The plant-based chicken nuggets that won over chef Thomas Zacharias | Condé Nast Traveller India | International


Interview, Thomas Zacharias, Chef, chicken nuggets
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Chef Thomas Zacharias in Dimapur Supermarket

In our series #CommunityTable, tastemakers from India and around the globe celebrate their favourite restaurants, veggie meals and ingredients. Thomas Zacharias, the Himalayan Raw & Fine Chef of the Year at 2019’s Top Restaurant Awards, is on a sabbatical this year after six years as chef-partner at The Bombay Canteen. In this interview, he shares his market discoveries, best-loved ingredients and pet peeves. 

What’s the best vegetarian dish you’ve ever eaten? 

When it’s a very strong statement like that, it will have to be something my grandmom made. There’s a dish called koorka olarthiyathu, it’s a stir-fry made with Chinese potatoes—a vegetable you find in Kerala called koorka. The sense of nostalgia makes it special for me and, I was completely unaware of it at the time, but I was eating locally, seasonally and indigenous food from my home state right when I was a toddler. Koorka is usually available at the end of the year, and I remember the love and care with which my grandmother would peel it because it is a pain to clean. She could very well have made the same dish with raw banana or potato or beans but she chose to go through the extra effort for her grandchildren.
Your most memorable food experiences usually have an emotional association. Koorka is not easily available in Mumbai and I haven’t been home in Kochi very often recently to have tried it; my grandmom passed away about seven years ago and she was sick for two years before that so the last time I ate it was nine or ten years ago.

What’s your favourite vegetarian ingredient?

A very hard one to answer because I am all about diversity; off the top of my head, green garlic. I really love garlic—the flavour and what it adds to dishes—the first time I had green garlic was five years ago, and I was blown away by this vegetal, fresh, vibrant alternative to garlic and that it is so versatile. There’s a certain romance to the fact that it is a winter ingredient available for only three to four months. 

The banana ruled 2020. Which vegetable or fruit would you pick for 2021?

Instead of picking a specific vegetable or fruit, I’m going to say plant-based meat proteins are going to be ruling the roost in 2021. I recently tasted chicken nuggets by a company called Blue Tribe which blew me away. I’m usually a little apprehensive about plant-based proteins because they don’t match up but this tastes exactly like chicken nuggets in flavour and texture. I think it’s going to be a very strong movement going forward.

What’s your favourite preparation to whip up with a vegetable?

Thoran, because it’s a versatile technique. I grew up eating it and any food made in your home hits a note, but I like its simplicity. When people think about Indian food, they often think the spices and masalas overpower the flavour profile, but the thoran is a great example of the fact that the same base recipe that is prepared with different vegetables can give such contrasting results. A lal maat or red amaranth thoran is a beautiful way to celebrate the vegetable where the rest of the ingredients play second fiddle. 

What’s your favourite vegetable emoji?

Can I say: sad smiley face? I love how beautifully designed all the vegetable emojis are but I just wish there were more Indian vegetables represented… like tendli. It is the alternative to broccoli in India; like Americans despise broccoli growing up, tendli is the one vegetable that most Indians have mixed emotions about, but I think it’s beautiful.

The most underrated vegetable in your opinion? 

Indian vegetables in general are highly underrated but if I had to pick one, I would say the onion. It’s one of those vegetables that’s used in the kitchen almost every day; apart from a few communities, everyone in the country uses it. I love that you can coax so many unique and different flavours out of it. In its raw form, it’s sharp and pungent; it can be sautéed to have a crispy texture or be soft; once caramelised, you have intense sweet flavours and aromas coming through which can be taken to a slightly bitter stage. So just that one ingredient, in the way you handle it and prepare it with the application of heat, can give you a whole range of flavours and textures. I think we don’t appreciate it enough.

Any you despise? 

This is technically not a vegetable but the truffle, I think it’s overrated. If the truffle wasn’t as expensive, I don’t think we would give it the value we do. Purely the snob value—the fact that it’s so hard to get makes people want to—that for me is not a very strong reason to like a vegetable. It’s practically a fungus but I’m going to use a little creative chef license here, it gets way more credit than it deserves.

Has there ever been a vegetable that surprised you with its depth of flavour?

If I had to pick one, it’s moras bhaji. Early on after we opened The Bombay Canteen, I made routine visits to the market (not to pick up vegetables, that’s a myth, chefs don’t do that) to get inspired and see what new vegetables are coming into season. There are micro-seasons-—say at the beginning of the monsoons, you’ll get different vegetables as opposed to the end. I came across this beautiful, small, green, pointed leaf that the vegetable vendor called moras bhaji. My first bite completely blew me away because moras bhaji is salty in nature, almost like chaat masala, plus it has a really interesting texture—it’s a succulent so it’s crisp and has a nice bite to it. Gujaratis usually cook with it to make chutneys, parathas and so on; it’s typically in the market only during fasting season because moras bhaji replaces the salt in their diet. Eventually we found a way to bring it on the menu at The Bombay Canteen; it’s a perennial vegetable found in the marshes of Navi Mumbai and we got someone to forage it for the menu. It’s sad something like that doesn’t get celebrated more. We’ve done a couple of salads with it but my favourite version of using it was the Indore-based bhutte ka kees which is corn fritters topped with a moras bhaji salad, which was best with lime juice and hing and nothing else. I think the leaf elevated this dish in a way nothing else could.



Updated: April 6, 2021 — 9:56 am

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