India's renewed celebration of millets, set within the larger, multi-pronged, cultural rejuvenation, is revealing newer interactions with tradition and "traditional". Responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for celebrating millets, and 2023 as the International Year of the Millets (The United Nations General Assembly declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets on 5th March 2021), chefs, millet enthusiasts and millet-growing states, are contributing to the elevation of awareness on millets, the use of millets, cooking with millets, and flavour. Each traditional recipe revisited, each new recipe signifying a meaningful departure from the traditional, is building a new journey for the millets in their global celebration. When chefs with roots in India delve into old treasures from their mother's kitchen, the minutest thought going into food and bringing ingredients together, makes room for new cultural engagement with India. Dr. Sakirat Waraich is one such chef and changemaker. During her interaction with and on millets, one stumbled upon her own journey in contributing to India's soft power.
Millet swirling and comfortably set in the subtle flavours and colours of mango and beetroot was a unique confluence that surprised Chef Sakirat's audience at her master class held during July in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. For her, the masterclass held at Ama Cafe, Dehradun, was a dual homecoming. She is based in Norway. Her maternal home is in Dehradun. Uttarakhand itself is a bowl of local millets. Coming home to Dehradun and coming home to a celebration of millet, made this visit memorable for her. Sakirat is vocally local - when she is in India, and when she is in Norway, where she is successfully running Nila Indian Rendezvous, bringing two traditions together.
Nila Indian Rendezvous is situated in Kongsberg, an hour away from Oslo. It opened on 18th October 2022. Nila refers to and means blue. Sakirat believes that the colour is equally Indian and Norwegian. She was inspired by blue pottery from India and it was "another thought that inspired Nila." The motif of Indian pottery, and blue, emerge dominantly and seem carefully-tied to Sakirat's own attention to aesthetic denoting the Norwegian and Indian confluence in ingredients, flavours, preparations, and presentation. There is more to the name. The 'N' and 'I' of her two homes represent the meeting of two traditions. Motifs in elegant blue and gold surround the visitors at Nila.
Nostalgia is a potent ingredient energising and embracing Indian Softpower. It bridges the destinations in the continuous journey of life, and speeps, with varying emotional fluidity, into creation. In the several expressions of creativity that connect India with the world and the world with the ancient civilisation, nostalgia is a powerful propellor. It compels artistes, writers, thinkers, creators, the practitioners of ancient wisdom, preservers of ancient wealth scholars, and so many other contributors to Indian Softpower, to preserve the elements that connect them with India as destination, journey, memory, inspiration and home. Nostalgia achieves the underrated task of creating a convincing confluence. Nostalgia led Sakirat to develop a vision for a confluence.
Norway is her home for life, family, living and personal explorations. Nostalgia would have swift and slow conversations with her creativity captivated in cooking, food, the aroma of spices, and recipes she picked and absorbed while growing up, the kitchen spaces of her marital home in Norway and her mother's home in Dehradun, India.
In 2020 - in the middle of the Covid-19, Dr. Sakirat Waraich, a dentist by profession, would encounter the strongest memories of her mother's kitchen on the sets of Masterchef Norway. The spices would talk to her like never before. She would kick off a bold departure by exploring her own "vision" of using ingredients and "creating" confluences. A vegetarian, she would stun everyone at the show and the audience, by offering memorable non-vegetarian preparations, without tasting them. She would be at the top of the guessing game and titled "spice queen" for her skill of identifying spices in the tasting samples offered to her. Eventually, she would emerge as one of the top contestants at Masterchef Norway, 2020. The Masterchef Norway 2020 experience firmed her confidence. In 2022, this confidence, her own strengths and beliefs, led to the opening of Nila.
Sakirat's moment of pride was when Ambassador of India to Norway H.E. Dr. B. Bala Bhaskar visited Nila. That Nila, a destination now associated with Indian Softpower in Norway, has the potential to provide a space of warmth to visitors who themselves are some of the best known propagators of Indian soft power, over Norwegian and Indian confluence in food, becomes evident in one of the videos on its page on Instagram. In the video, world renowned tabla maestro, Ustad Zakir Hussain can be seen appreciating the preparations and presentation and Nila. World renowned percussionist and composer Ghatam V Selva Ganesh and well-known vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, join him. Shankar Mahadevan seems impressed by the confluence of Norwegian and Indian influences. These members of 'Shakti' define the meeting of East and West in music. Not surprisingly, they are quick to identify it in food.
