|  01 MAR 2024

“For Me, Food Is A Medium For Creating Life Bonds In A Personal Space”: The interview with Daksha Salam

Eating together is the pivotal activity around which Imphal-born Daksha Salam’s elaborate gatherings operate. As he prepares to host an exclusive luncheon for Verve, he talks about his early influences and how he’s demystifying North-Eastern cuisine


Excerpts from the conversation….

Tell us a little about yourself.

My family is from Manipur but I grew up in Assam, mostly in a boarding school. Then I completed my degree in textiles from NID [National Institute of Design], Ahmedabad. I joined Raw Mango right after graduation and I worked with them until last year. Recently, I headed to Bengaluru to work with my sister and her partner who have started a company called Nari & Kāge, which is an artisanal cheese shop. We make cheeses ranging from the Mexican Manchego to Oaxaca. They started this project during the pandemic and, around the same time, I wanted to shift my career from textiles and design to a more food-oriented one.

Did you have any experience in the F&B industry prior to Nāri & Kage?

My mother ran a restaurant in Guwahati, for 15 years and my grandmother has been running a Manipuri food restaurant in Dilli Haat (an open-air complex catering to Indian crafts and culture) in Delhi since 1999. Food has always been a mainstay in the family, and the restaurant business has always been familiar ground for me. Food comes to my sister and me very naturally, almost instinctively.

When I was in the fashion and design field, I would feel drained at times and I always looked towards food as a form of catharsis. I would want to come back home and cook a meal for myself. When I started living alone, I began to try to make the food my mother would make, to eat the food that my grandmother would cook.

Cooking, especially in the wider South Asian context, is very often seen through a gendered lens. What was it like in your home?

In our household, cooking was anything but gendered. The men were quite active in the kitchen. They would let loose on Sundays and use the kitchen as a space to relax, have a drink, make a splendid Sunday meal and feed the family. They would go out in the morning and get the meat and other ingredients, and this was a weekly ritual.

Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine

Salam’s menu features an array of Manipuri dishes. Top right: The preparation of the spicy singju salad.

What kind of mood did you try to evoke at the luncheon that you hosted for Verve? Were there any particular ingredients, flavours and textures that you wanted to include in the menu?

I wanted to bring in that aspect of being a family, with my friends. One of my love languages is to cook and feed people. It’s always been that. I do it for a certain set of people who form my core group: my closest friends and my partner. I think I learned this from my family. We would never really say “I love you” or even hug. I feel that silent displays of affection driven by action are common in South Asian households and one way we would express our love is by cooking for each other.

In terms of what I cooked, it was mostly the food that I grew up eating. We traditionally use a lot of fermentation and I think that little kick of umami is something that we North-Easterners really love. And over the years, my friends have grown to love it too. We also use a lot of chillies — it is something that we can’t live without. Rice and salt, those are the other elements that will be there.

Do you find it difficult to source some of the ingredients in Delhi or in Bengaluru? Do you ever find yourself carrying ingredients from Imphal?

Delhi is really eclectic and has a huge North-Eastern population. We have places like Humayunpur where we can get the ingredients that we want. But there are certain ingredients that I do bring with me from my hometown. We have a paddy field at home and I crave that rice. So, I get three to four kilograms of that rice when I visit home. I mix it with other locally available rice — namely sona masuri rice — because I don’t want to use up all of it in the first few months. I go with the short-grain variety because it is easier for me to consume. I grew up eating it so my body is accustomed to it. I won’t say I’m a hater of basmati, but it isn’t for me. It’s great for biryani and pulao but it doesn’t suit the North-Eastern comfort food that I cook because basmati isn’t really used in North-Eastern cooking. I also bring smoked meats — namely pork and chicken — from home, specifically because I haven’t been able to find anything like them anywhere else.

How do you come up with your menus? Do they change seasonally? What are the usual motivating factors behind planning a menu?

My go-to menu is North-Eastern comfort food because I don’t even have to think about the process. It comes naturally to me. Beyond that, I love doing picnics in Delhi, with my friends — I will keep in mind the space we’re going to be in. I would prepare something that’s easy to eat, and include a lot of dips and finger foods. I create a spreadsheet and request my friends to pick up a few ingredients as per their convenience because it’s always nice when it is a collaborative effort.

