Chef Prateek Sadhu On Cooking With Wild Foraged Foods
The Indian food scene is being celebrated like never before with talented chefs like Chef Prateek Sadhu plating up India's unique culinary traditions and lesser-known ingredients for global gourmands. Chef Sadhu, the former executive chef of the ingredient-driven fine dining restaurant Masque in Mumbai, spoke to Outlook Traveller in an exclusive interview, about how his passion for cooking developed, his favourite wild foods to cook with and what the future holds for India's culinary industry.
Over the years, you have earned so many accolades. How did your passion for cooking develop?
I was born in Kashmir, so the mountains were my home. However, in the 1990s, we had to migrate due to the political unrest that made us refugees in our own country. Therefore, food was central while growing up—it anchored me to my heritage and where I came from.
But I still didn't think I would grow up to become a chef. Instead, I always wanted to become a pilot. But life took its course, and I got through a hotel management school, where just a few months in, I realised that food is what I wanted to pursue professionally.
You have used foraged foods extensively as a central ingredient in your cooking. What got you interested in them?
When you grow up in the mountains, especially in Kashmir, wild foods become a part of most meals. So, I was introduced to them when I was very young. Even at home, we still eat many wild or foraged foods.
Growing up, I never thought about them as rare or significant. However, when I started cooking professionally, I started learning all I could about wild foods across India, be it from forests, mountains, or plains. That yearning to know more about them deepened when I co-founded Masque.
It was at that point that I started experimenting with them more. All I wanted to do through my cooking was to celebrate the wild foods I had grown up eating or discovered along the way through my travels—whether it be the summer berries growing in the Himalayan belt, sea buckthorn from Ladakh, or dandelion from Kashmir, or seasonal herbs found in the forests of Maharashtra.
Which wild food is your favourite to cook with?
It's been a decade since I started using wild foods in my cooking and researching about them; my favourite ingredient remains the sea buckthorn that grows wild in Ladakh.
Interestingly, I first heard about it while working in Denmark in 2000, as it was very popular there and a delicacy. When I returned to India and extensively researched wild foods for my restaurant, I was surprised to find it growing in abundance in Ladakh. It was everywhere in the region, especially in August, so I foraged about 100 kg and brought it back to my restaurant to experiment with it.
We experimented with it at Masque in so many new and contemporary ways from making sorbets to broth.
What do you think has contributed to the growing popularity of wild foods?
I don't consider the usage of wild foods as an emerging trend. Instead, it has been around since ancient times and has always been part of the food system—whether you observe the food culture of the Northeast, Western Ghats, or the Kashmir Valley.
However, with industrialisation and supermarkets taking over, our attention shifted from these native ingredients. But with chefs learning, experimenting and exploring more, these wild or foraged foods, which have always been a part of our food culture, have been reintroduced to people. Moreover, there has also been a shift in how we recognise Indian cuisine. We have finally come to acknowledge how diverse it is, with chefs focussing heavily on regionality. And these changes have been due to the much-needed conversation around sustainability prevalent in the culinary industry.
How do you think their popularity impacts the local communities traditionally dependent on it?
It is undoubtedly a very exciting time for Indian food culture as the conversation around it is changing—and for the better. Not only chefs but even consumers have become more aware of ingredients native to India—their inherent uniqueness is finally being acknowledged by the Indian culinary industry, with many restaurants experimenting with them and reinterpreting them to suit the modern palate.
Local communities that have traditionally depended on them continue to benefit as they finally get a platform to share their culinary heritage and even earn a living from it due to their demand in the market.
How do you perceive the future of wild foods in the Indian culinary industry?
When it comes to India's wild foods, we are only scratching the surface right now. There's still so much to explore and learn about. Even though we've only just begun, and there's a long way to go, the fact that we're at this stage is worth celebrating.
The Indian culinary industry is at the cusp of a renaissance, and this focus on celebrating native wild foods will only strengthen. Simultaneously, the fact that we are finally taking notice of our regional diversity–especially regarding the ingredients offered to play with–promises exciting times ahead. Finally, every region gets to lay its story and history on a plate for the world.