Vocal-for-local menus of the pandemic
When imported ingredients are scarce, the survival of speciality restaurants rests on how well they use local produce
Romano’s, an Italian restaurant modelled on traditional home-style dishes at the JW Marriott Sahar in Mumbai, recently switched to Indian produce for its signature dish Risotto Ai Funghi, made with Carnaroli rice, wild mushrooms, porcini and truffle oil. Head chef Roberto Zorzoli swears by Carnaroli rice, grown in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto in northern Italy. During the lockdown, however, he replaced it with a mildly nutty pearl barley harvested in India.
The great Indian restaurant industry is a melting pot of cuisines from across the world that have adapted to suit our experimental palate and eclectic quirks. Now, it is shifting gear to survive a pandemic, working with local produce instead of imported ingredients.
Edo, the Japanese restaurant and bar in Bengaluru’s ITC Gardenia, is touted as the city’s numero uno destination to fulfil sushi cravings. Uchit Vohra, executive chef, says: “Sushi and sashimi need imported ingredients. Procuring seafood, such as black cod and fresh salmon, has been a challenge." So they started sourcing premium-quality tuna from Kerala. They have also put processes in place to get other fresh seafood varieties, such as red snapper, cuttlefish, squids and prawns.
In the early days of the lockdown, they stocked up on imported ingredients like miso, nori, gari (pickled ginger), which have a shelf life of a year or more. Current Union tourism ministry safety guidelines,introduced post the covid-19 outbreak, do not allow raw food, so Edo is not serving it for the time being.
Crafting a limited menu in accordance with the safety guidelines and ingredient availability, they have tempuras, such as Ebi (prawns) Tempura Uramaki and Tai (snapper) Tempura. For their vegetarian menu, they use fried, grilled and pickled cooking methods—Kaki age Maki (crispy fried vegetables), Kampyo Maki (pickled Japanese gourd and Inari) and Yasai Itame (garlic and soy-flavoured grilled vegetables and mushrooms).
In the new normal, provenance of ingredients to lend “authenticity" holds little power. Lapis, the all-day café, and Wabi Sabi, the Asian restaurant, at The Oberoi in Bengaluru no longer import vegetables such as Swiss chard, Peruvian asparagus, avocado, lotus stem and king oyster mushrooms. They have replaced fresh items, like berries, with their frozen counterparts.
Executive chef Robin Batra says they had started focusing on local sourcing at the beginning of the year, and that has served them well during the pandemic. “Only minor modifications were needed for our menus by removing or replacing a few dishes which were heavily dependent on imported items," he says. For instance, the Swiss chard needed for a vegetarian dish called The Last Emperor was replaced with local spinach, king oyster mushrooms in their silken tofu salad with white fungus and button mushrooms.
Expat chefs are more likely to work with indigenous produce, going with what is available to make their menus interesting and fun. French chef Alexis Gielbaum, co-owner at Slink & Bardot and Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît in Mumbai, has been in India for about seven years and his approach to food entails adopting ingredients that a country has to offer. “It was a long and difficult process, especially at the beginning, when I had to revisit a recipe multiple times despite being very familiar with it," he says, adding, “nothing tasted the same when I tried recreating French dishes with Indian produce." But cooking is muscle memory and judging flavours, an instinct. Armed with this inbuilt knowledge, a chef tries to hit the right notes. Gielbaum would confit local tomatoes in the oven for hours with garlic, thyme and olive oil to raise the sugar level and build umami. He would use this for the tomato tart at Slink & Bardot.
The classic coq au vin, made withroosters, got an Indian twist as Kadaknath Coq au Vin. The meat of the French rooster is tougher than regular chicken, which is why it requires braising in red wine for hours. The rustic black Kadaknath has a similar textureand is marinated overnight in red wine, gently braised with button mushrooms, carrots, pearl onions and in-house smoked duck pancetta, and served with fondant potatoes.
Despite a conscious attempt to move to local produce, however, there are certain dishes that are impossible to modify. At Romano’s in Mumbai, the Salumi Misti, an Italian cured meat platter, is off the menu because the provenance of its components cannot be compromised. “Italian cured meats are unique. Their taste and maturation is determined by the climate. It is irreplaceable," says Zorzoli. Their Salmone Al Forno, featuring a pan-seared salmon steak cooked in dry vermouth wine, is also temporarily missing from the menu. They sourced the fish, with its clean flavour notes, from Scandinavian countries.
The chef doesn’t lament the loss of the familiar, however. “We don’t look back at our past in a poignant, nostalgic way. We critique it to distil the best learnings for our future."