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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Give Food a Chance

Food blogger Kari Kharkongor is a popular fixture of Instagram for his short, but detailed, reviews of restaurants in Shillong. A man with a hunger for diverse palettes, in his interview with Adity Choudhury, he talks about the changing culture of dining outside the comfort of home and, most importantly, how millennials are fearless in their culinary and ambience preferences, and, thus, have ushered in the concept of "hanging out" in cafés as opposed to just eating the "traditional" or "conventional" way in more domestic spaces.

There are many facets to Kari Kharkongor, a Shillong-based biking and trekking enthusiast, but it is food that is his first great love.

For all the curious foodies in the city, Kharkongor’s food blog is an interesting space to follow, if you aren’t already. In the age of blogging, it stands out for striking a balance between well-known (brand) eating spaces and the lesser-known eateries scattered across Shillong. This, in a digital age, when it is easy to feel saturated with regards to content.

His Instagram handle, kari.on.eats, has a child-like enthusiasm towards food and its bio reads, “Happy stomach, Happy heart”, throwing light on his keen appreciation of food spaces in the city.

Kharkongor credits photography as a stepping stone to food blogging and expresses gratitude to one of his friends, who suggested he should also review food apart from just clicking them. “My blog documents the joy of eating. Maybe my reviews will help people decide to explore new cuisines”.

On whether it is difficult for him to remain “objective” when writing about food, he maintains that he tries to be reasonable, without misleading the people, and simperingly asks, “But, preference is subjective, no?”

Reminiscing on how he got into “cuisine exploration”, Kharkongor says how home food bored him and he would often land up in his neighbour’s house to enjoy lunch and dinner with them. As he grew older, he saved his pocket money to visit small tea stalls and eat puri-sabzi (unleavened fried flatbread and vegetables). “I discovered different kinds of food without having much money to visit expensive eateries”, he says; and, gradually, he graduated to the world-famous-in-Shillong chow and momos.

These small spaces are dear to his heart and have shaped his blog. Nostalgia has a great value when he explores food in smaller eateries not frequented by most people. Whilst he is not anti-“brand”, he values diversity in cuisine. Co-existence is important according to him, alluding to elitism in terms of exploring food, which he feels needs to change.

“Smaller spaces in Shillong have an emotional connect with me. Why limit to brands? A less-privileged person in a tea stall may have cooking skills on par with a chef in a big restaurant. A good meal is a good meal, and that matters. I like to give every space a chance”, Kharkongor adds.

Travelling around the country has further opened his worldview. Research is an integral part of his journey as he tries to find out about authentic cuisine of a region or a community – tracing where the cuisine originates from and finding out the best place that serves the dishes – before he lands at a select place to dine.

Terming himself as “spicy boy and not mirchi [chilli] boy”, Kharkongor excitedly mentions how spices attract him. “You’ll find me everywhere on YouTube. I comment on every foreigner’s vlog on Indian food. On some channels, they have got 3,000 to 4,000 likes. Whether or not you like it, I want to give the complete picture”.

Today, with international boundaries being “porous” because of social media, he feels he is part of a global community of food lovers and explorers that allows the space for community cohesion. “To me, that’s a healthy way to use social media”. Kharkongor says.

Speaking on his blogging experience, he says how the pandemic stalled his travel plans. The frustration of not being able to step out led him to start his blog whilst exploring local spaces in the city. Then… food apps exploded in the city.

“Because of COVID, food apps are on a rise. I’ve observed how five to six new eateries are coming up in the city because food apps point to possibilities. This excites me the most. But the danger with the apps is people play safe. The culture of ‘eating out’ also means pushing the boundaries and experimenting with different cuisines”.

He appreciates the transition in food culture. Praising the efforts of local entrepreneurs, he mentions how certain cafés changed the “eating-out game” in Shillong. “Millennials and Gen-Zs are fearless in their preferences and have ushered in the concept of ‘hanging out’ in cafés as opposed to just eating the ‘traditional way’ in food spaces”.

Our conversation shifted to the cuisine culture of the city, in particular, what change he would like to see. Referring to the multi-cultural spirit of Shillong, Kharkongor feels its now time we open up to cosmopolitan cuisines outside the usual spread.

“Shillong has always been cosmopolitan. If we allow different cuisines, the youth will channelise their creative energy, and cooking is an art after all.

There is a ripple effect in everything we do. A productive outlet will lead to a productive spirit that will bring positive development in the city”, he says.

He also feels that Shillong needs to experiment beyond Chinese and Indian cuisine. “I am not against Chinese or Indian food; it’s the saturation which keeps me on my toes to step out of comfort zones.

“I am yet to see Mexican cuisine here, which I feel will do well when you consider the diversity of cuisines in the country. We do have Korean food, mostly as cloud kitchens. That said, supporting local talent who have new ideas is the need of the hour. Perhaps, my small review will push someone to channelise their creativity. I believe we can have galouti kebab here. Why go to Lucknow to taste it if we can have it here?”

Coming back to the topic of being “objective” when reviewing the food, he says he wants to “support small food eateries as much as he can”, but it becomes unavoidable. In such cases, he rates the quality accordingly – between 0.5 in case the food is bad to 3 if average.

As our conversation ended, I asked him to recommend a new eatery in the city. In response, he pointed out how Black Grill Café in Mawlai–Mawroh offers Arabian cuisine.

Speaking on his future plans as far as food blogging is concerned, he says how he maintains an Excel sheet of cuisines and is gradually trying to tick them off one at a time.

Surely, for Kharkongor, a happy stomach is the way to a happy heart.

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