Nobody tells a food story like Mayur Sharma and Rocky Singh, co-anchors of the cult TV show Highway On My Plate.
This time, they are on a quest to find the hottest chillies and cuisines across India for an eight-part YouTube series called Bira 91 Hot Stuff. Over an engaging telephonic conversation — the flaky network notwithstanding — Mayur shares spicy desi tales, vegetarian food fundas, the importance of loving your work, and more. Excerpts from the interaction:
What made you hunt for chillies?
Actually, Bira approached us for a travelogue. And we thought, ‘What can be better than some chilled beer and spicy food?’ That’s how 91 Hot Stuff was conceptualised. Rocky and I travelled to Delhi, Bengaluru, Coorg, Goa, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Gangtok and Guwahati to try the spiciest chillies used in the local cuisine.
So, which is the spiciest of them all?
The spiciest naturally occurring chilli in India is the bhut jolokia, also known as Naga jolokia, found in Assam and Nagaland. You know, we were the first to introduce it on TV. Rocky ate one on camera and it was really dramatic! You don’t buy these in bulk; all you need is three chillies — for Rs 10 — to spice up about 20 kg of meat!
You aren’t very fond of spices, are you?
I’m very sensitive to hot food. You’ll see me sweating profusely if I try something spicy. My senses are more tuned into sweet flavours. I also enjoy sour and bitter foods; I love kaccha karela! But when it comes to salt, less is better.
What’s your favourite cuisine?
I’ve travelled to about 100 places across the globe and found that Indian food is, by far, the best. I loved the food in Peru, too.
Is it tough being a vegetarian?
Honestly, I don’t understand the concept of meat. I’ve tried it, but it just doesn’t feel right. I’m not a vegetarian for religious or moral reasons. And it’s a huge myth that there’s only paneer and bhindi for us. Did you know that the Rajdhani Khandani thaali serves close to 22,646 vegetarian dishes?
How did ‘Highway On My Plate’ happen?
Rocky and I have known each other since 1976 — we lived five houses away from each other in Delhi. Both of us had given up our corporate careers and founded a corporate leadership training company in 2006. Around the same time, NDTV Goodtimes was commissioning a show on dhabas along the highway. One of our friends was auditioning for anchors for the show…We were at the right place, at the right time. We are exploring India, using food as a lens.
What makes the show tick?
We take our viewers beyond the mundane routines of life. We inspire young boys to follow their dreams — perhaps take up cooking. It helps that the two of us are very relatable, normal, middle-class boys. So, people think, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’ It’s also about sharing knowledge and connecting with different people through food. It makes us more tolerant. Besides, not all old ways are outdated. Our traditional recipes and ethos have developed over thousands of years; there’s so much wisdom in them. The western world is waking up now to the benefits of probiotic foods, but in the Northeast, people have been eating fermented forest produce since ages.
Are you excited about new digital mediums?
Today, with better connectivity, people want to watch what they want, when they want. So, we have to cater to that audience. However, we cannot use the same strategy for a six-minute online video as we do for a 23-minute TV show. It’s a creative challenge to tell an interesting story in a new format.
Is your job as enviable as it seems?
We travel, we talk to people, and we eat. What’s there not to love about our job? However, like with any work, we have our share of challenges. Being away from home for long periods of time is not much fun. But we are both very hard-working Punjabi boys. So, through strained backs, high fevers, snake bites…we show up at work! If three days in a row we feel, ‘mazza nahin aa raha hain’ (we aren’t enjoying it), we’ll give it all up!
Aren’t you making your Bollywood debut?
Yes, Rocky and I have a sweet, two-minute role — we play ourselves — in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster 3. We were recently in Bikaner for the shoot and it was an interesting experience, very different from the shows we are used to doing.
What made you shift to Goa?
We moved out of Delhi just a month ago! My wife Michelle and I wanted our children to lead a better life. The quality of air is so compromised in Delhi. And the traffic is crazy. This is a nicer home to come to.