One of Melbourne’s top chefs Adam D’Sylva has managed to set new grounds in the culinary world with the modern, innovative Indian food he serves at his restaurant Tonka. But even those of you who haven’t had the chance to visit the Aussie city, will remember him as the good-humoured chef who mentored a MasterChef Australia favourite, Rishi Desai. The chef, who has a Goan father and Italian mother, has been cooking since he was a child. His menu, which includes food from across India, from Delhi right down to Goa, has been influenced by Mumbai’s food too, thanks to his sous chef Ved Navighar who was born and brought up in the city.
Your food has been described as modern and accessible Indian food. Could you elaborate on that?
The food I have created at Tonka is based on the great produce we have in Victoria and made to suit the refined palates of Melbourne diners. We still use traditional recipes with modern techniques. It is ghee-free which leaves you feeling clean and light. Unlike some typical Indian cuisine, which can be stodgy and heavy. I have touched on a few neighbouring continents to bring a lightness and freshness to the food. It’s not overpowered by spice rather subtle hints of balanced spice. This enables the diner to savour a great Victorian wine and still taste it. Melbourne has embraced Tonka and its style of food. Tonka is one of the first restaurants not only in Melbourne but in Australia to be doing this. A lot of diners are saying it’s about time someone did it.
You’re of mixed Italian and Indian heritage. Did you cook and eat a lot of Indian food even as a child, or were you more exposed to Italian food?
I was very fortunate as a child growing up as I was equally exposed to both Italian and Indian food. My Italian mother would always have to make a pasta and curry for dinner, as my Indian father would only eat pasta once a week. I thought it was what all Australian families ate. I learnt to cook Italian first as my Nonna (Italian grandmother) would let me help her cook. My grandparents would grow all vegetables, make wine and cure meats. A bowl of pasta and a curry is my comfort food when I eat at home.
What pushed you to explore Indian cuisine?
What inspired me to cook Indian food was my heritage and it is such a broad and rich culture of food. I also saw a gap in the market for Indian cuisine to be showcased as I am doing at Tonka.
What according to you is the future of Indian food overseas?
The future of Indian food overseas is bright. It’s an unexplored cuisine in the top end restaurants of the world. There is so much history and diversity throughout India’s cuisine. I think the surface has just been touched. The flavours of Asia Pacific is what diners want to eat. It has much more flavour and complexity than European cuisines.
You serve an interesting mix of Indian food, from Goan fish curry to pani puri and even tandoori food…
The kind of food I am showcasing is a broad range from all over India. Every region has great dishes and I always like to have a balanced and exciting menu. I have some Goan heritage in the family tree, and my father was born in Madras. I love the two tandoor ovens at Tonka. It is a great way of cooking and it’s unique to the dining scene today, where most chefs are using foams, gels and sous vide cooking methods. We also use a chargrill at Tonka to grill meats and fish.
What are some of the most popular dishes on your menu? And what do you think makes them such favourites?
Popular dishes at Tonka are; Tuna tartare, pomegranate, fresh wasabi and green chilli rice papadam, Corn fed chicken tandoor, Avani’s lamb curry, which is my Sous Chef Ved Navighar’s mother’s recipe. I don’t mean to brag, but I think everything on the menu is equally popular. All the dishes are well received and each individual diner has their own favourites. That is why I have a range of dishes and flavours to try and suit all palettes. If a dish is not liked by the majority of staff it will not make it to the menu.
Yellow Fin Tuna tartare
>> 300 g Yellow Fin Tuna, sashimi grade diced into 2cm x 2cm
>> 2 tbsp pomegranate seeds
>> 2 spring onions, sliced
>> 1 bunch coriander leaves, picked and washed
>> 1 knob ginger, julienned
>> Fresh wasabi stem, grated
>> 50 ml extra virgin olive oil
>> 50 ml light soy sauce
>> 50 ml ponzu sauce
>> 1 green chilli rice pappadam
>> In a bowl add tuna, spring onion, pomegranate, ginger and coriander
>> Dress with olive oil first then add ponzu and soy sauce to taste. Toss gently
>> Place on plate, grate wasabi on top
>> Serve with rice pappadam