Tales From My Kitchen Table

At The Kitchen Table with Vanika Choudhary

A patchwork of food memories and contemplations on cooking from Mumbai-based chef (& fermentation expert) Vanika Choudhary. Vanika weaves together stories of homemade pickles; thoughts on the therapy of long, complex recipes; and the tale of her all-time favourite dish, Gucchi Pulao.

Tell us about your favourite food memory from your childhood…

My favourite food-focused memories are based on scenes that I both observed and absorbed while growing up. I can vividly remember my dad's sense of dedication towards growing his own produce. I remember him tending to the fruits and vegetables that he used to grow. He had such a deep understanding of where produce came from. I was young and didn't fully appreciate these processes at the time, but they filtered through me and have shaped me as the chef I am today.

To me, Indian cuisine is about the story behind how everything is made, and in Indian cuisine, everything is made from scratch in the kitchen. An Indian meal is incomplete without a homemade pickle. I remember my Nani (maternal grandma) making as many as 30 different varieties of pickles throughout the year, almost as a way of tracking the seasons. The process of creating each achar was rigorous. For instance, I would join my grandma in the process of making a lotus root achar. We would start by picking the freshly harvested lotus root from the dal lake, then take them home to wash them. After sun-drying them, the whole ritual would begin. We'd hand-bind the spices in a mortar pestle, add cold-pressed mustard oil, sundry them, and prep them into earthen pots before tucking them away for four to five weeks in the autumn sun. Every day, we would shake the earthen pots in the evening, then leave them out in the sun during the day and put them back in the shade under a shed in the evening, repeating this process over and over. These are my fondest memories of growing up in Srinagar before i moved to Jammu and the joy of everything revolving around the seasons. Each season was punctuated by new anticipation for an ingredient, like fiddlehead in the monsoon or the aam ka Achar/mango pickle in the summer.

What would your advice be to someone who is new to cooking and is looking to put more love into the ritual of preparing food at home?

It all comes from an understanding of your ingredients and respecting them, stripping the dish back and sticking to simple but effective combinations is a good place to start. Once you have a good selection of ingredients, it can be as little as three components, you can then take smaller steps towards what makes you happy before pushing boundaries. Don't be afraid to look back; making miso or garum may seem complicated for those who want to incorporate more ritual and fermentation into their diet, but it’s such a therapeutic and pleasurable process. Once you make your first personal jar of miso, there's no looking back; you'll never enjoy a shop-bought one again.

To begin with I suggest sticking to a recipe, following it, and then repurposing it, experimenting with how your gut guides you. Just start engaging more with produce at farmers' markets and the local ingredients around you, once you start enjoying that process, you can inject love into it.

Tell us about one of your cooking rituals at home... What’s your favourite thing about having friends and family round for dinner?

There are several dishes that I love cooking at home for my family and my four-year-old son. My cooking philosophy revolves around the language of food, sharing, and passing on stories that connect me to my heritage. So much about my journey has also been centred around incorporating new cuisines and flavours that I've learned along the way and then further adapting them.

One of my favourite recipes Gucchi Pulao, which holds a special place in my heart as it originates from my home region I’ve enjoyed since childhood. Gucchi Pulao as I mentioned earlier is a Kashmiri recipe that undergoes slight adaptations in every household, and it has been passed down through generations. Gucchi, or wild morels, evoke a strong sense of home for me, making this dish even more meaningful to prepare. If I can make the time to go home for lunch, another dish that I love to cook with my son is sourdough buckwheat pancakes inspired by the traditional Kisir from Ladakh or sprouted finger millet dosa (for a savoury interpretation), whilst these sound like very modern dishes, it’s rooted in tradition.

Based on my upbringing, I want to pass down my own understanding of fermentation to my son so that he feels connected to his roots. While he's only four, he's gradually taking an active interest in cooking, so I love cooking with him and teaching him processes from a young age that I learned back home. Bombay is an incredibly urban environment, but by passing on these processes from Jammu, I hope to bring him a different perspective and an inherent respect for our ancestors.

Tell us about one of the most memorable meals someone important in your life has cooked for you…

My late maternal grandmother has always been an incredibly important figure to me. Growing up, I would always prefer her cooking above anyone else's, even more than my mother's. I constantly asked her to cook for me, and I was captivated by anything she did! Now, I appreciate my mum's cooking in the same way, and I try to go back home to Jammu every three months. Living in Bombay is hectic, so returning to Jammu is something I look forward to.

Wintertime is particularly special there. There is a dish that my mum cooks called Makki ki roti and sarson ka saag, which I am always so excited for. We make it with heritage corn, which is a delicacy in the winter, and serve it alongside freshly churned white butter and sarson ka saag made from mustard that my father grows. It sounds simple, but there is a lot of technique and love that goes into it. We serve it with turnips and kohlrabi achar from the pantry. I love meals like this that are rooted in the strength of provenance and tradition. Nothing brings me more joy than dishes like this.

Taste that most make you think of home:

A combination of sweet-salty, spicy, umami and bitter, all of these flavours coming together make me think of home.

Favourite song to cook to:

La vie en Rose, Edith Piaf

You have friends coming round for an impromptu dinner, what do you cook?

Gucchi Pulao

What do you cook when you don’t have many ingredients in the house/you haven’t been shopping yet?

I open the fridge and assess the situation and look for a miso, I’ll then go to the pantry and select a heritage variety of rice, and from here I’ll bring together a miso, a rice-based dish, using kimchi and other homemade ferments that I have stored.

Your proudest career moment to date:

My recent collaboration with Chef Ken Sakamoto at Cenci in Kyoto was incredibly special. We were seeing off hundreds of dinners and hearing people’s feedback was very heartwarming. A few guests mentioned that it was their favourite meal they’ve had which made me really happy.

Best place for a tasty dinner in your local area:

I love something casual, that can be found on the corner of a street and that tastes of home, one of my favourite spots at the moment is Swati Snacks in Mumbai.

Favourite summer lunch:

I love a bowl of Millet Khichdi and Aam Ka Achar (mango pickle) nothing smells more like summer than this. This pickle reminds me of my mum, her interpretation is delicious, and she ferments it for five weeks minimum.

Best summer cocktail/mocktail:

Jamun soda made using foraged Indian blackberry, Himalayan plum soda and peach kombucha are some of my favourites.

The ingredient you’re most looking forward to incorporating into your dishes this season:

The incredible but fleeting Mahua season, which we forage during spring. It’s a very short season, but we preserve the flowers in as many ways as we can. We ferment them in sugar with wild caraway/kosnyot from ladakh, lacto ferment, we even make a garum out of it.

Follow Vanika on Instagram @choudharyvan

Vanika's Kitchen Favourites