WHAT'S THE FRESHEST and the most delicious way to enjoy a dish? When it’s sourced right from the local farmer who harvests the produce. Pioneered by the Californians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the farm-to-table movement grew out of a pushback against industrialised food systems, and over reliance on processed foods and factory farming that was taking over the U.S. back then. Over the decades, it has become one of the most important culinary concepts the world has ever seen, and today, has mushroomed around the world in various avatars — where the key takeaway seems to be — eat local, eat fresh.

From The City By The Bay

From the home of farm to table, Michelin-starred Californian chef Rupert Blease, who has a restaurant in San Francisco called TurnTable at Lord Stanley, curated a special lunch at the Chambers at The Taj Mahal, New Delhi, recently, where he played with fresh Indian ingredients, paired by wines, presented in a special experience called ‘Rendezvous: Conversations and More’ by chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations, Taj Mahal, New Delhi. “It made sense to me that being here, I would use the ingredients that I love to use in California,” says chef Rupert. He added Indian touches to his European-inspired menu, favouring saffron in the grilled young lettuce — with a saffron sauce and scallion and herb bouquet, the very banal eggplant, which became a star in the steamed eggplant with tomatoes, coriander, and cucumber in a rich vegetable broth. There was also the glazed hen breast, toasted pine nuts and pumpkin seeds (for texture), a confit squash with paprika and yogurt — which became like a warm salad, accompanied by a roasted duck breast with spiced madeira jus, and the delectable mango rose with lime and passion fruit, around a light custard.

Braised cabbage, from Mharokhet farm, Jodhpur.
Braised cabbage, from Mharokhet farm, Jodhpur.

Chef Rupert, when he’s at TurnTable in San Francisco — so named because of the constantly revolving guest chefs from all over the world, who stay for a month and take over the kitchen — agrees that his city has some of the freshest ingredients in the world. “We’re lucky, because this concept influences our food every day. That’s why I don’t like to have too many components in my dish — as the produce is very good.”

“From stone fruits, to tomatoes, local wine, monterery urchins, to cod and dungeness crabs — are all typical of the best of farmer-fresh produce available in San Francisco,” he adds.

Fresh Off The Thar Desert

In 2020, during the pandemic, Jodhpur couple Rajnush and Devika launched meal kits for people to prepare dishes at home, delivering fresh produce from their 40-acre farm, just outside Jodhpur, within four hours of harvest. By 2021, curious visitors started trickling in, and by 2022, they were hosting local guests at the farm. Today, they cater to small groups of people to experience what it’s like to eat fresh off the farm, on the farm itself.

Produce from around a hundred crops, either indigenous or exotic, range from Brussels sprouts to moringa, strawberries to chamomile, oyster mushrooms, Mediterranean lemons, to fig, plus what’s grown in special greenhouses. MharoKhet (literally meaning ‘my farm’ in Marwari) is a responsible-farming enterprise managed and enriched by women (the people who serve are all women from local villages).

We’ve harvested a lot of grains — bajra, moth, mung, gowar,” says Rajnush. Among fruits, only five are grown: there’s a special Rajasthani anar, watermelons, papaya, melon, Allahabadi guava, and strawberries. They also grow 500 kg of Brussels sprouts, fresh oregano and sorrento lemon. Inside a special greenhouse, they grow peas, carrots, amaranth, eggplants, gourds, pumpkin, baby corn, spinach, methi, coriander, red lettuce, bok choi, kale, and iceberg.

From October to March, a maximum number of 60 guests is offered two meal options — a seven-course meal with each pre-plated dish from India or a different part of the world (for example, you might get a Lithuanian soup). Just the tour of the farm costs ₹2,000. The dining experience is for ₹3,000, and the four-hour farm tour plus dining goes for ₹4,500.

A typical Indian menu at MharoKhet may include dishes like Shengdanyachi (singdanaa) with jalapeno on wheat crisps, a millet basil congee (a raab with a twist of basil, which gives it a unique flavour), a Gourd Roulade with seasonal grains in a pomegrenate coulis, a chaat-style matar kachori in a creamy kadhi with radish rasher and crunchy okra (with a green chutney and served with a Rajasthani kadhi), A baati without dal, and a quenelle of smoked yogurt, and zero-waste curried carrots. “We use green oil made from carrot peels, so nothing has gone to waste,” says Rajnush. “The carrot fibre left behind has been dehydrated, burnt into a powder to give it a tandoori flavour, and there are curried carrots as the hero.” Each course has a different farm vegetable as the protagonist.

There are a total of 35 recipes for seven courses, and the meals take 3-4 hours to prepare.

Baked cauliflower dish, by chef Megha Jhunjhunwalla.
Baked cauliflower dish, by chef Megha Jhunjhunwalla.