For, say, a Christmas or Friendsgiving dinner, I love a good meat-based pasta dish, like a bolognese. I also like to bake whole-roasted chicken, shepherd’s pie, potato au gratin, rustic bread, strawberry and cherry pies for those occasions where I try to incorporate a more Western palate. Baking has come into my life since I’ve moved away from home. I didn’t grow up with it as it’s not part of our culture to bake bread or cakes. My mother would bake when I was younger but she would use a microwave. I bought my first oven when I was in my early twenties which is fairly recent.

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Verve Magazine
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Verve Magazine

Do you have a signature hosting style?

I’m very specific about the prep and presentation and I like it my domain. I say, ‘Sit back, relax, play the music, get a drink and let me handle this, don’t come into the kitchen.’ I don’t like anyone stepping into the kitchen when I’m cooking. It’s my space. One or two guests, who I trust, may be allowed in. In terms of style and aesthetic, I like making the guests feel at home, by creating a sense of warmth.

What was the initial motivation behind documenting your food spreads on Instagram?

I treat Instagram like my personal scrapbook that just happens to be public. I’ve seen people around me having an unhealthy relationship with social media. I put up posts — mostly around food — and then I’m done. I don’t necessarily have to interact with people on Instagram.

I’ve always liked documenting my surroundings. For us queer people, finding a sense of acceptance of ourselves coincides with making our points of view clear. Being queer makes you want to understand yourself. So you start observing more, and when you start documenting your observations, it transforms into an archive that can be used for self-reflection. When I create food, I photograph it. When I photograph a table, I don’t like it to be manicured. I like the candid aspects — people walking into the frame, going about their activities. I’m not going to ask them to stop for 10 minutes while I take photographs.

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Verve Magazine

Would you say hosting these parties is a way to ward off homesickness? Are there any ingrained habits that you have inherited from your environment at home?

I studied at a boarding school and have thus been away from home since I was 12. So I wouldn’t really say that I’m not aware of what being away from home feels like. But when I was home for a few months during my final-year college projects that’s when I got the sense of what it was like to be in the kitchen with my mother. The thing is, she never really taught me how to cook. Maybe, she thought I’d be in the way — just the way I now feel when people come into the kitchen when I’m cooking. Sometimes I think, “Oh my god, am I becoming my mother?” She wouldn’t tell me if I had to use one teaspoon or one tablespoon of this or that. It was more like “Put this, put that”, and it was done. But spending quality time in the kitchen at that time, being fed, and feeding gave me a certain joy. So, nostalgia does play a huge part in all of t

When did you start hosting these food parties with your friends?

In Ahmedabad, while at college, there were a few seniors — from outside the city — who were living in rented apartments. They would invite us over and we would cook together. We created a community around food, which is such a basic need. The food that we made was also very basic. It was just dal, boiled vegetables, meat and rice, but cooking that together, and getting away from college and creating another space and community in kitchens through cooking was quite a turning point. So I would say that I started this practice in college. It was only natural that I would continue it once I got my own space and found my circle. When I moved to Delhi, I didn’t have any friends per se. To me, making friends is about creating life bonds in a personal space, and food becomes a medium for us to connect over.

Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine
Verve Magazine

What does the culture of eating together mean to you?

I just love eating, it’s as simple as that. In fact, I love eating alone. During my time in Japan — I was at Tama Art University in Tokyo from the summer of 2016 to the winter of 2017 as part of an exchange programme through which I studied traditional Japanese dyeing techniques — I would go to cafes alone, just sit there, observe, and eat alone. Eating alone is a really wholesome experience and I want people to do that more often. And just as I like cooking for others, I also like cooking for myself. Sometimes, I cook a whole chicken for myself and eat it over several meals because it feels so good to feed yourself. I think that’s so important.

But coming back to the idea of eating together, I think it stems from knowing how to feed yourself. When you’re having a wholesome meal, you want to feed your loved ones too.

Did your passion for table setting and food presentation ever seep into your previous role as a textile designer and stylist or, conversely, have you derived inspiration from design and fashion when it came to evolving your aesthetic sensibilities around food and table styling? Have these two passions ever found a meeting point?

