Sunday, September 26, 2021

Standing Tall with Pokkali

 By Yamini Vijayan & Thomas Zacharias 

After returning to the coastal village that he grew up in, former RAW chief Hormis Tharakan revived his family’s paddy fields by growing Pokkali—a local and resilient rice.

Hormis Tharakan had imagined spending his post-retirement years reading and writing in Olavipe, the lush village in Kerala where he grew up. “I like to quote John Donne who said age becomes ‘loveliest at the latest day’,” he told me over an email. In 2014, the former RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) chief moved back to his family home in the district of Alappuzha with his wife Molly.  But instead of spending all his time with books, he started tending to Thekkanatt, his ancestral farm.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

On a warm and muggy day, my cousin Aswathy (Molly’s niece) and I set out for Thekkanatt Farms, an hour’s drive from Kochi. Located by the backwaters, it is exactly as you might imagine a farm in coastal Kerala—paddy fields soaked in water, an air of serenity and every shade of green. We were shown around the vast fields by Hormis and Toshiba, the farm supervisor, as we tried to take in everything: the history of the farm, failed experiments, successful ones, the sky in the water, the grass beneath our feet. 

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

You’d think that someone like Hormis who has led big intelligence operations for the government might be a bit intimidating. On the contrary, when you meet him, he’s warm and mild-mannered, cracking an occasional joke between our conversations. 

Even though Hormis belongs to a family that has owned farms for generations (some of this land came to them over 200 years ago), running a farm definitely wasn’t familiar territory. But after five years of being deeply involved in the various aspects of farming, it’s apparent just how much progress he’s made — both in terms of knowledge, and quietly inspiring others in the community to consider pesticide-free farming. In fact, this year, he even won Krishi Bhavan’s Best Paddy Farmer award.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

One Grain, One Fish

But farming in Alappuzha isn’t easy, and comes with its own unique challenges—in particular, to do with its proximity to the backwaters and excessive salinity in the water. Hormis told us that what really motivated him and gave him the confidence to revive his long-neglected paddy fields was the ‘Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum’ scheme. 

Roughly translating to One Grain, One Fish, this is a project run by the Aquaculture Development Agency of Kerala (ADAK) to encourage farmers to alternate between paddy and prawn farming in the same fields. Cultivating paddy alone was no longer lucrative in Kerala, and so rotating it with fish every six months made it more economical. 

The most interesting part of the Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum project is how it cleverly takes advantage of nature's cycle. During the monsoons, when water levels are high, saline-resistant paddy is planted and groomed. Once monsoon is over, and the salinity tends to be so high that paddy can no longer be grown, the focus shifts to stocking and growing prawn. Paddy stocks left over after harvesting are good natural feed for prawns, and the droppings of prawns are great for paddy.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

The Buoyant Pokkali

At Thekkanatt, they grow Pokkali rice (a variety called Chettiviruppu) alongside tiger prawns. Pokkali is ideal in these regions because of its resistance to salinity and grows up to 1.5 metres, surviving even the high tide. In fact, ‘pokkam’ in Malayalam means height and ‘aali’ signifies rising like a flame. The name Pokkali was derived from this. A common misconception, however, is that Pokkali is the variety of rice, when in fact it is actually a specific method of paddy cultivation. 

There are so many remarkable things about Pokkali, especially in the context of Alappuzha where farmers struggle with high water levels and salinity in their fields. While speaking of some of these challenges, Toshiba said something that stayed with me. “Because it’s Pokkali, no matter how low it lies, it eventually surfaces,” she told us. And this matters because it is this resilience that sets Pokkali apart, especially in a warming world with unpredictable weather patterns. 

