Cook like an Indian
Changemaking chefs across the country are looking towards regional food cultures, produce and cooking techniques for inspiration
A penchant for the ubiquitous Amul Butter; a wanderlust that is fuelled by the search for a new food experience; a recipe that has been handed down generations and rare ingredients indigenous to a particular area—these are a few of the things that define what eating like an Indian means to some of the country’s leading chefs. Till a few years back, the F&B industry looked to the West for culinary innovation. However, the focus has now turned to India. A growing tribe of chefs from star hotels and stand-alone ventures are looking at the country’s regional diversity for inspiration, both in terms of produce and cooking techniques.
The travelling chefs
Of late, Prateek Sadhu’s Instagram feed has been flooded with pictures and videos of his mum’s cooking and experiments with the produce that he brought back from a recent trip to Ladakh. Sadhu, who is executive chef at Mumbai-based experiential fine-dining restaurant Masque, fills his social media with images that clearly reflect his food philosophy. And all of it is heavily inspired by his Kashmiri Pandit upbringing, his family’s love for food and the natural bounty of his home state. Sadhu fuses his training in Western gastronomy with a love for India’s terroir-centric produce and unusual hyperlocal ingredients. His current trip involved him travelling beyond Ladakh’s Nubra valley near the India-Pakistan border, to forage sea buckthorn which grows wild in the area. “This shrub is not cultivated and only thrives at these specific temperatures," says Sadhu. “We got back about 90 kilos of sea buckthorn which is then frozen and used through the year in different innovative forms." Sadhu and his team also brought back other seasonal produce like mountain garlic, apricots and wild berries, all of which will find place on the restaurant’s new menu.
Then there is Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen. He has spent the last four years alternating between helming the kitchen and travelling around the country, eating his way through different states and learning more about ingredients and local cooking techniques. His very first trip was an eye opener. “I finally felt like I had found some purpose in my career as a chef and it felt really important to tell the story of these ingredients and dishes through our restaurant," says Zacharias. He also realized that if he had to continue this mission, he needed to keep travelling. “Every two or three months, I pick a place that I have never been to before and do a nosedive into those cuisines," says the chef who is currently travelling in the North-East. On his travels he usually finds the best food on the streets, in small dhabas and people’s homes. A street food classic that found its way into The Bombay Canteen’s menu came from Zacharias’ trip to Indore where he tried the famous bhutte ka kees chaat at a night market. The dish is reinterpreted on their menu as corn fritters served with a red chilli chutney and moras (a locally grown succulent) bhaji.
For Zacharias, eating Indian is also about showcasing lesser-known regional cuisines and in keeping with this idea, the restaurant also collaborates with home chefs to create special menus. The idea according to Zacharias is to “shine the light on one particular region or state and tell the story of its food."
Manu Chandra, who is chef partner at Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao & Monkey Bar and executive chef at Olive Beach, also travels widely to find inspiration. He not only meets suppliers but also eats at homes, local restaurants and even from people’s dabbas. “I recently had fresh bamboo shoots cooked sukka style. It was stunning, and immediately opened the door to creating a new topping for a spicy fish broth at Toast & Tonic. The broth is made of smoked fish bones and a paste of fresh bamboo shoots with dried coconut, which one dissolves to create a dish that is wholly unique but also deeply comforting," he says.
A big part of the conversation on eating naturally moves into the idea of sourcing from local suppliers and farmers and for Chandra this is an important direction for the F&B industry in India. “This means freshness, optimal taste and sustainability—for the land and the people who till it and as a means to preserve small agriculture," he says.