I started at Raw Mango as a textile designer but by the time I left, I was doing so much more. Sanjay [Garg, founder of Raw Mango] and I developed a close bond. He recognised my potential and would give me the creative liberty to create the scene for various ad campaigns. That definitely gave me the confidence to hone my skills. He trusted me with helping with styling, doing the decor, setting the tables, sourcing the flowers and more. We did the Suzegad Festive 2023 campaign, which was shot in Goa, and that required a huge table as part of the main wedding scene that the campaign was centred around. We also curated a lavish dinner scene for the 2021 Romantics campaign, which we shot in Shimla towards the end of the year.

What does comfort food mean to you in the context of the food that you cook?

The comfort food that I have always been leaning towards, even while growing up, is very basic. You have proteins and carbohydrates, greens, nutrients, and to that you add your cravings. A lot of times, we don’t find nutrients in our go-to meals throughout the week, or we consume our food too quickly. We don’t really take in the flavours and textures of the food we eat. But at luncheons or a sit-down meal with your friends and family, you really savour what you consume.

How fluid is this entire exercise? How often do you organise these meals?

If it becomes monotonous at some point, I would stop it. There are days when I have planned these weeks or a month ahead, and there are times when I have planned the meal on the day itself. My partner is Chinese and he celebrates Chinese New Year. One year, during lunch at work, I thought it would be nice to host a gathering. Because it was to happen that night, and I really wanted to make it special, I planned an eight-course meal. So I feel it has a lot to do with my mood. While smaller groups of food gatherings used to take place at least twice a month, I would organise larger gatherings once in two months. The frequency increases between October and January which is packed with festivals and friends’ birthdays.

What is your go-to food in terms of cooking? What do you take into consideration when you’re cooking for others?

The food that I instantly connect to, that I can whip up at a moment’s notice, is the food that I cook at home and that’s something that I introduce to even those who are coming in for the first time. I feel like that becomes a really good introduction to North-Eastern food to begin with because a lot of times people haven’t really been exposed to it or even if they have heard of it, they have preconceived notions of what it could be like. There’s a whole conversation about the food smelling or tasting a certain way and it’s nice to see people opening up to food that they would not eat otherwise.

A vignette of Daksha Salam’s Verve luncheon.

Is there a defining factor that is a common feature in all your parties? In terms of the modus operandi, what is a go-to method that you have discovered along the way?

In terms of decor and aesthetic, I don’t like to overdo it. Going with elements like flowers always works well — you just have to stick to what you know and people will appreciate it. All around my house, I have baskets woven in the Manipuri village of Patsoi where my paternal grandparents live. For Christmas, I’d normally do up my large pencil cactus plant. In terms of the mood, I usually look at creating a warm environment and making people feel like they’re at home. I want people to interact, and get involved, even though I don’t let them into the kitchen. Apart from that, I let them take control of the music and I also let them take control of how to proceed with the day or night.

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Lotus fruits and ceramic candlesticks feature in Salam’s table setting.
Verve Magazine
Naturals’ tender coconut ice cream with freshly poached peaches.

How important is the overall ritual of setting the table and is that something you saw or participated in while growing up?

I have this vivid memory of my mother saying how at age eight or nine, I would bring out the table mats from the cupboards and lay them out while waiting for the food to get ready. I would place the table mats on the table, lay out the plates and spoons in a certain way. It evolved into something bigger and bigger as I grew up. Having said that, I don’t believe in a really rigid format of how the table has to be set.

Have you ever hosted a gathering in your hometown?

When I went back to Imphal this year, in the first half, I did cook for my entire extended family — my aunts, my grandfather, my cousins. I was there for about a month so there were days when I would cook the usual food that we eat and they would get a taste of how I prepared the usuals. Every individual has a unique touch. So the way I would cook a curry or a dal is very different from the way they’ve always eaten it. Even though they use similar recipes, there’s always a slight change in the flavour when the cook changes. But then there were days when I would cook dal makhani or kosha mangsho, which is completely different from what they would eat in general. That’s something that I picked up on my own, in Delhi. I would look at recipes for comfort foods around India. Dal makhani is so emblematic of North India and I want my family to have that because it’s so rich and hearty. The same also goes for kosha mangsho which is mutton that is slow-cooked in the Bengali style. I remember eating it once in Kolkata with my father who grew up there. That was something that had been stuck in my head for a very long time and I tried to recreate the recipe. Occasionally, during Eid, I cook biryani, especially the Kolkata-style biryani.

