The provenance of a cocktail
A city drinkery ropes in a mixologist from a watering hole listed on Asia's 50 Best Bars to curate a menu, but not before spending three days in the verdant expanses of the Northeast for a foraging exploration
Further down Guwahati, an idyllic city along the Brahmaputra River in the Northeast, the roads disappear into deep forests. Amble in these verdant swathes and you're likely to discover a treasure trove of ingredients. Like, thekera, a leaf with souring properties that is dehydrated to form a chewy mush. There's also something called kolakhar, or kol (ash water), which is derived from filtering water through banana tree ash. Suraj Gurung is thinking what it would be like to take a little bit of this black elixir, mix it with fermented soyabean and clarify the concoction before adding it to a cocktail. He's still figuring things out, having just landed in Mumbai after a three-day trip through Assam and Meghalaya. This is the Nepal-born and Hong-Kong-based mixologist's maiden trip to India.
In April this year, Akriti Agarwal, CEO at Thirsty City 127 — a craft bar in Lower Parel that's completing their first anniversary tomorrow — was visiting the Asian country and had dropped by at the Stockton bar in Wyndham Street, which has been on the Asia's 50 Best Bars list since 2016. "I was there purely for the purpose of research. When I met him, we got along and have been in touch ever since."
The genesis of a partnership
Agarwal feels that the dialogue around eating local needs to come out of the confines of the kitchen and into the bar. "Suraj has the same sensibilities as us and the menus at Stockton reflect that. They're all theme-based and I was amazed by how he manages to convey it through flavours and culture," she tells us. Gurung echoes this when he says that the most alluring part of this collaboration was that it didn't simply require him to fly down and stir a few ingredients together, but that it opened up the prospect of exploring a new culinary terrain. "Back in Hong Kong, when I told my friends that I was visiting India, they had mentioned that the ingredients here are really different. At that time, I hadn't paid much attention, but it's really amazing how unique the produce here is," he tells us, adding that what attracted him most to this collaboration was the challenge it posed, where he was going to have to forage through an unknown land for things he had little or no knowledge of, and then, come up with a menu incorporating his findings, all in a matter of five days.
It is no wonder then that Agarwal and team have been ideating for this collaboration since the past four months. In fact, two weeks ago, she, head mixologist Santosh Kukreti and chef Deepak Punetha travelled for a recce the two Northeastern states. "This is our first foraging trip, too, so we thought it would be best to do some groundwork before heading there with Suraj," she explains.
Such an approach is perfect for Gurung, for whom the provenance of a cocktail is just as important as the way it looks and tastes. He says, "See, a mojito is a great drink, but it will taste best at a place where you get mint and lime locally. What appeals to me about this philosophy, is that it tries to re-imagine classic cocktails in native flavours."
And when it comes to flavours, Northeast is a haven. So, they discovered a citrusy berry called soihong, which is like a cross between a jamun, cherry and grape. It's larger in size, pulpy and when you rub it on your palms it'll taint your skin with a lovely burgundy hue. Gurung and Kukreti will now assimilate these berry-like flavour bombs into Mawphlang, a cocktail named after the sacred forest in Meghalaya, which will also include rum, aperol, fortified wine and washed and clarified milk.
There's also falap tea, a variant found in Assam, which is aged in smoked bamboo. "We got one that has been aged for six years," Agarwal reveals, adding that this aromatic tea will be added to gin, Campari and Martini Rosso to create a tipple named falap negroni. Their discoveries include kaji lemons, fermented bamboo shoots and wild honey, which are being coalesced with other condiments for paired dishes. Like, the Assamese chicken bowl made with black rice, thekera reduction, pineapple and bhut jolokia chillies, or the trio tarts, which feature smoked pumpkin, caramalised onion, chili sauce; smoked eggplant and wild honey mousse with cassia leaf; and yam with kaji lemon and fermented mustard aioli.
Explore the unknown
"For me, the fun part has always been figuring the flavours out. I love being behind the bar, but the process to get there is just as important," Gurung tells us. This makes sense, given his history.
At the age of 18, Gurung moved to Hong Kong because he wasn't "too good at studies" and began his foray into the hospitality industry as a waiter. "I grew up in a joint family in Nepal, and so I was always intrigued by food. In my initial years I also took Chinese cooking and pastry classes in Hong Kong," he recalls. How then, did he end up behind the bar? Coincidence. After spending a few years dabbling in different roles across restaurants in the sovereign state, Gurung was presented with the opportunity of curating a menu. A cocktail he created for it earned the accolade of the best cocktail. He says, that's when things really changed for him. "I also worked at a night club, but that wasn't too good for my liver," he jokes.
It is understandable then that this foraging trip has been inspiring for Gurung, who has anyway grown nurturing a curiosity for the unknown.
At Thirsty City 127, Todi Mill, Lower Parel.
On November 9. 7 pm to 1 am
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