Our grandmothers may have never imagined that the humble laal chawli bhaji, or the red amaranth would make it to a restaurant menu. But flavours have come a full circle, thanks to Indian chefs committed to cooking with home-grown ingredients. At Smoke House Deli, in Mumbai, chef-manager Glyston Gracias is putting finishing touches to a new health menu that the restaurant rolled out recently. His to-do sheet is full of remarks, and one of them catches my attention. It reads: ‘Red flour rice for pancakes’.
Gracias is an East Indian from Mumbai who grew up eating red rice.“It is healthier than flour and tastier, too,” he says. The chef turned to his own (and his friends’) traditional food while researching his menu, and has presented an array of dishes, each of which could fool any palate into thinking that it is having a “good old dish”. “I used the red rice flour to make pasta, and ground amaranth to give that interesting texture to salads. When we decided to give our food a healthier twist, the goal was to do so without changing the dishes.”
Of course, Gracias isn’t the first chef to find inspiration in his childhood to create a new concept, or give an older concept a fresh lease of life. Sabysachi Gorai, chef and owner of Delhi’s Lavaash by Saby, modern Indian cuisine wizard Manish Mehrotra and chef Abhijit Saha have excelled at marrying culinary nostalgia and innovation. Chef Saha’s trendsetting sous vide cooked Lamb Roulade with Kakori Kebab and Gol Gappa Spherification are testimony to how food heritage has inspired outstanding dishes. Mehrotra, who is working on a menu inspired by the sub-communities of India says, “Much like fashion, the culinary world, too, is moving back to the roots when it comes to searching for innovation, for inspiration and for fresh concepts.”
A year ago, the celebrated Chef Floyd Cardoz, too, chose his ‘food heritage’ to shape the culinary palette of The Bombay Canteen. And, more recently, chef Kunal Kapur’s Patiala, in Dubai, featured a spin on one of his teenaged addictions: mango lassi served as an ice-cream on freshly baked naan khatai.
The culinary renaissance is taking shape in two ways, according to Delhi-based Gorai. Chefs are taking inspiration from various cuisines and reimagining traditional dishes, as is the case with Indian Accent, Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Fava. “And by reviving old cuisines and bringing them to fore like SodaBottleOpenerWala did with Mumbai food culture,” he says.
But, there is a lot that has changed with the way chefs deal with past experiences, says Manu Chandra, chef-owner of Monkey Bar and Fatty Bao. “One, the awareness of our own cuisine and its appreciation, and two, the bravado and the skill to pick something that’s traditional and well known and yet present it in a more current and relevant avatar.”
Chandra’s own Chandraji’s Mutton Curry, a tribute to his father’s culinary skills, and Gaurav Gidwani’s Saoji Thali, a contemporary take on a classic at Glocal Junction, in Mumbai and Hyderabad, are prime examples of the new confidence of chefs in India. As Gracias puts it, “We have always looked to the West for ingredients that are touted as healthy without realising that we have a treasure-house of our own.”
The ‘back to roots’ approach is exemplified by Chef Kapur’s Patiala restaurant, where more than 70 per cent of the menu is based on his journey from a teen to a budding chef. “The haleem kebab at Patiala is essentially my take on the Ramadan dish that I would binge on every time I would be in a city that had a Nawabi history. So, when I had to redesign the menu of Patiala, it was a perfect fit. But, I had one problem: how do I serve haleem in Dubai? So, I took the traditional haleem I had grown up with, slow-cooked it the same way to a point where the porridge was dry enough to be shaped into a patty, and then it was pan-seared and served.”
Curiously, exploring one’s food heritage for inspiration isn’t only about getting the creative juices running, but it is also about learning newer ways to use the local produce. Mars Enterprises’ Zubin D’Souza often uses his memory of his mother’s ability to turn a single vegetable to create three different dishes to periodically reinvigorate his menus. Yet another advantage of returning to your roots, says Gorai, is that “it makes your approach better towards creating a new dish, since you are familiar with the flavours, texture and taste, and know exactly how to play around so that the dish is well presented and accepted.” And then, adds Chef Chandra, “techniques like molecular gastronomy come in handy to elevate the experience.”