The 'Sarkar' of international Indian

Updated: May 19, 2019, 08:37 IST | Phorum Dalal

Three years after Rooh in San Francisco, the maverick chef is back in the capital to serve his freestyle version of Indian cuisine

The 'Sarkar' of international Indian
Rooh turned homewards last month with its first outpost in Mehrauli, New Delhi. Pic/Nishad Alam

We pin a scallop on the fork and dip it into a pool of what looks like a French hollandaise sauce. It's made of rice, and spiced with a coarse podi powder that performs south Indian finish. Most of the dishes at Rooh, which has found itself a home in the capital, result in raised brows and nostalgic memories in a fun format of plating that is rare to Indian food. Kreme donuts hold a vinegar-laden pork vindaloo and aloo paratha is elevated with fermentation and a side serving of tomato pickle and goat's milk yogurt.

After three years of serving what he terms as international Indian cuisine in the US, maverick Sujan Sarkar - known to have transformed the face of Olive menus and partnering on Ek Bar during his three-year-old stint in 2013 - has brought San Francisco's Rooh to a purani haveli in Mehrauli with a stunning, uninterrupted view of the Qutub Minar.

The 65-seater is housed in the restored haveli in Ambawatta One. Enter and you must pass the glass door of the semi-open kitchen that gives you a peak of modern art wall and a antler sculpture amid chefs poring their heads over plating dishes and stirring pots. The dining hall has flamboyant glass-blown chandelier with a golden tin roof and wicker chair furniture. The bar, past a mural of a woman around a marigold tree and humming birds, is done up in rose-pink cushioned high chairs, and a clean bar top peppered with measure cups and bar equipment in rose gold finish. The mirrored bar backdrop is lined with bottles and wooden casks that are
ageing whisky.

"Modern, post-modern, progressive, post progressive. These are all names to a cuisine that is ever-evolving," says Sarkar, who began his food story at JW Marriott in Juhu in 2002.

In 2003, he moved to the UK where his time was spent working at Michelin-star restaurants like Galvin at windows. At 27 he became head chef at AUTOMAT, Mayfair, and opened Almada year after which use to be a celebrity hotspot, "All this time, I was a modern European but had started focusing on improving my Indian flavours. One pop-up led to another, and I ended up doing my version of Indian food. After over a decade, I knew it was time to return to India," says Sarkar, which is when he joined Olive, as chef de cuisine for Mumbai and Delhi.

For him, his food is ever-evolving. In 2014, he conceptualised and opened Tresind in Dubai, which was later taken over by Himanshu Saini. "Ek Bar was my canvas opportunity for the country's first Indian cocktail bar in 2015. From prawn sausages to jhalmuri bar and an Indian cheese thali, the menu pushed the envelope of how Indians perceived bar foods." In 2016, he moved to San Francisco to open his pet project, Rooh.

Modern Indian, abroad

Indian food abroad loosely falls under the butter chicken, chicken tikka and dal makhana category. "But it is legit if it is the best possible version of the dish. If you go to Bengaluru, you will taste a particular version of butter chicken, while the north and Kolkata will serve you something different. This is because everything depends on the ingredients. The taste of even onions and tomatoes is different. What is important while serving a traditional dish is to attempt to serve it as close to its authentic version.

Tell me, the Italian you eat here, is a diluted version of its fare back home, right?" says Sarkar, explaining that a cuisine moves forward, when newer ingredients are incorporated into recipes.

"Globally, we are seeing the onset of modern cuisines. This is because of different ingredients that are making it to the pot. I focus on what goes well together," says Sarkar. For example, he serves caviar on a chickpea cake called dhokar in Kolkata.

New methods

Technique is key too. "From sous vide, smoking, vacuum, texturisers, centrifuge to our desi tandoor, molecular gastronomy has seeped into modern cooking. But it goes beyond liquid nitrogen. We have to understand that every cuisine is moving forward. I don't know how one can change biryani, but there are a lot of other things that have potential to evolve," says Sarkar.

Is Mumbai on the cards? "I wanted to open here, as I don't want to be tagged as an American chef. For now, it is the capital," says Sarkar, who is now Chef & Partner at ROOH in San Francisco and Chicago which set to open by end of May also Baar Baar in New York.

While chefs all over the world are floating in freestyle cuisine, Sarkar feels Indian food is too diverse to fit into one bowl. "Indian food is complex, not complicated and there are so many variations. When compared to any other world cuisine, it is impossible to streamline.

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