Chef Auroni Mookerjee Opens About His Love For Indian Bazaars And Experiences From Culinary Travels

Chef Auroni Mookerjee, a renowned chef and writer, believes in the concept of a no-waste cooking approach. He works closely with the local ingredients and loves exploring the baazars of different regions in India. Read on to know more about him.
Chef Auroni Mookerjee

Chef Auroni Mookerjee

Transforming his passion into a career, Chef and writer Auroni Mookerjee has been exploring the culinary world for more than a decade. Keeping his Bengali roots alive, he calls local baazars his workspace along with the kitchen. He often travels to different parts of India to experience authentic flavours of local cuisines. Fish is an integral part of Chef Auroni’s cooking, and he strongly supports learning by experimentation. Recently, he visited Sheraton Grand Bengaluru Whitefield Hotel & Convention Center for a food pop as a celebrity visitor chef. Talking to Times Foodie, Chef Auroni Mookerjee opened about his connection with regional cuisines, favourite dishes, his go-to food spots in Kolkata and the importance of maintaining a balance between traditions and innovations.

How do you incorporate the concept of no-waste cooking in your culinary approach?

I think my sense for no waste comes from my Bengali roots. It’s the only way the community knows how to eat and cook. The local bazaar is all about root to tip and nose to tail and growing up those were the ingredients that I loved as much. Some of my favourite things to eat still are - lauki or bottle gourd peel chips - a component I’m using for the pop up. Then I love my fish head, especially that of a well-sized Katla. In fact, growing up my dad and I would always fight cheek and eye on the dinner table. If one’s raised like that, it’s always a part of you like an instinct or collective unconscious.
What role does local produce play in your cooking philosophy?
Daab Kakra
Daab Kakra
Local produce means a lot for my cooking in two ways. Not to say I don’t love a slice or many of beautiful Toro or I think Rajasthani Olive oil is better than European, but usually the more homegrown ingredients are the fresher they are, and the likelihood of them having spent a lot of time in a shipping or truck container are lower. To me local is also important in terms of people, cultures and communities. As much as ‘regional Indian’ is trending as a phrase today we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to celebrating our many micro cuisines and hidden away regions. To celebrate Indian cuisine, we must first celebrate its local and regional diversity.

How has Bengali cuisine evolved over the years?

Well, when it comes to Bengalis, old habits die hard. No matter the unsustainable prices and the harm it does to the species, Ilish season is still the ilish season, Sunday lunch will still invariably be Mangsho. And Calcutta Biryani will still be the best. But jokes apart, the cuisine has always been a rather evolved one with seasonality and a degustation course structure in place from long ago. And I think there’s a great sense of confidence in backing up their culinary traditions. That said, there’s a few observations I’ve made over the last few years.
Call it evolution, globalisation or change, these are patterns that are emerging. To begin with, Bengalis are far more open to the eating habits of other communities and one example of that is just how popular dosa batter or Basmati rice has become in Calcutta supermarkets and households. There's more experimentation in restaurant kitchens and chefs are not afraid of trying bold expressions of classical or purist Bengali cooking as well. Just the other day someone was telling me about the Dal and Fish Roe Jalebi/ Jilipi at the Amar Khamar kitchen for example. At home, I find more and more diners want to eat lighter, use less cooking oil. Some even want less chorbi or fat in their Biryani mutton which was unthinkable before.
Dal Tarka
Dal Tarka

Any favourite recipe that your mother/grandmother used to cook?

I think my favorites growing up were always the kakda/ crab jhaal, Mangsho and aloo bhaja, Daal and bhaat at my thamma’s (paternal grandma) home.

How do you create a balance between preserving traditional flavours and experimenting with new ingredients and techniques? I think to find the balance you need to think of an anchor that’s rooted in a shared culture. Eg - over the years I’ve experimented in numerous forms of butchering and deboning Bengali maach and quite often a lot of purists have commented it’s not our way. I only remind them that growing up there was always a loving and doting relative who deboned our maach for us with their own hands. For me making the eating experience less intimidating for diners is inspired by that very gesture of love that all Bengalis share.

Chefs are usually expected to call the kitchen their favourite place, but you are often seen exploring the markets. Can you elaborate on this hobby and what's special about the Indian bazaars?

I realised that to take my cooking to the next level, I needed to gain far more intimacy and knowledge about my ingredients. And where better than the bazaar. In Indian especially the less urban and industrialised the state, farming practices are still traditional and land holdings are still small. This makes the bazaar a genuine farmers market practicing low waste, seasonality and most importantly representative of the local community. But over the years it also helped me discover my culinary voice in a big way by connecting with a community of farmers and purveyors in the bazaar and thus my Bengali roots. No self-respecting Bengali goes to a Bazaar with a shopping list.
That only gets done once you survey the market, talk to your trusted purveyors, and after a quick recon and how you’re feeling that day, you start making choices. These very personal choices, whether it’s poi or kolmi saak, pabda or parshe maach, Gobind bhog or chinekamini rice? That whimsy, that spontaneity, that very personal choice determines a Bengali’s individuality. By partaking in the act of the bazaar daily I turned it into a ritual just like sharpening my knives or doing the daily briefing. In time it really helped the team and I to determine and understand our culinary voice.
Dal and Bhaja
Dal and Bhaja

Fish is an important part of your cooking, so tell us about some of your most recommended fish dishes.

I love ilish of course, but far more for its offal or tel as it’s referred to. It’s even better than foie gras for me. I love smaller fish or choto maach as they are all called. Think of small catfish like kajli and pabda, even smaller fish like kachki and moroula. I also think a good chitol peti or belly steak rivals even the meatiest offerings from any steakhouse.

Can you share any memorable experiences or lessons learned from your culinary travels and collaborations?

Of course, one of the perks of the chef’s life is travel. You get to cook with and learn from the best. You get to stay at some amazing properties, and you get to eat at some of the most amazing restaurants. But my most inspirational learnings came from my local travels and road trips growing up. Whether it was eating ant chutney with dal bhaat in a village home in central India to foraging for fresh morels and kafal berries while trekking in the nanda devi national park. It’s these experiences that have been seminal in shaping how I cook.

What's your go to/ comfort food?

Dal Bhaat or Sambhar Rice with some bhaaja or papad. Good charcuterie, cheese and bread. Mangsho Jhol, Pabda Maach’r Jhol. Instant Ramens from all over Asia. I adore well-made eggs. Calcutta Mughlai and Chinese.

Top 5 favourite spots for eating in Kolkata apart from your home.

Ah Leung, Tangra, for the Singara Chow. Royal Indian, Park Circus or Zakaria Street for the Chaap, Rezala and Keema. Swadin Bharat College Street for the Choto Maach preps and Mangsho. Adi Haridas Modak for a Kochuri Breakfast and some of the best mishti. Avartana and my former home Sienna for progressive and modern dining.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs who want to explore and showcase regional cuisine?

Even though you’re looking ahead and moving the needle forward, be mindful and respectful to your past. No matter if you’ve studied at the Culinary Institute or cooked at the best restaurants in Paris and Copenhagen, Mom and Grandma know best. Just like an El Bulli or a Noma, to make that kind of impact on your region and its cuisine you have to look inward first. Keep that as a culinary North Star you’ll make your culture and community very proud.
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