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Modern Indian Cuisine

Unlike its French counterpart, wherein nouvelle cuisine was characterized by inspirations from regional instead of classique dishes, or modern Japanese, which heavily incorporated American flavors, modern Indian cuisine turns to Indian cooking legacy not just for ingredients, but also techniques.

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Modern Indian Cuisine

Rasika has been toasted as the place for “power dining” in Washington DC for the past decade. The Washington Post’s restaurant critic Tom Sietsema has even dubbed it “the best Indian restaurant in the country.” Its Cauliflower Bezule, Palak Chaat or Truffle Naan, which have tickled the taste buds of denizens of the U.S. capital since 2005, have raised the bar of Indian food from such standard fare as chicken tikka masala to spark epicurean discussions at the tables of connoisseurs.

Restauraunter Ashok Bajaj of Rasika, toasted as the place for “power dining” in the U.S. capital Washington, D.C. Photo: Rey Lopez

Modern Indian cuisine, an experimental take on Indian food devised by contemporary chefs, is prepared with precision from carefully chosen, often local, ingredients. It is lighter on the palate and is aesthetically plated in a traditionally non-conformist Indian style of serving. The movement, which may have been inspired by the French nouvelle cuisine, started a decade ago, but is now beginning to become mainstream.

As more and more young chefs from New York to New Delhi join the movement, an interesting, almost romantic legacy is emerging in those delicate saffron flavored ribs and mishti doi mousse cakes. Modern Indian cuisine draws from the rich Indian heritage not just for ingredients, but also techniques. In the 1980s when some elite eateries in London and New York began introducing Indian food prepared with Western sensibilities, it was quickly dubbed as Frenchified desi food. But today the contemporary food scene has lent it a distinctly unique character.

 According to food critics, Indian cuisine is in the same phase today that French and Japanese cuisines were in the 1960s. That food revolution brought on the culinary map French nouvelle cuisine and contemporary Japanese. But unlike its French counterpart, wherein nouvelle cuisine was characterized by inspirations from regional instead of classique dishes, or modern Japanese, which heavily incorporated American flavors, Indian modern cuisine turns to Indian cooking legacy. A far cry from butter chicken or tempered dal, predictably garnished with a few cilantro sprigs, the chefs are now increasingly incorporating home-style cooking methods from Tanjore or Kayastha cooking traditions to come up with magnificently modern art-on-my-plate miracles.

Michelin star chef Suvir Saran returned to New York city this summer with his new restaurant Tapestry, which has been redefining Indian food. The upmarket eatery has on its menu dishes, such as Birbal kee Khitcheree, inspired from a legend in emperor Akbar’s court back in 17th century India.

Saran says, “Dishes on my menu like the Birbal Kee Khitcheree exemplify the idea of classic dishes revisited. It’s a true nod to heritage cooking. It’s something you’d find in homes in India and that represents my direction at Tapestry. The modern interpretation in this dish is expressed through the technique and methodology applied in its preparation.”

Tapestry Chef Suvir Saran: “We are boldly embracing and celebrating heritage cooking and offering it in a setting that is, in a design sense, far from what you might expect.” Photo: Daesha Devon Harris

We elevate the recipe by expanding on each step to add layers of flavor. The idea of showcasing heritage cooking in a modern format is a new direction as most Indian restaurants in America have traditionally steered clear of these classic dishes. We are boldly embracing and celebrating heritage cooking and offering it in a setting that is, in a design sense, far from what you might expect.”

One of the most coveted tables to book in Bangkok, Gaggan, by Chef Gaggan Anand, was listed amongst the top 100 hotels in the world. Chef Anand mastered modernist techniques at elBulli, in Catallonia, Spain, which The Guardian once pronounced as “the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet.” Anand, however, draws significantly from his own home cooking traditions in Kolkata and often brings about those nuances in his molecular gastronomy enhanced modern Indian dishes.

