A British-Indian chef of Gujarati origin teams up with a Kala Ghoda café to offer modern, healthier versions of vagharela bhaat and bhel
Mira Manek with The Pantry's executive chef Subhash Shirke at Colaba market. Pics/Shadab Khan
"Wow, the tindora is huge. We get tiny ones in London," says Mira Manek in a polished accent, referring to the fist-sized ivy gourds in Gujarati. We're in Colaba market on a balmy morning. Passers-by throw curious glances, but the 34-year-old British-Indian chef and author of the recently published cookbook, Saffron Soul, is unfazed.
That's because she has been visiting India since she was a teenager. "My ancestors are from Porbandar. My great-grandfather travelled to Uganda in search of better business opportunities and lived there for two generations until Idi Amin expelled Asians. Then, they moved to the UK," says London-born Manek, who has carved a niche on the city's culinary scene, collaborating with restaurants and cafés like Holborn Dining Rooms and Raw Press, and hosting supper clubs that promote healthy Indian cooking.
Scrutinising the veggies, she says, "Most vegetables I find in London are available here. In fact, they are fresher in Mumbai markets. Look at the bell peppers," she says, pointing to a fiery red and yellow heap.
Almost meditative, she holds two cauliflowers in her hand before picking one with gleaming white florets. "The other felt soft and limp. This is firm and fresh," says Manek.
Vagharela Cauliflower Rice
Then, she opts for a whole American corncob instead of a packet of golden kernels. "It's better to grill the corn, and scrape the kernels with knife," she suggests, as we make our way to The Pantry in Kala Ghoda, where she will use the ingredients to prepare Vagharela Cauliflower Rice, her modern take on a simple Gujarati recipe made using leftover rice. A far cry from the plain recipe, it packs in flavours of cauliflower rice tossed with a plethora of vegetables and fresh, grated coconut.
The dish is part of Nourish, a six-week menu that the café will offer in collaboration with Manek. She has used inspiration from her cookbook dominated by Gujarati dishes like Fada Ni Khichdi (Bulgur Wheat Risotto) and Oro (Grilled Aubergine), which have been passed down by her mother and grandmother. However, many have been tweaked by Manek to create lighter and healthier variants with a balance of grains, lentils, vegetables and spices. For instance, Tamarind Quinoa Bhel includes boiled chickpea, quinoa, cubes of sweet potato and chilled watermelon served with tangy-sweet tamarind chutney.
The bhel is part of the collaborative menu, as are Fennel And Chia Seed Smoothie, Carrot, Oat And Date Pancakes with Jamun Compote that offers a malpua-like texture and hint of cinnamon, and a sugar-free Saffron Lime And Coconut Cheesecake. "It's not really a cheesecake," she chuckles, revealing that the body is made using thickened cashew cream.
Manek took to cooking four years ago. "I was based in Dubai for a while and suffered health issues because I wasn't eating right. I would snack on granola bars and avoid Indian food because I felt oil was the enemy. Once I moved back home, I decided to return to my roots, and learnt traditional recipes made using the perfect balance of spices. My mother has given me a spice box that I use till date."
Except for a Tofu Scramble, there's no paneer on the vegetarian menu, or in her book. Why? "That's because it was never a part of Gujarati cuisine until it arrived in the UK."
FROM: June 26, 8.30 am to 11.30 pm
AT: Yashwanth Chambers, Military Square Lane, Kala Ghoda.
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