Food innovations that will surprise you

Indian chefs are taking something old and something borrowed to create something new.

Written by Shantanu David | Updated: May 19, 2014 4:25:35 pm
Zambar’s sea food platter of stuffed squid rings, crab masala, crab cakes and fish fry. Zambar’s sea food platter of stuffed squid rings, crab masala, crab cakes and fish fry.

Growing up in Kolkata, Gaggan Anand attended plenty of Big Fat Indian Weddings, complete with band, baraat and khaana. One of his more vivid memories from the ceremony consists of little ceramic cups in which “expresso” coffee was served, to rally the wedding party through the long hours of the ceremony.

When he began his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok, Anand played around with that memory and came up with the Truffle Cappuccino, a silky soup. “I’m inspired by the common man’s food and snacks, dhokla to papdi chaat. And people seem to like it,” he says over the phone.

He has good reason to be pleased with his efforts. His restaurant, Gaggan’s “progressive Indian cuisine” was recently listed at number three in the Restaurant Magazine’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014, jumping up seven places from last year.

Anand specialises in applying molecular gastronomy to desi khaana, the results of which are both whimsical and wonderful. His Chowpati 2050 is a futuristic take on the papdi chaat with spherified yoghurt (shaping the liquid into spheres) and mango chutney stretched out on crisp papdi; his Indian foie gras is a delicate coddling of mutton brains with tangy fresh ginger and sour cream. “When people come to eat at Gaggan, they’re astonished to be eating something so familiar but which looks so different.

Once, a 75-year-old Jain lady came with her family and they  ordered a Chowpati 2050. The lady said she didn’t want to eat something that looked like a raw egg yolk. I convinced her to try it. The expression on her face, when she tasted the flavours, was priceless,” he says.

Among the other five Indian cuisine restaurants (four of them are Delhi-based, new entry Karavalli is in Bangalore), two are contemporary Indian and are heralding a change in taste. Apart from Gaggan, restaurants such as Indian Accent and Varq are changing the nature of Indian cuisine, using modern techniques and exotic ingredients without compromising their roots. It is a move that is being embraced by food aficionados.

“India has an ancient culinary heritage and the restaurant business is still a relatively new custom. We’ve always had a culture of eating at home, and we used to go out mainly to eat foreign food. When we went out to eat Indian, we wanted it to be masaledar and full of butter. That’s changed now. While there is a plethora of restaurants doing an admirable job of preserving the legacy of Indian food, you have a breed of new chefs and restaurants who are pushing boundaries and innovating Indian food and making a huge impact on our palate,” says Rashmi Uday Singh, food writer and the Indian-subcontinent chair of both the World’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.

No one does this better than Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, who also leap-frogged 12 places on this year’s list. Mehrotra is constantly playing with flavours, textures and memories. His “Kitsch-ree” elevates that sickly man’s supper, khichdi, into a voluptuous affair, weaving crispy bacon bits, chicken, nuts and burnt garlic into the kedgeree. On a personal note, Mehrotra has managed to make us do what three successive generations of women relatives failed at: eat karela.

His churan ka karela served with puffed quinoa topped with a crackling crisp makes one lose one’s fear of all things bitter. “Today, diners are spoiled for choice when it comes to Indian food. Besides which their palates have evolved, they’re familiar with new techniques, and they want to try something removed from the usual fare,” says Mehrotra.

Despite their fascination with all things new, these chefs rely on a secret weapon: nostalgia. Anand recalls long walks on Juhu beach and ma ke haath ka khaana in funky formats, while Mehrotra is a little more conservative with his Chyawanprash cheesecake and uses Phantom cigarettes as a dessert garnish.

The chefs agree that there’s more than enough space for the traditional and the contemporary to co-exist, with regional food providing an exciting alternative. “There is so much versatility in regional cooking in the country that I think there is plenty of space for all kinds of cooking styles.

South Indian food will be dominating glocal palates in the coming future, the clearest indicator of this being Dosa, in San Francisco, which is the hottest Indian restaurant in America,” says Mehrotra.

Karavalli at the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru, which is a new entry to this year’s list and winner of the TimeOut Food Award for favourite Coastal Cuisine, has been making waves in both domestic and international waters. Chef Naren Thimmaiah and his team have spent over two decades researching the cuisines of all the sub-regions and communities in the coastal belt, coming up with an eclectic offering of south India’s fare.

Here is a combination of dishes both fiery hot and genteel: whether it’s Moplah-style ghee rice and chicken curry, steamed and served in a green banana leaf or a piquant meen vevichathu (seer fish in a thin chili-based gravy). “Previously, it was only cuisine from Punjab or Chettinad that found a place of prominence in restaurants. Now Mangalorean, Bengali, Gujarati, Malabar cuisines weave their magic.

We have also started talking about certain unique cuisines like Coorgi, Bundelkandi, Malwani and Rampur, whose dishes have started appearing on menus, all of which is very encouraging,” says Thimmaiah.

Chef Arun Kumar of Zambar (which operates in Delhi, Pune and the Mumbai airport) says that it is the emergence of ethnic, community-based cuisine that has spurred this trend. “Restaurants like Zambar, Gunpowder and Dakshin are exploring the food of individual communities such as the Moplahs or the Syrian Christians, or Coorgi cuisine, instead of putting it under a general umbrella of ‘south Indian cuisine’.

And people want to experience these dishes in their most authentic setting. Our Onam Sadya is a huge crowd-puller; guests want those 24 authentically cooked festive dishes on a banana leaf without any gimmicks or tweaks,” he says.

“That’s a big reason why we want to take Zambar to the south where this back-to-roots movement is happening, where diners, specially the younger set, want to experience their grandmother’s style of cooking, which wasn’t available commercially earlier,” says Kumar. He has started serving dishes such as chicken ghee roast, gunpowder prawns and Avial in tasting portions like a tapas format, using Spanish crockery. “I’m trying to show guests that there is a universality in food. It can be Spanish or Chettiar, it can still be bite-sized and it can be enjoyed with drinks,” he says.

This story appeared in print under the headline: A Spoonful of Surprise

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