Exploring India’s Indigenous Food Culture With Chef Vanika Choudhary

The chef behind the city’s hottest farm-to-table restaurants talks fermentation, foraging and forging food-fuelled connections with communities – and shares her tips for exploring Mumbai

Vanika Choudhary is on a mission. The chef behind two of Mumbai's hottest restaurants, Sequel and Noon, wants to move the spotlight from the glimmering chef whites of the city's glitziest kitchens and instead illuminate the farmers and food producers growing the ingredients that make Mumbai's most prestigious menus possible. A figurehead in developing the city's farm-to-fork movement, Choudhary is reshaping local and international perceptions of Mumbai's restaurant scene.

Hyper-regional cuisines, seasonal ingredients and the use of traditional techniques including foraging and formention underpin the cooking at Sequel and Noon. Choudhary takes inspiration both from her childhood, in Jammu and Kashmir, and from collaborations with communities inhabiting India's diverse compass points. We asked her to tell us the story of the city's growing farm-to-food movement, and give us her tips for visiting Mumbai.

In conversation with chef Vanika Choudhary

Vanika Choudhary
Noon, Mumbai, India

Choudhary at Noon, left, and a restaurant table | Photo credit (l): Kashvi Gidwani

Tell us about your restaurants, Sequel and Noon.

Both my restaurant concepts have stemmed from a need to spotlight the intricacies of the farm-to-table movement in India. The concept development for Noon specifically began while I was pregnant… I had just found out; it was a really joyful moment. I instantly started craving achar, kanji and gucchi pulao, dishes that I ate growing up. I thought about this craving, my pride, and my connection to my heritage. It was then that the concept for Noon was born -- I wanted to create something entirely original and progressive.

You've been at the forefront of India's farm-to-table movement since you founded Sequel in 2016. Why were you drawn to this ethos?

Our ethos is driven by a need to shine a light on the misconceptions surrounding Indian cuisine and culture, which remain misunderstood and underrepresented from both a consumer and tourism perspective. Several cities across the world have gained widespread exposure and recognition for their cuisine; Mumbai's restaurant dining scene hasn't had the same recognition.

Despite Mumbai's emergence and growth, areas like Rajasthan and Kerala continue to overshadow it. There's a prevailing misconception that Mumbai is merely a financial district, obscuring the city's rich and diverse offerings. As Mumbai evolves into a fine-dining and tourism destination, I believe that the spotlight will pivot towards the farmers themselves. Although there has been a growing awareness in India towards eating locally and seasonally, it's becoming more visible and widespread.

Dish, Noon, Mumbai, India
Miso, Noon, Mumbai, India

Fermented heirloom tomatoes, left, and gunpowder miso ferment at Noon

Noon is inspired by your Kashmiri heritage. Why did you want to focus on the region's food?

I'm from the Jammu and Kashmir region, which is also misunderstood. While people celebrate Wazwan food, they often overlook Kashmiri Pandit food or cuisine from Jammu, which is essentially the Dogra cuisine. As so much of our cultural heritage hasn't been documented, we lack the understanding. I spend so much time with individual communities in order to re-communicate the story of food, reshaping our attitude towards the food of our ancestors.

Why is incorporating indigenous food culture important to you?

My food philosophy stems from a desire to retell the story of our ancestors, reiterating what they learned through foraging and meticulous [preparation] processes. There is so much to be learned from what our predecessors ate: it's a culture that we can't afford to lose, and I want to preserve it for future generations. This principle is integral to what we are doing at Noon, as we strive to create a movement that is dedicated to moving forward while cherishing what has been passed down through generations.

There is so much to be learned from what our predecessors ate… I want to preserve it for future generations

You use fermentation and foraging a lot in the kitchen - why is that?

Fermentation plays a pivotal role in our kitchen - it's a technique deeply ingrained in the culinary traditions of my heritage. The kitchen's commitment to this method is reflected in our close partnership with Ladakh Basket, a social enterprise dedicated to transformative change and empowering women in the community while enhancing the region's biodiversity. This initiative is crucial as it addresses the erosion of Ladakh's culinary heritage, where foraging practices had ceased.