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

With Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum as well, the aim has been not only to offer a steady source of income for local farmers, but also to combat climate change. The green revolution is considered by many experts to have been responsible for the loss of many of our diverse heirloom rice varieties. And in a sense, there seems to be a return to some of our old ways and hardier grains. In fact, attempts to conserve indigenous rice varieties are now being made across India — like Basudha’s remarkable work in West Bengal, and the fragrant Tilak Chandran in Uttar Pradesh

And while there are extraordinary stories like these of hope and resistance, it is also important to acknowledge ground realities. That farming isn’t seen as a viable career option in Kerala at present. That even for a farm-owner like Hormis, subsidies and incentives from the government was what proved to be the motivation to pursue farming. That despite his determination and patience, Hormis has been able to sell only a fraction of his harvest in the last 6 to 8 months. That rise in temperatures and floods will continue to impact our farmers. 

As we witness and experience the effects of climate change on farming and food, it’s made me think about how vital it is for us to cultivate a stronger and deeper relationship with what we eat. For me, a good place to begin is to just be curious and open to learning about what we consume, and what’s good for our planet. There is something so powerful and moving about seeing the source of our food up close, and talking to the people who grow it. It makes you realise how much care and effort goes into every step along the way, before we pick it off a shelf, or it lands on our doorstep. 

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

Our visit to Thekkanatt Farms ended in an elaborate and flavourful meal. It was Tharakan’s wife Molly’s birthday, and to celebrate it in this way felt rather special. There was Pokkali, showing off its versatility: as rice, appam, idiyappam and puttu. The colour of the rice—almost purple— was stunning. And the flavour of the rice shone through in each avatar, more pronounced and earthy than the white rice that we’ve gotten used to eating. 

Spending the day at the farm, understanding the labour involved in producing a high-quality grain, and interacting with the people behind it not only gave me a deeper sense of respect for them, but actually made the experience of eating this rice an intensely gratifying and delicious one.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

If you would like to purchase this Pokkali rice from Thekkanatt Farms, you can click on the link below and order the same. There are only a 100 kilos of dehusked Pokkali rice to sell, so don’t forget to make your purchase quickly before it runs out!

Link to buy -

UPDATE : We sold out of the rice within hours of this going live, but don't fret. More is on the way. Thekkanatt Farms will have their next harvest ready by first week of November. If you are interested in signing up for the waitlist, please email me at

While there are numerous reasons why I want to help the folks at Thekkanatt Farms sell the Pokkali rice, here are some of them.

  1. Pokkali is an indigenous rice from Kerala. As our world warms, we need to do as much as we can to conserve local and heirloom varieties. 

  2. Pokkali is not only saline-resistant, but also climate-adaptive—it has the ability to resist sea erosion and weather floods. 

  3. At Thekkanatt, they farm organically, without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. 

  4. As an ingredient, Pokkali is not only wholesome and flavourful but also versatile in its culinary applications.

  5. As a chef, I’m always looking for ways to support people and organisations that are doing good through food. After having visited Thekkanatt, I’m all the more excited to help draw attention to the resilient Pokkali.

(With inputs from Hormis Tharakan, Molly Tharakan, Toshiba Sunil, Rijomon Kareethara, Siju Edathara, Tomy Mathew)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Time is Ripe for a Food Waste Revolution

 This article was originally published in a slightly abridged version in the op-ed page of The Indian Express, dated 7th April 2021 under the title 'Portion Control'. Click here for the online version of the same piece.

Recently, on a food research trip to the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, I was privy to a rather extraordinary traditional ritual. The entire mountain village of Satta in Tons Valley came together on a cold winter morning to slaughter, cook and honour a goat they had partaken in raising for close to a year. Every part of the animal from head to tail—including its skin, internal organs and even the blood — was turned into something useful or delicious. Nothing was wasted. The community’s frugality is in stark contrast to how meat is consumed in most parts of urban India today, where the prime cuts usually prized.

The same prudence can be observed even when you hark back to the way our parents and grandparents approached food and cooking in the past. I clearly remember my grandmother’s fluffy bread upma made from upcycling leftover loaves the next day, or relishing her chakkakuru ularthiyathu, a deliciously, nutty Kerala-style stir fry made with the seeds of ripe jackfruit which would otherwise have been thrown away.

