The royal family of Sailana in Madhya Pradesh calls grilled, stuffed chicken Murgh Musallam Do Rukha Seekh Par. The family has taken on the task of archiving traditional recipes from royal families since their ancestor, Raja Dilip Singh, first began to do so in the 1900s. The recipe, reproduced in the book Dining With the Maharajas: A Thousand Years of Culinary Tradition by Neha Prasada and Ashima Narain, includes lean lamb, ghee, yogurt, eggs, almonds, raisins and coconut. The elaborate process, from marination to roasting, takes 13 hours and requires skills from basting the bird in ground, raw papaya to straining yogurt and spit-roasting.
As mouth-watering as it may sound, it is unlikely to be attempted anywhere outside a kitchen of royal proportions. Is that because modern demands do not encourage such long processes of cooking? Is Indian food too evolved now to be bogged down by elaborate methods—or is it just the opposite?
Rahul Akerkar, founder, managing director and director de cuisine of deGustibus, the company which runs Indigo and the Indigo Deli chain of restaurants in Mumbai, believes Indian cuisine is stagnating. “The others (cuisines) are all evolving. I don’t think ours is. There are a few people playing around with it but it’s to do with our chefs.
“They are not taught to think out of the box. They don’t know how to.”
The evolution of Indian cuisine, with its multilayered, lumbering methods, and its reluctance to break from the past, has been a matter of debate for some time. This comes at a time when television shows like MasterChef Australia, which are forceful in defining new cuisine and mass participation, have exposed the obvious contrast with the Indian version of the show, in which chefs and participants grapple unsuccessfully to take traditional knowledge of Indian food to a different level.
So where does Indian cuisine fit in this landscape?
The new wave
Flames, at the Hilton Mumbai International Airport Hotel, is a seasonal restaurant that opens for only a few months in a year—from December to around April. It opened on 12 November; the theme this season is Indian. The menu is experimental, but is derivative of Awadhi cuisine, which comes from executive sous chef Merajuddin Ansari’s personal roots. Thus, the ma ki dal is smoked with a powerful charcoal flavour, just like it’s made in Ansari’s home. There is tandoori bater (quail) and Chapli Kebab laced with dried pomegranate powder.
“Innovation only works when the traditional base is strong,” Ansari says. He experiments on two levels: introducing different meats, adopting the Western format of making protein the focus of the meal (biryani and dal accompany the kebabs), and by adding twists of flavours. The Angus beef tenderloin is served with a Madras curry sauce, a barwan gulab jamun comes stuffed with dark chocolate, and a buttermilk-star anise panna cotta with Grand Marnier Chantilly.
Dishes pulled out of everyday kitchens—vada pao sliders, Squid Warangal, Bharwan Karela (stuffed bitter gourd), Kaddu Khatta Meetha (sweet and sour pumpkin) and Elaneer Payasam (tender coconut kheer)—line the menu at Pali Bhavan, a new Indian cuisine restaurant in Bandra, Mumbai. The ambience is old-world kitsch, and the menu, uncharacteristically for India, breaks past barriers of state- or region-specific categorization.
“Typically in India, a restaurant is either region-specific or is not able to push past old classics, like the mixed vegetables, or a particular raita, or specific combinations,” says Mishali Sanghani, who owns the restaurant along with business partner Suren Joshi. “A mark of the new wave is to uncomplicate a dish—strip it of unnecessary layers and fat—without messing with the taste. Then, break the way it’s put together and plated, rather than mess with the dish itself. When you remove categories, for the first time, you get an overview of Indian food.”
When Ziya opened at The Oberoi, Mumbai, in early-2010, it was already weighed down by emotion—the restaurant was part of the process of recovery from the 26/11 terrorist attacks on the hotel. Additionally, its chef, Vineet Bhatia, had many years ago worked in the restaurant that Ziya replaced—Kandahar. The biggest test for the new restaurant, however, was the menu, in which Bhatia defied convention.
