A canvas to showcase skills, the amusing amuse-bouche in India has a menu of its own
Smoked salmon bites
Inspired by the French from the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1970s, the amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule is on a mission to distract patrons while they wait for the first course. It doesn’t announce its presence on the menu; it comes as a complimentary surprise from the chef’s selection. The small, bite-sized hors d’oeuvre is meant to prolong hospitality, and excite and stir the palate.
Chef Raji Gupta plates an amuse-bouche platter at her studio in Andheri
Alessio Banchero, Italian Chef de Cuisine at Celini Grand Hyatt Mumbai, explains, “The purpose of serving an amuse-bouche at the beginning of a course is multi-fold: Firstly, it serves as a warm welcome and kick-starts a surprising gastronomic experience that sets the tone for the remainder of the dinner. Call it a delicious distraction while guests wait for their main courses, keeping their taste buds engaged and anticipation high. It stimulates the appetite by satisfying initial hunger and prepares the palate for the diverse flavours and textures to follow.”
Indian tadka. Pics/Shadab Khan
He points out that it is not a palate cleanser—a separate course served between main courses or before dessert— adding, “Both amuse-bouche and palate cleanser contribute to enhancing the overall dining experience, but they serve different roles in a multi-course meal. A palate cleanser is typically a light, mildly flavoured dish or sorbet that removes any tastes lingering from previous courses, allowing diners to fully appreciate the flavours of the next dish.” Over the years, amuse-bouche has become a playground for chefs to showcase their cooking prowess and skill. From a humble piece of bread with mustard to molecular gastronomy creations, it has taken many rebirths. In India, it has been taken a step ahead, giving it a menu of its own.
Tofu Miso Salad
Chef Anees Khan of Star Anise Patisserie & Café says traditionally they have always served small portions of chaats, dahi bhalla, papads, achaars etc., long before the word amuse-bouche came to the table. “These unexpected small treats by the chef, meant to amuse one’s palate, have started getting big attention from both the diner and the chef,” he says, adding, “Chefs painstakingly create these and diners never cease to express their admiration. Fine dining restaurants have taken this term to a new level using molecular techniques. Think pani puri shots, dahi vada with chutney foam, crispy fried noodles, dhokla with chutney caviar, Thai shrimp salad, devilled eggs, tomato basil bruschetta, watermelon feta cheese, salmon bites, gazpacho shooters and cheese drizzled with honey. Some of our popular amuse-bouches are mini dimsums, feta on watermelon squares with melon caviar, mini baked vada pavs and tandoori devilled eggs.”
Beetroot paan. Pics/Anurag Ahire
Depending on culinary style and cultural preferences, the notion of amuse-bouche may be altered and presented in numerous ways in restaurants. While the name itself isn’t generally used, the idea of providing little, gratis appetisers or palate teasers is common in Indian cuisine—these may include bite-sized nibbles, chaat, little tasters of regional delicacies, or new chef creations. “These appetising bits are frequently served on a small plate or in a creative presentation, and their goal is to excite the taste senses, highlight the chef’s skills, and create a memorable start to the dining experience,” Banchero concludes.
Chef Raji Gupta, founder of Beyond Dining catering, agrees how amuse-bouche has taken on a different meaning in India. “They are treated as hors d’oeuvres, served before a meal. They pass off as bites, nibbles, mezzes and platters. I have catered for events where my entire menu is a curation of amuse-bouches,” Gupta confesses. At her studio in Andheri, she makes us sample Taste of Japan, a tofu miso salad with seaweed, smoked salmon bites and India tadka to a mango, jalapeno and pineapple salad, mixed in coconut milk—all served on quirky small plates. “From precise chopping to texture, marination and temperature, a small amuse-bouche will have at least three to four elements. Here, we don’t stick to the original 30 gm limit either,” she shares.
Sombir Choudhary of Raahi Neo Bar in Bengaluru, says, “An amuse-bouche can be served on a small plate, a spoon, a shot glass or even passed around as a pick-up on trays. “They have also become a miniature version of a traditional dish. In India, amuse-bouche is generally passed off as a small dish but these two are completely different,” he clarifies.
Shikha Mutreja, chef and owner at Myhomebistro, a boutique catering company in Malad that specialises in sit-down course meals, says, “Amuse-bouche is a way to tickle your palate at the beginning of a course meal. The idea behind this course is to get your palate going, literally taking it for a ride. We are a country blessed with a lot of flavours and textures that do a great job of tickling our palate. Many chefs are doing very innovative takes on chaat, keeping true to the textures and flavours.”
Typically her five-course meal starts with an amuse-bouche of beetroot paan, sourdough blini with mango and smoked salmon, cucumber tartare with four avatars of lemon, parmesan biscuit with cherry tomatoes, avo emulsion and roquet pesto. “To be honest,” says Mutreja, “originally, it could be as simple as bread accompanied with butter and mustard, a no-brainer course. But then you put in a lot of thought as you do with all the other courses that come with the meal. This is the course where a chef can show off his or her skills.”
Mango Monaco mozzarella bites, baby greens by Sombir Choudhary
1 packet salted crackers
100 gm green peas
Salt to taste
1 piece raw mango
10 gm red chilli powder
3 gm mustard seeds
5 gm turmeric powder
2 gm cumin
2 gm coriander powder
10 gm mayonnaise
2-3 gm of stems of garden cress microgreens
20 ml olive oil
Salt to taste
(From left) Tandoori devilled egg, mini chicken and spinach Wellington, muhammara cucumber sesame bites. Pics/Shadab Khan
Blanche the green peas in hot water for three minutes and cool them down in ice water. Take a blender, add the green peas, salt and olive oil and blend them together. Add garlic if needed. Blend it into a smooth paste. Peel and grate the raw mango. Heat oil in a pan and add the raw mango. Add mustard seeds and all the spices and cook till the mango is soft. Add a splash of water if needed. Take the salted cracker and pipe the green pea hummus on it. Then spoon the raw mango chutney. Pipe the mayonnaise, and finish by garnishing the dish with microgreens.
Amuse-bouche, but not
Head chef at Masque, Varun Totlani, says he doesn’t like referring to his courses as amuse-bouches. “We celebrate Indian cuisine on our menu, and India doesn’t have a concept of amuse-bouche. Having said that, we never dive right into our meal. We will break papad, mix some kachumbari or onions in masala and bite on it first.
Inspired by masala papad, we make a blue corn papad like a Mexican tortilla with spices. To this, we add a little onion jam with Indian masalas and a corn mousse with charred and fermented baby corn. A two-bite snack, we serve this with a water chestnut pakoda. We keep it attached to its stem and only fry the water chestnut part,” says Totlani.