As we scroll through our vibrant Instagram feeds, arrested by powerful visuals, prepossessing 'Reels,' and gorgeous graphics of cheese, chocolate and charcuterie boards, it is easy to lose track of the meaning of food itself. And then comes along someone like chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar—co-founder of the research-forward, Goa-based restaurant, Edible Archives—who is remarkable at the least, and epiphanic at her best. We chatted with the chef to understand what are the finer elements that make up her unique, conscientious and path-breaking approach towards food, what it really means to be sustainable and what the future holds.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
From what I gather, your career has been extremely multidisciplinary. You studied literature, then linguistics and now, you're a chef. How have these seemingly different discourses shaped you as a person and a professional?
Multidisciplinary at many levels. My family is into music and I was expected to attend, learn, and sing from a young age. This really shaped me because the idea of rigour, persistence and practice were instilled from the get go. Having musical practice also meant learning and building a body of tacit knowledge before I could claim to being any good at it. This has been crucial to my development as a professional in the kitchen as well—working under rigorous teachers to first instill knowledge and then analytically decoding it to make my own culinary style. Another discipline that's influenced me a lot has been photography. For many years, from before college and through my PhD, I worked in performance photography. In fact, my love affair with Japanese food began in earnest because of a photography fellowship that sent me to Japan. The visual medium is becoming more and more important to food, and my perspective is quite literally informed by minimalism, both in visuality and in cooking. Finally, my PhD in cognitive linguistics strongly affects the way I think about my work. One major aspect is that as a linguist, I understand that there is no real hierarchy between language and dialects—the different weights given to them are political and pragmatic, but inherently, a language is no more complex or advanced than a dialect. In this way, no ingredient or dish is inherently better or worse—the weight given to a baingan bharta versus a baba ganoush is entirely about the fad or trend of the moment and not about the dish. So that perspective frees me to think about food in many ways.
Between starting Edible Archives, the pandemic and now, how has the restaurant-project evolved?
We planned Edible Archives to be a restaurant around which we could do many things—research around ingredients, comment on food culture and explore food and diversity. When we started, we set up a circular system, where the kitchen sends grey water into our farm, and provides matter for compost, which gets turned into the soil every season. We grow some of our own ingredients, alongside other indigenous plants to keep the seeds alive and share with others who are interested. The COVID19 lockdown happened within a few months of starting though, and we got very busy with the logistics of running a restaurant during lockdown. Much of our rice related research and other travel was entirely put on hold due to this. But we were also able to use that time to strengthen our research around local ingredients and food practices in Goa. We got time to observe things on our own farm, such as the water table going down or the soil temperature increasing. These observations helped us to come up with more diverse approaches.
I am eager to understand: you have been driven by research and theory, which might sometimes seem like a 'pedantic' way of looking at food. But as something that's so deeply social, isn't food at the end of the day, pedagogical?
For me, formalising theory and practice around food is not pedantic. I do think that food is deeply social and as the social space around food gets taken over more and more by purely market driven forces, there is a need for more pedagogical approaches and interventions.
Your hallmark has been working with food, while focusing on things like biodiversity and indigenous knowledge systems. But what does that mean in today's context and if I had to ask you to explain it simply, what would you say?
'What you eat today is going to decide what will be grown after 10 years.'
As an example, at the Kochi Biennale we showcased about 30 varieties of indigenous rice, and after that we saw that many people—from our customers to followers of chefs—are taking interest in indigenous rice. Increasing awareness like this helps to stabilise the precarious position of indigenous rice, and with any luck, some of the endangered rice varieties will be saved, because farmers can afford to continue growing them.
Sustainability in food is a deep, sometimes contorted, sometimes misunderstood, but essentially a very urgent subject matter. Do you think it becoming a buzzword of sorts has been counterintuitive for the movement?
Absolutely. Making such an important concept essentially lose all meaning is a huge disservice. Many people are not even sure what makes a business/concept/food sustainable, but just have a vague idea that it should be 'healthy'. The only silver lining is that since it's so trendy at the moment, younger people are being exposed to the idea early on, and with luck, this will let us outgrow the buzzword moment and actually come to grips with the issues that being truly sustainable engender.
The other hallmark, for you, has been fusing ingredients, methods, cuisines and culinary aesthetes to create a unique and singular sort of food, which defines Edible Archives. But it is also a tricky terrain to get into. So, how do you navigate it?
In a word, mindfully. I strongly believe that a meal is not just utilitarian, but something that should be experienced like a work of art. If you think about what it takes to grow rice, harvest it, boil, store, grind it, long before it ever comes to your hands as an ingredient, you can imagine an entire cosmos inside each grain, which then, in some ways, makes it possible for me to overlook the borders and boxes that cuisines, culinary schools, and political ideas impose. As an example, I paired a Radha Tilok [a rice that is traditionally used in making payesh for pujas] with Naga pork. It was a departure from the kind of sticky and glutinous starchy rice usually paired with these pork dishes. But the rice, though delicate and small-grained, is scented in a way that pairs beautifully with the pungency of Naga chilies and pork fat, and enhances the experience of eating both dishes. Being mindful constantly of the grammar of how to use ingredients, along with the awareness of which grammar can speak together harmoniously is the key.
What cuisines and culinary cultures do you find yourself leaning towards, if there are any specific ones at all?
I don't have a list of cultures or cuisines here, but overall, those of the global south, that have a minimalistic philosophy, or that are very conscious of the ingredients and techniques required really appeal to me.
What does your plate look like, on any given day of the week?
Do you have personal goals or a particular vision that you imagine for Edible Archives? What would you like to do with it next?
My goal is that Edible Archives should influence the wider F&B industry, by helping to create a set of consumers who are aware of where their food comes from, and what it takes to produce it, at every level. If this can happen, my larger dream is to make sustainability, particularly how to close the circle of consumption and production, a norm rather than the exception.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.