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The new avatar of desi cuisine

Goodbye grease, hello flavour. Modern Indian cuisine is here, with top chefs leading the way

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jun 21, 2016 06:45:14 AM IST
Updated: Jun 20, 2016 07:35:02 PM IST
The new avatar of desi cuisine
Gohgan, a combination of mango, miso caramel tuile, sake lees ice cream and white chocolate soil at Gaggan’s

A few months ago, an elderly couple from Kerala walked into Gaggan Anand’s eponymous restaurant in Bangkok with much trepidation. Their son, who lived in Sydney, had booked a meal for them and, given Gaggan’s reputation for serving food that could border on bizarre, they didn’t know what to expect. Nineteen courses later, they couldn’t stop thanking the chef. The lady walked out of the restaurant visibly emotional. Anand reckons it was his soft-as-wool idli served with sambar foam that did it: It was nothing like she ate at home, yet so much like it.

Halfway across the world from Gaggan’s, chef Manish Mehrotra is marrying ingredients that could have the food gods bristling. At his New York outpost of Indian Accent, Mehrotra is wowing diners with pork ribs cooked in coconut milk for three-and-a-half hours and tossed in Gujarati chhunda achar (shredded mango pickle). Mehrotra claims it is one of the highest selling dishes at his Delhi restaurant too. “It is common knowledge that pork ribs go well with sweet flavours, so I went about finding ingenious sweetening agents. The inspiration for good food can come from anywhere. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open,” says the chef, often called India’s best by eminent food writer Vir Sanghvi.

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Image: Mexy Xavier
Gaggan Anand

Anand and Mehrotra are a part of the growing numbers of chefs who are looking to upend traditional notions of Indian cuisine served in restaurants. Experts say that, for the longest time, India had no tradition in fine-dining. What passed off as Indian cuisine was nothing more than a combination of Punjabi homecooked and tandoori dishes.

Over decades, Indian food came to be represented by a generic curry or a spicy stew that left an oil slick on the plate and weighed down diners like a brick. In India, it came with a unilinear presentation and was served across small road-side eateries as well as five-star restaurants: That black daal with a swirl of cream, the main course simmered in strong spices, a bread basket glazed with butter or ghee. Outside India, these were construed as greasy takeaways.
The new avatar of desi cuisine
Image: Amit Verma
Manish Mehrotra

Not in 2016, though. Chefs, some battle-hardened and others not-so-much, are sharpening their knives to turn things around. They want to make Indian food chic, elegant and globally palatable without compromising on the integrity of the cuisine. They are digging deep into the country’s culinary traditions and bringing them to the high table of global cuisines, much like the French and the Japanese. Now, a soya keema ghotala and strawberry shahi tukda can rub shoulders with mincemeat pie and souffle. Their innovative twists to conventional flavours and ingredients, and exquisite presentation creating art on the plate (picture a beetroot and shakarkandi rangoli served with lamb chops), ensure that food is part of a conversation, and not merely an accessory to it. Eating out is no longer merely about food, it’s about evoking memories and arousing senses. That jalebi caviar (tiny beads of jalebi, shaped like fish roe, floating in pistachio rabdi and saffron foam) at Masala Library, Zorawar Kalra’s molecular gastronomy haven in Mumbai, is much more than a celebrated dessert; it’s actually an emotional shoutout to the local halwai of yore, minus his crummy shop.

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Tofu nariyal ke kofte, squash curry sauce served with parmesan papad at Indian Accent

The earliest movers of the food evolution were stalwarts such as Padma Shri chef Imtiaz Qureshi of ITC Hotels and his contemporaries, who started refining Indian food as we knew it. The trend was later taken forward by the likes of Satish Arora and Hemant Oberoi of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. But for long, the tricky art of experimenting with traditional flavours remained niche, and limited mostly to the hallowed portals of five-star restaurants, or Indian chefs in the West who moved away from the curryhouse culture through the ’90s and the noughties.

It is only in the last four or five years that a number of Indian restaurants offering ‘modern’ food have emerged in India, as has the growing interest among diners in the confluence of international and regional food, and in cuisines that tell a story.

Award-winning food blogger Kalyan Karmakar says both social and mass media triggered this yearning for globalised Indian cuisine among foodies. “It started with NRI bloggers who began writing travelogues about regional Indian cuisine to connect with their roots. The final push came with a profusion of channels dedicated to food and the rise of well-heeled travellers with exposure to international food,” says Karmakar.