Mushroom khichdi with makhani ice cream and grilled asparagus with saffron upma are not easy to imagine, which has shown in the sort of lukewarm response the restaurant had. Bhatia says: “People think it’s a fusion of French and Indian. I don’t know French food. We merely brought a modern approach to food. You taste it with your eyes closed and it will taste Indian…”
Monica Bhide, a Washington, DC-based engineer-turned-food writer, whose 2009 cookbook Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen made it to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s personal list of best cookbooks, and whose spice application is on Apple products, says: “I believe people go to traditional food in times of need, but are experimenting with flavours; we are an adaptive food. When people think contemporary, many go towards molecular gastronomy, and to me, that is not what contemporary is. It is about being fresh.”
The case for convention
Rajdeep Kapoor, executive chef of the ITC Maratha, a brand that’s built itself on the age-old way of doing things, abhors the idea of innovation. He says Indian food, with its range, diversity and still hidden mysteries, does not need to be “tampered with”.
“Indian food is still a vast, untapped territory. Do we know the cuisines of the North-East? Of coastal towns, Himachal... there is so much left to explore. First, let’s do that before we decide that we know ‘authentic’ Indian food well enough. It is one food which you cannot infuse with anything. If the khichdi has to be made with moong dal and chawal (rice) with that tadka (tempering), that’s the way it is to be eaten,” he says.
“Indian cuisine has a history and culture and it is scientific,” says Kapoor. “Cuisine so deep-rooted does not need infusion. If Kakori kebab has 120 ingredients in it, why do you want to add or remove any? Why do you want to add thyme and rosemary to it? Saffron, dalchini (cinnamon) is enough for a good flavour.”
Sunil Kapur, who owns the iconic Copper Chimney restaurant in Worli, agrees with Kapoor. Few things have changed at this restaurant in south Mumbai over the 40 years that it’s been running. Kapur says people frequent the restaurant because they know what to expect and get exactly that.
The story repeats at Peshawri and Dum Pukht, the Indian-themed restaurants at the ITC Maratha, where Kapoor says the numbers have never gone down. The hotel recently modified its south Indian restaurant Dakshin to Dakshin Coastal because it felt the city needed the “local flavour”.
There is a contrasting side to this story of people queuing up for Indian restaurants—the spread of nouveau international cuisine in new restaurants across the country. Seen objectively, Indian food today is competing with a bunch of international chains, the fickle and evolving tastes of widely travelling countrymen, and a high degree of aspiration. In Mumbai, from swish Oriental franchises like Hakkasan and Yauatcha, to wannabe ones like Kofuku; chains like Serafina, Le Pain Quotidien, Pizza Metro Pizza and Pizza Express, to local ventures like Cheval and The Pantry—the choice of cuisine, whatever else it has proven to be, has been decidedly not Indian.
“Indian food will remain the No. 1 in the country,” argues Kapur. “As the market grows, every segment grows. You will have international cuisine, there will be new brands, and every cuisine will keep growing.”
Chef Chetan Sethi of Zaffran, the nine-year-old Crawford Market restaurant that has just begun to expand to five new centres across Mumbai (their second outlet opened recently in Todi Mills), says the time is perfect for Indian food to come into its own. He says there is a void in the Indian dining experience which is neither exotic nor tacky, but is value for money while being innovative. The rather convoluted-sounding logic is explained by one of his dishes: Safed Tamatar aur Tulsi ka Shorba (a white tomato soup).
Both Kapoor and Kapur believe Indians share an emotional bond with their food that cannot be separated or replaced with, say, a burger.
Vada pao sliders are new-age bar food at the retro chic,
nouveau-Indian cuisine restaurant Pali Bhavan in Mumbai
nouveau-Indian cuisine restaurant Pali Bhavan in Mumbai
While Akerkar agrees about the emotional bond—he once returned from a three-week trip to Italy, and headed straight to Kailash Parbat restaurant for pani puri—he feels Indian food lacks in innovation.
The authentic debate
The over-decade-old Indigo in Colaba set standards for dining in the city while the Deli (now at four locations) throbs with people at all times, all week. But when his restaurant Tote on the Turf did not work for a year and a half after it opened (despite one complete menu overhaul), Akerkar switched to Indian. Neel opened in mid-2011 with its range of kebabs with twists that included Norwegian salmon and New Zealand lamb chops.
