Travelling, Tasting: In conversation with Bombay Canteen’s Thomas Zacharias

Travelling, Tasting: In conversation with Bombay Canteen’s Thomas Zacharias

The Bombay Canteen’s Thomas Zacharias reveals how trips across Indian cities to sample obscure, unknown dishes inspire the food they serve

Thomas Zacharias, The Bombay Canteen, Ghee Roast, Zacharias, Lower Parel restaurant, Virar Chicken Bhujing, Kanda poha biryani, Olive Bar & Kitchen, food news, National news, India Food news, Latest news
Clockwise from above– The Bombay Canteen (Top left); Virar Chicken Bhujing; Thomas Zacharias (Bottom left)

On a trip to Mangalore in 2006, Thomas Zacharias tried the famous local dish, Ghee Roast. Nearly a decade later, while working on a new seasonal menu for The Bombay Canteen, where he is the Executive Chef, Zacharias wondered if the dish would work among the patrons. While working on a version, the thought of the classic, Chicken liver pate with toast, sprang to his mind, and he decided to blend the two iconic dishes. The result is one of the most innovative and popular items on The Bombay Canteen menu — Ghee Roast Chicken on Toast. “Many patrons shy away from eating liver meat or an offal like the brain. This dish uses a bit of the smooth pate with tiny chunks of ghee roast made in Kundapur spices as the topping to a portion of crispy toast,” says Zacharias.

The Lower Parel restaurant, which opened in 2015, is one of the city’s most popular dining spots. While the trend of reinventing Indian cuisine has been on the rise in the last two years, The Bombay Canteen’s attempt stands apart. The restaurant has been reimagining dishes that wouldn’t usually make it to the menu of a hip restaurant. Virar Chicken Bhujing is a Kanda poha biryani with chicken and grilled potatoes and served with a side of rassa and cucumber dahi. Its inspiration is the dish, Bhujing, which is chicken cooked on charcoal with potatoes and served with poha, and is widely available in the distant Mumbai suburb of Virar as a snack.

Zacharias, who was running the kitchen at Olive Bar & Kitchen in Bandra before he made the switch, believes there is a lot to learn from India’s diverse food cultures. In the last three years, he has travelled to Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, Baroda and Surat in Gujarat, Gangtok, Guwahati, Amritsar and McLeodganj among others, to sample various local dishes and cuisines. This requires him to pick a destination and use social media to reach out to friends, foodies and food historians who are locals, for recommendations. “I often end up with a long list and, if a specific place finds multiple recommendations, it turns into a must-try,” says Zacharias. He says that each culinary exploration may not result in a new dish. “Sometimes, these are flavours and ideas that just stay and take the form of just an inspiration. The desi tacos we serve have a green chutney topping made from spinach. This was inspired by the Kali mirch chicken we had in Lucknow where the dish was served with kachumbar and a green creamy spinach chutney. Our tacos, too, come with chicken topped with this chutney, fermented tomatoes and kachumbar,” he says.

Recently, Zacharias was in a city known for its street food: Indore. He ate at 22 places, trying well-known dishes such as chaat, usal pohe and onion kachoris as well as unique items such as Bhutte ka kees, which is grated corn cooked with milk, hing, green chilli and spices until it takes on the texture of upma. “The rest have been archived in my mind for future use but sooner or later, Bhutte ka kees will surely make it to The Bombay Canteen menu. Look out for it,” says Zacharias.