Since my late-afternoon arrival at Ananda In The Hills, I have had a busy schedule. After changing into a comfortable uniform of a crisp white kurta-pyjama, I have attended a Vedanta class on ‘deciphering the ego’ and answered a barrage of questions during an Ayurvedic consultation—Are you decisive? How do you deal with anger? How often do you cry?
The latter activity earns me my dinner. I follow a candlelit path lined with bamboo trees and pass a golf course before I finally enter Ananda’s all-day restaurant. It is 7.30 p.m., and I am nursing a rumble in my stomach. A musician playing the sitar sets the mood with calming notes as a pleasant-looking server guides me to my table. Eight slender pillars create an octagonal central area. French windows look on to the al fresco wooden deck that affords a twinkly view of the Rishikesh valley.
Executive chef Sandeep Biswas walks into the restaurant, stopping at every table to ask after the guests. A foreigner complains about the small portions, to which Biswas replies, “Give your gut a chance to settle. Detox is not easy.”
Meanwhile, a server brings me my dinner—one millet roti, amaranth sabzi with a garlic tadka, and a bowl of moong dal. “You want to lose weight?” Biswas asks me, pulling up a chair at my table. “You are a Pitta personality but your diet recommendation leans toward Kapha. Amaranth is one of the biggest sources of protein and is full of fibre. For your bloating and hormonal imbalance, we recommend you sip a cup of warm water infused with cumin and cinnamon during the meal,” says Biswas, who serves 85 to 90 guests, per meal, every day.
We get talking.
The chef’s first job was as a kitchen assistant at Ananda around 12 years ago, and he returned last year to head the kitchen after a stint at Amaya, a London restaurant that won a Michelin star during his time there and has retained it since.
I am delighted to learn that the greens on my plate come from an organic farm in Uttarkashi, one of the many local sources Biswas orders his ingredients from. The food is both lightly spiced and cooked to retain its crunch and natural flavour. Biswas tells me that people have forgotten the taste of vegetables. “We work with farmers from across Uttarakhand, and from the outskirts of Dehradun too. The water is sweet, the air is clean, and the soil is fertile here. We get organic rajma, amaranth, jowar, bajra, mushrooms, and various types of corn,” he explains.
Biswas returned to the kitchen he had started from because he had begun to find commercial kitchens disappointing. “Nothing was fresh. Whatever was prepared for banquets was reused in coffee shops, and there wasn’t much work with fresh vegetables,” he says.
Born in Calcutta, he spent his childhood in Bokaro, Bhilai, and Rourkela, where his father worked in steel plants. “The people posted in these steel towns came from various parts of the country, and the housewives would bond over food and exchange recipes at kitty parties. I would always help main the kitchen, experimenting with these new recipes,” he recalls, and then enlists multiple bhindi preparations. “We would make it with tomato and onion, or plain fried or with coconut shavings like the Maharashtrians do. Bengali style would mean adding mustard and poppy seeds, while making it in Manipuri style would mean using lemon juice. I particularly enjoyed the stuffed Rajasthani preparation with besan and chillies,” says Biswas.
Every day at teatime, the doctors and chefs huddle for a meeting and go through each guest’s consultation chart. Every dietary requirement is noted and a spreadsheet is prepared. “We keep track of a guest’s liquid days, detox days, allergies. If you suffer from acidity, we’ll cut out masalas and chillies from your food, and season it with coriander, fennel and cinnamon instead. A guest will get all the dishes they are used to, but just prepared a bit differently. If someone has stomach discomfort, we’ll sprinkle a pinch of yastimadhu (liquorice) to settle their stomachs,” Biswas explains.
The food in his kitchen is either blanched, boiled, or steamed, and almost never fried. “But if people crave a burger, we make an exception for fries,” he smiles, adding, “We make a three-bean burger with rajma, green beans and kabuli chana. We try to make it as nutritious as possible, using only very little potato to bind the ingredients. When it’s in season, we use sweet potato instead, which we serve with our own bread.”
Three nights later, as I drive out of the kingly gates, I feel like a new person—the treatments and food have not only rejuvenated my cells but fed my soul too.