In the kitchens, though, it wasn’t that easy, as Vineet Bhatia, Michelin-starred chef and owner of Rasoi in London’s posh Chelsea area, will tell you. Bhatia, who felt straitjacketed by the rigid classical traditions at The Oberoi in Mumbai, moved to London in 1993 to work in Star of India in South Kensington and was shocked to see what was served in the name of Indian food. “I was told bizarre things like gajar ka halwa has to be served cold, like a barfi, or that you can’t serve lamb shanks in a restaurant because we aren’t dogs and can’t eat our food on the bones,” says Bhatia, who has been brought back by The Oberoi to serve up contemporary Indian cuisine at its restaurant Ziya. “I wanted to change, and the maximum resistance came from my chefs in the team, most of who were Bangladeshis and from curryhouses.”

It helped that Bhatia’s menu at one of his subsequent restaurants, Zaika (at Fulham Road), was awarded a Michelin star in 2001, ensuring a wider acceptance among his patrons. But Bhatia, famous for his inventive chocomosa (dark and marbled chocolate-filled samosa), was convinced about his choices even before the recognition started pouring in. If you can wear a kurta with jeans, why not try food that has Indian flavours and global elements, he asks?

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Bhindi Jaipuri, papad ki subzi, hand-pounded churma at Masala Library

It’s the same lesson that Atul Kochhar, Bhatia’s London colleague and owner of Mayfair restaurant Benares, among others, learnt from his father.

He advised Kochhar, now a two-time Michelin-starred chef, to revisit his “hardcore traditional menu” comprising okra, pomfret and all other ingredients that one would find in restaurants back home. “‘Go local, son,” Kochhar Sr told him. “To cross boundaries, you have to adopt and adapt.”

As his father forced him to shed his blinkers, Kochhar (who has recently launched restaurant NRI and tapas bar Lima in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex) looked around and saw how seasonal and local produce excited top chefs in the country, and that quality ingredients transcended barriers. King fish and beckti would make the textbook machhi Amritsari, but his pescatarian menu could go much beyond that with char-grilled salmon.

Kochhar’s new outlook also meant he could take English staples and tweak them to infuse an Indian ethos. Take boiled mutton, for instance. “While working on a farm, I learnt that mutton was meat from an adult sheep and hence tougher. There are only a few ways in which you can cook it. The Brits use it for boiled mutton pie,” says Kochhar. He, instead, took a shoulder of mutton, prepared it sous vide with all the spices for rogan josh, and cooked it at 850 Celsius for 24 hours, serving the tender spiced meat, which fell off the bones, with saag-aloo gnocchi—Indian flavours with a global outlook.

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Importing ingredients, vegetables in particular, is a pet peeve for Floyd Cardoz (pictured left), the Goa-born US-based chef and culinary director of The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. “We have the best seasonal vegetables, various kinds of grains, so why do you need to get fish from Europe? Not only do they screw up our trade deficit, it is not for which our bodies are built,” says Cardoz. In its short life, the restaurant has already reworked its menus multiple times to incorporate seasonal elements. Cardoz, who was a culinary consultant for Helen Mirren-starrer The Hundred-Foot Journey, also sticks to his habit of using local ingredients in the US, whipping up curry sauces that would look Western but with flavours that remind expats of their homes. At The Bombay Canteen, he has unleashed his ingenuity with plebeian ingredients and turned them into classy dishes that appeal to the global palate. Methi arugula salad, and pulled pork thepla taco, anyone?

Modernising Indian food also means it is healthier than ever before. At Masala Library, Kalra dishes out raj kachori with a chutney foam that tastes like the one served by the vendor down the street, but contains only a fraction of its calories. The secret is to stint on fat, not flavours. Not too long ago, one would mean the other. But Hemant Oberoi, who is credited with opening multiple contemporary Indian restaurants across the Taj group of hotels, debunks that notion. “The trick to good food doesn’t lie in butter or cream, but in how you build the flavour. If you know how to cook, you will also know how to cook healthy food,” says the chef who had once offered to refund diners at Masala Kraft if their plates had any oil stains at the end of their meals.

