Professor and chef Kiranmayi Bhushi spoke to us about cooking for artists in Chicago, her grandfather’s farm in coastal Andhra Pradesh, and Lakshmi Charu—a traditional dish that’s making a comeback.
I was introduced to Kiranmayi Bhushi’s remarkable work first through her book Farm to Fingers, a study of food in India through its political, economic and socio-cultural contexts, published in 2018. A phone call and a plane trip later, I found myself spending a whole afternoon at her home in south Delhi, chatting not so much about the book, but her fascinating journey through the world of food—beginning with kitchen jobs in Chicago, to starting the restaurant Gunpowder in New Delhi, and her recent foray into farming.
Our lunch together was peppered with her recounting her experiences as an academic, and stories from her childhood. She had cooked the lunch by herself, and I can still remember the flavours in the spectacular mutton curry and the pumpkin dish she had prepared. Given her depth of knowledge and range of interests, she seemed like a natural fit for our Food Memories series. But as it happens with most engaging conversations, we were pulled in different directions, and quite happy to go with the flow.
Here are excerpts from our conversation (over Zoom):
You grew up in Hyderabad, and you’ve now lived in Delhi for over 30 years. You didn’t begin your career in the world of food, though. What influenced your foray into the world of food?
I was always interested in food, even as a child. My older siblings tell me that I used to look sad right after a meal because I would crave something very specific. These untimely cravings made me want to cook. But it was really my father who encouraged us to cook. He would always ask us what our favourite thing to eat was. Then he would say, ‘Why don’t you try to make it?’ That was the beginning of trying to cater to my cravings.
But the seriousness of my interest in food struck me when I lived in Chicago. A friend of mine and I had started a small catering company. We called ourselves Southern Girls since she was from Kentucky and I from South India. We did a lot of small gigs for artists, many of whom were our friends. That’s where I started. The experience of living in the US with its huge immigrant population really opened up the world of food for me.
Being in the kitchen is like being in an emergency room, there’s this adrenaline rush. So when I came back to Delhi, I was itching for that. I snooped around to see if there was an opportunity for someone like me. A friend—who is now the owner of Gunpowder—was looking for somebody to collaborate with, and so I kind of jumped into it.
That’s amazing. So, when did you start working with Gunpowder?
It was in 2008. I had just finished submitting my PhD thesis, and I was looking to get away from the world of reading and writing. My thesis had nothing to do with food, though. It was on how home and abroad meet in the Indian diaspora context. But when I look back at my field notes, I realise that there were, in fact, a lot of conversations around food. I was looking specifically at life cycle rituals, such as rituals related to birth, marriage, and death. And, traditional food is such an integral part of all these rituals.
How significantly do you think our experiences with food, through the course of our life, shape our identity? And in your case, the food that you grew up eating, your experiences in Chicago, and then coming back to Delhi—how has that shaped who you are as a person? I know it’s a very broad question.
It is a broad question. But also an interesting and complex one. I’m going to approach this quite differently. In my book Farm to Fingers, which is an edited volume, there’s a chapter on eating beef. When the beef festivals were organised in Hyderabad University (in 2015), it started many conversations around how people wanted to embrace beef-eating as a part of their identity. Some of the people who were championing this festival don’t actually eat beef. But what they were objecting to is how someone else gets to dictate your eating practices. Eating is indicative of one’s identity, really.
I come from a Dalit background. Although, there is no such thing as Dalit food, I think that it is informed by a certain marginality. But I grew up in a very middle class background, so I didn’t experience dalitness, in that sense. We come from what they call Sri Vaishnavites. They’re like devout Vaishnavites—a version of this would be the Bauls in Bengal, they are the bards. My grandfather had very strict rules around food, very Vaishnavite kind of things, like eating before sunrise, a certain sort of satvik sensibility around food.
My parents went against what they believed to be oppressive traditions, and were self-conscious modernist, so they embraced all kinds of food. But there are certain things which recur in your repertoire, right? For instance, pork is served for our funeral rituals. But I wasn’t even aware that a lot of other people didn’t eat pork. I may not be a good example of how identity is established. At this moment, what I will say is that I’m very eclectic in what I eat. And as I’m getting older, I’m very conscious about the link between growing [food] and eating.
