Contrary to most chefs who love to cook more than eat, Gary Mehigan love to cook and eat in equal measure. And the Aussie chef's love for Indian food and especially street food makes us curious to know more about his gastronomical explorations. From the quintessential pav and pani puri to delicate Asian flavours, celebrity chef and food explorer and TV host, Gary Mehigan’s taste in food is as eclectic as it gets. And it reflects directly in the way the Australian chef presents his pop-ups or hosts his shows. His masterclasses with Conosh, a virtual platform that promotes home chefs and deliveries of home-cooked food, reveal some of his different and experimental take on food. In a chat with Zee Zest, Mehigan talks about his long-term affair with India, his various culinary passions, his frequent Indian visits and the never-ending discoveries.
1. You are cooking a lot in Inda, how do you decide on the menu and what do you want your food to express?
I simply cook food that I love to eat. And the menus I put out depends a lot on the day and how I feel, but at the moment, they tend to lean hard into southeast Asian flavours. These could be Vietnamese for the crisp and crunch, Thai for sweet sour and salty, Malaysian for heat and funk or Japanese for pickled and umami. I want food to be tasty, a little whimsical and fun. My dinners and masterclasses with Conosh were exactly that and went down well.
2. You have travelled extensively across India for your upcoming show, tell us how does India eat?
I think you know “India eats very well”. What continues to amaze me is how different the food is all over the country, and not just State to State but household to household. The love of good food is unanimous, however, the pride and good natured disagreements that it engenders is endearing. I’m filming a new series called ‘Mega Festivals’ with National Geographic India so in the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled through Kerala, Goa, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Nagaland so my recipe collection has increased considerably. In fact, my mouth is still watering thinking about all that delicious food.
3. Tell us where do you think fine dining is headed in India?
I’m not sure I’m the right person to talk about the future of fine dining in India, there are some more qualified commentators than me. What I am loving, however, is the continued exploration and re-imagining of traditional and often familiar recipes. The use of fabulous indigenous ingredients, with a regional, sustainable and mindful focus that has changed how Indian food is perceived outside of India which has been wonderful. Chefs like Manish Mehrotra, Avinash Martins, Thomas Zachariah, Prateek Sadhu, Hussain Shazhad and of course Gaggan Anand are a few of the trail blazers who are doing wonders with Indian food.
4. What according to you are the key trends in the way people eat, feel and think about food around the world in 2023?
Social media may well be a far better predictor of trends for 2023 and I’m sure there will be some fun and unusual surprises. In a broader sense, soil and ocean health, protein alternatives, trust and traceability, sustainability, re-defining value as the cost of food increases--all seem to be at the forefront of our thinking. Apart from the really serious stuff, cultural cuisines and exploration of the globe through food is as appetising as always!
5. United Nations has declared the Year 2023 as the International Year of Millets, how do you cook with millets and how do you see this trend unfolding around the world.
Millets have been important crops for centuries. In fact, the UN estimates that 90 million people in Africa and Asia depend on millets for a healthy diet. They are highly nutritious but importantly tasty and textural inclusion in our diets. Food security and diversity are two of our greatest challenges moving forward, as climate change and the cost of food increases. Personally, I cook with different millets, my favourite being ‘ponk / paunk’ fresh green jowar which is a winter staple in India.
6. 2022 saw a lot of collaborative dinners where two or more chefs come together to create tasting menus that combine their unique styles, do you see this as a big trend and why?
Post-pandemic has been a troubled and in many cases disastrous time for restaurants and hospitality in general. The industry has been doubling down to reinvigorate business and as they say, adversity is mother of invention, so expect to see a lot more creative initiatives in 2023.
7. Hyper local foods continue be a talking point but still we don’t see a lot of hyperlocal cuisines such as Chattisgarh, Kumaoni foods come to the forefront here, why is that according to you?
Logistics is often the culprit to a broader uptake. What I mean by that, is the availability of super fresh and great quality regional ingredients across the country. Even from major city to city, ingredient availability and the quality vary widely, there are so many variables. So imagine trying to source bhatt pulses, slipper gourd, or herbs like jakhya or jamboo if you live in Kochi, its unlikely you’ll find them. It will change of course but where there is a demand the supply will follow.
8. Tell us where the Indian and Australian culinary worlds meet in terms of flavours, aromas and tastes?
We do eat very differently, our access to fresh ingredients is second to none in Australia, we eat a lot of greens and salads which are a staple of most meals. We do rely heavily on protein as the centre of most meals but this is thankfully changing as we become more conscious of our health and the environment. We also have some way to go in terms of India’s mastery and addiction to spice in all its forms! Where we do converge however is our love of texture and temperature. I describe it as the ‘crunchy, oozy, gooey, hot and cold”. Think Raj Kachouri and you’ll know what I mean.
9. India is witnessing a buzzing craft spirits boom, where is this trend headed?
The gin and spirit revolution has taken the world by storm. We have more small batch distilleries in Australia now than Scotland! (don’t quote me on that but that’s the rumour!) I don’t think its changing anytime soon….what I love about it is that where ever you go there's something special and local to try. While on holiday in Goa, I drank more than my fare share of G&Ts - Stranger & Sons and Jin JiJi were two favourites.
10. Tell us your top 5 food discoveries in India and how do they influence your style of cooking?
- Curry leaves in everything because I love them.
- The smoked pork from Nagaland – addicted.
- Recheado / Goan red masala paste from Goa – I love the stuff.
- The pav – soft and delicious and the best ‘dipper’ ever.
- Hara Chana (green chickpeas) I can never have enough!
11. Your favourite street foods?
Pani puri (golgappa / phuchka(I love them all), chole bhature, raj kachori, papdi chaat, Bombay sandwich, kathi rolls with extra pou chong chilli sauce and lots and lots of masala chai!
12. What would you call your podcast series based on India?
My podcast series has been renamed simply ‘The Gary Mehigan Show’ available wherever you listen. Maybe it could be ‘The Gary Mehigan Show: India my second Home’ or ‘India my Love Affair’ or ‘The Gary Mehigan Show: Delicious India?’ Stay tuned for the next one.
13. Would you call yourself a traveller or explorer and why?
I’d say I’m a “traveller and food explorer”, which means of course I love to travel, see new places and meet new people, but food is the glue that ties it all together. The deep dive into culture through food is fascinating, revealing and joyful. Like art and music it reminds us, what draws us closer and celebrates what we have in common not what divides us. If I could do that for the rest of my life id be a happy man.
14. What’s on your food bucket list?
The bucket list is long! But extensive travels through South America, North Island Japan, Turkey, Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia and more or India, of course.
15. Your thoughts on the viral food trends and one that made it to your kitchen.
Anything that stirs interest in food is a good thing, even if it’s a little ridiculous. I think the good stuff stays with us and we discard the rest. To be honest, as a wisened old chef, there’s not much I see on social media that I haven’t seen in my career.