We've also forged strong connections with the central-western regions of Maharashtra and the tribal communities in Neral and Palghar, exploring the freshest seasonal wild foods with these communities and aiming to reintroduce forgotten ingredients and reclaim culinary diversity. Foraging is at the heart of our philosophy; it emphasises resourcefulness and the championing of lesser-known produce. This philosophy places fermentation at the forefront of our culinary approach. In the high-altitude regions of Ladakh, we source indigenous ingredients such as skotse (wild garlic chives), kosnyot (wild caraway seeds), apricots, catmint, and more.

Let's talk Mumbai. Describe the city in three words.

Eclectic, alive, pluralistic.

Where should we stay in the city?

You should stay in Colaba and explore this artistic neighbourhood. A part of the old Bombay, Colaba, to me, acts as a reminder to slow down a little. With lush green trees and a treasure trove of art of all sorts, it is full of life; home to decades-old cafés, colonial-era buildings and monuments. The past, the present and the future all seem to co-exist here.

Vanika Choudhary
Sequel, Mumbai, India

Choudhary, left, and bread baked using heritage techniques

Any under-the-radar neighbourhoods we should check out?

Mumbai is truly a melting pot of cultures. Many communities co-exist here, some native to this region and some who have migrated and carved out a home in the city. The Worli Koliwada region in Mumbai is home to the Koli community, the indigenous inhabitants of Mumbai. This neighbourhood has beautiful mural paintings of fishes, and there's a strong sense of community, especially among the fishermen. A day here will make you realise how this community has shaped this city's culture. If you are lucky enough to have friends in the Koli community who take you fishing in the morning, you will get to see the traditional fishing techniques used by them. Make sure you visit the local fish market, too. For some great drinks and bar snacks, stop by Slink and Bardot.

Where's good to eat?

A pioneer that kick-started the fine-dining movement in Bombay 15 years ago, The Table pays great attention to where and how the produce is treated before it comes to the kitchen. They grow their own vegetables, herbs, and fruits on their farm. I love their shrimp tacos.

A relatively new restaurant in Mumbai, Bandra Born has already become a crowd favourite. Chef Gresham Fernandes uses fresh seasonal, local ingredients, grown responsibly by regenerative farmers, to produce innovative dishes.

What's a little-known fact that would surprise us about Mumbai?

The city is known for its fine-dining restaurants, legendary cafés and lip-smacking street food, but it is also buzzing with home chefs championing India's micro-cuisines. More and more of these chefs are sharing the heritage food of their families and the stories surrounding it. Chef and founder of Charoli Foods Anuradha Joshi Medhora is doing a fantastic job preserving and sharing the food from the royal kitchens of Malwa. Shanti Petiwala is another home chef who is spotlighting Bohri food through pop-ups.

Noon, Mumbai, India

A dish that uses gucchi mushrooms, left, and pumpkin khambir

Where in the city do you head when you want to be inspired?

I prefer to venture out in the open and visit different farms and tribal communities in the Sahyadris to seek inspiration. Being surrounded by these farmers and communities inspires me to remember my roots and to stay true to them. They are the true custodians of our age-old culinary wisdom and every interaction with them shows me how incredibly effortless but significant the act of sharing is.

Any tips for getting the most out of a Mumbai visit?

Curate an itinerary that lets you explore all the different parts of the city - north, south, east and west. Since Bombay was originally an island, don't skip visiting one of the beaches here - it will still show you a new face of the city.

Anyone local we should be following on social media to help us explore?

Try @rockyandmayur, @thebigforkers and @kunalvijayakar.

What's next for Noon and Sequel?

There are a lot of exciting projects I am working on this year. We have recently launched an all-new 12-course menu titled "Winters at Noon", and we will be launching a playful new menu at Sequel soon, too. I am also working on my upcoming book, Preserve, documenting my family's heritage recipes, and stories and recipes from the farmers and the tribal communities we work with at the restaurant. We've also got some thrilling collaborations on the calendar at Noon.

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