The problem of food waste is a relatively modern one. India is an ancient civilisation and we, as a society, have been prudent about our source of sustenance for millennia. Yet somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this ‘waste not, want not’ mentality.

Nearly 40% of the food produced in India is wasted every year due to fragmented food systems and inefficient supply chains — a figure estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. This is the loss that occurs even before the food reaches the consumer.

Simultaneously, there is a significant amount of food waste generated in our homes. Globally, 61% of total food waste is attributed to households, according to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The same report estimates that a staggering 50 kilograms of food is thrown away per person every year in Indian homes.

This excess food waste conventionally ends up in landfill, creating potent greenhouse gases which have dire implications on the climate. Meanwhile the ‘woke’ among us continue to be greenwashed into amassing more ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ products than we really need.

This blatant irony has been plaguing our food system for decades, and worsening with time. It was only until the crippling COVID-19 pandemic came along in 2020 that many of us began taking note. Affluent Indians were suddenly inconvenienced by things otherwise taken for granted, like procuring groceries or worrying about how long their supplies would last. We came to realise that the food we eat goes far beyond the few bites it takes for us to finish it. We started becoming more conscious of our food choices.

The pandemic not only exposed the problems pivoting on food waste but also compounded them. In the wake of the lockdown imposed in March last year, surplus stocks of grain hoarded by the government — pegged at 65 lakh tonnes in the first four months of 2020 — continued to rot in godowns across India. Access to food became extremely scarce for the poor, especially the daily-wage labourers. Although essential commodities were exempt from movement restrictions, farmers across the country struggled to access markets, resulting in tonnes of food waste. Meanwhile, instinctive hoarding by the middle class disrupted the value chain, further aggravating the conundrum.

So how can we, as individuals, bring about change? The astonishing statistics of food waste attributed to households and their irresponsible consumption patterns means that change needs to begin in our own homes.  Calculated purchasing when buying groceries, minimising single-use packaging wherever possible, ordering consciously from restaurants, and reconsidering extravagant buffet spreads at weddings can go a long way. At the community level, one can identify and get involved with organisations such as Coimbatore-based No Food Waste which aims to redistribute excess food — especially from weddings and events — to feed the needy and hungry.

A strong sense of judiciousness in how we consume our food is the next logical step. We must attempt to change our ‘food abundance’ mindset to a ‘food scarcity’ one, slowly working our way towards a zero-waste end goal. And for the food that is left behind? Feed someone else or, at the very least, compost it so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

Be open to incorporating nose-to-tail cooking when it comes to meat and seafood (fish head makes a fantastic curry so don’t throw it away!). Moreover, the roots, shoots, leaves and stalks of most vegetables are perfectly edible. Regional Indian recipes like surnoli, a Mangalorean dosa made with watermelon rind, or gobhi danthal sabzi made with cauliflower stalks and leaves in Punjab, are born out of the ideas of frugality and respect for our food. The Bengalis adopt a root-to-shoot philosophy throughout their cuisine — thor ghonto  is a curry comprising tender banana stems, while ucche pata bora  are fritters made with bitter gourd leaves.

You can start with influencing simple decisions about food consumption in your own home, and then get people in your immediate community to join through the power and reach of social media. Acquainting oneself with and supporting initiatives proactively working towards reducing food waste, and encouraging others to do the same, is yet another way to disseminate awareness.

Adrish, India’s first chain of zero-waste concept stores opened in 2018 and has a presence in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, with more cities on the horizon. Focused on getting people to shift from harmful, artificial consumption to an eco-friendly, zero-waste lifestyle, they believe this is achievable by providing sustainable and biodegradable alternatives — ingredients and products sold in reusable packaging while supporting marginal farmers and artists. Incidentally, the word ‘adrish’ translates to ‘mirror’. And a long, hard look at ourselves and the way we consume is perhaps what we need right now to begin making even a small difference.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Here's to the Mothers: What I Learnt from the Main Women in my Life

For Mothers’ Day, chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen pays tribute to the women in his life. This piece was originally written for the online edition of Conde Nast Traveller in lieu of Mother's Day.

