Foraging for India’s Flavors in Mumbai

Combining hyperlocal sourcing with innovative creation, the menu at Masque restaurant is a love letter to India's native ingredients.



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“GO ON, EAT IT,” Gabriella D’cruz says, holding out this brownish-green stuff, which had just been untethered from a sea-slapped rock. I’m out foraging for seaweed just off a beach in the western Indian state of Goa. D’cruz, our guide, is a marine conservationist and founder of The Good Ocean, an enterprise that advocates the sustainable harvesting of wild seaweed for use in the food industry. My co-foragers are Aditi Dugar, founder and director of the Mumbai-based restaurant Masque, and its head chef Varun Totlani.

Masque, currently the number one restaurant in India on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, number 16 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and India’s only Relais & Châteaux member restaurant, serves a 10-course tasting menu created exclusively with ingredients found in India. The seaweed of the sargassum species that I’m being fed is translucent and still dripping seawater. “Most species are edible,” D’cruz says, as I struggle to maintain my balance against a strong tide. “Not only are they nutritious, but they also grow sustainably in the wild and act as carbon sinks.” I take a bite. There’s a chewiness, and it oozes the taste of ocean brine. It’s an absolute revelation.

I’ve eaten plenty of seaweed in Japanese food. I’ve also seen various kinds grow along India’s coastline. But never has it occurred to me that this seaweed could be used in Indian cooking. Helping diners make this type of connection is part of Dugar’s mission at Masque. She hopes to use India’s abundant produce to create meals rooted in traditional Indian cuisine that are also irrefutably modern. “Ingredients and their provenance have always had a lot of focus in our home cooking. But even a decade ago, we rarely practiced it in an institutional setup,” she says. “Back then, gravies like chicken tikka masala were celebrated. But the individual spices were not,” adds Totlani, a Culinary Institute of America graduate. “Now times are changing. People understand that a dish is nothing without the right ingredients.”



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Since opening in 2016, Masque has put regional and seasonal harvests not often seen in commercial kitchens on its menu. Morel mushrooms from Kashmir, cloudberries from Ladakh, and fiddlehead ferns from Himachal Pradesh are a few examples. At Masque, these items are sustainably sourced during expeditions like the one we’re on, which allows them to return to Mumbai with their freshness reasonably intact. Totlani and Dugar scout foraging locations by talking to home chefs, culinary researchers, and agricultural scientists across the country. And then there’s the chance discovery. On a trip to Ladakh’s remote Zanskar Valley, Totlani spotted what looked like Cape gooseberries, except he was told locals don’t consider them food; they’re worn as ornaments. Adventurous by nature, he bit into the berry, which he says tasted something “between a tomato and a gooseberry in the nicest way.” It went on to garnish one of his creations.


Beyond finding these star ingredients, the true test is how flavors are combined to create memorable dishes, a process Dugar describes as “connecting the dots” between childhood memories and food eaten on travels, all guided by a refined palate. Take the seaweed, for instance. Totlani mixes it into a bhel, a pan-Indian street snack that combines crispy rice or millet with vegetables — typically onions, tomatoes, green chili, and coriander. It’s laden with sweet, spicy, and tangy sauces to create a burst of flavor. Totlani’s version skips the commonplace veggies and instead combines puffed sorghum with seaweed and his proprietary sauces. The result: reminiscent of the original, yet nothing like it — refreshingly so.

Back at the restaurant, where a restrained aesthetic creates space for drama on the plate, I sip on a cocktail that’s mixed with seaweed brine. A new convert to this marine herb, I relish it. The bartender tells me how it came to be on the menu: Totlani stumbled upon The Good Ocean online, made a foraging trip to Goa, and started using seaweed in his cooking. It’s a fun tale, especially since I’ve now foraged for it myself. But I can imagine how just hearing about it is transportive to diners. Therein lies Masque’s true success. Each course served begins with such storytelling and ends with its manifestation in flavor. My favorite so far is the story of the Cape gooseberry. I can’t wait for it to come back in season.


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Our Contributors

Prasad Ramamurthy Writer

Prasad Ramamurthy is a travel and lifestyle journalist based in Mumbai, India. A former editor at Condé Nast Traveller, his writing has appeared in Architectural Digest, GQ, Monocle, Selvedge, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue.

Avinash Jai Singh Photographer

Avinash Jai Singh is an ad film maker and photographer based in Mumbai, India. His work ranges from commercial and fashion to passion projects bringing visual stories alive from the Indian heartland. He has partnered with global brands like, Adidas, Spotify, Doritos, MTV, and Coca-Cola. Jai Singh spent a few months attending a series of photography workshops at ICP New York. This helped refresh his perspective and greatly influenced his new body of work, which is dominantly based on discovering his own country.


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