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Ekaa explores Indian ingredients through innovative cocktails

Ekaa’s new ingredient-forward cocktail menu goes beyond your usual alcohol concoctions and has a story deep-rooted in Indian culture and surroundings.
Ekaa cocktail menu

The minute you hear the word Ayurveda, your mind immediately connects it with medicine and being healthy.  “This has nothing to do with the health benefits of Ayurveda because it is alcohol,” warned Jishnu AJ as soon as we sat down for the interview. Jishnu is the head mixologist at Mumbai’s multiple award-winning fine dine restaurant Ekaa.

Every restaurant does new menus but Ekaa’s latest cocktail menu—Dwadesh—curated by Jishnu stood out for me because of his story and research. Earlier this month, I went to the 98th best restaurant in Asia and I was led to the separate bar section, almost like a bar room. Dwadesh is a curation of 12 cocktails, made from 12 different ingredients, all native to different parts of India. The idea was to move beyond the usual Indian ingredients such as saffron, cardamom, cloves, and more to highlight ingredients that aren’t that commonly known.

“It took me a year of research where I travelled to different parts of India and collected ingredients,” says Jishnu. “Some ingredients on the menu are such that you won’t find them even if you Google them!”

After settling in the bar room of Ekaa, which was Jishnu’s project, I was given the menu, aptly named “The Knowledge of Life.” Before I could decide on my drink, the mixologist whipped up a non-alcoholic welcome drink. It is inspired by the Dadar flower market, I was told, and a whiff of the drink confirmed that. It smelled and tasted of mogra flower. “It seems like drinking a spa,” a friend joked but that could have been the best way to describe it. Later, Jishnu took us through his 12-drink cocktail menu and explained each ingredient.


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A game of 12 ingredients

The interesting thing about this menu is that the cocktail names are the same as the hero ingredient used in the drink. The 12 drinks/ingredients for Ekaa’s new cocktail menu are Wormwood, Kapur Kachri, Jatamansi, Camphor, Khus, Brahmi, Himalayan Fir, Anantmul, Bael leaves, Triphala, Myrrh, and Mountain Pepper. The menu has the origin of these ingredients, the English and scientific name, and a black and white illustration of the ingredients. A small card with the same illustration and the name of the ingredient made its way to my table along with each drink.

The quest to find these ingredients

Mountain Pepper, also known as Timbur pepper or a type of Naga pepper was discovered in Nagaland. According to the menu, Mountain Pepper originates in the Eastern Himalayas from Nepal to Bhutan. “I was there [in Nagaland] for seven days,” recalls Jishnu. He went to Kohima, Khonoma, and other remote villages that weren’t accessible by vehicles. “We did a deep forage in the firsts of Kohima and found Timbur or Naga pepper,” says Jishnu. “However, it is not a spicy pepper. It is a mix of Sichuan pepper with a minty-eucalyptus flavour.” He adds that the locals use this pepper to make a pickle and have it with rice. The drawback of this pepper is that it is only available for two months in a year so they store around 25 kgs to process it later.

Another ingredient from the Himalayas that is interesting, according to Jishnu is the Himalayan pine or the Himalayan Fir on the menu. “It has health benefits and dried floral notes,” says Jishnu. He adds that besides the pine cone, the pine needles and pine wood—all are used in the cocktails. “My wife and I were roaming around in Kasol and walked into a forest where we found a pine cone which was quite bigger than the normal one,” he says. “We saw resins on top of the cone and we took it out, smelled it and it was very aromatic. We also found out from the locals that the leaf was edible.”


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Kapur Kachri originates in the Himalayas, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. “It is from the ginger family but it is a flowering ginger,” explains Ekaa’s head mixologist. “It is not as spicy but has dried floral notes, almost like tropical ginger—think mango meets ginger kind of flavour.”

Jatamanshi is another root he found in Kashmir. “It grows in the cold climate regions and is also used as a base in Indian perfumes. It has petrichor and earthy notes,” shares Jishnu.