The five-star locavores
And it is not the stand-alone restaurateurs alone who are moving in this direction. Satbir Bakshi, executive chef at The Oberoi, Mumbai, says, “The advantages of sourcing locally is to provide guests with the finest of ingredients that are fresh and seasonal. In keeping with this, we have a number of specialized ingredients that we source from local farms, such as coloured baby carrots, coloured baby beetroots and coloured baby radishes." They also source the rather striking-looking black Kadaknath chicken, which is native to Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. Since five-star hotels also have the advantage of scale, they can help small-scale organic producers overcome various road bumps like erratic supply by providing logistical support and promoting their efforts. “It is our endeavour to make sure that the farms and orchards protect and restore natural systems through effective management practices. These include choosing crops well-suited for local growing conditions, minimizing use of synthetic pesticides, and avoiding use of groundwater for irrigation. It is also imperative to be passionate and give first-generation entrepreneurs and innovative small farms an opportunity," says Bakshi.
The Oberoi has also been looking at regional food in a serious manner. In 2015, the Oberoi Group launched “Rivaayat—The Indian Culinary Conclave" with an objective to revive traditional Indian cuisine. The five-day conclave saw industry experts discuss the nuances of Indian cuisine and showcased Awadhi, Punjabi and Hyderabadi food.
The Taj group of hotels has always spotlighted Indian cuisine, with speciality brands like Karavalli at The Gateway Hotel, Bengaluru which is known for its coastal cuisine and a menu that offers dishes from Goa to Kerala. Sonargaon at the Taj Bengal, Kolkata, showcases everything from the food of the state’s erstwhile zamindari families to the Mughal cuisine that arrived with the nawabs. Newer restaurants like Nellaki at Vivanta by Taj, Madikeri, offer an array of traditional Coorg dishes, including a delectable pandi curry.
Translating Indian food
This idea of translating Indian cuisine is extremely important for chefs like Floyd Cardoz and Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, who are carrying a beacon for Indian food in a global context. Theirs is a move to make people understand the many Indias that exist, and to move away from the idea of curries and Chicken Tikka Masala. Cardoz’s success story was charted at New York’s Tabla, a restaurant that broke new ground as far as Indian food in the Big Apple was concerned. He returned to this vision of modern Indian food with Paowalla which opened in SoHo, New York in 2016. He shuttered the restaurant which he felt had become too “stuffy" and reopened earlier this year in a new avatar as the more casual, fun and hip joint, The Bombay Bread Bar. One of the most important things for him is to understand his audience. “In the US, we have three types of customers—those who have never eaten Indian food, those who hate Indian food because they have only eaten the terrible variety, and those who love Indian food as they have travelled to India and actually know what its about," he says. “So it was important to tap into the first category and give them a version that would be Indian and yet accessible at the same time. My goal was to bring traditional Indian techniques, spicing and recipes to ingredients that were found here. For example, the idea was not to give them difficult fish like pomfret or hilsa which were completely alien, but fish that were available locally, like striped bass," says Cardoz. As a result, the menu at The Bombay Bread Bar is identifiably Indian, inspired by a cross-section of dishes from across the country. “My idea is to introduce dishes by telling their stories, which part of India they are from and why they were made in the first place," says Cardoz.
It is a similar challenge for Manish Mehrotra who hopes to carry a message about the diversity of Indian food to a foreign audience. And although Mehrotra is a big believer in Indian foods, even paying a heavy premium to ensure that there is always a ready supply of Tata Salt, Amul Cheese and Amul Butter in his restaurant kitchens in Delhi, New York and London, he believes that one should not glorify produce just because it is locally sourced. “If some producer came up to me and asked me to try olive oil made in India, I wouldn’t use it and that is simply because olives are not indigenous to our country. There has to be some balance between what we use from local producers depending on quality, availability and what works for our menu," says Mehrotra. At the same time, he is the chef who has introduced vegetables like karela (bitter gourd) and jackfruit to the fine-dining realm, presenting them in new and imaginative ways.
Through his restaurants in New York and London, Mehrotra wants to change a certain clichéd perception . “The idea is to present Indian food in a way that is beautiful and not just as big greasy bowls of curry.... I want people to understand that our food is not one big pot where everything is mixed together. Rather, it is sophisticated and the result of complex techniques and thousands of years of research. Finally, India is much more than a sum of north Indian food and there are hundreds of dishes that are as good as butter chicken."