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Foodie comrades: Exploring India’s inexhaustible palate

For the last seven years, Rocky and Mayur have hosted some of the most popular food shows on TV, including Highway On My Plate and FoodMad. They talk to Tanul Thakur about their love for food.

TANUL THAKUR  20th Dec 2014

Rocky Singh and (right) Mayur Sharma.

Q. Your first TV show, Highway on My Plate, went on air seven years ago. Since then, you have combined travel and food to host a bunch of television shows. How did the journey begin?

Mayur Sharma: Rocky and I have been friends for 36 years; we grew up in the same neighbourhood, five houses away. We share a love for travel and food, and we thought the combination of the two would be interesting on TV. We had never done a food show, but still decided to give it a shot. So we wanted to keep it real: we decided that we won't be preachy, we won't be experts, we will just share our love and joy for India, travel, discovery and, of course, food.

Rocky Singh: The basis of our friendship has always been food. Because we have been trying and eating food from all over, when the idea of doing a travel show on street food came up, the producer, a friend of ours, called us to find out some of the places worth exploring between Delhi and Amritsar. We were able to rattle off pretty much everything off the top of our heads in terms of where to go, what to eat, how long the order would take. That's when he said, "You guys are so passionate about food, why don't you try television?" So we just went out there, and told our stories. The people enjoyed the first series, and that's how our journey began.

Q. Your shows are as much about food as they are about exploring India.

MS: When we first started travelling, we realised: okay, we know dhaba, we know Punjabi food, what else can we know about our country? Seven years ago, most people didn't know about regional food. Everybody pretty much thought — and this is not stretching a cliché — that south of Madhya Pradesh, everybody eats idli-dosa, and north of Madhya Pradesh, aggressive Punjabis eat tandoori chicken; the east consists of Chinese-looking people, and the west has vegetarians who like sweet stuff in their food. Of course, the food lovers knew better than that, but the general awareness and appreciation of the amazing range of cuisines we have, and how it influences the culture of a place, was missing. And that was something we were determined to set right.

RS: We are uber-patriots. We firmly believe that we have the most beautiful country in the world. When you are living in the cities, travelling along the highways and seeing the filth around, you tend to forget how beautiful India is. But the minute you step away from the beaten path and come across Indians who live in villages and remote areas, you realise the real ethos of this country. And since we travel and meet so many people, we are in a good position to share that love with others.

Q. Does regularly trying different kinds of food and travelling around the country take a toll on your body?

RS: [Laughs] It's who you are. Anybody who is a professional can do anything he's designed to do. So if you were to follow the regimen of a wrestler for one day, you won't be able to move for the rest of the two weeks. Similarly, if you follow the regimen of Rocky and Mayur, you will be in a hospital for two weeks. Initially, some 30 years ago, we did this for pleasure. We would go for 10-day, 12-day treks. So we are sort of used to it; we are travellers. The big part of travel, three times a day, is food. We typically drive and shoot for five to eight hours, and eat, on an average, six to 10 meals from different places before we narrow them down. We eat at places ranging from the very dirty to clean. Can an average person do it? No. Not without practice. Will a really seasoned traveller enjoy this? No, not initially. But once you get used to it, then it's just pleasure. That's when your eyes open, and you start taking in things that a lot of people won't even look at.

Q. Your previous television shows have typically revolved around exploring Indian cuisines. Does the fear of repeating yourselves weigh on your minds?

MS: Not really, because we can keep the show quite fresh. We are currently doing a new show on the History Channel, which airs every Friday night, called Vital Stats of India. The show show explores India through numbers — through different topics that are dear to so many Indians: food, elections, science, cricket, and so on. We are about to shoot a new show with [TV channel] Zee Khana Khazana as well. So we don't ever worry about our content getting stale because the palate that we work with, which is India, is so diverse and has so much to offer that you will never have to worry about stuff like that.

RS: If you were to reflect on how much of the Indian cuisine we have covered, I would say, between 10 to 20%. So people still don't know 80% of India's food. We may have seen around 10 to 15% more, but that's about it. We can name more than 7,500 different dishes that we have eaten in every state of the country. But is that the end? Not really. It's mind boggling that there's still so much left to explore.

If you were to reflect on how much of the Indian cuisine we have covered, I would say, between 10 to 20%. So people still don’t know 80% of India’s food. We may have seen around 10 to 15% more, but that’s about it. We can name more than 7,500 different dishes that we have eaten in every state of the country. But is that the end? Not really.

Q. You have travelled over 1,20,000 km across the country, and covered more than 1,500 food joints. What have been some of the takeaways from this journey?

MS: Despite whatever you see in newspapers and every other news channel, there's a lot that's still wonderful about our country. There is much to celebrate and be proud of our country. Yes, it has its warts and problems like any other country in the world. But it's still a f***ing phenomenal place. It's true that there are people who are struggling, but there are also beautiful stories and adventure. But, for that, you need to get out of your comfort zone and the city you are familiar with. And if you do that, India will reward you.

RS: Historically, we are one of the richest countries on the planet, but we are slowly forgetting our core values. We are destroying our environment. We are killing our animals; creating litter and trash. We are also causing unbelievable amounts of pollution. So if we can look back at our glorious heritage for positive things, as opposed to saying: "Everyone should stop wearing jeans and sing only bhajans", we can be a remarkable country. We went to Paris for The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2012 — the most prestigious book award in the world — and we won it that year on behalf of India [for our book Highway on My Plate]. It was such a proud moment for us. For our cooking demonstration, we served malai chingdi and crispy fried bhindi to more than 100 people. So our takeaway is that the world needs to know more about how terrific this country is, and we are going to make sure that we keep doing it, till they understand.

Q. Would you recommend bhut jholokia [world's hottest chilli pepper] to someone, or is it something one should just pass?

RS: [laughs] I will recommend it to everyone. The Tabasco-Capisco sauce that everybody must have tried is rated anywhere between 2,000-8,000 Scoville units [the measurement of the pungency of chilli peppers]. How fierce is bhut jholokia on that scale? 10,40,000 Scoville units. And even though I eat an unreasonable amount of spice, I am not ashamed of admitting that bhut jholokia almost killed me. So I recommend try only a tiny touch of it to just feel the fire, because that fire is pure. Bhut jholokia's fire will clean your soul.

Q. Off the top of your head, what are some of your favourite places to eat in India?

RS: Tunday Kababi in Lucknow will top the list, which is very clichéd now because everybody knows about it, but not a lot of people were aware seven years ago. Tunday Kababi's galouti [kebab] is a very unique product. It has over 150 ingredients, and it's matched perfectly with sheermal [flatbread]. And when you take a bite of that, it transforms you. The next would be Chilka Dhaba in Bhubhaneshwar where, for Rs 60, you get eight giant-sized prawns done beautifully well. That rustic road side eatery, next to a railway phatak [gatepost], has a range of food that will put any five-star hotel to shame.

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