Food Lore from the Sub-Continent

Tanushree Bhowmik has been reading food history for about eight years now. This interest has converted into a passion to start out ForkTales.

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ONE OF the leading trends of tracing food history and culture resonates well with the new format of social tables. One such social table – ‘ForkTales’ – curates food pop-ups by sharing myths, legends and food lore from the sub-continent. It brings strangers together over food and passes on food heirlooms and culture through social interaction. Tanushree Bhowmik and her husband Om Routray convey the lesser known Indian food traditions through a series of pop-up events.

ForkTales is 14-events-old food venture that includes dinners at home and at a destination like Jorhat, Assam and Bangalore; a chef’s table at Mahabelly and training the women’s group ‘Zaika-e-Nizamuddin’ at Nizamuddin Basti. “In the past, we have done events on ‘Mahaprasad at Jagannath Temple, Puri’; ‘Non-vegetarian Prasad served to Mothers Goddesses in Bengal’ and ‘Myths and rituals of kasundi’, to name a few,” says Bhowmik who likes to spend hours reading and researching on food history, beyond her professional commitment. “Hence, such dinners are not about food but a curated journey characterised by story-telling – history, mythology and lore related to them,” she says.

Bhowmik, who has always been interested in cooking started spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother at the age of six. “By the time I was 12, I would cook occasional dinners and special dishes for the family and with time started to realise that my inclination to learn and relish food history has gone way beyond.” She and her husband coined the name after researching and documenting on food. Her grandmother entrusted her with a hand-written recipe book, a personal heirloom which is a treasure trove of Anglo-Indian recipes that came from the family’s interactions with the planters in the tea-rich districts along the Brahmaputra.

“All this while I enjoyed cooking but when I met my husband, we hit upon the idea of hosting dinners. It brought together our common interest in food and history. It gave me an opportunity to do all the things that I love doing –research on food, story-telling and cooking – and a perfect way to entertain people at home,” says Bhowmik who plans to author a book soon. 

Future Plans

In 2018, Tanushree plans to introduce her guests to food cultures from different eras like Muslim food from the 15th century Mandu and Bengali food before the British and Dutch settled in the state in the subcontinent and with that bring forth the story of how Indian food has evolved. “Our events are also social statements for us as we have often used our tables to debunk ideas about vegetarianism, and homogeneity of eating habits. Alongside, I want to present some of the food references from epics like The Mahabharata and revive what I call the lost art in the kitchen like pithe (sweetmeats), goyna bori (sun-dried intricate lentil dumplings) and delicate pastries as an ode to generations of women who found an outlet for creativity,” she says.

Bhowmik has also designed a couple of destination events in near future. “I want to present the food of the Hindu migrants from erstwhile East Bengal, a lot of which is slowly disappearing from our kitchens. I would love to do it in Kolkata, and repeat the Gora Sahib’s Table - A Tea Planters Lunch and Tea Tasting in Assam.”

 Ancient is healthy

The events focus on sustainable and seasonal eating as responsible environmental practice and inspire people to increase the types of vegetables they eat on a daily basis. With a major focus on food from the larger undivided Bengal, Odisha and Assam, a huge part of the work is on ancient Indian food cultures like food references in Vedas, Puranas and great epics. “I enjoy adapting the food from yore to modern kitchens and sensibilities,” she says.

Bringing hand cooked food at the table, Bhowmik likes to adapt old recipes and ingredients to modern sensibilities. “I avoid shortcuts, I keep the essence of the original reference alive. For e.g., when I made food from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, I had cooked in clay pots, barefoot and after a ceremonial offering to the fire god.”

For Bhowmik, healthy eating is important. “The key is to move from health to wellness. There is no substitute for natural, seasonal, and local food. The problem is our food habits have become complex, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, hence, we need to focus on what we eat and how we eat. A lot of urban Indian families seriously need to increase the types of vegetables and greens that they consume. A shrinking vegetable basket results in a deficiency of nutrients and imbalanced diet.”

Healthy Ritual

Following a health ritual in her daily life, Bhowmik personally likes to eat everything but moderately. “I ensure that I eat a daily portion of fruits, vegetables and proteins and drink a lot of water. I believe in seasonal eating as it not only good for the environment but also for our health.”

Health TIPS:

·      Don’t be picky eaters. Food is a memory, experience, aesthetics and extremely political.

·      Diversifying our palate and respecting eating choices are sure ways of getting to experience the world most intimately.

·      Eat seasonal and local produce. There is a fun in waiting for that gobhi ki sabzi till the next winters. Till then learn how beautiful curries can be made with the humble lauki and parwal!

 A TABLE OF RECIPE

Ada-jeere baata diye chingri jhol (Prawns in cumin-ginger gravy)

Prawns – 4 large (shelled, cleaned and deveined), Potato – 1 medium sized (peeled and cubed), Tomato – 1 medium (chopped finely), Mustard oil – 2 tbsp, Green chilli – 2, Cumin seeds- 1/4 tsp, Turmeric powder – 1 tsp, Kashmiri red chilli powder – 1 tsp, Salt to taste

Spice paste – Dry roast 1 tsp cumin seeds, 2 dry red chilli and make a fine paste with 1" piece of ginger, 1/2 tsp turmeric powder and little water

1. Marinate prawns with salt, turmeric and little Kashmiri red chilli.

2. Heat the mustard oil in a pan and temper with cumin seeds and slit green chillies.

3. Add the cubed potato, salt and turmeric to the pan. Sauté and then cover the pan till potatoes are half done.

4. Add a spice paste and a splash of water.

5. Fry the masala till the water evaporates and the chopped tomato. Fry till tomato is mushy.

6. Add water, bring to boil and put in the prawns. Cook till prawns are done and gravy is coating consistency. The potatoes will also be cooked through by then.

7. Serve garnished with chopped fresh coriander.


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