It would be an understatement to say that Radhika Khandelwal, founder of Fig & Maple—Delhi & Goa—simply experiments with traditional Indian dishes by giving them a modern spin. What she does, in fact, is pretty audacious. Pushing culinary boundaries and infusing nostalgia with contemporary gastronomic styles is an art, and it is something that the 35-year-old has been doing since she started her rooftop restaurant in New Delhi in 2016.
"At Fig & Maple, our menu embodies India's diverse flavours in a playful, innovative manner rooted in contemporary culinary artistry. For example, the 'Sabudana Risotto' is an homage to my childhood favourite, the sabudana khichdi, which has been reimagined into a culinary marvel. Similarly, the 'Mathri with Crab Cakes and Fish Roe Pickle' is a harmonious twist on the humble North Indian tea-time snack mathri and achar. All these fusion dishes stand as a testament to our vision," says Khandelwal, whose tryst with local, homegrown foods has been long and strong.
In the last year or so, Khandelwal and her team have travelled across the country to hunt for unique indigenous and locally grown foods. "At our establishment, we recognize the importance of preserving biodiversity and celebrating the richness of indigenous ingredients," she explains.
However, she recently picked up an observation—the diners in Delhi were less open to trying out dishes featuring lesser-known foods or ingredients than the audience in their Goa edition of Fig & Maple. "Conventional labelling on the menu tends to deter individuals from trying new and unconventional flavours. As a response, we are trying to bridge this gap by introducing these ingredients with more descriptive and enticing names, such as 'Monsoon Bounty Mushrooms' & 'Seasonal Forest Greens', making them approachable and intriguing for our patrons. It adds curiosity and fosters a sense of adventure among guests," she says.
Today, she shares five lesser-known food finds she foraged during her excursions across the length and breadth of India, foods that she has seamlessly infused and elevated her existing menu with.
Named so for the serrated edges of its leaves, Kaane Dhaniya or Sawtooth Coriander is a captivating and hardy herb historically used by Indo-Chinese folks as a medicine for diverse ailments.
Khandelwal describes her introduction to Kaane Dhaniya as serendipitous: an unfamiliar herb with a unique flavour profile—reminiscent of coriander with subtle hints of lime—brought from the northeast by her manager.
"I found its appeal very captivating and began substituting the regular coriander with it in my culinary experiments. The discovery opened a new avenue in my kitchen, offering a fresh and exciting twist to familiar flavours. We now grow it at our rooftop in Delhi and our Goa establishment," says Khandelwal.
At Fig and Maple, Kaane Dhaniya finds its spotlight in their rendition of Thecha, a spicy Maharashtrian condiment traditionally made with green chillies, garlic, and coriander. "By infusing its leaves into this fiery accompaniment, the Thecha gets a tantalising twist that not only packs a punch but also offers a refreshing citrusy note, elevating the entire dining experience," says she.
Another delightful creation featuring Kaane Dhaniya is their Coriander Lime Sauce paired with succulent prawns and spaghetti. "Here, we blend the unique herb with lime to craft a vibrant and aromatic sauce that perfectly complements the flavours of the prawns. The herb's coriander-like essence, enhanced by its subtle lime undertones, adds a refreshing dimension to the dish, creating a harmonious balance of flavours," adds Khandelwal.
One of the distinct advantages of Sawtooth Coriander lies in its robustness for drying. Unlike its annual counterpart, this herb retains its flavour even after drying, making it an excellent choice for those seeking a more sustainable source of coriander flavour throughout the year.
The cane fruit emerges in clusters on the rattan palm tree, a thorny vine whose woody stems are used for the wildly popular cane furniture production, and is found in abundance in Manipur. Visually, it resembles a cross between a lychee and snake fruit (salak); taste-wise, it boasts an extraordinary tanginess, leaving a lingering sourness on the palate.
My introduction to this exotic fruit was another fascinating discovery facilitated by Fima, her manager at Fig and Maple. Its unique sourness sparked our culinary imagination, and we experimented with it by blending it into our ceviche. "The fruit's tangy essence adds an unexpected and delightful dimension to the dish as the tartness intertwines with the other flavours in the ceviche to create a harmonious blend that teases the taste buds and offers a surprising burst of freshness," explains Khandelwal.
During one of their rainy season expeditions to the Konkan region of Maharashtra, best known for Sawantwadi toys, Khandelwal and her colleagues spotted a local lady collecting Takla from the roadside. On engaging with her, they learned that the locals refrain from fishing during the breeding season (monsoon) and instead replace the meat by harvesting these abundant wild greens for their nutritional needs that thrive only during the monsoon.
Inspired by Takla's significance in local Maharashtrian diets, Khandelwal incorporated it into their Goa restaurant's culinary creations. In their mushroom dumplings, for example, she replaces the usual tree spinach with fresh Takla, an infusion that adds a distinct taste and nutritional dimension to the dish.
"Observing Takla growing abundantly in the region, I've witnessed its prevalence across the landscape. Its seasonal utilisation in our menu not only reflects its nutritional significance but also pays homage to the regional culinary traditions shaped by the changing seasons," explains Khandelwal.
Olmi mushrooms were an exquisite find for Khandelwal on one of her foraging trips in the Western Ghats. Nestled within the monsoon-enriched forests of Goa, primarily in talukas like Valpoi, Sattari, and Canacona, these mushrooms presented themselves as an ephemeral culinary treasure.
"Olmi mushrooms thrive during the monsoon season and have an intricate relationship with their habitat. They're notably harvested from termite hill habitats, and the fun fact is that each variety of Olmi mushrooms bears names that reflect their habitat, shape, colour, and fruiting season. When I encountered these remarkable mushrooms, I knew I had to include this gastronomical delight in my menu. This firsthand experience deepened my appreciation for local biodiversity. It inspired me to incorporate these indigenous treasures into our culinary creations, celebrating their unique characteristics and seasonal presence in our dishes."
At the Goa edition of Fig and Maple, you'll find Olmi mushrooms tucked inside their delectable dumplings and infused in their sago risotto. Their umami richness imparts a deep, earthy taste, effectively showcasing their versatility and celebrating local produce.
It is a resilient and fast-growing shrub with many health benefits and culinary potential, a nutritional powerhouse that thrives in tropical regions like Goa, Chaya or tree spinach. And despite its remarkable attributes—rich in vitamins A, C, and K and antioxidants—Chaya remains relatively underexplored in contemporary gastronomy.
"Its abundant growth along the roadsides piqued my curiosity, and after consulting a horticulturist, I discovered that these prolific greens were, in fact, a weed, albeit an edible one. The tree spinach's vibrant green leaves hint at earthiness and flavour robustness. Exploring this edible weed has been an enlightening experience. We began cultivating it in our premises and have grown an ample supply; it's all ready to debut on our menu this season," says Khandelwal.
Chaya is the unsung hero of green leafy vegetables and stands poised to revolutionise gastronomy, offering taste and becoming a gateway to a healthier, more sustainable culinary landscape.
Khandelwal's journey with these rare finds has been a testament to the wonders of nature and its capacity to surprise us, humans, with unexpected flavours. The idea is to keep exploring their full potential by experimenting with more innovative ways to incorporate these distinct sensitivities into their culinary creations.