This aspect of modern Indian cuisine is lending it a unique character, unlike the way other cuisines charted their modernist journeys. During the 20th century when French cuisine began transitioning to modern haute cuisine, led by chef Auguste Escoffier, many of the local cooking traditions and character were dropped. In the 1960s, when French nouvelle cuisine was introduced, the essential elements of modern cooking were developed, such as using the freshest ingredients, preserving natural flavors, paying attention to nutritive values, rejecting heavily flavored accompaniments, using natural seasonings, such as lemon, herbs, and embracing new techniques and use of hi-tech equipment. Food puritans lamented the decline of the authentic French culinary tradition.

While the creative interpretation of modern Indian cooking began in the 1980s, it’s only now that it is becoming mainstream. However contemporary Indian cooking, while conforming to modern cooking principles, also taps the diverse cooking traditions of Indian history and folklore.

Amaranta at The Oberoi, Gurgaon, has been a forerunner of modern Indian cooking and has been experimenting with Indian food both visually and texturally. It recently crafted a menu, inspired by the 17th century Mughal court of emperor Akbar in India. Bringing together this classic and contemporary juxtaposition of food was an elaborate nine-course menu that took leaves out of the culinary traditions of ancient India and presented them in a radically modern way.

Chef Tejas Sovani who crafted the spread says: “The idea is to tell the fascinating stories while interpreting them in a modern language. The taste is familiar, but the texture and health quotient has been modified. The emphasis has been on the quality of ingredients and their unique presentation.”

The fabled stories are travelling the globe through the medium of food. Chef Saran of New York’s Tapestry, says: “Much like India’s culinary interchange that came through its various occupants — from the Dutch to Portuguese, British and French — the cuisine at Tapestry weaves in global influences while drawing from the journeys of my own life. Beyond America’s melting pot, flavors the world over are fair game for inspiration. While Tapestry is not solely Indian, you can look to specific menu items to see the classic, quintessential dishes that colored my life from a young age — from recipes I learned as a child through my family’s Brahman cook to the cherished meals my grandmother would make. And, as an Indian chef in America, I embrace, appropriate and interweave the foods of my adopted culture into many of the offerings at Tapestry like my Masala Fried Chicken.”

While it may seem that Indian food has taken longest to travel the world table, many chefs blame the delay on the food’s misrepresentation. Chef Manu Chandra of Monkey Bar in Bangalore and Delhi says: “The representation of Indian food globally has not been very good. For a long time we didn’t do much to establish what our cuisine is. And then perhaps somewhere we got lost in a lot of Western fads, forgetting there is a lot to discover within India too.”

He adds, “It’s only now that we see a Malayali or a Karnataka cuisine restaurant catering to upmarket foodies.”

While expert chefs apply cultural nuances to present the uniqueness of any cuisine to the world, today experimental cooking by young chefs inspired by historical traditions has also carved out a niche in modern Indian fare.

At Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in New Delhi, you can sip a wild mushroom chai, English tea style, but in authentic Indian flavor. The beverage comprises a mushroom consommé (similar to a tea decoction), dehydrated mushrooms (akin to dried tea leaves) and truffle oil crumbs (as the creamer).

Monker Bar Chef Manu Chandra:" The greatest indian story has to come out of India only."

According to chefs of the modern Indian movement, the cuisine will be successful only if it is consumer centric. It has to be interpreted first in the native language for locals before it becomes a rage in the world. As chef Manu Chandra of Monkey Bar says, “The greatest Indian story has to come out of India only.”

Zorawar Kalra, founder of Farzi Café and Masala Library in Mumbai and New Delhi and a judge on the reality series, MasterChef India 2016, can be credited with taking the modern Indian food movement mainstream. Kalra explains modern Indian cuisine.

Indian cuisine reflects a 5,000 plus years history, encompassing an array of native regional sub-cuisines from the geographic landscape of the country. Indian cuisine developed over the centuries, impacted and influenced by the various cultural interactions through trade relations and, more importantly, a resultant effect of numerous foreign invasions and colonizations by the British, Portuguese and Spanish regimes. These influenced the diverse regional cuisines and flavours found in modern Indian food.

