food corner

Alice Waters, the pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, has an excellent idea for India

India should take a shot at ‘edible education’, believes the chef’s chef.

“How do we teach slow food values in a fast food culture?” asked Alice Waters, restaurateur, food activist, chef, and author. “I want to make the school lunch an academic subject, so that children digest the lesson along with the culture. This is my most important project right now.”

Waters is having dinner at The Bombay Canteen. It is her second day in Mumbai, on her first trip to India. In the last couple of weeks she has been to Agra to see the Taj Mahal (on Valentine’s Day, she noted, on Instagram), she has celebrated the rabi harvest with swirling gair dancers in Jodhpur, and then attended the World Sufi Spirit Festival in the Blue City. Waters speaks with particular delight about Ahilya Fort hotel in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh. It’s where the 73-year-old ate her first salad in India, loaded with frisée and rocket, every ingredient in it fresh off the hotel’s organic farms.

Waters is the owner and chef of Chez Panisse, a 46-year-old restaurant in Berkeley, California. When it opened in 1971, it sparked a dining trend that continues to inspire restaurants worldwide. It was, then, known as California cuisine – food that focuses on local ingredients, regionally grown, fresh, in season, sourced through a network founded on direct relations with suppliers, farmers, and ranchers. The menu, as the restaurant’s website specifies, is inspired by the market and changes every day. It’s a philosophy embraced by Noma in Copenhagen and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and in New York City, among others. In the last couple of years, this idea has caught on in some of Mumbai’s finer restaurants, such as The Bombay Canteen, and also, in a slightly more intense fashion, at Masque.

Chez Panisse has been, since its early years, true to farm-to-table dining – before that was even a term – serving food that has been organically and sustainably grown. Waters’s integrity about slow food values, and her commitment to respecting where food comes from has made her one of the world’s most respected food activists. She is a chef’s chef, so to speak, and the progenitor of a global movement. Rene Redzepi, David Chang and Rick Bayless, all renowned chefs, have said that she’s been influential to their work. Chez Panisse alumni, among them April Bloomfield, Jonathan Waxman, and Dan Barber, are some of the most celebrated chefs in the world. In 2009, Waters convinced Michelle Obama, then the First Lady of the United States, to plant the organic White House Kitchen Garden, as a way to “demonstrate to the nation and to the world, our priority of stewardship of the land”.

In mid-2015, The New York Times’s columnist and feted food writer Mark Bittman published a recipe for Waters’s “perfect aioli”. This is how the piece begins:

“In Berkeley, where I currently live, ‘Alice’ is a one-name celebrity, like Madonna. This is completely justifiable. In her lifetime, there has probably been no more important American in food than Alice Waters [...] Establishing the Edible Schoolyard Project, which aims to forge meaningful links between schoolchildren and the food on their plates, she set out to make good on her belief that food literacy isn’t just for refined diners.”  

Which brings us to our dinner table discussion at The Bombay Canteen, and Waters’s plan to make school lunch an academic subject. While we bolt chef Thomas Zacharias’s local red snapper ceviche with sol kadhi, Waters shows us an image of an illustrated placemat on her phone. It features a hand-drawn infographic of The Silk Road. “Imagine this, a child is eating dal, chapati, and carrot [koshimbir] with cumin, and studying The Silk Road,” she said and swiped. “Or looking at the Arabian peninsula in geography class, while eating pita bread,” she swiped again. “Or studying the Civilisations of The Americas while having a jicama salad and tortilla soup.”

Waters believes that this “edible education” would be a wonderful idea to implement in India, because it is one of the few places in the world that is still agrarian to a degree. Now is the right time, she says, for Indian children to study academic subjects through food.

“It would support local farmers, and you could teach [a lot] about every part of India through food – history, culture, textiles... If we have schools promoting local, pure farming, it would lift up everything. A school lunch programme like this would provide reassurance to parents that their children are eating healthy, nourishing food. It would bring money directly to the farmers, the people who take care of the land and planet. It dignifies the people who make food. It not only gives children good health, every child begins to appreciate other cultures through food.”