How have your food parties evolved over time?

In the initial stages, I began by feeding three people in my small one-bedroom-hall-kitchen apartment and the number grew to 10 when I moved into a two-bedroom-hall-kitchen last year. With time, I became more open to exploring different cuisines. In my first year in Delhi, I would solely cook North-Eastern comfort food but over the years, I’ve started focusing on grazing tables — dips and bread, for instance — and food that is in tune with festivals like Chinese New Year, Eid or Diwali. For example, for Christmas, I would cook a whole roast chicken.

How do you actively create awareness about the cuisine of your hometown or regional cuisines from the North-East?

I provide my guests a way to explore different cuisines and cultures. The ingredients that we use, say, in Manipur may be the same ones used in Nagaland or Mizoram but they would be used very differently. My friends have, over time, started to understand this. It’s interesting that there are different recipes with the same ingredients.

Do any specific examples come to mind?

Tuning kok is a root that the Meitei community uses in its raw form in Manipuri cooking solely for garnishing purposes. In Nagaland, it is used as a main ingredient. The Khasis in Meghalaya call the same root jamyrdoh. Perilla seeds are widely used by the Meitei community in Manipur; we crush them and mix them with ginger to make a dip. We also make a chutney with the seeds and eat it on the side. On the other hand, a Naga or a Khasi from Meghalaya would cook a whole meat dish centred around this, with just the addition of ginger and garlic. So it’s interesting to see how this one ingredient found through the North-East is consumed in different ways.

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Verve Magazine

How intentional is the curation of your guest lists? Are there certain commonalities that you take into account?

When I cook for my partner’s birthday or my friend’s farewell, then the party is limited to our circle. But it’s interesting to see how those who haven’t really tried my cooking react to the regional food. It’s good to see people responding to it in a positive manner.

In fact, at the luncheon that we had for Verve recently, my friends had brought their plus-ones — one of them lives in Dublin and the other is from Cornwall. And they responded to the cuisine so well — right from the level of spice to the kind of comfort that they got out of it. The Irish guest said that they would eat something really similar to the pork stew I made back at their home but with a different vegetable that is locally grown and not the mustard greens that I used. The guest from Cornwall is half-Khasi so he started talking about the root that I used and how it is so similar to the food that his mother loves to eat when they travel to Meghalaya. The only commonality is that they are open to trying food that is new to them.

Are these gatherings an easier way to socialise and connect with people, especially when you’re in a new city and are trying to find a support system?

The people I call for lunch or dinner are a recurring lot. They are the core group I have formed over the years but there are days when we also have plus-ones come in, be it a friend or a date that they want to introduce, and I feel like this intimate setting is so much better for getting to know new people instead of going out drinking or clubbing. I would say having these luncheons allows people to interact in a more organic manner.

Whenever I have to plan a meal, I have to explore what the city’s markets have, the pricing and so on. I figure out what’s something that I can substitute an ingredient with. I remember when I moved to Delhi initially, and I didn’t really know about the existence of the North-Eastern shops here, I would replace the umami flavour that comes from fermented fish in a lot of our cooking with Thai fish sauce because that was easily available.

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Verve Magazine
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Verve Magazine

Is this something you look to start in Bengaluru — again a new city for you? 

I would love to but right now we are quite occupied with Nari & Kāge. I end up spending most of my days in the kitchen. I think I might start with meals centred around Nari & Kāge and the cheeses that we are so passionate about. I don’t have a friend circle in Bengaluru yet. That’s the priority for now.

Did you gravitate towards more intimate settings as you grew older or was it something you were looking to incorporate from an earlier point in your life?

It happened gradually. I have always been a homebody. I love inviting people to a space that I have created — it means so much more and you can only do that when you are in a space where you feel comfortable allowing other people into your space. I don’t think I would have been able to do that at a younger age and it only comes with starting to understand yourself better.

What makes a good host?

The priority of a host should be to make people feel at home, feel comfortable. That’s the baseline. I give a lot of importance to the food that would be consumed. I’ve seen gatherings where people just Swiggy in some food and that is not how I could ever operate. There should be an emphasis on good food and the level of effort put in. That is what makes a lunch or dinner party.

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