If professional chefs moonlighted as superheroes, many of our origin stories would find their root in our home kitchens. Having spoken with colleagues in the food industry and interviewed countless aspiring cooks over the past decade, a common thread I’ve noticed is how passion for this line of work is most often attributed to those early memories of learning from the women who have raised them. My story isn’t very different either.

Growing up in Kerala, I had two very strong feminine personalities who shaped my upbringing: my mother Cynthia (Amma) and her mother, my grandmother Ammini    (Ammamma). It goes without saying that matriarchs play a very, if not the most, significant role in the kind of adults we grow up to be. In my case, they also deeply impacted and moulded me into the chef I am today, although the lessons I learnt from each of them were very  different.


The pursuit of excellence in life and food   
My mother always believed in pursuing excellence. Why settle for less if you have the willingness and capability  to rise to the top? Whether it was a mid-term exam or a craft project, Amma instilled in me, very early on, the drive to approach things with enthusiasm and resolve. 

Ammamma was an avid gourmand. Part of the local cooking club in Kochi, she even ran her own catering company from the late 1970s all the way to 1990. Once, she even catered a wedding party for 5,000 people with the limited resources of a home kitchen! While she would always experiment with new recipes she came across in magazines or TV shows, she also knew that the most memorable meals were those rooted in familiarity and tradition. That’s something I’ve imbibed in my professional cooking as well. 

My earliest memories of learning how to cook go back to when I could barely reach the kitchen counter. I must’ve been seven or eight years old, spending most afternoons post school in my grandmother’s kitchen helping with simple tasks like peeling onions, washing vegetables or squeezing out fresh coconut milk. How wonderstruck I felt watching her transform simple, everyday ingredients into mind-bogglingly, delicious dishes. It wasn’t just the feasts she put up on special occasions like Christmas or Easter that stood out. Every meal was an event, and every dish including the cucumber and onion salad accompaniment on the table was just perfect. There was a certain magic in even the simplest rice gruel kanji she made which lifted our moods instantly. It was this powerful ability to create lasting memories through her food that really got me hooked onto cooking.  I wanted that superpower for myself. a realization that eventually led to my career choice once I discovered that professional cooking was legit.

How to take pleasure in the small things
Amma was a great cook too, although she didn’t cook often. Even before I reached my teens, she would take me on her daily visits to the local food market. I remember being in awe of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded us as we navigated through the hustle and bustle of Kochi’s vegetable and meat shops. It was on those shopping runs that I got my first insights into appreciating quality and choosing the best ingredients. The peculiar aroma of ripe jackfruit, and the glossy slime retained on fresh karimeen fish were good signs, I had learnt. I also witnessed first-hand, the respect with which she interacted with the vendors, an act which didn’t go unnoticed and brought smiles to their faces each time.

Ammamma, on the other hand, loved the very act of cooking as much as the end result. She found joy in the little things, like the aroma of curry leaves spluttering in hot coconut oil, or the crackling sound that the tadka made when poured into a pulissery. She taught me the importance of seasonality and cooking with local ingredients long before it became fashionable. There was a certain romance in waiting longingly for koorka, those nutty peanut potatoes, to come into season every summer; or buying sardines at a time when they were so fatty that she would fry them with their scales intact, allowing them to steam in their own aromatic fat. 

The importance of balance 
Amma was an extremely hardworking and busy woman who had to juggle her day job – of being Cochin’s first woman stockbroker, as well as run a house. Like her, Ammamma too was an efficient multi-tasker, albeit in the kitchen, juggling multiple dishes on the stove at the same time. Her beef meatball specialty would be finished with freshly chopped cilantro, while she stir-fried the spicy raw banana olathiyathu on the side. There was something so special about how effortless she made it all seem, although in retrospect, I know how much effort went into her cooking. She was meticulous and purposeful, insisting for example, that the mortar and pestle was critical to coax the best flavors out of the ingredients when making green chilli chutney for the boiled tapioca.

