By Esha Chaudhuri
“Food brings people together; it is like an unspoken language that comforts people” says, Tanisha Phanbuh, a food connoisseur, participant at Masterchef India 2019, and founder of Tribal Gourmet, a platform for showcasing the region’s gastronomic delights, speaks with Sunday Shillong on the unshared aspects of her rollercoaster ride into the food industry, creating an unhindered place for herself and the state.
Going from strength to strength, Phanbuh details specifics of her gastronomical journey and later turning into a flag bearer of popularising foods that she grew up eating. Excerpts of the interview are as follows –
SS: Hi Tanisha, from a Shillong girl to a rage in the National Capital, how would you describe your journey from Shillong to Delhi?
TP: Yes, I was born and brought up in Shillong but I had always desired to go out and experience the world outside and as fate would have it, I got admitted into NIFT, New Delhi pursuing a course in design. Hailing from a small town, it was a new leap of learning and struggles not favouring my health that I found myself back in Shillong.
Having completed only a semester and taking a sabbatical, it was a turbulent time for me. However, this was the time that I began exploring my long lost flair for cooking and baking. Shillong loves food and patisseries and I got a lot of support for my home baked cakes and desserts and did that for a little over 2 years. At this point, I decided to head back to Delhi but with a new vision in mind, which was the world of contemporary food and beverage scene.
SS: Your career shifts have been experimental. What is it about food that draws your fancy?
TP: Oh yes! When my perfect teenage dream of being in the top Design school was broken, it opened up my mental horizons. I began to ‘go with the flow’ and found my happy place around food – be it cooking, eating or working in the industry, made me feel relaxed, and free.
SS: Tell us a little about your relationship with food. How has the journey evolved over the years?
TP: As I was growing up, my mother introduced me to the world of cooking, baking, art and history. We would visit friends, who were from different communities and cultural backgrounds, which exposed me to knowing and tasting an array of food.
Later, when cable TV came into being with channels such as Hallmark, Travel and Living that got me curious about the different cultures and food traditions from around the world. The big revelation though, happened when I visited my brother in Dubai, where I experienced the marvelous quality of food, produce, meats, fruits, cheeses, the different cuisines from all over.
Around the time, the popular food show, Masterchef Australia aired on television and this had been the biggest blessing. Everything I have learnt about the technicalities and intricacies of food has been absorbed from watching Masterchef. Till date, I have watched every single episode of every this food show. (Laughs)
SS: At the age of 25, you made it to Masterchef India in 2019. What was the most memorable aspect of that experience?
TP: The whole awestruck moment was definitely walking through the doors and to the counters exactly how they air it. I had goose bumps! The more memorable experience was actually the multiple rounds of cooking/competing to make it to the televised rounds – the thrill of back to back cooking and the adrenaline rush of pushing hard to advance rounds was what I really enjoyed.
SS: After your stint at Masterchef, you went on to begin your individual venture at Tribal Gourmet, giving tribal foods a mainstreaming of sorts. Tell us about it.
TP: Actually, Tribal Gourmet was born while I participated in Femme Foodies (in 2017), a gourmet food truck show set in Goa, produced by Living Foodz/ Zee network. After the very first cook it dawned on me that Northeastern food could be my USP and also my responsibility to enlighten people about the Northeast.
In Femme Foodies, I did foods like the Khasi Doh Syiar kylla in a roulade format with a rice crisp made out of poha. In Masterchef, I made Manipuri uti. Under Tribal Gourmet I do pop ups at restaurants and cook northeastern food and speak to the dining customers about food, cultural practices and my nostalgic memories attached to the dishes that I make.
Ek Bar in Delhi served bar snacks, where I made the Khasi Nei iong pork in a modern form, Manipuri khajing bora, and baby potatoes with garo galda sauce.
SS: As a young flag bearer for our rich gastronomic heritage, what has the response been like?
TP: Surprisingly, it has been positive. Initially, there was a small seed of doubt as to whether people would accept the flavour profiles since it is different from the rest of India and whether people would be adventurous to try some fermented foods. I have always balanced my menus to have light and mild items as well as the pungent items like dry fish or bean paste so that there is a wide range of choices for everyone.
SS: What is Tanisha’s motivation and where does this driving force come from?
TP: My motivation comes from being able to feed people and hear them appreciate the food of my homeland. For the general population outside NE, they limited knowledge of the place and its place and it is normally assumed that momos are what we eat. Changing this perception has been my drive.
SS: Which Chef from the industry appeals the most to you?
TP: Ah, this is a tough one. Prior to my job at Ek Bar I only watched chefs on television. Over the years I have seen so many chefs I’ve been inspired by, but if I had to pick one, it would be Chef Sujan Sarkar.
SS: With the increasing demand for culinary skills aiming for Michelin star level gourmet presentations, there is a rise in culinary institutions. What do you make of them?
TP: Michelin level presentations and technique is best learnt at the job. Earlier the IHM’s were the standard institutions but now it’s easier to go to schools like Le Cordon Bleu where they are taught the basics.
I have; however, seen many chefs with no specialised education that have excelled through hard work and going by my personal experience, it’s not impossible to get into the industry without a degree one just needs a chance.
SS: Which fine dining restaurant do you swear by? Would we see you as a restaurateur in the future?
TP: In India, it is the Masque in Mumbai. It is on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list which was long overdue if you ask me; they have been way ahead of the time in India since its inception.
I have had a brief taste of being a restaurateur between 2019 -2022, where five equal partners opened a restaurant & bar called ‘Together at 12th’ at Le Meridien Hotel in Gurgaon. Sadly, we had to close doors during the pandemic. A restaurant, in the immediate future is not on the cards but I might just reconsider it.
SS: How do you envision the future of the food industry in Shillong, given that there has been a shift in food choices and adapting to fast food/cafe food choices over the traditional?
TP: Shillong is a town full of foodies. Every second shop is a restaurant, cafe, bakery or tea stall and every year there is a boom of new outlets opening doors.
I recommend the jadoh/tea stalls because they have a wide range of items on offer daily. I feel that these stalls give you a sneak peak into the everyday life of a local – our love for Sha, Ja, Ja bowl. Many from the younger generation have and are undergoing training from culinary institutions, which have begun their own cafes and restaurants and seem very promising.
From a chapter of trial and error to one of perfecting an act that came naturally to her instincts, Tanisha Phanbuh is certain of her mission of transforming and upgrading the palate and food perceptions of many for and beyond the Northeast.