One should start with an open mind, and be ready to do anything, believes Tanisha Phanbuh who is a home chef, entrepreneur, and a Northeastern food connoisseur. In an interview with Slurrp, Home Chef Tanisha Phanbuh talked about her journey and the changing face of Northeastern cuisine.
Founder of Tribal Gourmet, a participant in MasterChef India, and a food connoisseur, Home Chef Tanisha Phanbuh hails from Shillong and leaves no stone unturned when it comes to showing her region’s rich culinary diversity. From being a design student to participating in the cooking reality show to starting her own venture, Tanisha came a long way and became an inspiration for all the aspiring food entrepreneurs out there. In an exclusive conversation with Slurrp, Home Chef Tanisha Phanbuh shared about her rollercoaster journey, the changing face of Northeastern food, her venture and more.
How would you describe your journey from Shillong to Delhi?
My journey after high school has basically been a game of Snakes and Ladders. I always thought life was supposed to be what we saw our parents do - school, college, landing a job, sticking to it - but my destiny wanted to rebel. I knew that the two things I loved and was good at were being creative and loving good food and my small-town naive self thought it would be as simple as getting into a good college and that would lead me to a job and then I would figure it out. It became a Shillong - Delhi - Shillong - Delhi zig-zag journey instead.
Your career preference was different in the beginning. What drew your attention towards food?
Right from my school days, it was always a choice between design and food. Food was the second choice or the “backup plan” because it was something I considered a no-brainer. The skills I wanted to learn and develop lay in design and since design schools begin admissions processes way before I turned my focus towards it. I got into my college of choice - NIFT Delhi and I was over the moon thinking, this is it! Soon enough I was hit by a reality check slap when I landed in front of the gates of the institute and met fellow batchmates and realised how unprepared I was. Long story short, even though I completed a semester (top 3 of the class) I struggled with my health and had to drop out of NIFT.
Food had always been comforting to me so I started baking again and would take my freshly baked goodies to the school my mom taught at. The teachers would enjoy the tea snacks during the break. I then started baking cakes and selling them from home and at winter fete and once I had a taste of serving people and earning on a small scale I wanted to learn more and do more.
I was too hungry to want to spend another 3 years in college so I chose to look for any work in any department of the Food and beverage industry so that I could learn on the job. This is how I landed up at Ek Bar, at the front desk, pre-opening, at the place that taught me so much about the industry. I fell in love with the creativity applied to the food and the cocktails there, the pulsating vibe of the place when it opened, the friendliness of people I worked with and the interesting operations on the backend that make or break an outlet - it was all so very fascinating.
How has your journey with food evolved over the years?
My journey with food began very early on at about age 3, which is as far as I can remember. My mother loves to cook, bake, paint, and host get-togethers and I was always in the kitchen with her. I started with grating cheese and paneer and baking a yule log cake with her on Saturdays. We would cook and bake from her collection of Women’s Day Magazines and British cookbooks. My cooking style changed when I could safely reach the stove top and food and travel shows were aired on TV. I was so fascinated by them, by food all around the world and then of course, Masterchef Australia which opened my eyes to the world of ‘modern gastronomy’. I would try and look for substitute ingredients for what I thought would taste like ingredients used on MC.
The food at Ek Bar really showed me where food around the world had reached and for me to kickstart my brain to think creatively about food too. While other staff members sat for training, mugging up the menu purely for service, I sat staring at it with my eyes wide and jaw to the floor almost in tears because I had never seen any menu like it before. I knew every ingredient and dish that was inspired by the items because of cooking with my mum but never had I seen them put together like that - to me, it was a masterpiece. The TV shows I participated in further pushed me to create on the go - something I had only watched on TV till I was in it myself - a very exhilarating experience indeed…. Which is why I could not stop at just one ;)
How would you describe your journey in MasterChef?
Like any other individual who watches MasterChef on TV, I obviously wanted to give it a go too. My first show was actually Femme Foodies on the Living Foods channel (now Zee Zest) and was shot entirely in Goa. It was a lot of fun but was also gruelling. I made some great friends and finished 4th. After that I started Tribal Gourmet as a pop-up kitchen, doing my first pop-up at Ek Bar itself. Some crew members from the first show were working on MC Ind and told me that audition dates were up, I decided to give it a go and went for the audition. I really enjoyed the non-televised rounds that shortlisted candidates. Every day was a mystery box of sorts.
