From The Straits Times    |

Indian food has gained a bad reputation. What you usually get out [in most restaurants here] is full of oil, and at times, overly-spicy. This is not how it was done traditionally,” says food historian Pritha Sen.

Today, there is a heavy emphasis on ingredients like cream and ghee, which contributes to a shift away from the cuisine’s original approach – said to be medicinal and even restorative. For instance, in Kashmir, saffron is widely used as it’s believed to be rich in antioxidants, while in places like Tamil Nadu – where the climate is extremely hot – tamarind is used not only to keep the body cool, but also to aid in digestion.

The 62-year-old, who hails from Bengal, a northeastern region that borders Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, has made it her calling to raise awareness about authentic Indian cuisine. She is currently in town for a collaboration with Yantra, a fine-dining restaurant in Tanglin Mall that has recently undergone a revamp.

Aromatics like mint, coriander and saffron lift the piping hot Hyderabadi Chicken dum Biryani.

Working closely with the owner Raju Shukla over the past year, Pritha has introduced cuisines from regions all over India, from Kerala to Bengal and Kashmir to Hyderabad – shifting Yantra’s focus from fusion Indian plates to one that celebrates heritage recipes that have been lost to the tides of time.

“Today, many Indians may not find themselves based in their hometown. Many have settled down in other states, or even gone elsewhere in the world. This is why I am driven to jog the memories of what they grew up with and might have ‘forgotten’,” explains Pritha. 

She has collected countless recipes across India, a process that took a great number of years. These efforts, she said, were inspired by her interactions with women from diverse backgrounds, be it in some of India’s vast population of over 650,000 villages, or at home. 

Take the Taka Luchi Alu Dum, a Bengali dish that Pritha has incorporated into the menu. Comprising curried baby potatoes wrapped in flaky, puffed flatbread, it is what many Bengalis consider a real treat, and is typically served during breakfast when there is a birthday or a celebration of a festival. The iteration at Yantra is a version of what her own mother used to make.

“Back in the day, flour was an expensive ingredient. So waking up and seeing the puffed flatbreads on the dining table made me so happy because it often signified a special occasion – although sometimes for us it was a rare weekend indulgence. This dish means a lot to me and those of my generation. This is our comfort food,” she recalls. 

Maithili Maach, fresh red snapper simmered in a garlic, coriander and mustard gravy, is often served at special occasions in the Mithila region of North Bihar.

Pritha also calls attention to states that are lesser known outside of India. The Maithili Maach, red snapper steaks simmered in a garlic, coriander, and mustard gravy, comes from the Mithila region of North Bihar, where fish is a staple in most households because of its local cultural significance as a symbol of auspiciousness.

From home kitchens to restaurant tables

As a food historian (and revivalist), Pritha focuses on researching, documenting, and preserving the history of indigenous foods. 

While her culinary work has spanned over a decade, Pritha only started holding pop-ups in 2014, where she would engage in a form of storytelling as guests attend a sit-down dinner featuring a specific genre of cuisine Pritha serves up. Then she moved on to working with different restaurants in India to create special menus, with Yantra being her fourth project and her first overseas venture.

The academic aspect of Pritha’s work stems from her training as a journalist in her twenties. While working with news and political weeklies in India, she noticed that her interests veered towards social development affairs, and that she was passionate about helping marginalised communities.

“This is where I quit journalism and joined the microfinance sector around the 2000s,” she says.

Being a type of financial service that provides loans to low-income individuals or groups, microfinance – according to Pritha – started with women. The idea was to enable and empower women to kickstart businesses. 

Knowing this, Pritha ventured to remote areas of India to meet with women in various villages, spending time in their kitchens and understanding how they lived their lives. 

“When I began to do this, I saw how these ladies prepared and cooked amazing food. It struck me that there is so much indigenous wisdom, and these women and their communities held a wealth of knowledge when it came to Indian cuisine,” she shares. 

The Chaat Banarasi is an appetising and flavour snack inspired by Chaat, a type of street snack in Varanasi.

She walks us through the rich and colourful stories behind her collaboration with Yantra, starting with the Chaat Banarasi. A visually striking combination of potatoes, chana chaat (cooked chickpeas with fresh onions, tomatoes, tamarind chutney), pomegranate, housemade chutneys and crisps, the dish is set against a white canvas of aerated yoghurt. 

It’s reminiscent of Chaat, a type of street snack in Varanasi, a city along the Ganges River in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Pritha feels this dish carries nostalgic memories for most Indians who would purchase street food on the sly growing up. This is because the consumption of these snacks was discouraged by their parents, who were concerned about questionable food hygiene practices that might possibly cause one to fall ill. 

The aerated yoghurt is an interesting touch, and Pritha pointed out that this is the work of the younger chefs at Yantra. “It’s a combined effort; we all put our heads together to come up with menus because some level of reimagination of these recipes is required to appeal to modern tastes,” she explains.

The Kong Shop Chicken is bamboo-skewered and marinated in black sesame paste before being cooked on a binchotan.

Another intriguing item, the aromatic Kong Shop Chicken is bamboo-skewered, marinated in black sesame paste, and cooked on a binchotan. Pritha kept this recipe from a time when she visited the Khasi tribe in the hilly northeastern state of Meghalaya. The creation is inspired by ‘kong shops’, quintessential eating houses run by the tribe’s women. Kong means ‘auntie’ in Khasi, a language spoken by about 900,000 living in the region.

She elaborates: “This, to me, represents how we truly ate and treated food back in the day. This style of cooking captures the real taste of the meat. Charcoal imparts a very distinct, smoky flavour, which is intrinsic to earthy Indian cooking. A modern-day gas stove cannot replicate this. The simplicity of it all shines through. Such few spices are used, but the flavours are incredible.”

Clockwise from left: Head chef Prashant Dhanwariya, executive chef Pinaki Ray, and food historian and revivalist, Pritha Sen

Bringing traditional Indian food to the fore

For the diners at Yantra, and anyone who loves and is curious about Indian cuisine, Pritha simply wants to raise awareness about the true essence of Indian cooking. And for younger generations who identify as Indian, she wants them to experience the origins of Indian food. 

Despite the fact that she has amassed an impressive – and almost encyclopaedic – collection of recipes, Pritha has no plans on slowing down. She looks forward to changing up the restaurant’s menus every three months, so as to spotlight as many regions – there are 28 official states and eight territories in India – as possible. 

“I hope I can show everyone what Indian food is really about. This is my tribute to all the women of India – the mothers, grandmothers, and their grandmothers before that – who are all such terrific cooks. It’s the women who carry on the traditions,” she says.

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