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Food & drinks get a taste of summer

Yes, there are mangoes; but don’t miss ant pupae, 1990s’ inspired drinks and bold flavours as chefs introduce menus for the summer

Smoked Marwari 'papad' at Indian Accent.

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 12.04.2024  |  09:10 AM IST

As spring gives way to summer, restaurants and bars are celebrating a new season with fresh menus. Incorporating seasonal produce is inevitable, but chefs and bartenders have upped their game by being adventurous with ingredients like ants, and imbibing the feel and flavours of the city in which they are located. It is a little bit of play and a whole lot of imagination.

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One of Bengaluru’s most innovative restaurants, Farmlore, captures these aspects in its 10-course tasting menu launched in March. For a dish with quail, it draws inspiration from artist Nandalal Bose’s water-colour painting Tiller Of The Soil (1938), which depicts a farmer ploughing a field and is on display at Bengaluru’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The dish pays homage to the painting by using the four ingredients of rice, wheat, corn and pigeon peas tilled in the artist’s homeland of Kharagpur in West Bengal. “Apart from the painting’s connection with food, the dish draws attention to an important work on display in Bengaluru," says chef Johnson Ebenezer, co-founder, Farmlore, exemplifying how menus can go beyond the plate.

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In Delhi, Indian Accent unveiled their seven-course tasting menu two weeks ago. Its appetiser course includes chaats, hare matar ki tikki (green peas cutlet), moth dal ki batata puri (deep-fried bread stuffed with potatoes and moth beans) and quinoa dahi vada.

Culinary director chef Manish Mehrotra, who grew up in Patna, Bihar, brings a bit of his childhood memories in a main course of green jackfruit, sattu (roasted gram flour) roti and an ole (elephant yam) chutney. Indian Accent Mumbai released a new menu at the same time, and it’s distinctly different. “We have a few guests travelling between cities and eating in both the restaurants. So, we cannot have repeats," Mehrotra explains.

The Mumbai menu has pav bhaji filled in golf ball-sized crusty bread as an appetiser and spicy crab accompanied with a tiny pav slathered with green chutney as mains. Both dishes are a nod to Mumbai’s taste preferences. There’s just one course common to both cities and the season’s most popular fruit mango binds them. It’s a dessert: cheesecake topped with crisp mini puris placed in a moat of aamras (mango pulp).

While Indian Accent’s menus are all about comfort and familiar flavours, there are restaurants that encapsulate the spirit of adventure with ingredients and techniques. Earlier this month, Ekaa launched their new 10-course menu that takes diners on a gastronomic journey from India to Mexico and Japan to Russia. Each dish is dedicated to historic kingdoms. Ants appear in the fifth course as an ode to the kingdom of the Aztecs. There’s a thick, piquant relish made with red weaver ants, and it’s paired with tortilla.

“I want to break pre-conceived notions of food. For instance, why should non-vegetarians stick to only chicken, when just a few kilometers from this city people depend on other sources of protein, like ants. Or, we can use ants to replace the zestiness of a lemon in a relish—both have similar flavours," says chef and Ekaa co-founder Niyati Rao. She believes that when fine dine restaurants put an ingredient on their menu, it has a trickle-down effect. “With ants, hopefully an effort like this will strip it off the perception of chi chi (disgust) and it will find more acceptance," she adds.

Farmlore has a course with ant pupae harvested from their farm. Ant nests were proliferating in the many mango trees on the 37-acre plot and they used the pupae to turn milk into curd. This is served as an appetiser named Ant Bite. “If ants build a nest in a mango or lemon tree, they will absorb the flavours of those trees," says Ebenezer. While ants are a long way from being as popular as avocados, chefs are trying to present them in innovative, palatable ways for curious, open-minded diners.

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'Ant Bites' at Farmlore in Bengaluru.

Food isn’t the only area for new discoveries—wines are also being introduced for the summer. Typically port wines are red, but Indian Accent has a rare white bottle, W&J Graham’s fine white port from Portugal, which is reserved for the dessert course.

Ekaa has a new cocktail menu infused with Ayurvedic ingredients, such as jatamanshi (spikenard), camphor and khus root (camphor). In Pune, the bar Cobbler & Crew introduced a cocktail menu in early April celebrating the 1990s, in drinks such as Summer of 95 (gin, mint cordial and vetiver aperitif blend), Pen Pals (bourbon, amaretto and fig compote) and OK Boomer (gin, citrus and bubble gum soda) as a nod to the OG bubble gum Boomer. This is the kind of menu that will please a whole generation that grew up listening to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and Lucky Ali.

The Chennai restaurant Pandan Club that specialises in Peranakan cuisine recently launched a cocktail menu called Shortest Route that ties together flavours and cultural facets of the city. The gin-based drink Serangoon Smith with a shimmering yellow hue has an edible stamp clipped as a garnish made with jaggery and coconut; the flavours are evocative of the popular south Indian candy, kamarkattu. Another drink, Movie Night, which has Old Monk infused with butter popcorn, champions Chennai’s love for films and rum, and is one of their most popular cocktails now.

On Monday, Masque in Mumbai announced a new menu; and Lupa in Bengaluru posted on their Instagram page about introducing their refreshed dinner menu soon. It seems like there’s a new gourmet experience for every week of the month.

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