In global music, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ghatam Vidwan V Selva Ganesh and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, have preserved the aspect of "confluence",
"improvisation" and "creation" for several decades. They absorb music together. They walk in and out of greerooms, rehearse together, perform at concerts and studios together. They also eat together -- as one band, team, family. The members of the band Shakti also define perfection. Ustad Zakir Hussain, in particular, is known for being synonymous with perfection in music. Coming from Ustad Zakir Hussain, words of his appreciation for Nila and for the aspects of confluence and presentation in what it offers, would count as a great review.
Sakirat describes Nila as her own journey as an Indian. Having moved to Norway from India, she would miss flavours from the Indian kitchen. She got passionately drawn to the idea of developing a confluence of locally grown produce, particularly vegetables from the local farms, Indian flavours, and most importantly, spices. Her attention to spices in food could be named as one of her strengths. The 'panch puran' (also known as the 'panch phoron' - a blend of cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds and fennel seeds) is one of her favourites.
She believes in understanding the dish in depth and understanding food. In the kitchen, she is guided by the Indic view and vision of minimal wastage. At the temporary kitchen created for Sakirat's masterclass in Dehradun, she stood by this Indic dictum. She has cooked for the camera and eyes on bigger stages before. But something intimate goes on between the pan and Sakirat when she is stirring, mixing, letting be, the ingredients and making them open to her within her recipe. In an email interview that followed her masterclass, she tells Sumati Mehrishi about the confluence created by her, about the "Indian" in Nila, perceptions about the "Indian" and her journey in creating a confluence.
What prompted you to expand your experiments -- from a home kitchen to a restaurant?
I wanted to open a restaurant to actually work towards bringing Indian cuisine on the fine dining map in Scandinavia. Noone is doing it right now . It makes me sad that our thousands of years of recipes, flavours, and spices have become merely 'comforting' and 'take out food' for most of the people. The respect for Indian food is on the rise, but we still have a long way to go, and Nila is an offering to this movement. Nila opened its doors for the first time on 18th October 2022. Nila is my own journey as an Indian. On moving to Norway, I was missing India and Indian food. So, I began to experiment with the local Norwegian ingredients for my own taste buds. Nila means blue and I think the colour is equally Indian and equally Norwegian.
Tell us about your Masterchef Norway experience. What are the memorable, winning recipes, and milestones covered?
Masterchef Norway was a dream. I loved every bit of being in this concept programme. One of my most popular recipes and most-viewed recipe on the programme's Facebook page is 'white chocolate spaghetti with dark chocolate date balls and strawberry basil sauce'. I love molecular gastronomy and had a vision of making something of this sort. You won’t believe it, I tried it for the first time on Masterchef with zero practice or knowing what the outcome will be. This dessert is vegan.
It was a fun-take on spaghetti and meatballs which is popular in Norway. I was named the spice queen on the show and won all the tasting challenges, be it guessing Italian ragu ingredients or identifying the different spices. Another milestone was making the best pork tenderloin without even tasting it as I am a vegetarian. My favorite episode: when we had to cook something from our childhood memory, and I did my mother's 'paneer' recipe, all teary eyed the whole episode, as it was the peak of Covid-19 Pandemic and I knew that it would be long till I met my parents again.
How were your creations received and what impressed the judges?
They were received very well. I often was complimented by the judges. They would say that they would like the recipes of my dishes. But somewhere, when you are an Indian by origin and cook good Indian food, you are taken for granted. It is no longer seen as a talent, but more like 'yeah, of course, she cooks Indian food well'. This was sometimes disheartening.
How was your initial experience at Nila?
I was scared, as Nila was something very different, and I was unsure how it would be perceived. All my dishes were new, my own creations, and people were unaware about it. We had customers who would walk in and say, "You have 'chicken tikka masala'? Is it not an Indian restaurant?". It broke my heart sometimes, as I wanted to expose them to much more from India. However, I would say that the majority of people who visited Nila loved it and gave my interpretation of Indian cuisine a chance.
Tell us the story behind 'blueberry chutney' and the joys and hues you discovered while blending the ingredients.
Blueberry Chutney came to life with me trying to look for tamarind to make our classic 'imli chutney', but not having it (tamarind) readily available made me use blueberries, which I had plucked from the forest behind our house. I blended coriander, blueberries, garlic sugar and salt. This chutney would be on the top of everyone's mind when they visit home or Nila. Local ingredients like brown cheese, berries, etc. are quite versatile. I feel our Indian flavours go well when blended the right way with these ingredients.
Help us visualise the spread of vegetarian ingredients in Norway. Which bunch of ingredients found there excites you?
