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Progressive Indian cuisine: Avant-garde or deja vu?

The tide of innovative Indian food that began with Manish Mehrotra's Indian Accent is shifting to a rediscovery of simple, traditional Indian dishes

The trends may shifting from innovative Indian fusion dishes back to rediscovering simple, traditional recipes. Image via Unsplash
The trends may shifting from innovative Indian fusion dishes back to rediscovering simple, traditional recipes. Image via Unsplash

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It was more than a decade ago when the words 'contemporary' Indian, 'progressive' Indian or 'avant-garde' Indian were first heard. In the context of food the trend setter was Manish Mehrotra, who opened the doors of his restaurant—the Indian Accent—then housed in a small boutique hotel in the Capital called The Manor. Indian Accent was promoted by Rohit Khattar a restaurateur with innovative ideas who had trained in the US. Even earlier, he had created a buzz with his unique eatery 'Chor Bizarre' where everything was deliberately and deliciously mismatched.

What Mehrotra unveiled was a stunningly new concept. This was a multi-course tasting menu, far removed from the traditional Indian thali or pattal that served many dishes, dry or with gravy on the same plate. It took some time before the idea gained traction. Many food critics thought that he was trying to turn desi dining on its head. 

In less than a decade Indian Accent had become a must visit land mark dining destination. The portions were small and there was lot a fusion of exotic and traditional ingredients. Presentation was aesthetically satisfying, one may even say tantalizing, and the wines were lovingly paired. No one complained that after the meal both the belly and purse felt light. Within ten years, Indian Accent had opened branches in London and in New York.

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Mehrotra never claimed that what he was offering was 'progressive', a much abused word in politics, nor could anyone accuse him of borrowing from the Nouvelle French Wave. The accent in his recipes remained distinctly Indian and the fusion was never confusing.

Since then there have been many iterations of this theme. What's avant-garde or contemporary for one generation doesn't take too long to become passe for the next. This is what happened to the next trend that hit Indian shores. This was the excursion in molecular space that some Indian chefs undertook with great haste. Foams of all kinds, liquid nitrogen, and blow torches made those slogging in the kitchen feel that they were the peers of the scientists working in advanced laboratories at home and abroad. 

This trend never really caught on because the worthies presiding over 5 star hotel chains were not setting a trend but merely following it. What created alarm was when molecular delicacies prepared without adequate care, not only burnt a hole in the pocket of the customer but literally a hole in the stomach. The wannabe scientists beat a hasty retreat.

However, by the time this hiccup was over, new chefs had emerged on the scene to 'take Indian food to the next level'. Among them the most consistent and inspiring, arguably, is Chef Vineet Bhatia who has been awarded multiple Michelin stars during his career abroad. He has opened a string of celebrated restaurant in London, Dubai and Saudi Arab. His creations remain true to their Indian roots but are more than just tweaked. For instance, his square green jalebi.

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There are other chefs who have been honoured with the Michelin stars like Srijit Gopinath who has consistently retained his two stars in a restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area in the Taj property. Vikas Khanna first hit headlines with his restaurant 'Junoon' in New York which had the cream of the society eating out of his hands. What needs to be underlined it that most of these chefs appear to have 'diluted' the strong flavour of regional Indian delicacies, often blending two streams, to win over loyal patronage that goes beyond the diasporic community. It would be difficult to sustain the claim that they have accelerated the evolution of Indian food in any significant manner.

One of the most interesting and successful impresario of contemporary Indian is Zorawar Kalra, proprietor of the Massive Restaurants. Inspired by his father, the legendary Jiggs Kalra, he has displayed an incredibly Midas touch. Over the past years he has launched a slew of restaurants—the Punjab Grill, Farzi Cafe, Made in Punjab, Masala Library, Papaya Grill—always remaining ahead of the curve. 

Kalra is on the side of sensible safe molecular interventions in Indian kitchen and upgrading the skills of the cooks equipping them with the latest gizmos and gadgets. His different outlets cater to different clientele from the millennials on a small budget to those on unlimited expense accounts. Many of his eateries operate in India and have had a filter down effect on emerging trends in tier two cities.

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It seems that in the context of contemporary Indian, one trend subsides and the other immediately surges to allow the diners to ride the wave. The rising wave at the moment seems to be the one that is rediscovering ancient grains, foraged foods, forgotten, almost lost family heirloom recipes recovered from regional repertoires. Of course, the chefs have learnt a lot from the pioneers who have preceded them. They present their creations with a flourish and the plate looks like the canvas painted by an abstract artist. 

They are sensitive to the health concerns of the younger generations as also fads like Veganism. Nishant Choubey is one such chef who has wowed his guests in places as far apart as Bangkok, Dubai, Mauritius and the US. He has showcased some very interesting dishes in the Michelin plated Indus in Bangkok and won the prestigious Iron Chef contest there.

These achievements and accolades were a hard act to follow in Bangkok where at one time Gaggan reigned Supreme. However, what Gaggan served was his interpretation of Pan Asian and not necessarily identifiable Indian. His restaurant had months long waiting list that continues to attract fun loving tourist with gimmickry like lick-you-plate.

It is difficult to forecast the future of Indian Progressive-contemporary or avant-garde food. At the moment except Zoravar Kalra's and Nishant Choubey's work other creations are largely confined to expensive deluxe eateries. The other difficulty is that many of the exciting creations of gifted chefs, like Manu Chandra's Coorgi Pandi (pork) Curry with Levantine Pita or a Chocolate Bombe with dizzying Old Monk is not likely to find a mass market and contribute towards the evolution of pork dishes in the subcontinent. Food and drink taboos are hard to shatter.

The siddu stuffed with an innovative filling or pan braised paneer with tandoori ananas, millet pulav with rista on the other hand, may become aspirational and soon find their way to the tables in more affordable eateries. 

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