The Bombay Canteen’s Thomas Zacharias spoke to TNM about his popular Insta cooking videos, running a restaurant during a pandemic and championing regional cuisine.

Why Bombay Canteens Chef Thomas Zacharias wants to champion regional cuisine
news Food Saturday, June 06, 2020 - 14:16

In his own words, Thomas Zacharias, chef-partner of the renowned restaurant The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, was cooking during the lockdown to feed himself when he also began making videos of the process. He wanted simple delicious recipes, ones that he craved from his hometown in Kerala or others that represented the vast regional array of India’s expansive cuisine. 

He cooked Mappila fish biriyani, from Kerala’s Muslim community in Kozhikode and Thalassery, Kashmiri Masoor Dal, Malvani mutton curry from the south Konkan coast, and Andhra Pradesh’s thotakura vepudu, a stir-fry of amaranth leaves. With each video, the 34-year-old chef from Kochi posted step-by-step instructions for home cooks, ones who were also stuck at home and wondering what to make for dinner each night. 

It wasn’t long before both beginners and experienced cooks began to take notice of Chef Thomas’s selection of recipes, each highlighting a state, a community, techniques or ingredients that are often overlooked or worse, forgotten. Through what he calls the Indian Food Movement, Chef Thomas has long been championing regional cuisines to combat a widely-held perception that Indian food is any one thing. 

Many posted their own creations of the recipes through the hashtag #CookingWithTZac, which now has dozens of posts. He has also hosted Zoom cooking sessions for charitable causes. 

But even as he cooks at home, there’s still a restaurant to run, a feat that’s proven even more challenging as the country faces an economic downturn due to the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and major restrictions are placed on eateries across India. The virus even claimed a member of The Bombay Canteen family — Floyd Cardoz, a celebrated chef and the restaurant’s culinary director, passed away in March after testing positive for coronavirus. 

As he balances cooking at home and operating a restaurant during a pandemic, Chef Thomas spoke to TNM about his widely-shared Instagram videos, pivoting to delivery-only at The Bombay Canteen and using his platform to highlight regional Indian cuisine. (However, through a spokesperson, he declined to discuss the passing of Floyd Cardoz).  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When did you decide that you wanted to create these kinds of videos?  

I don't think I consciously thought about it. It just kind of happened. For me, I've always struggled with cooking just for myself. Even after a long day's work, I can cook for someone else, but just cooking strictly for myself has been something that's always evaded me. That's something I got over very quickly as soon as the lockdown started. 

I thought it'd be fun to document the cooking process and share it as well. The fact that people responded to that first recipe, then recreated it and shared it, it got me thinking of sharing some more and that's kind of how it happened.

Before the lockdown, had you created any recipe or cooking videos like this?

No! I've been on Instagram for nine years and this is the first time I'm sharing recipes. But the response has been something else altogether. There are lots and lots of people cooking these recipes, not just from all parts of India, but across the world as well. As soon as I realised that people were starting to cook, then I started thinking about it more. I've always harped on wanting to get people to think differently about Indian food and start cooking regional Indian food, while using local seasonal produce. That's been my method for several years now. But to actually get people to act on it is something I've only been able to do during this period, so it's worked out really well. 

What do you mean by getting people to think differently about Indian food? 

For the longest time, even before the Bombay Canteen opened, people have always thought of Indian food as typically northern Indian food or North West Frontier cuisine, and the occasional south Indian dosa, idly, vada. But India actually has an incredibly diverse and rich cuisine with a lot of heritage and culture, which almost never gets represented on restaurant menus. Beyond the kind of food we grew up eating and these standard Indian restaurants that serve butter chicken and palak paneer, people don't really have much exposure to it. That was kind of the genesis of the Bombay Canteen. We wanted to celebrate the diversity of the country. 

The other thing was that people aren’t cooking with local seasonal produce anymore. If you talk to your grandparents, you'll know that they would have cooked with maybe three- or four-dozen different kinds of vegetables. That's boiled down to just a handful now.

And so in the last four to four-and-a-half-years of the Bombay Canteen, we've been able to showcase about 150 different local seasonal indigenous vegetables. We do that through a seasonally-changing menu. Over time, through the restaurant, and then talking about it on social media, we've been able to push that message out.

And that perception of Indian food just being a handful of dishes — is that mostly abroad or in India as well? 

Oh, it's both. I mean, it's probably stronger abroad. But it's all over. We've done pop-ups in Singapore, Sri Lanka, New York. And I've just travelled around a fair bit to know that it's the perception around the world. It is changing, but very, very slowly. But I think the fact that the perception exists in India is what's more jarring. It's one thing to get the rest of the world to take notice, but if people living in India are still oblivious to the fact that we have so much diversity, that's a bigger problem. 

My motivation and drive to change that is because we are at the risk of losing a lot of these traditions and recipes in the next generation because they only get transferred orally. There's no written record of a lot of them. And even with seasonal indigenous produce, as the demand dwindles, the chances of those crops or those seed varietals surviving get minimised as well. That's my own driving force to push this message.

How do you choose the recipes you feature?