Vegetarian options are limited to root veggies -- from colourful beets -- yellow fins beetroot, red, polka dot beetroot, to parsnip, and a variety of potatoes named after the farms they come from, like Astrid. There is a variety of cauliflower with purple, pink and other colours available during summer. Norwegian kale is in abundance. Mushrooms like chanterelle are easily foraged. Mushroom plucking and blueberry / strawberry plucking are some of the traditional activities native to Norway.
How is the response to the element of fusion at Nila?
Norwegians in Kongsberg and those travelling from other cities like Oslo, Drammen, Notodden, love that I have added flavours from Indian heritage into the ingredients that are traditional to them, like 'Reindeer Nihari', brown cheese 'kofta', so they get excited to see that on the menu and want to try it. Indians love the same. They are bored eating the same food at all other restaurants and love that we have our own take on Indian and Norwegian food. Second-generation Indian-Norwegian find home and comfort in our food as it can easily connect with their identity of being from both cultures.
'Tandoori Telemark' seems fascinating -- with the meeting of seaweed, chevre, mango and other ingredients. Tell us about this recipe.
It is a unique combination. This recipe has umami from the Lofoten seaweeds and mushrooms, which are combined with Chevre (Goat Cheese) from our neighbouring state Telemark. The mushrooms have a coating of our tandoori yoghurt marination, making it a true taste bomb. It is served with mango salsa and tomato chutney.
You walk into the different regions of India with the ingredients available to you (as the food menu indicates). You go Goa, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, among other regional flavours, from a kitchen in Scandinavia. What made you explore the different Indian influences in the food you serve with local ingredients?
It makes me sad that every Indian restaurant in Scandinavia is serving food from just one or two regions in India. It's mostly North Indian and a very similar palate of taste is being served to everyone. I really wanted to show how diverse India is and we have a huge range of flavours which have still not made it to the menus. Indian food culture needed more exploration. It is what I want people to get when they come to Nila. It should feel like they have travelled to different cities in India through the different dishes.
How does "traditional" appeal to you in food and kitchen?
Tradition and "traditional" are good, but when you are far from the native country where that tradition originates, I think it's smarter, more sustainable, viable and economical to find a middle path, where one can be at peace with the traditional values and local values/ ingredients etc.
Tell us about a Norwegian value that you have learned and used in your cooking at Nila.
I love foraging and using hyper-local ingredients like blueberries from the forest near my house and restaurant, which is a Norwegian tradition. Changing the menu with season and using seasonal ingredients is good Norwegian practice. Most of the Indian restaurants (in Norway) don’t practise that, which is sad.
What commonalities do you see in Norwegian and Indian cooking habits/cooking styles?
I think they are quite different. Norwegian cuisine is more ingredient-based cooking. You will taste the flavour of the ingredient distinctively, but in Indian cuisine, we love our spices, so add a lot of flavour to the ingredients we are cooking, be it vegetables or meat. Marinades for meats are common in both, but there are different types of mariantions. Norwegians love the oven, we Indians love gas top.
What do Norwegians like in Indian flavours/recipes?
There is a boom for Indian food in Norway right now. Norwegians like the spice, flavours and aromas of Indian cuisine. There are guests who say they want 'vindaloo'-level of spice!
How have the kitchens of your mother and mother-in-law inspired you?
I have always seen my mother's urge to try new things in the kitchen. She introduced me to home tacos in a 'katori' shape when I was only eight years old. She is persistent with flavours and won’t give up till she gets her dish right and she loves to plate the food with full design. My mom-in-law is more of a traditional cook where she loves her basic 'dal-sabzi' food. She loves to help me when I am trying something new. With both of them, I have a good combination of modern and traditional.
What's your vision for Nila?
Vision for Nila has been to introduce customers to new flavours from India -- with the feeling of being home in Norway. We want Norwegians and Indians to feel they belong to Nila and every time they visit us, they feel they are on a flavour expedition with good food memories for life.
The current government in India is celebrating the tradition of millets and cooking with millets, regional diversity in the millets available, and is promoting their nutritional value. Why is it important?
Millets are among the few grains which are not genetically modified, as of now -- making them pure. Their nutritional value is much more than wheat or rice. It is what our ancestors ate before all the processed food was introduced. Cooking millets requires a bit of time and understanding, but I think they are equally versatile and can easily be incorporated in our daily diets. The masterclass conducted at Ama Cafe, Dehradun, was to present to the guests how easily one can make the right choices and create a healthier menu at home. I think it is superb as they are native Indian grains and their promotion is good for soil conservation and regeneration as well. It is high time we think of regeneration as well, just being 'sustainable' will not be enough. Better health can be achieved with good local millets.