When the finalized 50 or so contestants walked into the studio sets, it was unreal. The scale of it all was massive and the pressure was intense. Working in different kitchen setups can be challenging, especially under time constraints, intense lights and cameras all around you - it’s very different to the pressure of a commercial kitchen. I managed to reach the Top 20 before being eliminated.
What is your all-time comfort food?
Oh, I have quite a number because I love all kinds of food and have no favourites. A few of my all-time favourites are - a Khasi Doh sniang syrwa and tungrymbai (pork stew & fermented bean paste), Shillong style chow (noodles), and Homemade chocolate cakes are some of many.
You started Tribal Gourmet while bringing tribal food to the centre. What made you start this venture?
Having mixed and mingled in Delhi, when I first came in 2012 as well as 2015, I realized there was very little awareness about the Northeast as a whole and definitely much less about Meghalaya, which is why I felt like I could be a voice and do my bit by representing and speaking about the Northeastern food and culture which is just as rich as the history of the rest of India. Femme Foodies gave me a boost too giving me an identity and the name of Tribal Gourmet and a call from Mr.AD Singh to do a pop-up was the push I needed to step into this direction of starting a brand to bring food and culture of the Northeast to mainland India.
Being a North-Eastern food connoisseur, what do you think makes India's North-Eastern food different?
The Northeast is made up of many States and they each have a cuisine of their own with distinctive differences, cooking methods, traditions and beliefs but in general are similar in the fact that we do not use masala; food dishes are flavoured with herbs and a few spices, fermented food plays a big part in flavour and eating seasonally is key. In day-to-day regular food we still stick to what fruits and veggies arrive seasonally. Summer food includes light stews and winter food includes more protein and fermented food to keep the body warm. Fermented food is our umami bomb flavouring most dishes - dried fish, fermented fish, fermented bean paste, fermented bamboo shoot., even a spoonful adds a robust flavour to food.
Do you think the face of Northeastern Food has changed so far?
I definitely see more acceptance of Northeastern food these days. You can find multiple Naga kitchens in many States and they have a loyal clientele as well. Professional Chefs are also looking to the Northeast to source ingredients and new flavours to use on their menus. There are quite a few individuals like me bringing NE food to the cities but I think it still needs more people to be doing so for it to have a larger impact on this large population.
What is the most special ingredient that you always choose to use and why?
My special ingredient would undoubtedly be black sesame. I have always carried it wherever I have gone - TV shows/pop-ups alike. I consider it my lucky charm and I love using it because it is distinctly Meghalayan and also it is very versatile. Khasi and Jaintia cooking use a lot of black sesame giving the distinctive nuttiness, earthiness, and colour to our food that is not commonly found elsewhere. It lends a beautiful nuttiness to desserts and cocktails too.
Who is your inspiration when it comes to cooking and how do you keep yourself motivated?
Very simply, I live to eat. Food and the quest for good food and trying new things keep me alive and kicking. That's my motivation. I come from a family of foodies and married into one too. Even at my laziest or my lowest/being ill, good tasty food is a necessity. My mom has always been my number one inspiration, my teacher guide, and best friend; no matter what life throws at her she manages to stay strong and overcome it all.
There has been an increasing demand for culinary skills to do gourmet presentations. What do you think about it?
I would say I’m fifty-fifty on it. I do enjoy learning new skills and techniques and I do think it can only do you good. I for one with my creative side enjoy drawing up plating ideas and constructing flavours; I feel presentation not only on the plate but even in communication is important in a ‘gourmet presentation’. However, I do love good rustic no-frills cooking too. The lesser the frills, the tastier the food - probably why it’s called comfort food.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring culinary entrepreneurs?
Start with an open mind, be ready to do anything. Every little task will teach you something. Learning on the job is the best training you can get - keep your eyes and ears open. Definitely work in at least 3 places with different cuisines/clientele before deciding to open a venture of your own (if that’s the goal). There is no one-size-fits-all, no formula - just give it a go with all your heart and dedication.