The resurgence of dinner parties at home for 2021 has unleashed inventive grazing boards, including artistic Indian versions that merge local produce and nostalgia
A lick of creamy camembert, followed by a nibble of spicy papdi. Then, dip toasted garlic naan into warm brie. As get-togethers get homier and hosts work on creative, relaxed appetisers, grazing boards are getting increasingly creative, featuring thoughtfully sourced local produce as well as traditional snacks. Though people started experimenting with these in a pre-COVID world, lockdowns and the subsequent surge in home-cooking breathed new life into this food trend.
So when Vedika Ramraj in Bengaluru — tired of baking sourdough and whipping up dalgona coffee for visiting family and friends — wanted to serve a blend of experimental and familiar flavours, she turned to grazing boards. She planned ahead, sourcing Italian cheeses from Vallombrosa Cheese (a cheese-making shop at Gualbert Bhavan in Bengaluru run by monks), picking up savoury bites from her neighbourhood mom-and-pop store, and making her own chutneys. She looked to Instagram and Pinterest for arrangement ideas, and lo and behold, she was a pro — by her standards any way.
Vedika is not the only one dipping into grazing boards; in fact, the trend has made its way into many homes across India, with countless permutations and combinations, as entertaining at home picks up.
Always tempted by the small but satisfying fix of a grazing board, chef Karishma Sakhrani — a finalist in the fourth season (2015) of MasterChef India and Culinary & Operations Director at Acme Hospitality, Mumbai — explains they are a great way to reminisce about trips across Europe while most of us continue to stay at home, waiting out the pandemic. “Cheeseboards can be relaxing to put together; and when people come over, they can enjoy it at their own pace, unlike a hot dish.” As the alternative name ‘nibble boards’ suggests, it is key to have smaller elements instead of multi-bite components; you want guests to dip into everything over the course of the get together.
Blogger Kiran A, of Mirchi Tales, says she used to set up cheeseboards for her friends at home in Sydney, Australia, but found that guests felt out-of-water to dig in. She explains, “I started looking at how I could incorporate familiar components to make them more inviting; to replace the crackers for that crunch factor, I found that pieces of naan, hot chips, papdi and bhel puri work well. I’ve also used mango and other chutneys to switch up flavours.”
The basic four principles of salt, fat, acid and heat apply to a desi cheeseboard, so the permutations and combinations for these spreads are endless. New York-based Palak Patel, blogger of The Chutney Life, recommends Hakka noodles, spice-roasted cashews and bite-sized samosas, while Guwahati-based Kashmiri Nath favours kebabs for some juicy protein. Other desi grazing boards shown across social media include methi puri, makhana, chickpeas, jeera puffs, khakhra, pickled onions, vadiyalu, chekkalu and mixture.
The cheese factor
Chef Karishma advises three to five cheeses because it helps to pick a different cheese for a different reason. She suggests, “For something soft and creamy, do either a goat’s cheese, bocconcini or a burrata ball. For something sharp, try a mature cheddar. Orange cheddar and gouda are good neutralisers. Making your own flavoured cheese saves money too; for example, you can dice up some simple feta and toss it all in olive oil and chilli flakes. I do this with the bocconcini and let it marinate for a while.”
She admits it does seem intimidating at the start — which is why the trend is picking up at a slower pace — but says once you get going, it is simple. And with the wider availability of speciality cheeses and cured meats across India, thanks to platforms such as Meatigo, Gourmaison, The Gourmet Box, Eleftheria Cheese, Living Food Co, Cleaver & Block, Framroze Deli and Black Vanilla Gourmet, you can cherry-pick whatever strikes your fancy. Of these, The Gourmet Box, Gourmaison, Eleftheria Cheese and Black Vanilla Gourmet do custom and set grazing boards.
For those willing to test out some unique varieties, Chennai’s The Farm offers a Tomme de Semancheri (made from raw cow milk), Himachal’s Himalayan Cheese has a great Garlic Nettle Gouda, Hyderabad’s Sage Farm makes a creamy bocconcini and an indulgent burrata, Ooty’s Acres Wild makes a great Monterey Jack, Bengaluru’s Begam Victoria has a decent cheddar, Mumbai’s The Spotted Cow Fromagerie makes a luxurious Black Truffle Brie while Chennai’s Käse offers a turmeric and pepper crusted feta and a cheddar coated with milagai podi.
The art of the board
Putting together a cheeseboard is also an art experience of sorts, where you juxtapose textures and colours. Start with a neutral and solid base, suggests Kiran. Do not feel pressured to choose a very big one because you have to work with all the space. For a more nested and festive look like that of Graze With Love founded by Delhi-based Ayushi Jain, opt for a tray with higher raised edges in hexagonal or rhombus shapes or, like Hyderabad-based Sonal Goyal’s Grazias Platters’ number shapes for milestone birthdays or anniversaries.
Pay attention to height as well as shapes. Kiran proposes, “Use a few small bowls of different sizes for things like fruit, loose cheeses and crunchy bites. By using bowls you can move things around while you’re still arranging.” Bowls also provide different heights as well as size contrasts; smaller nibbles look good next to a single large block of cheese. For mithai, look to homely favorites such as barfi, black halwa and kala jamun. By choosing sweet items, the acid will cut through the fatty flavours of cheeses, so diners will feel less full after a few bites.
For textural variety, one can also consider dipping sauces; chef Karishma recently launched a range of sauces with Wonder Foods and Farms, including a creamy toum, a fresh garden pesto and a smoked chilli oil that work well with cheeses and Indian crunchy snacks.
“Colour variation is also super fun visually, because cheeses and crunchy bites tend to be in beige palettes. So things like green or red grapes and apples and plums are ideal,” says Kiran. Additionally, feel free to brighten up the layout with sprinklings of parsley, dill or edible flowers such as papaya flowers, violas, moringa flowers, lotuses or even banana blossoms. But be sparing with these add-ons.
… or just get one delivered
If all this feels like a lot of effort, fear not. Inspired by the grazing potential of local spice mixes, more home-run business have popped up such as Graze With Love in Delhi, Naashitha Nasser’s Platter Mi Amor in Chennai and Grazias Platters in Hyderabad. They offer both sweet and savoury but make sure to infuse a desi touch whether it is in the form of mint chutney, makhana , gujiya or thandai mousse.
Most grazing board-makers stick to local orders so that all the elements retain freshness and stay physically intact with the worry of delivery handling.
The answer to Delhi’s bustling social scene, Graze With Love averages at 70 to 80 orders per festive month and 40 to 50 orders per regular month. Founder Ayushi says, “For festivals, Graze With Love adapts flavours to suit the occasion; for example, during Holi, we prepped thandai mousse cups. We are a just a year old, and there are five people on site and the company outsources delivery.”
Delivering to Noida and Faridabad too, they have also introduced grazing tables, a rather nascent trend in the country; she recently arranged one for an art show of 150 guests and as per COVID-19 food safety protocol, she arranged two servers on be on hand to eliminate cross-contamination.
A younger business, Sonal kicked off Grazias Platters during the lockdowns of 2021 when Hyderabad was slowly waking back up; she sees around 15 local orders a week from clients aged 25 to 40 but as of late, she has seen more clients aged 50-plus wanting to entertain small get-togethers at home. With Deepavali coming up, she is already getting eight to 10 orders of grazing boards a day across the multi-day festival. She is optimistic for other festivals such as Sankranthi.
You ultimately want maximum impact with minimal effort when making or ordering a desi grazing board. Of course, what you drink with it matters too. Make the most of happy hour with a martini or two or a palate-cleansing iced tea or lemonade to cut the fatty flavours. Bon appétit!