Both Ammamma and Amma believed in the importance of finding balance. I’ve heard fascinating stories from Amma’s closest college friends of how she was always the life of the party and the troublemaker in the group, but still managed to top the university examinations. Balance on the other hand for Ammamma meant adding a little sugar when the spice levels of the egg roast needed toning down, or a splash of vinegar to brighten up her fabulous duck curry.

The power of kindness
For both of them, the family always came before everything else, a value they eschewed deeply in me through years of gentle conditioning. Perhaps, food came a close second. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of road trips we made together. We always went to the same hill station of Kodaikanal, stayed at the same Sterling resort, and bought homemade chocolates from the same shop near the lake. Food was of paramount importance on these excursions, with every meal being enthusiastically planned among us right from thoran and beef fry Ammamma packed for dinner, to the lime juice and snacks she would prepare for the 10 hour drive. Oh! how I long to taste those delicious ham sandwiches again! 

But the everlasting lesson learnt from them is to be kind and compassionate. Their generosity, both within the realms of cooking and outside of it, is something I continuously strive to match up to. 

Ammamma passed away a few years ago, but she lives on in all of us, especially her children. Incidentally, Amma and Ammamma were born on the same date - August 15th. Amma’s now a grandmother to my two nephews, and watching her teach them cooking and showering them with mouth-watering food brings me so much perspective. Life has truly come a full circle. The lessons they are learning today are no different from those I was privy to. And boy, are we all the better for it. Happy Mother’s Day Amma and Ammamma. Thank you for making me who I am today. I am forever grateful.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Learning to Cook Intuitively

What if I told you that you may have gotten it wrong if you’ve been cooking from recipes this whole time  that you need to rethink blindly following precise measurements and instead stick to a more intuitive technique? 

While recipes have been carefully documented in other parts of the world, they have typically evaded our formal archives in India. Our gastronomic heritage and knowledge of food lie tucked away in the minds of our mothers and grandmothers, and in a few cases, in the men of the family too. Without written records, we have primarily relied on the entire culinary heritage of our country being passed on from one generation to the next orally. Sure, there have been countless recipe books on regional Indian cuisines written already — some of them by these very gatekeepers of our heritage  and there will be many more to come as well. But for the average person to figure out which of these documentations are accurate and reliable is a feat in itself. 

Yet you also probably find it frustrating that your mother is often vague about ingredient quantities and cooking durations when trying to teach you your favorite recipe. The fact that she struggles to put into words the amount of haldi needed in the dal or how long to cook the onions for the biryani is reflective of a larger cultural phenomenon that is embedded in the Indian way of cooking. I’m referring to the concept of andaaza, one which has truly stood the test of time. 

Andaaza is an Urdu word that loosely translates to ‘estimation’. But in the culinary context, it's a little more varied. Cooking with andaaza means to cook intuitively. There’s a rhythm to cooking andaaze se, a lovely waltz performed between the cook and the ingredients embracing each other in the quest to create something spectacular. It means to cook from the heart, using all the senses in union -- a sort of antonym to using a rigid recipe. 

Andaaza is not an innate instinct you’re born with, but a learned and accumulated wisdom. The general notion is that it needs to be honed over years of cooking alongside an expert, but I’ve started to realize that you can begin to acquire it even with a few sincere attempts. Having spent the last few weeks of lockdown helping out friends and family with their culinary conundrums over long voice notes, and consciously being ambiguous when sharing quantities with strangers through social media, I’ve noticed that even the most novice cooks start to become more mindful.

This might sound like a controversial statement to make but I’m beginning to believe that the trick to learning how to cook better is to develop your own andaaza. It therefore becomes essential to throw out the recipe book altogether, figuratively speaking of course. 

