We, the Citizens
By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
“There is a Tavern in our town!” at the eastern end of Mussoorie’s Mall. But it can do very much more than that rollicking old song would have you believe. If the risk taken by its venturesome owner, Sandeep Sahni, bears fruit, and is replicated all across our little state, it could change the future of Uttarakhand.
It would achieve all that without abusing our fragile mountains, damming our revered rivers, or being forced to celebrate a ‘festival’ when we should be in mourning. Those who forget the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat them!
History says that a European explorer named Marco Polo visited China and returned with a staple food made of rice-flour paste. His fellow countrymen liked it, called it pasta, experimented with it and gave its variations names like macaroni, spaghetti, ravioli, etc. Parallel to this, they had discovered that, if they spread cheese, tomatoes, onions, garlic and ham onto slices of bread, and baked it, it made the dish both flavoursome and more hygienic. They called it pizza (pronounced peetzah), after the sizzling-spluttering sound it made when it was being baked. They used wood-fired ovens in those days and learnt to relish the smoky flavour it imparted to the pie. Finally, Rome’s armies had spread across the world, and established a garrison in Kerala’s Muziris to protect the Romans’ insatiable demand for Indian spices.
This is how Italian cuisine became the world’s first Fusion Food, combining two or more gastronomic traditions. And this is how we savoured authentic Italian fusion cuisine in a restaurant described as a French coffee shop or Cafe attached to a Greek dine-wine-and-dance Taverna or Tavern! (If that sounds complex, that is the way gastronomy is!) Mussoorie’s Cafe de Tavern has taken this rich heritage of food and handed it over to creative Garhwali chef Deepak Pundir and produced a menu that steps into the next level of flavoursome innovation.
Here is what we experienced.
Their Tandoori Chicken Pizza had all the robustness of Punjabi farm fare. The rural populations of both Punjab and Italy have much in common: both are voluble and enthusiastic trenchermen! The Himalayan element was missing in this dish but the Red Rice with Ragi Chips made up for that absence. It was more assertively Himalayan fare. The ‘red’, mountain-grown rice is the Uttarakhandi cousin of Basmati. Quite apart from its reputed health-sustaining qualities, it certainly feels more nourishing in the way that a tandoori roti feels more substantial than a slice of bread! This rice had been cooked to absorb all the water it had been boiled in. We ran into many fascinating problems when researching this column. Chef Deepak Pundir said that he used only products grown in the mountains, including turmeric and ginger. Chef Bunty, who works in the Tavern and not in its Cafe, comes from Himachal and is an expert in the cuisine of his own Himalayan state, our neighbour. HP has its own variations of Himalayan food. Garhwalis insist that cinnamon and bay leaf grow in Garhwal. We know that the best cinnamon grows in Sri Lanka and Southern India. Clearly, Himalayan cuisine would yield rich dividends if studied by gastronomic scholars before the old traditions are overwhelmed by more aggressive fare!
Veering away from Pahadi cuisine, the Baked Cheese Cake and the Macroons were excellent but as they are not Pahadi confections we will not dwell on them.
Finally, what Sandeep Sahni has done is reveal the tip of the treasure trove of India. We have at least Four Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty Five communities in our land. Each one of them has its own cuisine: its traditional cuisine plays a prominent role in its festivals and other celebrations. Like a root system this is firmly entrenched. There is also its fusion cuisine, constantly evolving to adapt to social interactions and peer pressures. These are the eye-catching flowers of its cuisine.
Together they could boost the image and exports of India. To start with, however, If Uttarakhandi food becomes popular, the cultivation of its raw materials will be worthwhile, migration from the hills will reverse, border security will be strengthened.
Pioneered by “A Tavern in Our Town”?
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other
National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and
over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern
Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)