Chef Anumitra Dreams Of A World Where Ingredients Come First
Image Credit: chef_anumitra/Instagram

All over the world, there’s a move towards sustainability and authenticity in cooking, and India is no exception. Many chefs are starting to realise the value of local ingredients and regional flavours. Gone are the days when the worth of your menu was determined by how many imported items it held, and instead we’re seeing a revival of local culture, flavours and values.

Growing up in Kolkata, Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar is no stranger to this phenomenon. Exposed to a wide variety of experiences and some lesions have stayed with her throughout her career. “I think it created a baseline that good food can come from any price range and different brackets.” she says, “When I was young and I only had money to buy puchkas or rolls, or if I had pocket money to go to a small Chinese place, that was good too. I learned it was possible to get good food in every price range.”

Despite her affinity for food, she started life on a different path in academics – pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Linguistics. “I didn’t want a career in food as a child even though I was interested in it and enjoyed cooking. I was 18 or 19 by the time I realised.” But the yen for food was always there and her first brush with the culinary arts came in Delhi where she frequented the Tamura Restaurant in Green Park, a Japanese institution. 

It was a heavy workload but one she took on eagerly. “This calling was always there and when I got a chance, I didn’t look back. I feel that the rigour and discipline have shaped the rigour I needed in a professional kitchen. The roads may have been different, but they shaped each other.” Over the years she continued to apprentice in restaurants here and in Japan which shaped the way she approached food.

When she returned to Delhi, she started her own pop-up Bento Bong which went on to be her first restaurant, Big Bongg Theory showcasing the crossover between Japan and India. “Because I was coming from academia, I was able to understand the cultural overlaps. But I made the call that I didn’t want to do fusion,” she says, “I took the format of Japanese style but with Bengali ingredients. I believe in looking at culture in a certain way and all my Japanese clients at Big Bongg Theory used to appreciate the way the dishes were presented since they were so similar to Japanese food. It was almost a social experiment, and their feedback helped me form my next ideas.”

It was during this time that Chef Ritu Dalmia dined at Big Bongg Theory and was enchanted by her experience. This led Chef Anumitra on a wild ride as she joined the team at Diva, one of Chef Dalmia’s most successful ventures and found herself travelling all over the world and interacting with masters from every cuisine. It was during her travels through Asia that she learned how China was reviving its indigenous and endangered plants, which inspired her to take on similar research in India.

“I had started my research on indigenous rice few years before Kochi Biennale. I’d left my job [at Diva] to really devote my time to travelling and researching this in more depth. I could actually sit for months and check each rice type – the stickiness or chalkiness – and how each grain is different or how much water they absorb,” she recalls. “For that sort of detailed research, Biennale gave me the chance to do it. I was already in touch with a network of growers and cultivators but I had the chance to work with nearly 60-70 types of indigenous rice which were endangered and showcased about 45 at Biennale.” By the end of the project with hundreds of ingredient-centric menus under her belt, she knew that she wanted a restaurant to showcase indigenous ingredients.

Her partner Shalini Kishan – an editor and publishing powerhouse – had been her sounding board for these musings about championing biodiversity. Together, they evolved these beliefs about food being a form of activism and conservation and nurtured the beginning of Edible Archives, Goa. 

The concept is very unlike anything Goa is typically known for. “Goa is a very commercial place,” agrees Chef Anumitra, “Tourism is everything but consumerism is more prevalent than we think. We see all the greenery and everything while we’re travelling but we don’t see the consumerism side. Everybody wants to come and party, have seafood, drink and everything and in this atmosphere, we wanted to talk about something different. We wanted to show that whatever you want in Goa you can get it, people don’t tend to grow a lot of things there so we wanted to show that whatever you need is already around.”

Edible Archives describes itself as cuisine-agnostic and ingredient-driven. “We first try to look around and see what’s available. We talk to the growers and observe what is available in Goa and what are the seasonal patterns. And that’s how we make our menu. Usually, people just make a menu and then go and find the things they need from people so we tried to work in the opposite way.”

Being cuisine agnostic is still a fresh concept for Indian dining, where dining is identified by country and state, rather than the food itself. This freedom gave Edible Archives the upper hand when it came to sourcing ingredients, allowing them to be selective and only accept the very best. “We tried not to stick to any cuisine, because if you stick with a particular cuisine in any local place like Goa, finding the ingredients would be difficult. So what we did is we took the polar opposite path and make a menu that can come from any cuisine and that way we know that we’re getting good seasonal ingredients.”

Sustainability is also a large part of their ethos and it drives all the menu choices as well. “We’re also working with sustainability principles in that our ingredients don’t travel hundreds of kilometres and rack up a high carbon footprint. Our vegetables, fish, pork, beef, everything comes from a 5-6 kilometre radius.”

Chef Anumitra is cautiously hopeful for the future in this respect and believes that a change is in the offing, as long as people start taking accountability for themselves, “I think that everybody has a role, even if it’s a tiny role to do their due diligence to help this.” she says, “and I think that a lot of people are thinking about this and the younger generation is more sensitive to this since people are talking about this since their school years. They’re open to ideas and the need for a solution and I’m very hopeful about that”

One of her pet peeves about the way we eat today is the lack of connection with food. As someone who champions ingredients as the core of every dish, she hates that people are now buying all their groceries online. “They don’t get to see and feel the ingredients before they buy them,” she laments. “Consumerism has hit India in a different way during COVID. A huge number of home deliveries has started and with it so much plastic and an increased carbon footprint and all these things. I was once talking to a friend from the US place and she was telling me about a time when she was having cocktails with a friend and they ran out of ice. So they just ordered ice from an app, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen anywhere in the world.”

This shift away from understanding where your food comes from and being a part of its journey is an epidemic in itself. But one that Chef Anumitra refuses to be a part of. Her affinity for food shines through in every menu and the care that goes into showcasing those ingredients is a finely hones skill. “Like many artists work with different materials, for me, the materials are ingredients and sometimes certain ingredients speak to me more than others.”