Waters is not in India or Mumbai on a work trip. She is not here to introduce her 20-year old mission, the Edible Schoolyard Project, which builds and shares edible education for children in the US. She’s here as part of a group put together by David Prior, who is a contributing international editor for Conde Nast Traveler. Prior has previously worked at Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard Project, as director of communications. He has organised this visit to India for colleagues and friends from the worlds of food, photography, and writing, as what he says will be the first in a series of high-profile journeys by his travel and experience design company, Prior Knowledge. Indeed, it’s a group of industry heavyweights, and many of them have had long professional connections with Waters. The group includes Gilbert Pilgram, chef-owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, California, and an alumnus of Chez Panisse; Fritz Streiff, an editor who has worked for Chez Panisse for over 40 years, as one of Alice’s literary collaborators, and as a cook, bartender, and maître d’hôtel; and Seen Lippert, a former chef at Chez Panisse who Food & Wine magazine described as a “kitchen garden goddess”.

For Waters, who has dreamed of visiting India for years, this trip has been exhilarating in many little ways. She considers India and the Middle East her two big places of inspiration. “Where these regions meet has some wonderful food; again, it is the cradle of civilisation,” she said.

A magical place! I thought it could not live up to its reputation but it went beyond.

A post shared by Alice Waters (@alicelouisewaters) on

Until this day, Waters had never had sorghum or jowar. And then, in one day, it is in her lunch and dinner. The bhakris at Shree Thaker Bhojanalay in Kalbadevi during her midday meal were made with jowar flour. At The Bombay Canteen dinner, it shows up in two forms in the barley and ponkh (freshly winnowed green sorghum) salad. There are fresh, tender, emerald grains from the recent harvest, and some dried ones, toasted, and crunchy for added texture.

Waters has dressed up for the dinner, a 45-minute drive from her hotel, after an already exhausting day visiting Mumbai markets and being stuck in traffic for hours. Her energy and enthusiasm would make a teenager look jaded. For most people, a decades-old project would be on autopilot. But Waters is convincing Zacharias and me that it will be much easier to expand the Edible Schoolyard Project at a speedier scale today – because of what she calls virtual globalisation, and how people perceive fast food. “The greatest damage lies in thinking that food should be cheap, fast and easy,” she said. “Food has always been affordable. But we want to pay the real cost of food. This is what we been indoctrinated with: you can eat anywhere, cooking is drudgery, advertising confers value, more is better, it’s okay to lie. We have become what we eat, in the US. Donald Trump is the expression of this. What we need to understand is that time is money. The best things in the world take time – growing food takes time, falling in love takes time, cooking takes time, eating with family takes time.”

Waters used to be a Montessori teacher before she was a chef, and she believes strongly in the principle of learning by doing. She believes that our senses are doors to our brains, and so eating food – an act that engages all our senses – could open our minds. “In the US we are sensorially deprived,” she said. “So I am using Montessori ideas in food education. We learn by doing. People don’t believe that any more. We think we can read off a screen, but [to understand food] we need to pick it up, smell it, touch it, taste it. We are nature – the separation of people from nature has caused the greatest harm.”

As we slide our spoons into a pink guava tan-ta-tan – Zacharias’s excellent interpretation of a seasonal Indian tarte tatin – under a quenelle of red chilli ice cream, atop swirls of deeply aromatic guava caramel, Waters persuades him to start something like her marketplace initiative, A Tasting of Summer Produce, in India, where farmers can meet and sell directly to restaurants and consumers. Hers is a seasonal bazaar with a mission, where restaurants participate as well. They set up stalls to prepare and distribute dishes that showcase farmers’ ridiculously fresh, sustainable, high-quality, ethically grown produce, foodstuffs that embody the principles that Waters has been espousing for half a century. “We don’t just eat food that is good for us,” she said to emphasise its importance. “We eat the values that come with the food. With every meal we have, we can decide we are going to support the farmer.”

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From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.