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How expat chefs are bringing their cuisine to India

To introduce foreign dishes to Indian diners, expat chefs tap into familiar flavours and adapt to a vegetarian palate  

Burmese Tomato Salad at Bomras, Goa
Burmese Tomato Salad at Bomras, Goa

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When Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao, home chef, founder and content creator of FirstServes, which showcases East and West African cuisines, had the first table for her Ethiopian bayenatu (a plate with several dishes and sauces) in Tamil Nadu’s Denkanikottai last month, as part of a collaborative effort with NJH Malaikal, it was sold out.

Bengaluru-based First-Quao had noticed the interest in her dishes on her gated villa community's WhatsApp group during the lockdowns. In April, she offered injera (Ethiopian fermented flat bread) meals at a fund-raiser for an orphanage. Then she worked on an Ethiopian dinner for a friend’s birthday celebration.

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“These two experiences were eye-openers and it made sense that Ethiopian food elicited such interest because it feels familiar to Indians and there are no Ethiopian restaurants in Bengaluru. Most of my customers have been Indians who have lived in or travelled to the US and had tried Ethiopian food before. The word just spread from there,” says First-Quao.

If First-Quao is just starting out, professional expat chefs have taken big strides in their journey to introduce elements of their cuisines in a country with a penchant for cautious experimentation. Familiar flavour profiles have helped. Sourcing ingredients hasn’t been an issue; where these are not available, smart substitution has worked. There have been some hits, a few misfires. They have had to adapt to the vegetarian palate. But the response has been encouraging.

Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao
Deborah Naa Darkua Afua First-Quao

When Bawmra Jap, chef-owner of Bomras in Goa, first opened his now multi-award-winning restaurant, 18 years ago, it was a European seafood restaurant; it didn’t work. Jap changed tack. “I belong to the ethnic group Kachin from northern Burma (Myanmar),” he says. “We are close to the borders of Thailand, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Our food has influences from Vietnam and Cambodia too. We share similar herbs, spices and cooking techniques of steaming and barbecue and how we make our salads and soups. I decided to present my cuisine the way I like and know it, with all these influences, and call it food from the Golden Triangle.” It worked—dishes like the khowsuey, which Jap describes as a gateway dish for those exploring the cuisine, gained popularity. The Tea Leaf Salad, Burmese Tomato Salad and smoked pork rice too have become popular over the years.

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Chef Napharphak Pompraksa, aka chef Tam, master Thai chef of Rim Naam at The Oberoi, Bengaluru, inherited an authentic Thai menu when she took over the kitchen in 2016. “The base was set for me to introduce regional specialities like the Kanom Tuwa Run Tow (tapioca cakes with edamame), Ped Phad Nor Mai (wok-tossed duck) and Thalay Phad Nam Makham (stir-fried seafood).” They take a “neutral stance” on spice levels and flavour profiles, an approach guests well-versed with the cuisine don’t always care for—but others do. While balancing spice levels works for chef Tam, chef Mohamed Hussein Ibrahim Kassem, chef de cuisine at Syrah, the Levantine restaurant at Hyatt Regency Delhi, tapped into the balance of flavours the Indian palate is familiar with. “People know a little about Mediterranean food, which comprises cuisines from more than 20 countries, and are willing to try something new".

“We launched in November 2020 and the demand for dishes like the Kafta Halabiyeh (minced lamb with biwaz, an onion and parsley salad) and Kasstalihta (chargrilled lamb chops) was high.” But he realised something was missing. “Indians are big on vegetarian food, so we introduced a vegetarian version of the signature Lebanese barbecue. The Khodar Meshwi (chargrilled vegetables with tahini and za’atar) and Vegetable Shish (spiced vegetables, saffron potatoes with thick lemon sauce) are just some options,” says Kassem.

At a recent tasting at the Boteco-Restaurante Brasileiro in Bengaluru, the first serve was Cha-Preto, a communal drink with cachaça rum and black tea as its base. Then executive chef and partner Guto Souza served the Mega Meat Platter, which included Tenderloin Steak, Pork Sausage, Pork wrapped with bacon, New Zealand Lamb Picanha, or rump steak. “For Brazilians, going out is a celebration.... That’s the experience of a Brazilian boteco we want for people here,” says Souza, whose restaurants opened in Pune, Maharashtra, in 2016 and Bengaluru in April.

Souza too is working on a set of vegetarian dishes. “Brazil does not have a vast vegetarian repertoire but I am getting together interesting Brazilian elements to create a vegetarian menu as exciting as our meat offerings,” he says.

A few misfires and surprises are par for the course. When Bawmra tried to introduce the mohinga, a fish and noodle soup, widely considered the national dish of Myanmar, people found it “too fishy”. At Boteco, the team was sceptical about farofa, a dry toasted cassava flour side dish. It turned out to be a crowd favourite.

The menu on offer in Bengaluru features dishes like the Bolinho De Aipim (deep-fried cassava and cheese croquettes), Pão De Queijo Waffle Ratatouille (tapioca flour waffles with spiced ratatouille) and Bolinho De Carangueijo (crab croquettes flavoured with coconut milk).

In general, the chefs say, sourcing ingredients hasn’t been difficult. Jap has a herb garden where he grows Vietnamese coriander, lemon basil, mango ginger, a range of mint and more. Souza makes his sausages and dried meat in-house. First-Quao has found alternatives. Teff flour, integral to Ethiopian diets, grows in Karnataka. But since she could only get brown teff, not the more commonly used ivory teff, she had to tweak the original recipe for injera. She uses local alternatives for nitter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter) and berbere powder, a spice mix, that form the base for Ethiopian cuisines. For kibbeh, she uses Thai basil instead of the Ethiopian oregano koseret. For the berbere spice mix, she uses black cardamom instead of kory rema (a spice). The world is coming to India.

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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