What’s your favourite cuisine? No really. I don’t mean food; I mean cuisine. Cuisine, for most people, is a two-pronged obsession. There is the cuisine you love and the cuisine you can’t live without. For most people, the cuisine they can’t live without is the comfort food they’ve grown up eating, be it parathas or fish moily or dhansak.
But when folks have to choose the kind of food they love, it varies wildly. Japanese food, with its clean minimal flavours, is the darling of the current foodie crowd, having taken over from Mediterranean, which itself usurped the place of Italian and French. Most Indians love the lively flavours of Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines. French food doesn’t seem to do as well here. Chinese food, of course, has its own history in India, as epitomized by that ultimate Indian-Chinese fusion dish: the Gobi Manchurian.
When people ask me for my favourite foods, much of my list comprises Indian food: chaats, samosas, rasam and sabudana vada are all on that list. These are foods that I can’t do without, that I return to like a homing pigeon. But when people ask me what my favourite cuisine is, I have one answer: modern. I can’t live without my daal-chaaval or, in my case, rasam-chaadam. But, after a while, the overwrought masalas and spicy sauces get to me. I am ready for some restrained food; I am ready to dine, as opposed to eat. More often than not, I turn to contemporary food.
This isn’t the kind of food that is made in homes. This is creative restaurant cooking; one that is playful and inventive; one that takes chances. This is modern food that transcends countries and cultures; food that is unusual, elegant and, above all, restrained.
In Delhi, Masala Art and Fire serves this kind of food with toned-down spices and beautiful presentation. In Singapore, My Humble House serves spectacular modern Chinese; Vansh and Rang Mahal serve very good, modern Indian; and Indochine does decent fusion. In Sydney, Tetsuya Wakada sends out dishes that fairly burst with flavour, even though he ends his day with simple rice. In Europe, most three-star restaurants, even the French ones, have learned to cook dishes without submerging them in a thick sauce.
Restraint is a tricky thing because it defies common wisdom. Most cooks assume that the more you do to dishes, the better they will taste. To know when to walk away from a dish; to know when to go easy on the garnish; to know when to leave out a pinch of spice-mix is harder than you think. Although much of American food is what I call taste-challenged, especially when it comes to its fast-food chains and franchises, there are several high-end restaurants that serve dishes that surprise and delight—not all the time but often enough. Contemporary American chefs at these top restaurants have learned to coax flavours from seasonal ingredients and cook them in ingenious ways. There are a number of reasons for this: training, funding and a receptive public. But the biggest edge American chefs have over their competitors in other countries is that they aren’t bound by tradition.
Here in India, chefs labour under the long arm of tradition. An innovative chef may want to create a truly original soup-dish, but the minute he labels it shorba, he has to conform to what people imagine to be a shorba. American chefs, on the other hand, are free to interpret dishes from global cuisines and give them a personal spin. Jean-Georges Vongerichten can add coconut milk and lemon grass to his chicken soup, as he frequently does, but even I would walk out in a huff if an Indian chef messed up a rasam recipe by adding coconut milk or lemon grass.
Most modern chefs, be they in India, Australia or the Americas, have also learned over the last decade to venerate produce and meats. This wasn’t always the case. It was only in the early 1990s, thanks to crusaders such as Alice Waters, that chefs began to pay attention to the raw material. They patronized organic farms, forged links with mushroom foragers, encouraged artisanal cheese-makers and learned to de-sauce. Very soon, every chef worth his toque was parroting the phrase “fresh seasonal food” to describe his cooking. And that trend continues to this day. In fact, I would wager that the pendulum has swung too much that way and a correction is in order.
In much of the world today, chefs take pride in doing very little to food. They all say that they seek out the freshest, best ingredients and do very little to it. Most work with farmers. Eberhard Muller, who cheffed at Le Bernardin, Lutece, and is now executive chef of Bayard’s, is married to organic farmer Paulette Satur, who supplies all the vegetables and greens for his restaurant. This kind of artisanal supply system is a necessity for most high-end restaurants the world over.
In India, too, organic farming is gaining ground. Sandeep Kachroo at the Taj West End, Bangalore, uses microgreens, squash blossom flowers and foam in his cooking. Our chefs are razor-sharp and masters of technique. It won’t be long before more chefs gain the courage to be inventive and, better still, find someone to back their passion.
So, what’s your favourite cuisine?
Write to Shoba Narayan at firstname.lastname@example.org