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By TPCI | October 30, 2019

In an interaction with IndusFood, the renowned chef, Ananya Banerjee, sheds light on how Indian regional cuisine continues to rule the hearts of Indian countrymen and foreign visitors alike, despite the robust forces of globalisation, the growing consciousness about eating healthy food and more. 

IndusFood: A lawyer by education to a celebrated Indian chef by profession, what drove you to venture into the culinary world?  How have your international experiences impacted your culinary skills?
Chef Ananya Banerjee: I come from a family of lawyers and judges. Although my calling was ‘Art’ & ‘Food’, I had to complete my law studies. Later I made a choice. I painted and had exhibitions all across the globe, including Paris.

Another calling was food. My constant travels , exploring recipes, teaching Indian food to Americans, Germans and Japanese clubs, taking food  masterclasses in Italy, France and Germany, inspired  me to come up with my first published book “Planet Gastronomy-100 most popular global recipes.” Since then, I plunged myself into the culinary world. I also penned another book on Bangla Cuisine and have been an anchor chef for Youtube and television. In the course of this time, I have done more than 400 food videos. I am equally involved with food pop ups, consulting, dining experiences and restaurant set ups.

My journey has been beautiful, from being a lawyer to an artist to a culinary artist!  

IndusFood: Do you think that in the face of globalisation, regional Indian cuisines are losing out? What trends have you seen emerging in Bangla cuisine?
Chef Banerjee: I don’t believe that regional Indian cuisines are losing out in the face of globalisation. India has a rich cultural heritage and that has easily carried over to our cuisine. What we’ve been savouring till now and offering to the world, barely scratches the surface of of our culinary treasures.

On the contrary now more than ever, I’ve noticed people’s interest in regional and little known Indian cuisines growing. In their eagerness to explore regional cuisines that have not been showcased as much, like Assamese, Oriya, Telangana recipes and that of various communities across the states, we’re uncovering so many dishes that have been passed over, forgotten or had been restricted within families.

With Bangla cuisine, the first thing that comes to people’s minds is the sweets. But they are starting to realize, that Bangla cuisine offers a gamut of flavors. From the savory delights of Kobiraji Cutlet, to the enriching bitterness of Juktiphool bhaja; from the sourness of Doi Maach, to the spicy Mochar Ghonto; there’s a plethora of recipes that is gaining currency. Thus, the trend these days in Bangla as well as other regional cuisines is that of exploring the numerous recipes that have escaped the spotlight.

IndusFood: What is your opinion about the growing consciousness about eating healthy food like oats and soya among the millennials in India?
Chef Banerjee: I think that it’s great that healthy eating is becoming more a habit than a passing trend. The earlier in life that it becomes a part of your diet, the more are the benefits enjoyed. Oats and soya are excellent sources of fibre, protein and are great in controlling your weight, obtaining essential nutrients and lowering your cholesterol levels, all of which meets their growing sense of health consciousness.

IndusFood: While the food choices among young Indians may be changing in favour of nutritious choices, there may still be a lack of awareness about the benefits of ingredients like chia seeds and quinoa among people. What can be done to popularise these?
Chef Banerjee: While ingredients like chia seeds and quinoa are already known among those oriented towards healthy eating, efforts can be made to bring them to the rest of the audience. With the millennial crowd, the main factors that often influence choice of meals are how easily they can be prepared. How easily can they be acquired? How expensive are they? How tasty are the preparations made from them? If we can address these points while highlighting their health benefits, I believe that these ingredients can really catch on with the larger crowd too.

IndusFood: A lot of times nutritious food (eg. vegetables like broccoli and bell peppers) tend to be costlier than other food items (eg. a packet of chips or chocolates). In such a case, what kind of pocket-friendly healthy food items can a person from a humble background consume?
Chef Banerjee: While it may seem that pre-packaged or ready to eat food items are cheaper than actually buying and cooking your own food, the truth is when you’re on a shoe-string budget; buying your own ingredients and preparing a home cooked meal is both financially and health-wise, the far better alternative in the long run.

It is true that certain food products do tend to be costlier than others. So, what do you do if you want to still eat healthy, while not burning a hole in your pocket? Go for the cheaper produce! Every vegetable and fruit has their own nutritional benefits, not just the most expensive ones! Pick food items that are in season, that are affordable. Vary your purchases as much as you can. Go for locally available produce (ingredients that are commonly grown in the region you live in). I have always been a firm believer of using locally sourced ingredients. If it was grown within a certain radius of where you live, in all likelihood it would be better suited to your system and overall healthier, not to mention less expensive. Food least traveled to reach your plate is best for you. It’s also cheaper!

Another thing to keep in mind is how you cook your food. If you want the best out of the food that you buy, be mindful of how you prepare it. Use every bit that you can, like Coriander stems for example. They’re often discarded in favour of the leaves but they contain the stronger flavor. Similarly, every bit of the humble cauliflower from the florets, to the stem, to the leaves, can be used. Just to cite an example - nothing goes wasted in a Bengali kitchen. We use peels, stems, seeds, barks, leaves, flowers- just about everything.

IndusFood: According to you, how is Indian cuisine placed on the global landscape?
Chef Banerjee: I think the world associates Indian cuisine for the most part with spices, strong flavors and richness. And it’s true! Much of the food we enjoy from the famous Butter Chicken to the Biryani to the Sambar and various curries - all tend to show some of these characteristics.

But I think Indian cuisine can also offer much in terms of healthy eating. To start with, it’s already considered one of the best cuisines to master if you’re a vegetarian. A lot of our indigenous ingredients like Moringa, Banana Blossoms, Neem and others are incredibly nutritious. Some of our styles of cooking too, from steaming & stewing to the tandoors are great ways to ensure that the nutrients in the food are preserved as much as possible and with better ways of cooking.

A person who has constantly added many feathers to her hat, Chef Ananya Banerjee is a globetrotter with a penchant for good food. She is also an acclaimed painter, a commerce graduate and lawyer by education. Having penned bestseller books like Bangla Gastronomy & Planet Gastronomy, she is now the editor of BBC Good Food India.