The most important tactic to building andaaza is to avoid following precise measurements or senselessly rushing through a recipe. You need to slow down. It may seem counter-intuitive, I know, and perhaps even disconcerting, but to build intuition, you have to tap into your instincts. Yes, you’ll make mistakes  several of them, perhaps. But fear and self-doubt have no place in the kitchen. Learning how to cook well is a deliberate process that requires patience, observation and perseverance. With time and a little kindness towards yourself, you’ll start to grasp and understand the essence of cooking. 

In fact, there is a stronger logic to support my argument of why exacting recipes are flawed when measured against this instinctive manner of cooking. Firstly, 99.99% of recipes are written with volume measurements involving teaspoons and cups and such to specify the quantity of ingredients. However, as professional chefs know only too well, volume is a highly inaccurate way of measurement when it comes to recipes. A cup of curry leaves, for example, can vary in actual quantity by even 50% depending on how big the leaves are or how tightly you pack it in the cup. Even a teaspoon of turmeric can be significantly different when measured by different people, either because of how dense it is or how heaped or flat the powder is on the spoon.

The most reliable and experienced cookbook authors are aware of this and facilitate multiple rounds of recipe-testing conducted by amateurs as well as experts, after which the data is edited based on a weighted average. The relatively more accurate alternative to volume measurements in recipes is using weight  measuring ingredients in grams and kilograms. But even with this method, there are too many variables because you’re still working with something as organic as food that constantly varies in its composition. For instance, even the most exacting weight measurements do not account for the variations in sourness or sweetness of a lime, the ripeness of a tomato, or even the saltiness of salt.

The certainty of a written recipe can be comforting in the beginning, but be cautious of getting trapped in its perils and inaccuracies. Besides, what the andaaza approach lacks for in tangibility, it more than makes up for in its sense of discovery and adventure. 

Is there a way to find middle ground then, between an ancient, more instinctive approach and a modern, measured one? Well, I’d say there is and that one way to tackle this lies in observing the professional kitchen. Although standardized recipes are imperative in restaurant kitchens for consistency, cooks are also trained to use their judgments to a certain extent, using constantly honed recipes as references. Once the dishes are complete, it is tasted and checked by the chef and feedback is given on what could’ve been done differently, if any. In this way, the cook is able to learn and apply that knowledge the next time around, thereby improving his or her culinary aptitude and expertise.

If you are new to cooking and yearning to find joy in it, I’d recommend that you try an approach similar to this. Even if you are following a recipe, use it merely as a starting point. Begin by reading it a few times and understanding what the author is trying to convey. Follow this with listing down the ingredients in the order in which they’re meant to be added and then put away the recipe. 

At this point, let your own andaaza  however underdeveloped it may be  take over. Try to remain in the moment, observing how the ingredients react and respond to stimulus, like say the pressure of the knife or the application of heat. If it goes well, pat yourself on the back and relish your wonderful creation. If the result isn’t what hoped it would be, swallow your pride and trust that it will be better next time.

By using your existing andaaza and sharpening it over time, at least you’ll be putting a little of yourself into the food you’re preparing, instead of blindly following someone else’s strict instructions. In a way, you’re striving to make the dish your own.

Honing your andaaza will take time and a certain amount of relentless pursuit laden with frustrations along the way. But I promise you that the journey is as rewarding as the destination. Learning to cook more intuitively is filled with its own kind of addictive romance, rewards and exhilarations. And as someone who enjoys cooking with andaaza, my sincere hope is that you discover it too.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Locking Down Your Quarantine Pantry

Let’s face it. The chances are that you’re barely stepping out of your homes right now. Your grocery runs are limited to once a week, if that. Figuring out how and where your next meal is coming from features high up on your daily radar. So, regardless of how challenging or easy preparing food is at the moment, keeping your kitchen pantry and refrigerator well stocked is a good idea and will alleviate the burden of uncertainty at least within the kitchen.