The 8th–18th centuries saw epic rulers, such as the Chola Empire, the Hoysala and Vijaynagara Empires, Kakatiya Kingdom and the Reddy Kingdom in the South and the Ahom Kingdom in the East and the Sikh, Rajput and Mughal Empires in the North. During this time in the Middle Ages locals were introduced to new products, cooking techniques and methods, including the use of unique spices and tea, especially the introduction of Saffron as a hallmark seasoning in many dishes emerging out of Northern India by visiting travellers and traders. Trade with and later invasions by Persian and Arab cultures imported many cooking techniques.

The impact of Indian cuisine on the rest of the World, in the last 70-80 years, since its introduction to the West, can be seen in the presence of innumerable restaurants, cafés and dhabas serving various varieties of the cuisine in all key culinary districts of the World. Rotis, tikkas, tandoori and curry have become buzzwords across the world, with variations of the cuisine moderating the spices, lessening of the use of chilly and taming the flavors to suit the local palate. Impressively, the chicken tikka masala is considered the National Dish of the United Kingdom.

Mostly, Indian cuisine available outside of India, has focused on the dishes found and served in the dining tables of North India, which do not represent the entire culinary landscape of the country. Despite its global reach, Indian cuisine outside the subcontinent has lacked authenticity, standardization and panache. In my view, the reasons for this shortcoming boil down to scarcity of recipes and records.

Zorawar Kalra,founder of Farzi Cafe and Masala Library. Photo: Masala Library.

The royal khansaamas (cooks) chose not to share their secret recipes with anyone, thus leading to the slow, but steady, death of many classic dishes. Another reason is the presence of numerous regional cuisines and sub cuisines, each boasting their own iteration and variation of the same dish. We have never focused on taking pride in our cuisine and presenting it in the right manner to the rest of the world — a failure that has spawned an abundance of dish variations, most of them not even remotely authentic, found across the globe.

Indian cuisine, over the decades, became rather boring with the same dishes and presentations available everywhere, whether it is a high end five star restaurant, a fine dining place or a small roadside eatery. Sadly, the cuisine hasn’t seen much innovation over time. If you ask anyone to give you a visual description of the cuisine, more often than not, you will be told about the classic black dal in a deep bowl with a swirl of cream, rich main course dishes simmered in strong spices, traditional breads stacked in a small basket glazed with butter, overtly sweet desserts presented in locally sourced tableware,and so on. The portions are huge, with a focus on quantity rather than quality and the presentation is from the 1900s. However, I am glad that in recent years there are conscious efforts by chefs and restaurateurs alike in taking a more modern approach in preparing and presenting a completely renewed Indian cuisine experience to diners across the globe.

Today, a lot of emphasis is given to innovation while retaining the essence of the cuisine. In some manner, the cuisine is undergoing a revolution of sorts with the use of international ingredients, cooking styles and presentation. Progressive Indian food has unique elements, which allow for the dish to be presented differently, but with familiar flavors. Your eyes might not recognize it instantly, but your palate will.

At our restaurants Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Farzi Café and Masala Bar we are not just incorporating the use of these modernist techniques, but also using some unique and uncommon ingredients, such as edible charcoal and vegetables such as turai (ridged gourd), kaddu (pumpkin), karela (bitter gourd), and other ingredients, which were rarely, if ever, included in the menus of commercial Indian restaurants. The use of micro greens in cooking and plating is another method, aside from the use of spices particular to the Indian geography, to introduce fresh, unique flavors to modern Indian food.

Aside from the radical changes being made to the menus of many Indian restaurants worldwide, the cuisine has also gained ground because of the popularity of cable television. Successful programs, such as Daawat and Zaike ka Safar, followed by newer projects, like the MasterChef franchises in India, Australia, and the United States, showing different, more innovative and creative aspects of Indian food, with a fine balance between traditional and modern Indian dishes and their presentation, have also contributed.

With the acceptance of Indian cuisine in diners across the globe, this revolution will only intensify with more and more chefs and restaurateurs becoming adventurous and bold with food, preparing and presenting it in a novel manner in the years ahead. Our food has to adapt to modern times if we are to become one of the top cuisines in the World, while being honest to its legacy and roots.

Monkey Bar
Chef Manu Chandra:
“The greatest Indian
story has to come out
of India only.”
Photos: Kunal

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Food | Business | Life | November 2016

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