Today, more and more people are getting conscious about where their food comes from, and what goes into growing their food. But very few actually take it upon themselves. What prompted you to set up a farm in Uttarakhand?
I think the farm idea was sort of an unconscious prodding. I’ll never forget this trip to my grandfather’s village in coastal Andhra. I must have been around 13 years old. Like many other coastal places, it was full of coconut and cashew trees. My grandfather had these homestead farms, which were about three or four acres. Homesteads are basically small farms where you grow a variety of things. He was very famous in that region for deliberately cultivating all sorts of things. For instance, if he grew jasmine bushes, there would be about ten different varieties. I was so struck by the beauty of that place, and this idyllic picture was painted in my mind.
I bought a piece of land in Uttarakhand almost on a whim because a friend was buying too. It lay there unattended for around five years as I got busy with my PhD, and Gunpowder. By the time I was done with all of that, I realised the importance of this piece of land, and so I went there.
I started trying to understand what it is that you could grow there, and what wouldn’t grow. It has been an uphill task because farming is not easy. And I’m beginning to feel and think like a farmer. When we have a hailstorm, my immediate thought is, ‘Oh my god, what will happen to my peach trees!’ Then, there are pests and monkeys to think about! Even when I’m in Delhi, these are my constant thoughts. Working on my farm has taught me a lot, and I salute the farmers—it’s unbelievable how they deal with the vagaries of nature!
Are there any dishes that you grew up eating that you can no longer get today? Anything specific from your childhood that you remember?
I remember this amazing minced meat dish that is cooked with the tender leaves of the tamarind tree. It had a kind of astringiness that reminds you of olives. I have vague memories of all this, but it helped that my father used to reminisce. I also remember tasting Lakshmi Charu in my grandmother’s sister’s house. Lakshmi Charu has now made a comeback, but the version that I like to make is something that my father talked about. It’s basically a pot of rice starch water that is collected every day in an earthen pot. After a few days, the starch water gets nicely fermented. To this, you add vegetables and slow cook it. Most people add vegetables, but my father would tell me—with that faraway look in his eyes—that his mother would add shrimp.
You’ve cooked a lot of dishes through the course of your life. Are there any meals you’ve cooked which stand out in memory? We’ve read that you entertain friends and family often.
Oh, there are so many! When my friend Anumitra (who is a chef) comes around, I go the extra length to prepare a meal. I remember this one time that I made a dish with a whole lot of ingredients from my farm. We grow wild thyme there. So I got that, and made a chicken breast with some hemp pesto, zucchini and beets that grew there as well. But, what was interesting was that I used a lot of wild berries in that particular meal. I made a coulis using kafal, a wild berry from the Himalayan mountains. This is the one spread that comes to mind, but I have fond memories of some pop-up gigs that I have done where the dishes become an integral part of an event.
So there are meals like that, but my basic tendency is to experiment. I have difficulties documenting, so much so that when people ask me to repeat something, I’m clueless as to what I did. This is something that I tried to learn when I was cooking at Gunpowder—to be consistent. It’s a discipline that I’m still trying to learn.
You edited a book called Farm to Fingers which was published by Cambridge University Press. How did that book come about?
The book came out of my teaching actually. After my stint at Gunpowder, I was teaching at Ambedkar University where I was the first one to have a course on food. There were a lot of excited BA students. They all thought, ‘Oh, good, we get to hear about food.’ But actually, it involved a lot of reading about topics like the Green Revolution, or public distribution system, malnutrition, and so on.
Some of the students told me at the end of the semester that it was an eye-opener for them. I was trying to make the students explore the many connecting threads of all of our food practices. The practices of growing food have a huge bearing on food consumption as much as one’s conception of what is edible. These kinds of considerations made me realise that I wanted to come up with a book which offered an interconnected picture, if not an entire picture of food. And that’s how the book was born.