of powdered spices and cook for another 10 mins.
6. Fold in yogurt, add browned onions and cook till meat is half done.
7. Add winter turnips and bhuno (cook). Add 600-800 ml of water and put on simmer for 1-2 hours on a very low flame. Take out one turnip from the gravy and mash and fold back in for enhanced flavor.
8. Finally, sprinkle homemade garam masala for enhanced flavor, garnish with fresh coriander and serve with khamiri roti and Kachumber salad.

Inheritance of flavours is a series of interviews with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.

Also read | How to use coriander like chef Ranveer Brar 

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