Taste Bud Profile
Raj Parr has one of the most respected palates in the world. Professionally, he's known for his exceptional wines, as well as his experience in some of the best restaurants in the country. But I particularly enjoyed hearing about how his lifelong habit of smelling fruits and tasting different spices really set him on the path to discover what he really loved.
Raj Parr: When I was young, I was always very curious about fruits growing on trees. One of my first experiences with food and wonder was the first time I climbed a tree and ate a lychee. My uncle was in the army, posted in Dheradun. I visited him for a summer and it was the first time I saw this fruit, and I climbed this tree and ate it. The whole experience was magical. I’ll never forget that first bite or the smell of the fruit on the tree. The whole summer I tried to eat as many lychees as possible. That being said, my favorite fruit was always mango. I used to eat way too many mangos. I miss how it seemed like every mango was a perfect mango.
You don’t get many good lychees or mangos here. I miss them the most of all the foods, but I can still remember how happy I was when I took a perfect bite.
My grandmother on my father’s side, she was an amazing cook. She taught my mom, so her food has been with me my whole life. My grandmother would never sit down with us to eat, she would feed us and eat later. She was vegetarian but she would make everything for us, and all of it was delicious. Her paneer was incredible—she’d make it from scratch at home. I used to watch her cook—I was always interested, but she wouldn’t let me really do anything in the kitchen. I did get to taste things, smells things—but no cooking. That was her domain. Despite making so many different things, my strongest memories are of the simplest foods—paneer, dal, and roti she made herself.
The experiences of going to visit her, watching and waiting while she cooked, then letting her feed you—I loved that, and I cherish those memories.
I also remember visiting the markets with my dad. He went all the time, and I got to go at least once every week, usually on the weekends. Everything was so fresh, and the markets are so full of life. We’d start at the fish market, then maybe pick out a chicken, then load up at the vegetable market before heading home. There are no prices on anything so everything involves interaction with someone else, a conversation, a discussion, and eventually an agreement. It really feels like it was an adventure every time. The sounds of a market are amazing—I went to Mexico City and that feeling came back because the marketplaces can be very similar—it’s loud and busy, lively and full of food and music, and it really reminded me of those trips with my dad. Growing up in Calcutta, I just interacted with food in a different way— the milkman came every morning with fresh milk, for example. The first time I saw a carton on a shelf in the US, I was genuinely amazed.
When I was young, I got to be involved in food different ways throughout the whole process, from seeing the ingredients at the source, in the market, and then watching it being prepared, cooked, and finally consuming it. The involvement every step of the way was what was special to me.
I also have extremely strong memories of going to college in Manipal, further south in India. I got to eat South Indian food every day, which is just as vastly varied as any other part of India. I still ask my mom to bring me sambar masala every time she visits. When you smell wine, you get so many aromas of spices, fruits, citrus, and I think my early exposure to such a wide variety of scents and flavors really helped me identify and describe those features in wines. I use spices in everything—it’s easy to find my house because it always smells like cooking, and particularly spices. My favorite food is yellow dal which I make for myself at least twice a week. I temper it with cumin—that smell of the roasted cumin in the oil always makes me feel like home.
I tell everyone in the wine world the same thing. Taste everything at least once. Smell everything. If you don’t smell it, if you don’t taste it, how will you know what it’s about?