Antoine Lewis discovers the many joys of fine dining with a ‘Modern Indian’ palate
Indian food has not changed much over the last hundred years. The two great changes of the last century have been the spread of Indian-style international cuisines like Indian-Chinese, Indian-Italian and well, Gujarati-Mexican and an access to a variety of regional cuisines. While the cuisines have been adapted to work in the commercial market, the emphasis has been on retaining the original ‘authentic’ flavours, so the core cooking techniques, ingredients and presentation have remained pretty much the same.
The 21st century marks an abrupt disruption with the past, with a few restaurants changing the face of restaurant cuisine.
At one end of the spectrum are restaurants like the newly opened Café Lota, located inside New Delhi’s Crafts Museum, which offers a pan-Indian menu rather than a region-specific one. So along with mushroom khichdi and dal ka chilla, you’ll also find chicken cafreal and salli boti.
The ITC, the hotel chain which is best qualified to modernise Indian food, has also taken the pan-Indian route, but with a twist. They’ve turned their focus to one of the richest and most culturally diverse aspects of Indian food that has consistently been ignored—vegetarian food. Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai is the first Indian restaurant to offer luxury vegetarian food. The ITC describes Royal Vega as ‘an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the riches of vegetarian repertoire of the sub-continent and the immediate neighbourhood. Royal Vega isn‘t identified parochially with a particular region…’ The food is cooked on ayurvedic principles and though the food is served in a thali, it is served course-wise based on the six tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent and astringent.
But the most significant and momentous change has been in the spread of Modern Indian cuisine— an approach to Indian cooking that has reinvented it for the modern age. Restaurants offering Modern Indian cuisine plate the food instead of serving it in thalis or sharing portions; global ingredients are used as much as regional. Science-based cooking techniques are favoured over the traditional and food is cooked for a clientele with an international palate. While some restaurants had worked on plating and others with global ingredients, Indian Accent which opened in Delhi in 2009, under the masterful Executive Chef Manish Mehrotra, was the first restaurant to offer Modern Indian cuisine.
Soon after, Vineet Bhatia, opened Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai in 2010. Many of the influences on Modern Indian came from the pioneering work by chefs of Indian-origin, like Bhatia, in London and New York. They introduced European-style, plated Indian food eschewing both the chicken tikka masala and the bowl it’s served in. Additionally, instead of relying on imported Indian meats, fish and vegetables, they utilised locally available produce, which was of fantastic quality, and easily accepted by their customers.
At Ziya, for instance, you will find sesame crusted pomfret with dhokla, bhel chaat, wasabi dust and tamarind chutney. The elegantly presented dish, intelligently and playfully combines discrete elements in an unusual manner: a Konkani-style fried fish sits atop UP bhel mixed with crushed Gujarati dhokla and garnished with Japanese wasabi powder.
Indian chefs learnt two important lessons— plating could be changed and that you could cook great food with global ingredients.
Indian Accent’s signature dish the blue cheese naan is a reflection of these influences. The mini naans, served complimentary as an amuse-bouche are made with a filling of Danish blue cheese. Mehrotra says, “It was very difficult to stuff blue cheese in regular-sized naans because it would leak out, but we found it worked with this size. We also tried a variety of blue cheese, because the flavour of blue cheese changes when you cook it. First we tried Gorgonzola, but it lost its flavour, then we tried Stilton, and finally Danish Blue, which retained the flavour”. The naan is such a hit that no one can have just one.
Other chefs and restaurateurs quickly picked up the baton: in Mumbai, Masala Library and more recently the vegetarian SpiceKlub; in Bengaluru, Hyatt with The Pink Poppadom; Farzi Café (meaning ‘fake’) in Delhi is another recent entrant.
Molecular gastronomy, the application of scientific techniques and principles to cooking, has been an important tool in modernising Indian food. A perfect example of molecular gastronomy is the Bombay Bhel Version 2.0 served at Farzi Café in New Delhi. Instead of a regular bhel, what you’re served is a bed of chilled yellow powder studded with pomegranates, peanuts and chopped spring onion greens. Eat a spoonful of the powder and what you taste are the spices, textures and flavours of a very traditional Bombay bhel.
Zorawar Kalra, who set up Farzi Café and Masala Library, explains the process, “first a regular bhel is prepared, then we process it in a commercial high-speed blender and while it is being processed we pour in liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen freezes the contents while being blended turning it into a powder, that, because of the heat of the blender does not crystallize”.
Indian food is set to change dramatically in the 21st century as the palate and expectations of Indians have changed.
Published DNA 23 Aug 2014.