Food forms an integral part of our cultural heritage. In fact, it plays an important role in forging communities. “Food is the easiest way to get to know the culture of a community,” shares journalist-turned-food historian, Pritha Sen who has worked significantly to preserve recipes and archive stories around them that may otherwise have been lost.
Sen has also worked to introduce authentic Bengali cuisine to a global audience through her wide understanding of the history of regional cuisines and eye for detail. After several successful stints with a number of restaurants and hotel chains—such as Mustard Restaurants, ITC Hotels, etc.,—the Gurugram-resident is currently in Singapore, where she is working with the team of Yantra, an award-winning Indian fine-dining restaurant in Tanglin Mall, on a brand new menu that offers authentic homegrown recipes from the Indian subcontinent.
On her project at Yantra
Yantra has been torn down and is being renovated. It will be reopening in a new avatar, with a brand new menu. I am doing the food menu, a gourmet travelogue through the home kitchens of India. My menu incorporates local ingredients and connects the regional dots between South and Southeast Asia. It is a challenge because I have broken out of my comfort zone of cuisines from undivided Bengal and working with regional and micro-regional cuisines from across India and home kitchens and family recipes offer a mind-boggling repertoire. The menu is a collection of authentic homegrown recipes. It is a first for Singapore as it is for me.
On how her experience in journalism helped her foray into food research
I like telling stories with my food. Journalism has certainly helped me, for the lack of a better word, pitch because you have to first attract your audience to your food. I work with the kind of food that is fading from our memory and is not very popular… food that we have left behind. In this entire rush, we have started forgetting the food that takes us back to our roots. In order to draw people into that kind of food, a good story awakens their curiosity. Another thing I learnt is research and how to find sources. When I am researching a certain dish, I have to find the right sources and the right person who can tell me how it works and how to make it.
On the process of preserving oral history
My journalism practice helps me here as well because I travel a lot. More than relying on books, I rely on oral history. The core of my work for the past two decades has been around microenterprise and sustainable livelihoods. Staying with people in remote areas, talking to them, understanding them because when you go into a community you have to understand the culture of the community and food is the easiest way to get to them. I would sit in the kitchen, watching them work, ask them questions when they gave me something to taste, express pleasure, and that creates a bond. So it is a lot of talking, not so much books, but when of course, it is about history — from 300 or 400 years ago — when there is no one to talk to, then yes but when I have people to talk to, when someone’s grandmother can tell me what their grandmother did, I talk to them and that is how I get my information.
On the role home chefs and weekend chefs play
Home chefs play a big role in bringing back the food of our roots but they also can do damage. Not every home chef can really cook and often, they don’t realise that. When you are giving out that food to people who don’t know your cuisine, you are creating the first impressions of your food and culture. It is good but dangerous and the latter is increasing by the day with the mushrooming of home chefs. Many are trying to mimic restaurant-style food which defeats the purpose. They don’t realise that they have to be their own worst critics first. I have had some tell me that “they’ve arrived”. You never arrive. The pursuit of perfection is an ongoing journey. It never ends. Having said that, I wholeheartedly support the home chef movement and some brilliant stars who have emerged. I myself have supported many and done my best to help them get recognition.
On the challenges faced after moving to a commercial kitchen
There were and still are a lot of challenges because here I work with food commercially and have to do food in bulk for a restaurant that is serving lunch and dinner yet I want it to be the way I would cook it. Commercial food is completely different from what you cook at home and that has given Indian food such a bad reputation of being rich in masalas, greasy and oily. It is like that because it is easier to cook in a lot of oil, then it is believed that the more masala you put, the richer the dish is and becomes more affluent and is value for money. And then they put in additives such as cashew paste, almond paste, char magaz, stuff that never belonged to such dishes originally. So you are completely changing the complexion of the dish but I was certain that I could not let that happen with my food. So one has to apply home principles to a commercial kitchen and then tweak them to see how they would best work. Yet, keeping to the look, taste and feel of the dish. It is a huge challenge.
On commercial kitchens being male-dominated spaces
It is still male-dominated. I am always the only woman in a kitchen full of men. The first reaction is ‘What does this aunty know about commercial cooking?’ What happens at home cannot happen here. Taking orders from a woman is [considered] beneath their dignity. However, my work in the development sector has helped me deal with people — getting to know what their attitude is at first glance, reading body language. While working in the development sector you can’t just go into a community and say now we are going to do this and that. You have to build relationships and earn their trust, earn credibility before you move forward with the project. Moreover, here is where my experience and training at one time as a teacher also kicks in because after all I teach them new skills. I deal with them as I would a class of errant boys with attitude but with skills. Encouragement, constant appreciation, and acknowledgement of what I learn from them and giving them ownership always helps. That has taught me how to build a rapport with the people in the kitchen. The best way to deal with it is to work hands on. Me, at 62, I still stand 10 hours on my feet and work shoulder to shoulder with them which earns their respect. It is no cakewalk but at the end of the day it is very rewarding.