Bael leaf is another ingredient originating in West Bengal. “It is a very underrated ingredient,” says Jishnu.” Everyone knows about the bael fruit but even the leaves are edible!” Jishnu and his team came across this while exploring the Dadar Flower market. “I saw someone selling and I picked one leaf up and chewed on it. It had a nice vegetative peppery note and our cocktail has freshly muddled Bael leaves.”

Moving closer home is Triphala which originates in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra. “For a lot of people, Triphala reminds them of their childhood when their mum used to give it to them. It is actually a mix of three different fruits—Amala or Indian gooseberries, Haritaki, and Bibhitaki,” says Jishnu.

Brahmi from the northeastern regions is another ingredient that plays on the childhood nostalgic wagon in a way. “It is the main ingredient that goes into making a Chyawanprash.

Down South, the ingredient they have is the Khus root. “Everyone knows about the [green-colour] sherbet in the North which is made using the leaf. In Tamil Nadu, they use the root, where they boil it in water and drink it throughout the day because it keeps the body cool.” The origin of Khus is in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

Ekaa ingredients

(right) Camphor. Photos: Ekaa

Camphor, the same one burnt in temples originates from the Southern Western Ghats. “The ones you use in temples are processed ones. We use the purest edible one. They take the bark of camphor and boil it in a container for a minimum of four to five hours with a closed lid. The vapor then turns into a solid form,” explains Jishnu. He also shares that the purest form is used in mithai in Rajasthan to enhance the flavour and everyone has memories of using it in school during the cold season. “A small quantity of the pure camphor is edible. We use one drop in our drink and tastes beautiful.” I tried this one and it literally tasted as if I was biting into a piece of camphor I grew up smelling whenever I was sick.

Back to Mumbai

Jishnu admits that sourcing these ingredients here in Mumbai is difficult, mainly because of “seasonal availability.” The pine leaves and cones are not that difficult because they are available in plenty and easy to forage, explains Jishnu. “So, we taught the locals how to pack them and send them to Mumbai. Since they are available in the forest, they are zero-cost and the locals just need to pluck them. This way, we have set up a connection and we pay them some money for sending it to us,” says Jishnu. Tying up with locals to send ingredients to Mumbai is something they have done in many parts of the country. “Ingredients like Kapur Kachri or the Mountain Pepper are difficult to find so we get them in bulk and store them here.”

Preserving ingredients

Ekaa has a room—something like a pantry—where they store all their ingredients. A lot of the ingredients are infused in vodka. “We infuse 100 gm of Mountain Pepper in 1500 ml of vodka so that is sufficient to use for a year,” shares Jishnu. Most of the other ingredients are usually dehydrated first and then stored in jars and infused in a spirit. For instance, the Kapur Kachri is infused with vodka for 10 days and then saved in a packet.

Ekaa ingredients

(from left to right) The board of ingredients, Khus. Photos: Nidhi Lodaya, Ekaa

Conceptualising cocktails

“It took almost three to four months,” says Jishnu. “When we got the ingredients, we just infused them and kept them aside. Our next stage was to do different trials with different spirits and ingredients.” Just like most things, the process involved a lot of trial and error. “We select the pouring brand of the spirit first,” he says. When it comes to gin, they have certain brands whose flavour profiles they are well versed with. “So, we know what kind of taste goes well with those particular spirit brands and we curated our cocktails based on that.”

What next?

The inspiration for this came from his grandmother. “I grew up in Kerala where my house was surrounded by forests and while foraging is a ‘cool’ term now, my mother and grandmother have been doing it for decades. We don’t buy any stuff and just pluck some leaves from the forest and make a bhaaji out of it. My grandmother had great knowledge and that is the inspiration for me to focus on foraging,” shares Jishnu.

During this one-year journey, Jishnu and his team came across more than two thousand ingredients. They later shortlisted this list to 100 and then narrowed it down to 12 ingredients for this menu. “The idea,” says Jishnu, “is to change the menu every six months. The base concept of the menu will be Ayurveda,” he confirms.


Photo: Ekaa

For their second Ayurveda menu, they will be adding more techniques and equipment to create cocktails. While this menu was rather simple compared to what’s in store, the next one will be a deep dive into modern mixology.