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Braised oxtail in a spiced-red wine sauce with Dilli carrots and ginger-rice pulao at The Bombay Canteen

The thumb rule of playing with flavours is to never play with their essence. A lemongrass rasam, for instance, has to be a rasam first; you can’t top a pizza with dal makhni and serve it just for the heck of creating fusion food. Oberoi recalls a plate of rosemary-flavoured chicken tikka that he had in London and wonders why the chef risked char-grilling rosemary. “He should have known that burnt rosemary tastes bitter,” he says.

The only way to master flavour profiles is to practice hard. “You need to cook every day, spend time in the kitchen, know your ingredients, know your equipment. TV shows won’t fetch you the skills,” says Anand, whose restaurant has been ranked Asia’s best for the second time in a row by the San Pellegrino Awards, earning him serious bragging rights.

There is no fixed template for bringing flavours together and there’s no end to disparate ingredients that can be brought together. Anand loves to crisp up tapioca poppadum and serve it with a chutney made of avocado and Japanese strawberries, and uni (sea urchin). Oberoi prepares the Latin American avocado in tandoori style, while Kochhar tries to put together elements that grow in close proximity. For instance, he will try and pair red mullet, a fish from the Mediterranean Sea, with either a seaweed that grows near it or vegetation that grows on the shores. As chalk and cheese as they may sound, the chefs vouch that these pairings all work. It often means that modern Indian food introduces the diner to ingredients that were traditionally either considered intimidating (scallops, salmon, truffle oil) or pariah (arbi, jackfruit, karela).

But modern cuisine doesn’t mean ditching tradition; it is merely giving tradition a happy makeover. When Oberoi introduced sorbets—sugarcane, guava, tamarind, roasted pineapple, aam ka panna—on the menu, he wasn’t Frenchifying Indian food, but bringing back to India what was rightfully its own. “Sorbet is an Indian thing. Remember sherbets? It was later incorporated by West Asians and then the French refined it. If I am making sorbets, I’m only reviving tradition,” he says.

The new avatar of desi cuisine
Image: Zorawar Kalra

Is it working? Let’s ask a convert. Jiggs Kalra, mentor and culinary director of Massive Restaurants and whose son Zorawar is at the forefront of the progressive movement in India, still loves his regular home-cooked meal.

“But whenever possible I do enjoy something innovative, flavourful and something that gets my imagination going. With a cuisine as robust as Indian, you can’t be simply stuck in the 1900s. These are very exciting times for Indian cuisine,” he says.

Evolution is a good thing. But does the Indian culinary ecosystem have enough steam to sustain such experimentation? For one, the wider Indian palate has to evolve. While exposure to international culture is slowly bringing about that change, the bigger hurdle is the price point at which modern India restaurants operate. The fine-dining revolution in Indian cuisine is expensive, and that still keeps it accessible to a niche audience. To that, Karmakar says, “There are three things that a modern Indian restaurant should look at. One, get the pricing right. Two, the Indian consumer is a value-seeker, so there should be enough on the plate. And three, the flavour profile should be familiar.” Else, the Udupi joints and dhabas will continue to give upscale restaurants a run for their money.

Bhatia admits that the skill and the effort involved in modernising Indian food keep prices high. Just the way a Porsche would be priced higher than a regular sedan. But once the movement picks up pace, and more lower-scale restaurants jump on the innovation bandwagon, costs will come down. The squid ink for Ziya at The Oberoi in Mumbai has to be brought from London, where it’s far more easily available. Bhatia recalls a consignment of edible flowers and micro-greens that were imported and had to be consumed fresh, but were stuck at customs for three days. “That’s money going down the drain. When more and more restaurants use such stuff, they will be available in India and it will rationalise the costs,” he says.

But the churn should continue to be fed. Kalra Junior will tell you why. “There was a time when Japanese food was very conservative. Then Nobu came along, fused it with European techniques and presented it beautifully. And Japanese suddenly became the hottest cuisine in the world. I want to replicate the Nobu story with Indian cuisine.”  And he isn’t the only one.

(This story appears in the May-June 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Anil Chandhok

    It's heartening to see how the food scene in India is changing. This is a collaborative effort of Restaurant owners, Patrons, Chefs and ingredient suppliers, each encouraging the other and none can succeed solely by themselves. Congratulations to all stakeholders. Keep innovating.

    on Jun 25, 2016