For a long time, the perception of Indian food internationally was that of a curry house. Everything was hot, red, doused in a generic curry. Little was known of India’s nuanced use of spices, centuries-old cooking techniques and regional specialities. Till Indian chefs cooking in foreign countries began applying the processes of French haute cuisine to their renditions of Indian food.
In the UK, chef Vineet Bhatia was perhaps the first to introduce, in the late 1990s, a paired multi-course tasting menu rather than taking all dishes to a table. This was in keeping with the French expression of serving meals course-wise. Chefs like Atul Kochhar, Vivek Singh, Hari Nayak, Mano Thevar, Sameer Taneja and Kumar Mahadevan have adopted the French practice of rigorous documentation of every dish cooked, in both its classic and innovative forms. With a uniform standard, they could achieve classic Indian flavours, yet work with local produce and presentations—like US-based chef, restaurateur and author Hari Nayak’s idea of a sol kadi to cure fish for ceviche instead of as a drink, at Jhol in Bangkok. Nayak currently helms the kitchen at actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ recently opened Sona, in New York.
An oven in place of a tandoor can achieve a similar flavour profile and texture, but in a more controlled manner, as Sameer Taneja, executive chef at Benares in London, does with his Murgh Tandoori Roast. Chef Mano Thevar of Singapore’s innovative Indian restaurant Thevar uses sous vide to bring out the characteristics of clove, for instance.
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The French applications of standardisation to enable creativity, multi-course meals and tasting menus, deconstructed/restructured approaches to classic dishes, the use of local produce to add newer dimensions—all this has helped catapult Indian cuisine to haute status, helping the world understand the depth of culinary history and nuanced use of spices. Today, restaurants like Will Bowlby and Rik Campbell’s Kricket in London, which serve Indian-inspired small plates, are among a sizable number of Indian-cuisine-based restaurants helmed by international chefs.
In June 2018, when I was interviewing the legendary chef Marco Pierre White, he spoke passionately of his love for Indian food and its centuries-old techniques. I asked if the cuisine was “Westernised” when presented to an international audience. In his characteristic deep voice, the chef explained that introducing French methods into Indian food had helped elevate the depth of Indian techniques and approach, making it more appealing to an international audience.
I reached out to London-based Bhatia. His restaurant Zaika won a Michelin star in 2001, making him the first Indian to get one. From Zaika to his recent Kama at Harrods, he has made modern Indian food the toast of London. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Bhatia was with the Oberoi chain of hotels in Delhi and Mumbai, he observed that visiting European chefs would replicate their cuisine with local ingredients. They would make, for instance, a brioche or praline the classic way and then enhance it with newer creations, each attempt documented for others to use and build on.
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“Chefs like me applied this to Indian cuisine, which did not have any standardisation of recipes back then, and structured dishes, making them easily replicable anywhere,” he says. “Also, the French expression of serving food course-wise was not something Indian food had seen, but the balance it brought to its presentation and flavours on a tasting menu was like musical notes. The consistency and strong menu foundation helped expand Indian food beyond our kitchens, and allowed its legacy to continue,” Bhatia adds.
Consistency is the first lesson Nayak learnt when he went to the US in 1996, graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in 1998 and working in a French kitchen. “It helped me think like my diner and understand their expectations from a plate of food and work on that,” says Nayak.
Take the chicken ghee roast—Nayak says his diners may be put off by the floating ghee. So he serves it under a dosa which is perceived as a crepe, and the dish is loved. “Even if you deconstruct a dish, the knowledge of techniques to bring the right flavours into it is necessary, and a standardised recipe helps anyone in the kitchen achieve this,” he says. Applying the same principle, Nayak has used the familiar to introduce something new.
GLOBAL INGREDIENTS, INDIAN FLAVOURS
For non-Indian diners, the sight of something familiar can be comforting, says chef Kumar Mahadevan, regarded as the ambassador of Indian food in Australia. He helms Abhi’s and Aki’s in New South Wales, showcasing his modern interpretation of Indian food. Take his braised lamb shoulder with a marinade of turmeric, Kashmiri red chillies, cockscomb flower and cassia bark, spiced thinai (foxtail millet), with seasonal vegetables and lotus chips—the dish blends Indian flavours and spices with local produce.
Mahadevan explains that the approach to meat varies. Where the soft texture of a shami kebab is lauded in north India, an Australian likes the meatiness and bite of a lamb cutlet. Understanding such differences helps create newer dishes using varied produce, flavours and techniques. “I might indulge in a French technique but I want to be honest with the flavour of the dish. The question is—are you making French food with Indian flavours or Indian food with French techniques? There are audiences for both.”
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Taneja too pairs quality British ingredients with authentic Indian spices and techniques. Take his Murgh Makhani Roast, which is described as Tandoori Poussin, and has a classic butter chicken sauce and a “lassi” dressing. He has simply broken down the ingredients. With the juices from the yogurt-marinated meat, which he feels are lassi-like, he makes a dressing for the chicken. “This is not deconstructing, rather, it’s putting things in a way that would appeal to a guest. I still serve it with sirkewali pyaaz (vinegared onions). I cook in an oven instead of a tandoor, where I play with temperature and coal smoke—all the elements of the classic recipe, right down to the spices, but approached differently,” he explains.
Like all the chefs I spoke with, Thevar too believes no one knows and uses spices as Indians do. “In people’s minds, Indian food is marked as spicy, whereas it is spiced!” he says.
At Thevar, he has created around 10 spice blends for his Indian food, some using French techniques: “Our cloves, we sous vide to extract its aroma. Mustard, we roast at a controlled 48 degrees to prevent it from going bitter. Cinnamon is roasted at around 100 degrees because of its inherent smokiness. And in our Rajasthani lal maas, we ensure that you taste the sweetness of the Kashmiri chilli.”
While we may slurp a rasam, Thevar has piped a rasam granita over American oysters; a thali may seem indulgent, but Bhatia brings the flavours of around 28 Indian dishes across his multi-course tasting menu. And while Nayak may love his Mangalorean fish curry rice in a bowl, for his diners, he makes a velvety smooth coconut curry over which he places a piece of masala fried fish—applying French approaches to structuring an infinitely intricate cuisine like ours.
“The integrity of the dish is a tight line that one must walk,” says Mahadevan.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.