Here's how Vanika Choudhary is experimenting with fermentstion after the success of her healthy restaurant chain
Fermentation is, along with a celebration of indigenous produce and her Kashmiri heritage, one of the three satellites that orbit Noon, her ingredient-forward restaurant, and shape its philosophy. The idea, she says, is to use fermentation as one of the core techniques to raise the flavour profile of different foods. The spiced shallots on my finger millet tortillas, for instance, have been fermented in black carrot kanji for a week; the prawns that accompany it are glazed with kokum kefir; and her restaurant had over 30 ferments going on when I dined there early May.
Noon, designed by architect Ashiesh Shah and located at the Bandra Kurla Complex, is among the recent restaurants in Mumbai — the other is Niyati Rao’s Ekaa— where ingredients take the centerstage, an approach started by Aditi Duggar’s Masque. Choudhary is possibly the most passionately and animatedly articulate of the three owners, particularly when she is talking about fermentation. “The first ever fermented thing I had in my life was kanji. I was two then,” says Choudhary.
Choudhary grew up in Srinagar in a home where things were always fermenting and growing. Her father, S K Choudhary, a sericulturist, also helped start trout farming in Srinagar; her grandmother and mother, Raj and Nirmal, enjoyed pickling a variety of vegetables and fruits: dandelion greens, karunda, shalgam. “These were not pickles made in vinegar overnight; these were kept in the summer sun, winter sun, or spring sun for four to six weeks. Many years ago, when I went to Offering Farms, (in Pune) and enquired about whether they could grow mushrooms, they took me to their cellar, and it brought back memories of home,” she says.
Choudhary is not a trained chef, and neither is she new to the restaurant business. She says she has learnt everything on the job. She headed an out- of-home media company that she quit in 2016, and declined another job, to get into the restaurant business. “I had risen from management trainee to COO. But, when I was on the verge of accepting another offer, I thought I should travel and figure out what I really wanted to do.” The result was Sequel, the organic, gluten-free, health-food, farm-to-fork eatery in Bandra. It has since expanded with two more outlets — in Kala Ghoda, in South Mumbai, and at the BKC, where it shares space with Noon.
The deep connections Choudhary made with farm partners (rather than vendors) serves Noon well. It sources ingredients from all over. The tortillas on my table are made with karun or black ragi, grown by a tribal collective in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu; the buckwheat that is used to make tartlets with black garlic-infused goat cream comes from a farmer’s collective in Ladakh; and star fruit, when in season, comes from Nashik. Once the black ragi is grown, it is harvested, soaked overnight, and sprouted for three days. After it’s sprouted, it’s stone-ground into flour. “This is not eating ragi flour straight up. It’s in keeping with the age-old philosophies of eating grain soaked, sprouted, and fermented, which makes it easier for your microbiome.”
Noon makes everything from miso and shoyu to various types of kefirs in-house, but approaches each condiment from a different direction, using indigenous ingredients. The fillings in the tortillas, which deliver a profusion of textures, are made of Kodai avocado salsa with cape gooseberry, and kanji, besides the spiced shallots, and tiger prawn. “Cape gooseberries are in season now. We said let’s look at something that has a similar flavour profile as a tomato, but something local.” The in-house approach also applies to the bar menu (check out the summery Battle of Oranges with gin infused with orange peels), and dessert. The fermented black raspberries in the granita that accompany the raw cacao and sea salt ice cream were a serendipitous find in Mahabaleshwar.
“They have been totally overshadowed by the commercially successful strawberries, but taste amazing,” says Choudhary. The all-wood bar is also a signature Choudhary creation. It serves only Noon’s own specially created craft cocktails with a clean-spirits approach. There are summery delights such as the Battle of Oranges and savoury Pineapple Tepache made with house-fermented pineapple, Kashmiri raw honey, and tequila. They will make you a classic cocktail if you ask, but nothing with carbonated drinks. To make sure that her growing base of loyal customers keep coming back, Choudhary is ready with her next menu, inspired by her recent travels in the Himalayas where she foraged for capers, among others.
“These capers, called kabra in Ladakhi, are added to butter milk and eaten with tsampa (barley sattu),” says Choudhary. “Wild foods like these have been part of the Ladakhi diet for centuries but are now being shunned in favour of highly processed foods. This is exactly the stuff I want to highlight at Noon.”
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