Press "Enter" to skip to content

Making local food global

Ashish Chopra is about to establish a culinary school — first of its kind — where elite chefs will be trained by tribal cooks

Ashish Chopra is a connoisseur of the good things in life and life has been very generous to him. He wears many hats, starting with a stint as a politician. After studying conflict resolution, he participated in various initiatives supported by the United Nations; he is a travel writer and television host; a painter and an art collector.

Above all, Chopra is a “passionate and obsessed” foodie and an expert in the North-East’s cuisine and culture. Food for him is an art form, an anthropological tool to analyse human evolution.

Chopra is a culinary historian of a certain repute, belonging to a distinguished Punjabi family of academics — both his father and grandfather were vice chancellors of universities. As for himself, he says he is a “born foodie” and adds, “being the son of an anthropologist, I was always fascinated by stories about cultures and their cuisines.” The one significant aspect that distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom, he says, is that the former can cook.

He resides in a beautifully done up house in Greater Noida with an exquisite collection of pottery and rural-tribal art. The paintings of tribal folk in his living room are his notional connect with the forest dwellers. Particularly fascinating is a sculpture made out of rhino horn presented to him by a tribal chieftain in Mizoram.

He blends liquor with herbs and fruit extracts to make amazing alcoholic concoctions displayed in glass jars of various shapes and sizes in the in-house bar where guest are encouraged to sample.  In his study, a wall is covered from floor to ceiling with rows of books neatly stashed, an armchair, his worktable with exquisite carving, a small round centre-table and masala chai to drink.

Omnipresent in her absence is his companion for the last 15 years — a black Labrador named Symphony. He describes her as “the only loyal bitch in my life.” Symphony died last year.

An avid researcher of gastronomy, Chopra, has travelled extensively, some 4 lakh km, over the past three decades or so, sampling and documenting cuisines, culture, relationship with Nature, myths, beliefs and traditional wisdom of more than 250 tribes pan-India. That makes him one of the most knowledgeable self-taught culinary historians.

“I habitually document food and culture wherever I travel,” he says. “This habit has made me a culinary historian.”

He has authored NE Belly: The Basic Northeast Cook Book (2006) on the food culture of North East. “It’s all the more important to document their cultures before it dies due to rampant modernisation in the wrong way,” adds Chopra.

He is an active supporter and a promoter of the slow food movement, a global initiative to persuade people to move from fast food to traditional recipes using locally sourced ingredients.

Now in his fifties, Chopra has always lived life king-size. Lately, gripped by serious health issues, he has paid several visits to hospital in the last few years. He has been put on strict diet, but that doesn’t prevent him from treating his guests with a lavish spread. A true foodie is not the one who loves to eat, but feeds, his love for food is a way to connect with fellow humans.

So much so, that “Last year, I was admitted in Medanta Hospital for a heart surgery. A few days after the surgery, during the post-operative care phase, I held a workshop for chefs of the hospital on how best to cook chicken,” he recounts.

His medical condition is debilitating, to a lesser man almost a death warrant. But he’s blessed with indefatigable spirit, and a high tolerance for pain. For Chopra, his failing health is an indication to start life afresh. He’s recently married Prescilla Zinyu of Nagaland, many years his junior, and an exceptional photographer. Together they make an excellent team — not just a couple. He likes to be inspired by good company — to put it mildly, the way to his heart is through his stomach.

Despite health concerns, he travels for the good part of the year across the country and even outside. He was the personal guest of King of Bhutan who wanted him to help in a project to document local cuisine and collate it in a coffee table book.

His latest obsession is to create a culinary school. The construction has already started in Dehradun, nestled in the lush green foothills of the Himalayas, along the periphery of Rajaji National Park. A friend of his,well-known local activist Praveen Joshi, has provided the land. The mere mention of the project brings sparkle in his eyes and he talks about it like a painter describes his latest work. “This will be a place where tops chefs of 7/5 star hotels will come and get trained by tribal, rural cooks.” And that is one way to perform his national duty “to share the rich culinary heritage of India with the world,” he adds.

Chopra and Prescilla Zinyu are distracted during our interaction, for they are hard pressed for time. They are preparing for yet another long trip, this time to Kolkata. Also, as culinary consultant to ITC Hotels, Chopra is curating a North East Food festival to be held in one the biggest hotels in the country —the 500 room ITC Royal Bengal. Good luck to him!