Now when I decide what to keep in my “quarantine pantry”, I can’t help but put on a chef’s thinking hat - dividing ingredients into categories so that it’s a reasonably exhaustive list and consciously making smart choices about my purchases. Given that the predicament you’re all in couldn’t be too different, I figured a catalogue like this might be helpful for some of you, at least as a starting point for how to put together your own pantry wish list.

While compiling this, I have considered not just the versatility of individual ingredients but also how a combination of these could expand your world of culinary possibilities during this quarantine. The reason I have broken the ingredients down into different groups is also to help make your own buying decisions easier.

Here’s a confession. I do secretly wish I could sneak into our kitchen at The Bombay Canteen right now and smuggle out some of the more harder-to-source ingredients like kodampuli and Goan sausage, or even get my hands on the bounty of summer veggies like jackfruit seeds and turmeric leaves--which would’ve been in abundance in the markets at this time. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to be content and grateful for what I have. So I’ve skipped out on the really hard-to-source stuff. 

This list might feel very ambitious right now but it’s meant to be an optimistic one, and we could all use a bit of hope in times like this, right? It is unlikely that you’ll be able to source everything that’s suggested given that most local shops don't stock up on all of them. And that’s okay. Honestly, I don’t have every single one of these ingredients in my pantry either. It’s meant to be a master list, a framework of reference for when you do get lucky and chance upon these items. And I certainly hope you do.

Thinking Through the Pantry

Let’s start with the essentials. Apart from rice and wheat flour which I assume you already have, diversifying your stock of beans and pulses is a clever idea. A combination of rajma (kidney beans), kabuli chana (chickpeas) and a split lentil like moong dal should do the trick, but feel free to go crazy with this one because they typically come cheap. For your breakfast fix, you could conjure up a dozen options with just rava (semolina) but things like poha help break the monotony every now and then. Eggs are probably my favorite thing on this list, not just because of its countless applications but also because I’m a sucker for breakfasty food at all times of the day. Once you supplement these staples with some super versatile ingredients like onion, potato, tomato, ginger, garlic and green chilli, you could cook up a whole lot of simple but wholesome dishes. Coconut milk and yogurt may seem like non-essentials currently but given their adaptability and their contribution to the world of curries, stews, marinades and sauces, I’ve included them in this category. 

While many of you will have a basic vegetable oil at home, investing in a few different cooking mediums helps change things up with each meal. Ghee is fantastic not just to make curries and biryanis but also to cook eggs with and sauté greens. Best of all, unlike butter it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and we all know how precious refrigerator space is at a time like this. Apart from this, flavorful cooking oils like mustard oil and coconut oil act as great substitutes for vegetable oil when you want to alter the flavor direction of the dish.

Next, it’s time to think of flavor boosters and balancers. If your essentials are going to form the bulk of your food, then this category is going to make sure that your dishes continue to be unique, exciting and delicious. Herbs and spices are going to be your best friends until this tides over. Cilantro and curry leaves are must-haves for me but if you can get your hands on aromatics like spring onion, basil and rosemary, you’re golden! If you’re going to be cooking a lot of Indian food, then whole spices like black mustard and cumin as well as spice powders like turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing and black pepper are a must. I also keep what I call ancillary spices - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom - if I’m going to be making pulaos or biryanis. Apart from these, condiments can do wonders to spruce up a stir-fry, salad or even some grilled vegetables but since they don’t usually come cheap, you could avoid them. I’m a sucker for a good soy sauce, a small bottle of fish sauce, a nice lime pickle and of course, Sriracha. Thank god for Sriracha!

Most dishes you cook will beg for some form of sourness to either elevate it, so having a stash of limes, some dried tamarind or kokum, and a bottle of vinegar – apple cider, red wine or even just the synthetic kind - will come in quite handy. These are particularly crucial if you want to balance out your curries and bakes with lighter salads during the week. With acidity comes a need for sweeteners. If stocking up on honey, jaggery or brown sugar seems like a luxury, you could use plain white sugar which should also do the trick in most cases.