I started out by just sharing recipes that I crave to eat myself. I mean, there's no one else eating the food, so it needs to be something that I find nourishing, delicious and want to eat. I also decided that I want to stick to sharing only Indian recipes or within the philosophy that I've already been discussing. I figured if I have this captive audience, why not use that to continue to spread the message? I think I've covered close to 16 or 17 different regions and communities by now. I occasionally go back to doing a recipe from Kerala again, because I'm craving to eat something from Kerala. Otherwise I keep changing the regions and communities. 

I've mapped it out on an Excel sheet with the kind of techniques I'm showing, the main ingredients. But ultimately, I want to make sure that it's easy. Most people who are cooking these recipes are not experts. They're just home cooks who have no choice but to cook right now. But it’s also something that's new and different for people. So for example, like when I shared the dahi potala recipe from Odisha, it was endearing to see that people from Odisha really appreciated that their food is being put out there. For people from the rest of the country, it's still a new recipe. 

You also usually add substitutions for ingredients. 

I typically would not have done that. But just based on seeing the response, and people asking tons and tons of questions, I'd rather put it out there then having to answer them later. It's a subtle message that I'm kind of plugging into all these recipes. Very often, we're too stuck up on this concept of authenticity and being so rigid about our own cuisines. It takes away from the joy of cooking itself. 

This is how our cuisines evolved over centuries. They've evolved out of the necessity of the situation, and this is just another one of those situations. So I make it very clear in these recipes, if you're missing an ingredient here or there, it's OK, don't fret. You can still make the recipes, it's still gonna turn out great. 


KERALA MOPLAH BIRYANI . Happy Eid Mubarak everyone! ❤️Since Eid is a time of celebration, I figured what better dish to cook than this incredible fish biriyani from the Moplah community in Kerala. . The Moplahs or the Mapilla muslims of the Malabar coast have a distinctive cuisine influenced not just by the Arab traders who frequented this region but also by the later invasion of the Portuguese and the Dutch. It is quite different from the rest of the food you'd find in Kerala, characterised by the generous use of coconut, eggs, banana, mutton and spices like star anise, fennel and shah jeera. . A #ChefontheRoad trip to Calicut to taste the cuisine at the source is high up on my agenda whenever the time is right but until then, I'll have to make do with recreation some of this recipes at home. The Moplah Biriyani is probably my favourite kind for various reasons but mainly because it's a lighter style of biriyani and uses short grain rice instead of the typical basmati used in other parts of India. . This recipe is super versatile and you can switch out the fish with chicken, mutton, prawns, beef, eggs or even hardy vegetables like cauliflower, carrots, pumpkin etc. The full recipe is up on my Insta highlights. I've also added a video format of this recipe on Youtube with a live narration, which might be easier to share with others. . Happy #CookingwithTZac !

A post shared by Thomas Zacharias (@cheftzac) on

In one of your blog posts, you discuss the influence of your mother and grandmother on your cooking. Did you learn to cook by watching them? 

I wouldn't say I learnt to cook watching my grandmother and my mother cook. I learnt to love cooking, growing up. I was just helping out. I mean, I noticed things. But I was just being a helper. And back then I had no idea even remotely that I would take it up as a profession. I was having fun. I was getting to spend time with my family and being around food, which I love to eat. And I found this magic in the kitchen which really attracted me. I don't think in terms of cooking lessons it was powerful, but in terms of just understanding the magic and the joy in cooking, which I still hold on to. That's what I gain from those times.

What recipe are you planning to share next?

I just cooked another Kerala dish. This was a raw banana stir-fry called kaya ularthiyathu. I cooked it last night so I'll probably share it. 

I wanted to discuss how you’ve been managing the restaurant right now. Since you’ve been primarily doing delivery orders, how has that changed the way you work? In terms of deciding on the menu, maintaining the restaurant's standards even when diners can’t be at the restaurant, things like that?

I think in terms of running the operations, things have changed slightly because we are working with a much smaller team. We obviously have a lot of safety protocols to keep in mind and that is top priority. I mean, it's an inconvenience, but it's an inconvenience that's important to manage.

Orders at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, two restaurants owned and run by Hunger Inc Hospitality Pvt Ltd

We work with a smaller menu as well. But ultimately, our philosophy remains the same. The amount of care and attention that go into the food remain the same. We still like to keep changing the menus to keep things exciting, and we're trying to keep it seasonal. We know that the people who are ordering from us have probably missed our food, so we've kept some of the classics. And we are making sure the entire experience, from ordering the food to the delivery, is thought-out. I mean, we can't provide the hospitality in person but we do in other ways. Like little post-its on the delivery packages. Just trying to enhance that experience for them and make them feel a little better during this time.

Now that you’ve been cooking at home more, are there any other specific lessons you've learned while cooking in quarantine? Or ones you want to pass on to home cooks? 

I think very often we get too engrossed in the intricacies of cooking and rigidly following recipes. We forget to be in the moment and enjoy it. If you do that, cooking is a really enriching and powerful experience. That's something that I personally have found during this time. I think even the most novice cook or beginner cook can innovate, let loose a little bit and be in the moment. I think they can find that cooking can be really rewarding as well.