Phorum Dalal speaks to culinary experts to get a whiff of this lip-smacking food trend
As Vandana Verma enters Indian Accent, a restaurant in New Delhi’s Hotel Manor, pungent aromas of red, yellow and green spices greet her. The menu, too, is full of her favourite shorbas, kebabs, bread baskets and biryanis. But when the kulcha is served as a mini version of the traditional size, topped with treacle bacon, and a bite of the galouti kebab frees the burst of French Foie de Gras at the centre, the food critic raises her eyebrows in happy surprise.
Finally free of customers demanding every cuisine be ‘Indianised’ to suit their taste buds, chefs and restaurateurs across India are letting loose their creative side. The result: a brand new culture of fusion cuisine that is delightfully international in nature. Take the example of Zorawar Kalra’s upcoming restaurant at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), Masala Library, which opened yesterday. It hopes to change the way we perceive, eat and relish Indian food. “Indian food has come to a dead end, and there is nowhere else to go with the traditional recipes. That is why, it’s time to pave way for version 2.0 of progressive Indian food,” laughs Kalra.
Indeed, a handful of top-end fine-dining restaurants have already introduced dishes that have a global influence in the menu, along with their classic recipes. “Indians have been globetrotters for many years but it is only now that they have finally opened up to global foods. The days of demanding international food in desi flavours such as Indian-Chinese or Chicken Tikka Pizza, are over,” explains Kalra, who is happy that matured tastes only mean patrons are giving chefs complete freedom to churn out dishes that show their knowledge and understanding of food. “Diners are happy to try something created by chefs who have more knowledge of food than them.
At Masala Library, for example, we are serving Pesto Kebabs with Parmesan Papad, Quinoa Biryani, Rissoto Khichdi and Poha Paella --the last one an Indian take on the Spanish Valencian rice dish with Calamari, clams and sea food. Would such a dish have found any takers 10 years ago?” says Kalra, hastening to add that the look and taste of all these dishes will still be Indian.
The new cuisine
To explain the evolution of what is also being called Mash-up cuisine, Chef Nilesh Limaye from Auriga, a month-old South East Asian restaurant at Mahalaxmi, goes back to 1999 when the city saw a first burst of restaurants serving Chinese, Italian and Mexican cuisine. “This was the time restaurants such as Olive, Mainland China and Indigo brought authentic delicacies from all over the world on a platter. A decade later, the way people eat has changed, as many more citizens, having travelled the world and watched culinary shows on TV, have developed a palate that is curious enough to go beyond the ordinary,” says Limaye.
An interesting factor that has further developed the new trend is the relatively sudden rise in the number of converted-vegetarians, vegans and those who want organic or gluten-free foods. “Indian cuisine is vast with its regional flavours, textures and ingredients. People understand that an ingredient such as coriander can do wonders to a dish, but an overdose could play spoilsport. The new-age chef only takes inspiration from cuisines, and creates a dish, which is measured for taste and texture. The Indian Chinese was a byproduct of rigid taste buds. This is a ‘mash up’, the result of matured palates wanting something new,” says Limaye.
A return to roots
The fun part though, is that even as the Indian palate gravitates towards uncharted flavours, there is a renewed reverence for desi veggies and ingredients, till recently considered poor cousins of their exotic Latin or European counterparts. So, be it pumpkin, pointed gourd (parwal) or bitter gourd (karela), chefs say customers do not question what an item available in the kitchen garden, is doing in an exotic dish. They trust the chef to create something tasty.
At Auriga, for example, the chef has designed an all-vegetarian live bar, almost a sacrilege when it comes to South-east Asian cuisine, usually dominated by sea food and meats. “The brinjal resembles the texture of a squid, and the jack fruit is like fish. Even a gourmand would not mind a Pizza with South east Asian herbs such as lemon grass and sage,” says Limaye, who serves a Basil Mushroom puff stuffed with goat cheese, Asian herbs, soy and ginger. “It maybe a baked ‘American’ puff, but the aftertaste will give you a pure South East Asian experience,” claims Limaye.
His dessert menu in fact pushes home the point. The humble Samosa is transformed here into a chocolate and mint molten lava. “I have taken the samosa and created my version of the gooey molten lava. The filling is soft, chocolate-minty and devoid of cake and egg,” he says.
Indeed the mash-up trend seems to have gone viral, helped along the way by each chef or restaurateur’s personal background. Chef Dharmesh Karmokar for instance, is half Gujarati, half Bengali and this influences his cooking style at Nom Nom, where he is employed. “Fusion food often has a negative connotation, but if you leave it to a chef, he will create something a lot more sensible. At Nom Nom, I serve my version of the popular Parsi dish, Patra Ni Machi. It is basically steamed fish, stuffed with South East Asian herbs, topped with Prawn Crackers in Honey Chilli sauce. I call it new-age cuisine where I only use a particular cuisine as a roadmap to create something more independent or global,” says Karmokar, adding, “This is only the beginning. People marrying outside their culture is going to result in evolution of such foods. Kids are going to grow up eating sushi and butter chicken, and this will influence their cooking habits.”
“What is fusion food?” asks food writer Rushina Munshaw Ghildyal rather rhetorically, before answering the question herself. “Because of the past, it has got a negative connotation, but it literally means to infuse distinct flavours or techniques from more than one cuisine in a measured manner, into a new dish. Years ago, the mighty Italians did not have access to spices. But after some of their explorers travelled to India and China, they embraced spices into their age-old recipes, without recognising the act of fusion,” she adds, explaining that however scary or vague the term, the results of fusion can bring landmark changes in food history. The “bad name” that the term fusion got, was chiefly due to the demand of inward-looking palates of Indian diners in the past, who forced chefs to play it safe, as they wanted their patrons to return to their restaurants. As a result, they infused every cuisine with a hint of “Indianness”. Today, much like the Indian tourist, even the chefs are well travelled and many of them have degrees from Europe and the US. They take the time out to recce regions across the world to update their knowledge. Some, in fact, argue that the term ‘fusion’ needs to die a natural death now. “Fusion doesn’t mean anything,” argues Rahul Akerkar, celebrity chef and restaurateur. “It is all part of good evolution, as with time, different ingredients are coming into local markets, people are open to exploring their palate preferences and the chefs are confident to follow their culinary passions.”
Here and now
Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are predictably the first cities to have stepped up to the plate. “There will always be patrons who swear by the authentic kebab, tikka or burrah kabobs, but there’s an open-mindedness and willingness to try new flavours that one didn’t see as much before. It’s superb because it means that eating out has become interesting again,” says Verma. “At places such as Le Bistro du Parc in New Delhi, the new menu is thoroughly French, and yet it’s light, fresh and modern -- a world away from the soufflés and Escoffier recipes that so many associate with Gallic food. They reference classic French techniques and preparations, but like Indian Accent, the ideas and flavours are from everywhere. To me this is the future of menus,” he says. The final word perhaps came from Gary Mehigan, the celebrated chef and judge of Masterchef Australia, who told this correspondent during a master class in the city last month, “A recipe is only a roadmap to your own individual food journey. Follow your instincts.” That’s exactly what the new-age chefs are up to!