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The 2020 Look Go Local

Monday, January 6, 2020, 14:37 Hrs  [IST]

In Finland we had a great, thick, oozing-with-red, mouth-watering, Beet Steak. It was sliced from a living creature called Beta vulgaris, bred in farms with the specific purpose of being slaughtered and eaten. But, before your blood-pressure soars in righteous indignation about our insensitive, socially incorrect, fiendishly provocative statement, read our sentence again. This was a strictly vegetarian, decidedly vegan dish: if those admirably ahimsa folk don't object to underground products. It was a fat chunk of Beet Root.

We have used this incident to illustrate our firm belief that the Age of the Great Chefs has dawned again. Surf through the TV channels. Check out the number of food and food-centric programmes occupying prime time on the little screen. The people who sponsor those adverts, promos and serials are hard-headed business folk. One of them, set far south of the equator, indulges in antics usually associated with clowns rather than revered chefs. Others, like our favourite, featuring the travelling master chef Gordon Ramsay, are far more intriguing and challenging. As we have mentioned before, but it's worth mentioning again, he uses local ingredients drawn from exotic settings, cooks them employing indigenous methods, and subjects his food to the ultimate test: the opinions of the natives of the area!

This is what has inspired this column.
The world's great producers of edible raw materials are shrinking, Climate change, population pressure and political squabbles are choking supplies. We can no longer rely on our small west-coast ports to provide those tacky, sweet, mountains of dates discharged by dhows in those small harbours like Cuddalore and Kolachel. Delicious dry-fruit supply chains are shrinking under terrorist suffocation. Our spices, which launched the great European Age of Exploration, are being washed out under unseasonal rains in the southern states.

One solution to this problem would be for chefs to stop Thinking Global and start Thinking Local.

Many generations before the British laid their sub-continent spanning rail lines; before the Mughals created their network of roads, kos minars and fortified serais; even before the conqueror-turned-pacifist Ashok built his far-reaching Empire and carved his moral edicts into stone pillars; much before all that, India had developed its own, myriad, local-centric, cuisines. We have tasted many of them in huts and havelis, fishing villages, farming communities, and high Himalayan settlements where the shaggy, phlegmatic yak is the provider of many necessities.

But enough of lyricism. How do you wean your hotel away from dependence on exotic supplies? Tap local knowledge. Set up a Housewive's Club. The myriad married women of India are a grossly under-valued human resource. Given an opportunity they can change the aspirations of their communities. We experienced this in one of our trips through Karnataka. An enterprising CM had introduced a high-yielding variety of pineapples. A women's co-operative gave us a four-course lunch in which every dish had a pineapple base. We asked them who had given them their recipes for soup, curry, biryani, pudding and savoury snacks made of pineapples. They giggled. One of their daughters explained, "When father wants, after hard work, mother has to make. No?" Innovation is not a one-off flash-in the-pan; it's a daily necessity!

This is the great bank of local-food knowledge that we can tap by the Housewive's Clubs. It also rings the changes in your menu depending on seasonal fresh local products. In addition, it throws a challenge to your chefs to adapt local foods to visitors' tastes. Our Anglo-Indian Pepper Water evolved out of Rasam; our Country Captain was an Anglo-Indian Hoogly River pilot's variation of a spicy stew. The potential for developing an entirely new cuisine is exciting.

In return for learning how to tap this virtually virgin product market, the hotel staff can conduct classes for the housewives, catering to the Great Indian Drive for Upward Mobility. Depending on the needs of each community, these could start from basic instructions in things like simple spoken English, through others like every day etiquette, literacy and hygiene to skills that would equip them to run home-stays.

In addition to all these tangible benefits, there are the very strong bonds of loyalty that your creative outreach can build with the local communities. Those are invaluable assets.

(The Views expressed within this column are the opinion of the authors, and may not necessarily be endorsed by the publication)

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