Akerkar says people are too hung up on being as close to conventional as possible. “The beauty of food is in diversity. Chappati is flour, water, maybe oil, salt. You all make them, yet they are all different, so which is the right one? You can’t standardize recipes. It has to be your expression of what you are doing: Food has to be cooked well, taste well, there has to be harmony on the plate, respect for the ingredients, and then it’s a good meal. There is no such thing as authentic.”
While Kapoor and Akerkar may differ in how they explain “authentic”, both agree on how tastes change from region to region. “Look at the diversity,” says Kapoor. “Every 100 miles you go, the same arhar dal is made in a different way. But the pasta Napolitana is made the same way everywhere.”
Ananda Solomon, executive chef, Vivanta by Taj-President, explains it differently. “There was a time when the notion of Indian food was restricted to tandoori, naan, tikka and chicken,” he says. “Then restaurants without tandoors came into being. Breads moved beyond naans to include sannas and appams. So the evolution of Indian food became an understanding of regionalization.”
For a country with such diversity, authenticity is a difficult term to pin down. Isn’t the reluctance to absorb influence an antithesis to the intrinsic nature of Indian food itself? After all, isn’t much of what we consider Indian food today an eclectic absorption of Mughal, Arabic, Persian, Central Asian, South-East Asian, British, Dutch and Portuguese influences?
“Authenticity is a myth,” says Bhatia. “As long as the flavours come through…. Some add kasuri methi to ma ki daal, some don’t. In Punjab, they don’t add cream.”
Sanghani of Pali Bhavan says she doesn’t even try to aim for authentic: “Pick one recipe and stick to it; every family in India has its own recipe. In Western food, there is no debate. In India, variations are wide and well-known. People who come by will tell you what you got wrong. I smile and listen. But in the end, there is no end point.”
Global trends like deconstruction, molecular gastronomy, the organic or slow food movements, chef Heston Blumenthal’s multi-sensory dining, have all but passed Indian cuisine by (though ITC Maratha’s Kapoor argues that all Indian cooking is slow cooking). There were cursory flash-in-the-pan appearances in restaurants like Tote on the Turf or New York-based chef Michel Nischan’s Pure, at Taj Lands End, which quickly shut down.
But others like Ziya, Neel and Flames show that there is a middle path. Bhatia says the difference is in the presentation. “We don’t bastardize. The taste of food is as Indian as possible but Indian food mixes with anything.”
“‘There is no burping here,’ I tell people,” says Sanghani of Pali Bhavan. “The aim is not to stuff you.” The menu is designed so that a table of four that orders from the limited list will end up inevitably tasting food from across the country in an unconventional combination.
Solomon says Indian food does not need to exhibit the fusion forms of other world cuisines because it has the ability to differ at an elemental level within the classic structure. That’s why, he adds, such diversity is possible within a single dish.
“As a child,” says Bhide, “I used to drink Rooh Afza—in water or in milk. As an adult, I learnt to mix it with alcohol and make a granita. I eat shrimp curry a lot; for a change of pace, I place the curry in a shot glass and the cooked shrimp on top of it. It looks pretty, is inviting and keeps boredom away. I adore the dahi wada ice cream served in Ziya.”
There has been innovation in food before, and on a much wider scale, but it has not been recognized, says Bhatia. He gives the examples of baked rasogullas in Kolkata and savoury gulab jamuns in Jodhpur (the jamuns are made by mixing flour with mashed potatoes, paneer [cottage cheese], cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander powder and chilli powder. The gravy has a yogurt base, which makes it look like kadhi). “Sometimes, small things make a huge difference,” continues Bhide. “For instance, when I make shrimp with curry leaves and spices, I season it with pomegranate molasses and top with ruby red pomegranate arils. It is delightful and the texture is just amazing.”
“It is for us trained chefs to put it out there,” Bhatia says. “Revolution takes time, our efforts may not see the light of day for another 15 years.”
“The new Indian food,” declares Bhide, “is best described as sassy.”