The most unforgettable—and storied—menus are by chefs who forge a deep connection with their food. The month-old Noon in Mumbai has kimchi fermented with Kashmiri red chilies, tartlets with buckwheat from Ladakh and clay-pot rice inspired by guchchi pulao. There are enough clues to trace that the chef and founder, Vanika Choudhary, hails from the hills.
The 39-year-old Choudhary grew up in Srinagar, went to school in Jammu and now lives in Mumbai. In 2016, she launched the cafe Sequel, beloved for its vegan and gluten-free salads and breads. Her newest restaurant is Noon, which translates to salt in Kashmiri and indicates the opening time (12 pm). It is rooted in her food philosophy of eating seasonally, using indigenous ingredients and preparing food with age-old traditions, and she incorporates all three with contemporary flair for a chic dining experience.
In an interview with Lounge, Choudhary talks about how her nani’s achaars instilled a love for fermentation, childhood picnics in lush green parks of Srinagar and plying the flavour of charcoal.
What are some of your earliest food memories?
I vividly remember looking forward to each season because the food changed accordingly. In early spring, when the snow started to melt, my nana would bring home foraged wild morels (guchchi) which would be sun-dried for a wide variety of dishes. In summer, peaches, plums and pickles, like kasror (dandelion greens), raw jackfruit and raw mango, were the flavours of the season. In autumn, quince or bumsonth would be brought home and my mother made khatte baingan ki sabzi with it. In winter, my grandmother fermented black carrots in a claypot for kanji and pickled karam (kohlrabi) and shalgam (turnip). This pickle, also known as monjee achaar, made with cold pressed mustard oil and spices is popular in the Kashmiri-Punjabi community to which I belong. When I was pregnant three years ago, my most persistent craving was for kanji, guchchi pulao and karam-shalgam achaar.
Did you inherit heirloom kitchenware from your nani and mother?
I got my family’s age-old claypot—that I am terrified of breaking—to my kitchen in Mumbai for making kanji during winter. There’s an old langri-danda (mortar pestle) that we use in Sequel. My nani had an intricate traditional samovar for kahwa where coal could be placed at the base to keep the drink warm. She would tell my mother—who had moved to Jammu after marriage—to take it with her, but my mother procrastinated. When militancy was at its in peak in Srinagar, my nani’s family packed the bare minimum and moved out of the city overnight, leaving behind most of their utensils, including the samovar. To this day, I think one of my mother’s deepest regrets is that she didn’t take it when she could. When the valley was relatively peaceful and we revisited some 15 years later, my mother bought a vintage samovar at a store. It’s like a balm for something rare and precious that she never got to inherit; maybe, one day she will give it to me, and then it will be my most priceless heirloom piece.
Did you eat out while growing up?
The dishes we ate at home, like rishta, gustaba or yakhni, were also available in restaurants and that didn’t interest us. The only foods that we didn’t get at home were chaats, and we would go out for aloo tikkis. There’s a place, Dogra Chaat House in Jammu, with tikkis made in desi ghee, and even now when I visit my parents’, I go to that shop. When I was really young, maybe around three years old, and staying at my nani’s in Srinagar, we would go for weekend picnics in the spectacular parks of the city. The picnic basket would have a changing menu. Sometimes there would be yakhni with lamb kofta paired with girda (a type of Kashmiri bread) or rice. Other times, there would be rogan josh and rice or dum aloo and guchchi pulao; or we would carry only breads, like bakarkhaani and katlam, with a flask filled with kahwa. That’s how Nikhil Sood, the mixologist at Noon, saw me have kahwa and decided to make a craft cocktail out of it that we now have at the restaurant.
How do your food memories reflect in the menu at Noon?
They have seeped in through philosophy and my belief in age-old slow cooking techniques. For example, using a mortar pestle, cooking on charcoal and opting for clay pots or cast-iron pans instead of non-stick kitchenware. I saw my nani pounding chutneys in mortar pestle. On Sundays, we had rajma-chawal with a simple chutney with just walnut, mint and anardana and it tasted delicious; not only because of the ingredients, but it was pounded for about 45 minutes in the mortar pestle for the right texture and consistency. The concept of eating grains—soaked, sprouted or fermented—also comes from how we ate them back home. For instance, we would make rotis with grains like buckwheat, whole wheat or chestnut flour which underwent at least one or two of these processes. At Noon, we have a tortilla made with foxtail millet whose grains were soaked, sprouted, sun-dried and then milled to make the flour. My nani’s myriad achaars would go through the process of lacto fermentation when she sun-dried them for weeks. Although we don’t have achaars at Noon, fermentation is integral to our philosophy, and we make our own kimchi, kefir and my childhood favourite kanji. We took the kanji a step forward by fermenting shallots in it and using them on the tortilla. Another example is the kokum flower which is fermented to make kefir and used to glaze prawns cooked on charcoal. Keeping these principles in mind we have designed a seasonally-changing contemporary menu.
You also cook over coal. What is the link to Kashmir here?
It’s a traditional way of cooking, and it’s connected to my memories of the kangri which is a clay pot filled with coal embers, placed in a basket and carried under the pheran for warmth during brutal winters. In Srinagar, we had a bukhari (fireplace) for fresh coal, but when we moved to Jammu, we had to make a different arrangement. My mother would send me to the neighbourhood naanbai (bread baker with a tandoor) for coal that will be used by our family. I think that's where I get my love for coal from. Now at the restaurant, we try to bring out the flavours from charcoal without letting it overpower a dish. For instance, we have a dish with the Himalayan trout where the fish is seasoned with a bit of salt, ghee and placed on a rack over the charcoal for cooking and flavour. It’s as simple as that.
Vanika’s family recipe of Guchchi Pulao
Half cup aged basmati rice
40 grams guchchi
2 onions, sliced
A few strands of saffron
1 bay leaf
Half tsp shah jeera
2 cardamom pods, crushed
2 inch cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
2 tablespoons of ghee
Salt to taste
5 cups of water
Wash the guchchi and soak it in 5 cups of water for 30 minutes. Wash the aged basmati rice and soak it in water for 60 minutes. Soak the saffron in a tbsp of hot water for 30 minutes.
In a medium bowl, boil the guchchi in the soaked water. Bring it to a full boil, let it simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Strain the guchchi through a muslin cloth, reserving the guchchi broth. This is the precious umami broth that adds all the flavour and aroma to the pulao. Wash the soaked rice thoroughly.
Add ghee to a medium clay pot. Once the ghee is hot, add shah jeera and let it crackle for a few minutes. Now add the rest of the spices—bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, black cardamom and onions. Saute the onions for 8 to 10 minutes or until the onions become dark brown, while stirring frequently. Add the guchchi and sauté for 5 minutes. Now add the soaked rice, giving it a gentle stir. Add 1.5 cups of the reserved guchchi broth, saffron water, and salt. Cover the clay pot and cook the pulao on a low heat until all the water is absorbed, this would take 15 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Fluff it gently with a fork.
Serve this delicious pulao with Muji Chatin (Kashmiri-style radish and walnut chutney).
Note: What makes this recipe truly unique is that it's cooked in an earthen clay pot. Use of spices also needs to change with seasons and my mom generally skips the cloves when she is making guchchi pulao in the summer.
Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.