Food shapes people, I’ve always believed, and not just in the literal sense. It can make you contemplate things; it can encompass fond recollections. And, as I sit across from dapper chef Manu Chandra – sipping on black coffee and giving me a firsthand taste of the unabashed ideologies he’s notorious for – I’m reassured. “Food is all-powerful. It’s what wars have been fought on, what has shaped civilisations,” he broods. “And because it’s such a quintessential part of everyone’s life, regardless of whether you’re a gourmand or not, it holds memories.”
We agree that the mere smell of certain ingredients can take you back decades, prompting him to reminisce about his days in school, climbing trees to pick fresh mulberries in the peak of summer and tell me about homemade khichdi and the mango snobs in his family. (“Alphonso was never a big deal for us North Indians; we had our own special varieties.”) When “country bumpkin” cousins came to visit from small towns, the first thing they wanted to eat was ketchup and butter, because those were luxuries back then that were novel to them. In contrast, Chandra looked forward to returning the visit and devouring ‘double roti’ for breakfast – tiny bread rolls that were a far cry from the massive packaged loaves in Delhi. He quickly segues into musings about sarson ka saag, explaining, “I grew up on food made from seasonal ingredients,” which is one of the reasons why his restaurant Toast & Tonic: East Village Style – which he’s introducing to Mumbai this month after opening the first outpost in Bengaluru – centres on fresh local produce. Remarkably, it will be his thirteenth restaurant in five years. “I had been talking about sustainability and a homogenised food culture for a while…a decade at least. I did a lot of research, on seasons and on techniques like smoking, pickling and preserving. I want to celebrate our biodiversity but in an interesting, unusual way.”
A meal at the restaurant is unpretentious while still being adventurously gourmet. Flavours are big yet not discordant. And, even while offering a decidedly international variety of culinary cultures, it celebrates India’s biodiversity with the help of local producers to ensure that homegrown ingredients are championed in an eccentric way. What really perks my ears up is the description of a dish called au revoir Colonel Sanders, a tongue-in-cheek take on fried chicken. Using a ragi batter – a tough task, considering the porous nature of the flour – Chandra manages to achieve an ultra-crunchy, moreish chicken dish. How? By experimenting endlessly and creating almost everything in-house. “We’re not only milling our own flour and making five kinds of our own mustard; we’re pressing our own oils and making our own shrubs and tonics, too!” Evidently, his team is successfully churning out stimulating food that does not rely on cumbersome, expensive and capricious supply channels. Travel plays a big role in unearthing unusual produce and techniques, as do crash courses, which often result in the discovery of know-how within the diverse crew itself. “There have been a number of times when I’ve discovered a new ingredient and had a crateful of it lying in the restaurant, and one of my Manipuri or Assamese staff has looked at it and said, ‘Oh this isn’t new, it grows in our backyard’!” Displeased by the fact that “we city slickers” are perpetually stuck in a comfort zone comprising tried-and-tested ingredients, Chandra tells me about a friend of his, one of the largest seed propagators in the country, who grows 19 different varieties of eggplant…which I didn’t even know existed. “I’d love to showcase that – maybe I can have a little tasting platter of the different varieties, so people can see how one is so completely different from another,” he muses.
He laughs the minute he says this, explaining that very often in the current food environment, this very outlook of embracing uniqueness is blatantly ignored. He knows this because every night, on his way home, he’s been ordering different types of chicken starters from different restaurants on Swiggy. “It’s been 33 days now,” he chuckles. “And I can honestly tell you that I have barely been able to taste much of a difference.”
We discuss trends and the fact that avocado has had its fair share of time in the spotlight, and when the question of a new ‘power food’ comes up, the pioneering chef declares that it’s now time to make way for millets. The ancient grain, a great source of protein and healthy carbohydrates, has been promoted by Chandra to such an extent that the agricultural minister is grateful to him. In fact, as we speak, an event is being planned at Toast & Tonic to promote the grain to urban gourmands, at the behest of the government. “It’s important to understand the tremendous number of health benefits associated with millets,” he asserts. “It’s also extremely advantageous to people growing it because it’s drought-resistant, almost pesticide-free and barely requires some water…you can practically leave it on its own and it could potentially be a cash crop.” By the end of our conversation, I am completely sold on the grain, especially knowing that Chandra usually dislikes ‘talking up’ anything – he leaves that to his customers to do. This, however, is something I can instantly tell he feels passionate about. “What Peru did for the rest of the world with quinoa, I think India can do with millets.”