Her Michelin-star restaurant Gaa in Bangkok put her cooking on the world map. Today, chef Garima Arora also helms an initiative to catalogue Indian food for a global audience called 'Food Forward India'. She tells us about her journey to trace the gastronomic uniqueness of Indian states while dabbling with indigenous ingredients.
What is your aim with Food Forward India?
We wanted a nomadic initiative that helps catalogue the diverse cuisines of India. When I say nomadic, the idea is to travel to each state, in varied areas, rural or urban and pick up food-related habits, crafts and techniques and catalogue them in a place for everybody to access, use and interpret as they like. It is an educational initiative where the information is free for everyone to use.
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Tell us a little about your toddy trail in India
We drove from Hyderabad to the small village called Pedamudduru and spent the entire day with toddy makers and locals of the area. It was an eye-opening experience because when you think of alcohol, it is always seen as a big taboo in Indian culture but this narrative is not true to the people at all. Here toddy is consumed by women, men and even children; it is not something that is abused but is in fact a natural part of their diet. So many festivals are around it and many day-to-day activities are centred around toddy. They cherish it and they serve it to their guests as well. We also saw the food that they ate and cooked with the toddy which was interesting to see.
Indigenous tribes like Chenchu have preserved their gastronomic practices for decades. What is it that you find most unique about tribal food?
I think what’s incredible is how sustainable tribal cuisine really is and the use of ingredients; they use anything and everything that nature gives them. To be able to adapt that to our cuisine and everyday life is amazing to see.
Have you incorporated any indigenous ingredients into your own cooking?
Yes, we do use indigenous ingredients in the restaurant. We have previously used Mahua flowers to make chutneys. We also use Tamarind ash to get a little bit of smokiness in some ingredients. Tamarind ash is from the Chenchu tribe where they cover different ingredients with the ash, which is believed to be cleansing for the system and good for the gut.
Do you believe that the pandemic has changed how people look at food?
People started to cook at home a little more so they have become more appreciative of what others, especially chefs, do for them. But people forget very easily and move on so now they are back to their old way of life. So the answer is both yes and no.
One Indigenous ingredient that you swear by
It is very difficult to name one. We use many indigenous ingredients from Thailand; it is where we are based right now. We are using a lot of egg fruit in our menu, and it is something we are very fond of and have used diversely in our cuisine. There is also Hor Wor (lemon verbena-like herb) which is an indigenous herb from northern Thailand that we use a lot in our cuisine.