Farm Fresh In Delhi

When Tinder organised a special vegantine brunch at Krishi Cress, a farm in Chhatarpur, the brainchild of chef-turned-entrepreneur Achintya Anand, with vegan dishes by chef Megha Jhunjhunwalla, it was to celebrate the abundance of fresh produce that can be grown locally — from mushrooms to microgreens — and served up in a colourful way.

Achintya, who started growing microgreens in 2014 as an experiment, first went to Indian Accent with trays to show a curious chef Manish Mehrotra, who became his first client. Today, he supplies to the Oberois, the Leela hotels, Olive, and five-star hotels in Lucknow, Jaipur, and Udaipur. “I noticed that the iceberg lettuce has a lot of extra leaves that nobody uses,” says Achintya. “Similarly, there is basil with holes that chefs won’t use — so I made a pesto sauce out of this, which we sell.”

The innovative produce he grows includes garlic chives, curly parsley (grown in winter), edible pansies planted between Romaine lettuce, Italian basil, baby turnips, black radish (from Japan), red radishes, watermelon radishes, candy beetroot, kale, Chinese cabbage, iceberg lettuce, lemon grass, mustard, rocket salad and aragula, raddicio, black carrot and edible carrot flowers, corn flowers, voraj (with a prickly leaf and cucumber flavour, used to make kombucha). Plus, there’s wheatgrass, onion microgreens, radish and mustard microgreens grown inside greenhouses. Achintya also grows king oyster mushrooms, black fungus (used in Chinese soup); a zany-looking lion’s mane mushroom, and portobello mushrooms are next.

Mixed millet bhel,
by chef Prashant Banerjee.
Mixed millet bhel, by chef Prashant Banerjee.

“More and more clients are going for vegan and keto dishes,” says chef Megha, who’s been a finalist on Season 2 of Masterchef India. “I have pulled jackfruit and mushroom (from Krishi Cress) on the table, which is 100% Mexican. It’s fun to have this colourful Mexican food with shared ingredients from India. I also used avocados from the farm for the guacamole; ricotta over butter squash with almond cheese balsamic pearls. The hummus is from blanched almonds — pulsed with lemon, salt, and nutritional yeast.”

The Power of Millet

The United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millet. And what better way to celebrate these grains than right here in India, by substituting wheat and rice with the healthier millet. “Millet — coarse grains like bajra, jowar, and ragi — have a high nutritional value,” says chef Prashant Banerjee of Vivanta Surajkund NCR, which organised a curated menu at the Surajkund Craft Mela this February. “They are used in rural areas, and can be grown in areas of low rainfall and soil that’s not necessarily very fertile. This grain is low calorie, and gives lots of food options.”

India produces the maximum millets in the world, and it’s time we take advantage of the same. “Ragi contains three times more calcium than any other cereal or milk,” says chef Prashant. “Jowar is gluten-free, with antioxidants that make it a super immunity booster. When it comes to farm to table, chef Prashant says that many Michelin-starred chefs are planning their menus around the harvests of the season.

Fish Ceviche — fish and tomato sauce, with perilla and coriander, by 
Tanisha Phanbuh
Fish Ceviche — fish and tomato sauce, with perilla and coriander, by Tanisha Phanbuh

N-E, With A Touch of Gourmet

North-eastern cuisine expert, multi-disciplinary artist, Masterchef India contestant, entrepreneur — Tanisha Phanbuh has worn many hats over the years. This Shillong-born self-taught chef has participated in Femme Foodies, a female food truck contest, placing fourth, where she earned the ‘tribal gourmet’ tag, for showcasing gourmet versions of North-eastern food, which has now become her venture’s name.

“My idea of Tribal Gourmet is to do region-specific dishes — what we eat at home, but also added a twist, such as chutneys that don’t necessarily need to be done on the silbata (stone mortar and pestle), but I’ve included it in a different form,” she says at one of her ‘A Twist to The Tale’ dinner seven-course soirees at her home in New Delhi for guests wanting to sample traditional food from Meghalaya with ‘a gourmet twist’. So Tanisha will have dishes like Piskot Khleh (perilla and chayote salad), where she uses roasted pirella to add crunch to the chayote (thin-skinned squash) salad. “The pirella would grow in my garden,” says Tanisha. “It was like raw karela to me; the flowers are really tiny. We roast them with salt and use them in salads.

Tanisha takes bits of her traditional cooking style to create modern bites. For example, her Trace of Heritage, is black sesame, cooked with Lakadong turmeric, and added to black gram. “The black sesame turns green when you cook it,” says Tanisha. “It’s this greenish grey colour. So the chicken liver version may have a gamey taste, but it’s toned down with the sesame seeds. This is used for all Khasi food — meats, dal, rice.” Here, she serves it over bread like her version of a French pâté.