When it comes to veggies, go with your gut instinct or favorites unless you’re feeling extra experimental. The more versatile the vegetable -- like say baingan (eggplant), cauliflower or capsicum (green bell pepper) -- the better. I’ve been eating cabbage, karela (bitter gourd), bhindi (okra), cucumber and green beans just because my local sabziwala has them in abundance and in suprisingly pristine quality. If you’re low on refrigerator space, invest in more sturdy gourds, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins which can be kept out for weeks without spoilage. Make sure you try to include leafy greens like spinach, or even better, things like methi (fenugreek leaves), lal math (red amaranth) and poi saag (Malabar spinach) which are in their prime in the months of March and April. Mushrooms are precious at a time like this when our protein supply is limited yet still crave those meaty flavors.

Speaking of meaty, if you’re not a vegetarian, chances are that you’re likely to be craving meat and seafood, now more than ever. Supply chains and sources for these are a little more challenged right now, so my advice is to take what you can get. The easiest to find should be chicken. I typically buy only chicken legs because they’re more flavorful and end up being juicier in practically every cooking application of poultry. Do not waste your time on the breast. If you can find shrimp or mutton, grab them! If you’re looking to be prudent, now is a great time to be cooking less expensive fish like sardines and anchovies, offals like chicken gizzards and liver, and less popular meat cuts like goat trotters or nalli.

If you’re looking to bake with all the free time you now have, your pantry should have baking powder, baking soda, yeast and butter at the very least. Cooking chocolate and heavy cream will be a nice addition too.

In case you’re one of the lucky few that has some certainty of a steady income over the next several months or are willing to splurge, there are a few things you can get to prepare that one-off, fancy schmancy meal.  If you like Italian or European food, try finding some pasta (any pasta), extra virgin olive oil, good cheese and maybe even salumi and olives. I get cravings for Thai curry every now and then, so I try to get my hands on a decent curry paste or even Thai aromatics like lemon grass, limes leaves and galangal so I can make my own. For that salad dinner I alluded to earlier, hunt for whatever lettuce is available like iceberg or romaine. English vegetables like snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli and fennel are particularly apt if you’re making roasted veggies, pasta or to top that pizza you’ve been aspiring to make. Dry fruits like prunes or dates and nuts like peanuts and almonds will add a really lovely contrast to salads, stir fries and even in dessert, not to mention doubling up as great snacks through the day.

Here’s the entire list in decreasing order of usefulness. Happy cooking!

The Full Quarantine Pantry List

Cooking mediums
Vegetable oil
Mustard oil
Coconut oil

Flour or atta
Pulses & legumes - rajma, channa, moong dal
Breakfast – rava, poha
Onion, potato, tomato, garlic, ginger, green chilli
Coconut milk

Flavor boosters & balancers
Cilantro, curry leaves, basil, spring onion, rosemary

Powdered - turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing, black pepper
Whole – black mustard, cumin
Ancillary - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom

Sauces & condiments 
Soy sauce, fish sauce, pickle, sriracha or some red chilli sauce

Sour punch
Limesdried tamarind or kokum, vinegar (apple cider/red wine/synthetic)

Honey, jaggery, brown sugar

Eggplant, cauliflower, capsicum, cabbage, karela, bhindi, cucumber, green beans, etc.
Gourds, sweet potatoes, pumpkins
Spinach, methi, lal math, poi saag

Chicken legs (on or off the bone), shrimp, mutton
Sardines, anchovies
Chicken gizzards, chicken liver, nalli

Baking supplies
Baking powder
Baking soda
Cooking chocolate
Heavy cream

Pasta or noodles
Extra virgin olive oil
Cheese, salumi & olives
Thai curry paste or thai aromatics (lemon grass, galangal, lime leaves)
Salad lettuce – iceberg, romaine
English vegetables – snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli,  fennel 
Dry fruits – prunes, dates, peanuts, almonds