Those who have sampled Nagaland’s distinctively vibrant mountain pepper and bamboo shoot chutney will tell you there’s nothing quite like it. Typically ground together with tomato, garlic and chillies, the condiment found a permanent place in mixologist Jishnu AJ’s heart during his seven-day trip to Nagaland, earlier this year, with the team from the Mumbai-based fine-dining establishment Ekaa. Today the lemony, citrusy spice reigns supreme in the Mountain Pepper drink on their cocktail menu. The effervescent concoction of gin, Naga basil, palo santo, apple juice and citrus evokes the wet, forest-like mood of the North-Eastern tropical jungles it grows in.
Like AJ’s creation, many drinks available across Indian bars and restaurants today are pushing the thresholds of flavour by intelligently incorporating regional Indian spices in their libations.
Twelve years ago, Manu Chandra, helming the pan-India bar-chain Monkey Bar, was one of the first to look beyond formulaic mixology, helping create the cocktail Mangaa, with aam panna and “without having to borrow concepts from the West”. Now, at the Bengaluru-based diner, LUPA, where the veteran chef is the owner, a gin-based cocktail, The Khasi, mixes home-made Meghalayan mountain spices, jaiur, and Mizo wild grapefruit shrub with tonic water, carrying forward that tradition.
Regions such as the Konkan belt, North-East, Himalaya and the south are now on the radar of mixologists. Sahil Essani, a beverage professional and the former brand ambassador for Short Story Spirits, a home-grown alcohol label, tinkered with turmeric leaf, typically employed in patolio, a Goan/Konkani sweet dish consisting of palm sugar and coconut that’s akin to a dumpling. “It was for the final of the Diageo World Class India 2022. The challenge was to create a highball inspired by your hometown,” says the Margao, Goa native. Essani’s drink, which included a patolio cordial, turmeric-leaf infusion and coconut cream, helped him get the first spot, while showcasing his hometown “in a way that it hadn’t been before”.
And while competitions and awards (think Asia and World’s 50 Best Bars, India’s 30 Best Bars, etc.) might have helped buttress this movement, the growing availability of untapped ingredients and condiments is also playing a role. “Bengaluru is a rather large hub for folk from the North-East, who work in hospitality establishments,” explains Chandra. “And that simply means they understand said ingredients and often find it difficult to find them in markets here. Naturally, these communities source them from their hometowns and some are enterprising enough to run small-scale businesses selling these. LUPA’s bartenders have been instrumental in making these connections to source the right produce.”
AJ observes: “India has good bars but what India doesn’t have is good India-inspired bars. Often, bartenders take inspiration from international bars and apply it here, when they should be inspired by the kitchen—on their techniques and combination of taste profiles. Naga pepper and Naga basil are the two local ingredients that we sourced ourselves, during our visit to Nagaland. The whole idea was to use untouched, hyper-local Indian ingredients.”
At Fig & Maple, in Goa and Delhi, the bar team is using Indian spices like nag kesar—an evergreen tree that grows in parts of India, South-East Asia and Sri Lanka—and pipli, or Piper longum. Commonly known as Indian Long Pepper, it has found its way into the restaurant’s popular, pre-batched cocktail Moonlit Serenade, where it is sous-vided with rum and combined with cinnamon and ginger tea.
“Grown on vines, these berry-like spices have spikes that are removed when the peppers are ripe and black in colour. They are then left to dry in the sun for four-five days. The bark and leaves of the pipli plant are also used extensively in ancient Indian medicines and Ayurveda,” says the chef-owner, Radhika Khandelwal.
Like Fig & Maple, Ekaa too is doing its bit to harness Ayurvedic ingredients in cocktails. “At Ekaa, our new cocktail menu is inspired by Ayurvedic ingredients. Not for their health benefits but for their rarity and flavour. We are showcasing ingredients like anantmool, kapur kachri, jatamansi, khus root, camphor and talispatra. It has been over eight months of trials and experiments, as searching for these ingredients from different parts of India, researching the side effects and also how to use them in the most flavourful way while making a cocktail, takes time,” says AJ.
The rarer the ingredients, the tougher sourcing can get. But like Chandra points out, many are finding solutions in their backyards. “I chanced upon pipli on a trip to Coorg, while visiting a coffee plantation. Having found it fascinating, we started sourcing it from them. Goa now being home, and having soil conducive for growing spices, has become our new source for the spice,” Khandelwal explains, adding that growers nearby selling small batches have become their go-to for sourcing spices and lesser-known produce from the region, both for the bar and the kitchen.
This rings true for another Goan haunt—the new boutique stay and all-day restaurant and bar Kaia. There, bar programme consultant Fay Barreto is concocting tipples using indigenous products sold by the “aunties of Mandrem and Mapusa market”. In Man...Gone Going!, their rendition of a Daisy family cocktail, a raw mango infusion and spiced mango liqueur come together with two types of Goan chillies: butao and kholchoyo. “Canacona chilli, or kholchyo, is predominantly used in south Goan curries. They have a medium-hot profile. Butao, which is also called mosrio, was brought in by the Portuguese. These thin-skinned chillies are very spicy, with a high flavour profile, and are small and red in colour. We use both to make our spiced rim, along with herbs, as well as in the spiced liqueur,” they say.
Similarly, at the Delhi bar Sidecar, bar manager Lopsang Lama has infused the menu with imagination and inventiveness. His Sadar Bazaar cocktail, eponymous with the Capital’s largest wholesale market, is a curious mix of cognac, lemon juice, sandalwood, orange blossom water and lachhca supari, sourced from—no prizes for guessing—Sadar Bazaar. “There’s a cycle between our bar and kitchen, where we use each other’s food scraps or waste and try to incorporate them smartly. Garnishes, shrubs, bitters, etc. make use of what we get from the kitchen,” he says.
The Indian lens, then, may well be a spillover from the kitchen, where regional cuisines began enjoying the spotlight a few years ago. “There is such a depth of variety available in India that there is no reason why we shouldn’t use gondhoraj instead of yuzu lemons,” says Lama.
Suman Mahfuz Quazi is the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.