While Rahul Akerkar changes into his chef’s coat, white ceramic bowls containing multicoloured ingredients are laid out for him by his staff at his kitchen in Mumbai’s Indigo—arguably the country’s best stand-alone restaurant serving European-Asian cuisine.
Akerkar’s freedom-inspired dish for us—Spice-rubbed Tuna with Clove Reduction, Black Peas and Zucchini—is going to be a part of his new menu that’ll be launched by the end of this month.
Fusion fare: The red wine and clove reduction lends a subtle aroma to the dish. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The ingredients Akerkar uses are those that he has always seen in his grandmother’s kitchen: coriander powder, brown sugar, cloves, chilli powder, cumin seed powder and a few others. He first readies kaala vatana usal (a black peas preparation). “In my kitchen, this is freedom,” he says, laying out large pink slices of tuna, “to be able to make an Indian-inspired dish and present it in a contemporary, Western way”.
As a kid, Akerkar’s favourite recipe was usal prepared by his father. “There’s a strong coastal Maharashtrian influence in my cooking,” he says, coating the tuna loin with a mix of spices. “My friends in New York would stare in disbelief when I would eat potato wafers with tomato ketchup. But that’s how we are,” he laughs. “I have always embraced my Indian quirks and tastes rather than fight them.”
Indigo turns 10 next year, and the challenge for Akerkar is to stay fresh and surprise food lovers. In the years since Indigo opened, Indians have been eating out more, travelling more and getting more adventurous with their food. But Akerkar knows that food is mostly about comfort, and it is comforting when an element in a recipe is something familiar, something that triggers a childhood memory. Just like the usal does in this dish. Most of us in western India have eaten it in our homes with puri or chapatti.
Akerkar says he feels the presence of his grandmother, who was a fabulous cook, every time he’s in the kitchen. Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Watching him assemble the dish is like watching a work of art take shape. The end result looks mouth-watering: Peas in the centre of the plate are topped with grilled zucchini, aubergine and cherry tomatoes. The medium-rare juicy chunks of tuna with a pink centre and a dusting of spices that give it a green and yellow coating, are placed around the peas.
“The trick is not to get hung up on the correct Indian way, but to pick the best elements of both styles,” he says, drizzling a clove and red wine reduction on the plate.
Although we enjoy experiments, the idea of this combination seems a little hard to swallow. “The black peas prepared in this style lend themselves well to the rich and oily fish. This combination wouldn’t work with a white meat fish,” he explains, while I try the dish. The tuna is seeped in lemon juice, with the Indian spices enhancing its flavour without overpowering it.
All the ingredients are local, 49-year-old Akerkar adds. The spices are toned down, and in true European fashion, each ingredient is allowed its moment in the spotlight. Because, as Akerkar says, “you don’t want to be clichéd in your Indianness”.
Spice-rubbed Tuna with Clove Reduction, Black Peas, Zucchini and Eggplant
600g tuna loin (4 portions of 150g each) 120g black peas
1 medium-size zucchini
1 medium-size eggplant
50g cherry tomatoes
4 tbsp parsley, chopped
4 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
2 tbsp cumin, roasted and crushed
2 tbsp peppercorns, roasted and crushed
1 tbsp sea salt
Zest of 6 green limes
2 tbsp brown sugar
120 ml sunflower oil
120 ml clarified butter
1 tbsp each ginger and garlic pastes
1 medium sized onion, chopped
4 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 tsp each of coriander powder, chilli powder and cumin powder
4 cloves garlic
6 fresh basil leaves
6 fresh mint leaves
150ml red wine
150ml port wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Chicken stock as required
Soak the black peas overnight, then boil till tender. Combine the red wine, port wine, sugar and cloves and simmer till the mixture is syrupy in consistency. Strain through a double strainer and keep aside.
Roast the cumin seeds and black peppercorns. Crush the brown sugar, cumin seeds and the black peppercorn together. Blanch the tomatoes, peel and puree.
For the dry rub, combine chopped parsley, and coriander, crushed cumin and peppercorns, sea salt, green lime zest and the brown sugar.
In a heavy bottom pan add the clarified butter. Sauté the onions and ginger and garlic pastes till golden. Add the coriander powder, chilli powder, cumin powder and sauté till the masala is cooked. Add the tomato puree and simmer for 5-7 minutes.
Add the black peas and simmer on slow fire for about 3-5 minutes till the peas are well seasoned. Adjust the consistency with chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper.
Photograph: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Slice the zucchini and aubergine half-inch thick. Soak the sliced aubergine in salted water for at least 15 minutes to remove the bitterness. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Marinate the zucchini and aubergine with mint, basil, chopped garlic, oil, salt and pepper. Grill the vegetables and keep aside. Toss the vegetables and cherry tomatoes with virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Just before serving, marinate the tuna with the rub and sear to desired texture, preferably medium-rare. Rest it for a minute before slicing.
Arrange the black pea usal and the vegetables off-centre on the plate.
Rest the sliced tuna over the usal and the veggies.
Drizzle the clove reduction around the tuna.
Rahul Akerkar’s Indigo Cafe opens in Lokhandwala, Mumbai, tomorrow.