Antoine Lewis steps off the subcontinent and finds the new frontier of Indian cuisine
Sitting in a soup spoon, resembling a neatly trimmed poached egg, is a jelly-like, milky white sphere. As I slide it into my mouth, the thin skin bursts and, to my surprise, out gushes a gently chaat-flavoured raita.
Simply listed as Yogurt, this is the first of a 10-course degustation menu created by Chef Gaggan Anand at his eponymous Bangkok restaurant, Gaggan. The Yogurt is followed by a tart olive-and-orange salad, and an orange-hued wafer the size and thickness of a playing card – made from dehydrated carrot purée and topped with cumin and crushed spices, it’s simultaneously crispy and chewy. This introductory trinity, explains Anand, is his interpretation of three common Indian table accompaniments: raita, achaar and papad.
His unique take on Indian cuisine has brought Anand, who moved to Thailand in 2007, to the attention of international media, which paints him as a young, up and coming rock star chef. “Progressive Indian Cuisine”, as the Kolkata native describes his style of cooking, is based on an extensive application of molecular gastronomy techniques, and is what sets his 18-month-old restaurant apart from other Modern Indian restaurants around the world. Though he candidly acknowledges the debt he owes London-based chefs like Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar – who were among the first to successfully break away from serving traditional Indian fare – none of their menus have embraced molecular techniques as completely as Gaggan’s.
The first Indian chef to have trained with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Anand’s cooking is strongly influenced by what he learnt at the mecca of modernist cooking. The carrot crisp, for instance, is based on a technique pioneered by the Catalan chef: A thin layer of carrot purée mixed with isomalt (a sugar substitute made from beet sugar, which is resistant to humidity and crystallization) is smeared on to sheets, then placed in a dehydrator where, after 36-48 hours at a relatively low temperature, the purée acquires an intense flavour and crunchy texture. No surprise, then, that part of Gaggan’s kitchen resembles nothing so much as a laboratory: though there’s a section with the conventional gas ranges and a tandoor, the rest of the space is populated by a high-pressure juice extractor, a dehydrator, Pacojet, vacuum sealer and a corner where liquid nitrogen is available on tap. In fact, dissatisfied with the space he currently has for experimentation, Anand plans on converting a beautiful terrace seating into a full-fledged lab.
While Western critics and customers have accepted Modern Indian as a move in the right direction, it has received a mixed response from Indian chefs and customers, who often criticize it as being nothing more than an adaptation of Indian flavours to a Western palate, and the few Modern Indian restaurants in India haven’t gained sufficient traction. Most Indian customers treat it, at best, as a novelty that should be experienced once – but only a select few return on a regular basis.
The molecular gastronomy trend itself has had more than its share of critics, and not just in India. Criticism ranges from health concerns regarding the use of chemicals and a dependence on lab techniques (rather than kitchen equipment) to the de-emphasis of natural, fresh ingredients. Some chefs also argue that a meal needs to satisfy the senses as much as the stomach, and molecular cooking eschews sustenance in favour of the cerebral. In response, Adrià has famously said, “I do not intend to feed people. That they can do the other 364 days of the year.”
Anand isn’t bothered by the naysayers either. He continues to be fascinated by the precise, scientific approach to cooking, where each step of a recipe and each technique can be deconstructed and then re-interpreted, allowing for free-flowing creativity. “For example, dum pukht requires the combined effects of pressure, slow cooking and smoking,” he explains. “At Gaggan, we use sous vide (a technique where food is hermetically sealed in a plastic bag and then cooked in a water bath maintained at a constant temperature) for pressure and slow cooking, and the smoking is done by a gun with spiced sandalwood chips.” In other words: same philosophy, different application.
His approach to food appears to be working. Gaggan’s clientele includes Hollywood A-listers and Asian royalty. Hangover star Zach Galifianakis is a regular, as is actor Renee Zellweger; Thai princess HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and the Princess Consort to the Crown Prince of Siam were so impressed they visited twice in the same week. And though perhaps less written about on the Subcontinent as some other “celebrity chefs” of Indian origin, Anand has already become a favourite among discerning Indian industrialists, businessmen and film stars: Nita Ambani, PRS Oberoi, Rishi Kapoor and Azim Premji have dined at his table.
For my part, I find the meal at Gaggan thought-provoking and playful. A mojito comes in the form of two pieces of rum-infused sugar cane which have to be chewed to release the flavour; a mango puree is shot up with liquid nitrogen to create an instant sorbet. The Spaghetti Carbon alla Gaggan, is served with Joselito Iberico ham and an egg yolk that has been cooked sous vide at 62˚C – the temperature at which the yolk protein can be cooked without it coagulating – for a few hours till it attains a creamy, sauce-like consistency.
But why does a Spaghetti Carbonara figure on an Indian menu at all? “Do you know where the Italian name Carbonara comes from?” Gaggan asks in response. ”It comes from carbon, the word Italians used to describe black pepper; pepper that came from India, and the pepper I use for this dish comes from Wayanad in Kerala.”
As much as emphasising the Indian connection to European foods, there’s also a practical reason for including an Italian section on the menu: Thais love Italian. For the same reason, in dishes like the Iberian pork neck cooked in a Goan vindaloo reduction, Anand uses spices for flavour rather than heat, as Thai food is more herb based than spice. (It’s also the only dish on the menu I disliked because it lacked that fiercely pungent bite that is expected of a vindaloo.) “You have to keep in mind who you’re cooking for,” says Gaggan plainly, stating a common refrain among top chefs. “I wouldn’t do this vindaloo, for instance, if I had a restaurant in India.”
Speaking of which, a restaurant in India is on the cards. “I’m planning to open by late 2013, in Mumbai,” he reveals. “It won’t be a Gaggan but a totally new concept, and will have little to do with Modern Indian the way it’s being done in India right now. It’s going to be an inexpensive restaurant, not just for a niche clientele, and the food will be local, Juhu-Chowpatty street food using elements of modernist cuisine. India’s ready for the change. I’m absolutely confident of that.”
Published GQ July 2012
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