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When More was More: This year’s flavour was Pan Asian

We look back at the year from behind a napkin and examine why it was possibly the best time for food in the country.

Written by Shantanu David |
Updated: December 29, 2015 2:08:53 pm
food, food and wine, James Beard, iconic food, iconic 2015 food, food review, fatty Bao, Monkey Bar, Olive Asparagus and Labneh at Lavaash by Saby

Iconic cookbook author and teacher James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” The universe of food keeps expanding as dishes and cooking techniques from around the globe influence each other and leave an indelible intaglio on menus worldwide. It’s no different at home. We look at the top movers, shakers and tastemakers of the year.

Asian Nation
2015 was probably the biggest year for food in the country, specially when it came to pan-Asian cuisine; certainly the most innovative. And one of the biggest purveyors of the innovation was Tian at the ITC Maurya. Its maverick chef Vikramjit Roy brings whatever he experiences to the table. “I went to the beach recently and had a great time. So for my latest tasting menu, I created ‘Beach on a Plate’, a reinterpretation of Singapore Chilli Crab, wherein there was edible sand, among other minutiae, which captured the essence of a beach. All my dishes have a similar history; and while certain elements may be personal just to me, I hope to evoke nostalgia in as many of my guests as possible. Similarly, everyone has climbed trees as a child. At Tian, we have fish on a tree, with fishcakes served amid the branches of a bonsai,” says Roy, who’s a firm believer that food and fun are intrinsic to each other. And don’t worry; you don’t have to climb too high for your fishcakes.

Speaking of food and fun, diners in Delhi and Mumbai were finally able to file into their city’s outposts of Bangalore’s Fatty Bao, the brainchild of Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal. Celebrated for its irreverent take on Asian food, the concept combines Asian cooking techniques with as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible. “We’ve always tried to break the mould with our products, be it Fatty Bao or Monkey Bar or even Olive, which opened 15 years ago with white-washed walls. People said: ‘These guys have just put chuna and opened an eating place’. The idea is to have a space where you can create memories. As a chef, I cannot drive a business based solely on a sustenance-driven model,” says Chandra.

And while in the Asian section of the 2015 menu, it would behoove us to mention Pa Pa Ya, Zorawar Kalra’s re-imagining of the cuisine. Located in Mumbai, the restaurant took on the decidedly samurai-level dish of sushi with a kushti wallahs hold. The result: Sushi Matrix, an Asmovian construct of the fish and rice combination, which you’re supposed to eat with your hands. “Asian cuisines have always been packed with flavour, but were lacking in innovation. We’ve been eating the same formulaic food to the extent that even the sushi became jaded. We wanted to re-invent that model,” says Kalra.

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Make in India
And as far as innovation goes, Indian food is zooming along at light speed. And while it may have begun with Farzi Cafe’s unprecedented success thanks to its melding of Indian flavours with international cooking techniques including scientific cooking (not molecular gastronomy, that is a branch of science), and outlier plating and food styling, this year’s story of Indian food must end with one night at Ek Bar. Envisioned by AD Singh of the Olive Group and chef Sujan Sarkar — also of Olive — Ek Bar is a Indian fairytale come to life, but assuredly in 2015. “On one hand, around the world, restaurants are becoming more focused on specifics. With Ek Bar, we were looking to create a brand new category in hospitality: the Indian

cocktail bar. While bars and pubs have been around the country for decades, they were all about serving foreign liquor and Western cocktails, no one was telling the Indian story of cocktails,” says Singh. “At Ek Bar, the cocktails are rooted in and around Indian ingredients and traditions, the cuisine is what I call New Indian.”

Indian chefs who flew out decades ago are now returning to the nest to stake a claim to the food they celebrated abroad. From the US, where he ran the enormously successful Tabla, Mumbai-native Floyd Cardoz returns to the city of his boyhood and opened The Bombay Canteen, which is helmed by young chef, Thomas Zacharias, and travels around the country through its menu. Mumbai also saw the return of NRI (Not Really Indian), the cheekily named project by Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to earn a coveted Michelin Star for Tamarind in London and subsequently for his own restaurant, Benares.

And where there’s Indian food, Bollywood can’t be far behind. Garam Dharam, a restaurant inspired by India’s favourite action hero Dharmendra with the cuisine entirely rooted in his native state of Punjab, has been making waves and creating lines in Connaught Place. Indeed, it’s flying out to Dubai with its next outpost, joining the likes of Farzi Cafe.

Farzi, in fact, changed the Indian food dynamic, specially for its target audience of young people, who couldn’t afford the avant garde brilliance but pocket-pinching prices of an Indian Accent. Kalra’s vision was “to make Indian food hip and cool; get the young people back to explore the cuisines of their country.” This included a melange of food, drinks and atmosphere. And beyond. Singh believes that the Indian market has matured and is ready for more, a sentiment echoed by practically every other stalwart in the industry. Kalra indeed believes that apart from a few sacrosanct brands, the future of the “multi-cuisine” restaurant is largely history. And a good thing too.

Storied Foods

Not that history is bad, of course. Just ask Sabyasachi Gorai, who after years of running some of the best kitchens in the country, opened his own restaurant, Lavaash by Saby. Lavaash is a celebration of Armenian food, and centred around the story of the Eurasian ethnic group, who arrived in Bengal some 1,500 years ago, and helped convert the coastal state into the industrial and cultural behemoth it became. Situated in a gorgeous property in Mehrauli, Lavaash recounts the Armenian immigration through a litany of traditional dishes, with more than a dusting of Bengali dishes from Gorai’s childhood. All delicious, all mired in history.

Similarly, after decades of dwindling down to a handful of restaurants in Maharashtra, Parsi Food is making a dramatic resurgence. An heirloom of the Parsis who escaped persecution in Iran and settled in India, it is being promoted by Singh through SodaBottleOpenerWala, which in less than two years has mushroomed in five cities, with several more in the pipeline set to open around the city. While Soda, as it is popularly called is a pastiche of Parsi, Irani and Mumbai street foods, purists are flocking to Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu, for an exclusively Parsi experience.

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