Non Veg Mezze, by chef Cyrus at Hard Rock Cafe, New Delhi.
Non Veg Mezze, by chef Cyrus at Hard Rock Cafe, New Delhi.

Another Khasi delicacy, also on one of her other menus, is Doh Khleih (pig’s brain), a delicacy in Meghalaya.

The East and West Khasi hills is a mushroom or fish ceviche, served with tomato and perilla seeds. “For the ceviche, I cured the fish (bhetki or surmai) with plums, so it’s a fish curry flipped on its head,” says Tanisha. “There’s a tomato base with the sauce at the bottom, with coriander oil and perilla seeds used for seasoning.” The vegetarian version is a cured, pickled portobello mushroom, mixed with fried mushrooms, on the same tomato base.

Tanisha also offers two kinds of rice in one of her menus — Ja Stem (turmeric rice) and Ja Lieh (white sticky rice). “We also have red rice and black rice,” she says.

And the dessert, too, continues the menu’s run as a mélange of flavours from Meghalaya, presented in Tanisha’s impeccable style. The Sha bad ja — another bowl, this time sweet — combines a panacotta that’s been steeped in tea, with a sohïong jam (it’s a purplish-black, meaty berry with a big stone that grows in her garden). The butter biscuit that accompanies it is made at home, as is the crunchy rice (poha that has been dry roasted with sugar).

A Dessert Trio from the South, by chef Naren Thimmaiah.
A Dessert Trio from the South, by chef Naren Thimmaiah.

Trading Places (With Locals)

Even venerable, die-hard eateries such as Hard Rock Café are making small but subtle changes in their menus, to go more local, and having gone there, are offering a new, enticing take on an old favourite. “For every market, we have a different curation of the menu,” says chef Cyrus Irani, director of culinary, who popped by recently from Mumbai, at Hard Rock Café in Connaught Place, New Delhi. “Thirty-five per cent of the menu is curated for that market. For Delhi, we have wholesome flavours — a mix of Indian, Tex Mex, Middle-eastern — done across categories. Our appetizers have something for everyone — from the Tex Mex skewer, to the Middle-eastern mezze platter. There is a thela chaat, but it’s done locally using spinach leaves.”

Hard Rock Café features a quesadilla vegetarian burger — very prominent in Delhi, which incorporates Indian spices with an American twist. “It also gets a lot of its spiciness from sriracha (a hot chilli sauce created in Thailand and consumed with gusto in the U.S.),” says chef Cyrus. “The aloo tikki burger comes with a spicy mayo sauce, pickled cucumber, smoked paprika, chilli powder, and tangy hot sauce.”

In the mezze platter, the Beiruti hummus delights with its smoothness. In the kebab platter, chef Cyrus has added gunpowder with yellow chillies as a southern twist to regular kebabs. Then there is Penne Taco Bowl Chicken, a penne pasta with Mexican odobo chipotle (Mexican chillies), parmesan, cream, orange juice, and sweet chilli, as the base. Then comes the tomato salsa, corn, olives, peppers, Mexican jalapeno and Bhavnagri chillies. The produce is both local and seasonal. “Every quarter, we have a festival,” says chef Cyrus. “Right now, we are celebrating Mexican, next quarter Asian, and for the last quarter until December, it will be a barbecue festival.”

Raising A Toast To The Coast

When chef Naren Thimmaiah, who runs the highly successful Karavalli at Vivanta Bengaluru, recently hosted a pop-up at Taj Mahal, New Delhi, of some of his most popular dishes, he created a maelstrom of flavours on the palate. From the Malabar prawn roast to the Alappuzha mango curry — the dishes all use authentic, local produce from the south to retain their originality. “The raw mangoes in the meen (seer fish) curry come from the tradition of preserving mangoes in the south,” says chef Naren. This dish, much like the Malabar prawn roast, uses the kundapa coconut found around Bengaluru and that region – which is thick and fleshy, perfect for a curry.

The Koli Barthad or chicken cooked in black pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cumin includes Coorg vinegar. The Kori Gassi, chicken curry, uses Byadgi chillies from Karnataka. Then there’s patrade for vegetarians, which is colocasia leaves. “After steaming and shallow frying the patrade, I serve with ghee,” says chef Naren.

For dessert, it’s southern flavours and ingredients all the way, as he serves up a threesome of Kashi Halwa — made of white pumpkin, a halwa from Udupi; Ragi Manni, which is finger millet, jaggery and coconut milk; and Ada Pradhaman, rice flakes in coconut milk and jaggery with ghee, a payasam.

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