With his fingers swiftly moving on the key board, fixed atop an intricately carved work station, Ashish Chopra ensures he is always connected to the world outside. At the same time, his beautifully maintained personal library, makes sure he is always in touch with the past. A renowned culinary historian, author, television host, painter and art collector, Chopra adorns many hats with equal élan but most importantly considers himself a foodie at heart; not by profession but by passion. It is his relentless spirit for food and travel that has led him to discover and re-discover life again and again.
A born foodie, Chopra has successfully straddled various paths during the eventful journey of his life. From a young politician and an Hon. Advisor to the Governor of Mizoram to a Social Development advisor of Assam Rifles, Secretary general of FACT and then founder Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Management and Social Development, his long professional journey spread over three decades never had a dull phase. And one day, he decided, after retrospection and introspection to take permanent sabbatical to pursue his passion for food and travel. His life is now dedicated towards promoting and showcasing India’s rich culinary heritage.
Chopra feels that food has taught him so much. “Feasting has always been an integral part of human society and culture. It has always brought people together and that’s what made me explore it with passion and desire,” he says. His culinary journey is full of amazing anecdotes and unforgettable incidents. Sharing about his meeting with His Holiness Dalai Lama, Chopra says how he wanted to become a monk and shared his desire with Dalai Lama. “The real monk is inside you”, came the reply from the Holy guru, who jokingly called him Momo Lama, since then many of his friends have been calling him Momo Lama.
Born in New Delhi , this Punjabi lad’s love for North East started quite early in life, but he never knew it would become such an important part of his life and he will eventually marry a Naga girl. “As a child, I used to visit Assam regularly, as my uncle was in Railways and soon North East was just like home. While working as an Hon advisor to the Governor, I got a wonderful opportunity to explore North East extensively and understand the essence of their food, music and culture.” Chopra believes that it was his passion for food that could make a Punjabi connect instantly with people from North East. He subsequently authored NE Belly: The Basic Northeast Cook Book (2006) – a book on the cuisines of the eight North Eastern states. He has also documented traditional tribal foods of India in his another book Tribal Cuisines of India, for which he travelled extensively throughout the country. Not surprising, over the past one decade or so he has covered more than 4 lakh km, experimenting and documenting cuisines, culture, and traditions of more than 250 tribes pan-India. “Food and festivity is an integral part of their existence and their indigenous knowledge about various herbs and medicinal plants teaches us a lot. With their lands being encroached upon now by various agencies, it’s all the more important to document their cultures before it dies due to rampant modernisation in the wrong way,” says Chopra
Chopra also feels passionate about rediscovering lost recipes and restoring their lost glory. He has done tremendous work to popularise Kadaknath, which was once known as the‘Pride of Madhya Pradesh’. He first tasted the bird at the Maharaja of Panna’s dinner party nearly two decades ago. He was on his way to Rewa, in Madhya Pradesh (MP), to visit his old friend maharaja Pushpraj Singh Ju Deo. En route, he decided to stop and meet a mutual acquaintance, the late maharaja of Panna. “That is where I had the Kadaknath for the first time. I was fascinated by the jet-black beauty of the bird and, when cooked, it was meaty, chunky and tasted just like game fowl,” he says. However, Kadaknath could never retain its popularity during the next two-decades and it remained anguished in relative obscurity until 2015. Thanks to efforts of culinary historians like Ashish Chopra, that the revered indigenous chicken has now made a successful comeback from the backyards of tribal Madhya Pradesh to the tables of luxurious hotels. Chopra is also an active supporter and a promoter of the slow food movement, a global initiative to persuade people to move from fast food to traditional recipes using locally sourced ingredients.
When he is not experimenting in his kitchen, he is usually conducting workshops and masterclasses. Just back from a fortnight long shoot in the picturesque surrounding of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh for Travel XP, he is now off to Kolkata to conduct workshops in ITC Royal Bengal. Chopra has been a food consultant with ITC Welcome Heritage group of hotels for several years having documented the Royal cuisines of the erstwhile Maharajas. He has been invited to co-author a book on the Royal cuisines of Bhagel with Pushpraj Singh – the erstwhile Maharaja of Rewa and subsequently Gajraj Singh the Thakur of Diggi State in Rajasthan has also commissioned him to do a coffee table book on the erstwhile secret recipes and food traditions of the Diggi State. He has consulted for the television series, Gordon Ramsey’s Great Escapes on “North east Indian Cuisine” as well as for BBC and National Geographic Channel. He is also the Principal Advisor of Woodpecker International Film Festival and Culinary Advisor of TRAVEL XP Channel and FOOD XP channel and has also co-hosted a few episodes on the channel.
Transforming his passion for food as an art form, into a more concrete idea and platform, he is currently putting his efforts towards the setting up of India’s first School of Ancient Culinary Arts (SACA). Located in the picturesque surroundings of Rajaji National park in the foothills of Dehradun in Uttaranchal, the school will have chefs from villages and they will impart their traditional knowledge to chefs from different parts of the world. “This will be a place where tops chefs of big hotels will come and get trained by tribal, rural cooks and share the rich culinary heritage of India with the world,” he says.
For Chopra, who has been tirelessly documenting and preserving India’s rich and diverse food traditions, essence of life is an unending quest to explore, understand and rediscover food.