Indian culinary genius shines in Cannes Film Festival

Chef Varun Totlani at Masque.
Chef Varun Totlani at Masque.


Chef Varun Totlani of Masque has created a menu that highlights regionality at the Cannes Film Festival 2024

On Wednesday, chef Varun Totlani of Masque prepared a five-course menu for the inaugural dinner at the Cannes Film Festival. His aim was to celebrate the food of India by highlighting different regions. There was a cold thukpa-style dish topped with trout roe as a nod to Ladakh and Kashmir; chaat with tender sorghum grains mixed with corn mousse as a hat-tip to Maharashtra and Gujarat; and sweet potato prepared khad-style (pit cooking) by borrowing inspiration from Rajasthan. Today he will be catering for guests visiting the Bharat Pavilion with live stations and pass-around snacks, like Bengal’s Bandel cheese on toast.

These food experiences at the festival helmed by renowned Indian chefs in partnership with Godawan single malt have become a talking point. It was kicked off by Manu Chandra in 2022, who designed an India-meets-France menu with items like paniyaram madeleines. In 2023, chef Prateek Sadhu was cooking at Cannes and paid tribute to the International Year of Millets.

Last week, Totlani spoke to Mint about his plan for the menus. He seemed relaxed and well-prepared. A team of five from Masque, including Totlani, travelled to Cannes to offer a gastronomic experience to members and guests of the Indian Embassy, international dignitaries as well as celebrities. The dinner began with a cold, refreshing soup-style course. Inspired by Ladakh, it had momos stuffed with coconut malai and dipped in passion fruit thukpa. It was topped with salt-cured, bright orange trout roe that the team had carried with them from India. Totlani says, “This dish gets your palate going for the rest of the meal."

Also read: Finding flavour in fish innards

The second course was chaat. An Indian meal, Totlani believes, is incomplete without this. His innovative take on chaat has textures of corn, from charred bits to a creamy corn mousse. These are mixed with fried sorghum grains and three different types of sweet, sour and spicy chutneys.

The mains had two courses; one with Malabar parathas and the other with rice—essential carbs in an Indian meal. The ghee-laden parathas were served with fish for non-vegetarians and sweet potato for vegetarians; both prepared through the Rajasthani method of khaad or pit-cooking. It had a creamy sauce with hung curd spiced with saffron, black cardamom and yellow chilli. It was rich and comforting in every way.

When chefs are travelling to cook, they adapt to a new place through ingredients. For the fish, Totlani picked a turbot, a variety prevalent in France and Mediterranean coasts. It is versatile like a pomfret, which would have been his fish of choice in Mumbai. There is another case of smart substitution. The rice course has fiddle-head ferns, which were replaced by asparagus. It’s a vegetable inherent to European kitchens.

Today, Totlani’s team will be busy at the Bharat Pavilion manning live stations and preparing pass-around appetisers. Similar to the menu at the inaugural dinner, these dishes will have flavours and ingredients from different corners of India. There’s a makai mathri (corn crisp) with purple corn served like a tostada with toppings of charred corn salad, avocado mouse and pickled onion. Another interesting snack is the puran pool tart served with an amti (light Maharashtrian dal) foam made with charred onions and dried coconut flakes. Diners will also have the option of prawn tart spiced with an emulsion of Kashmiri Varr masala. The mains will have the buttery and pillowy-soft ladi pav served with gravies like butternut squash and asparagus cooked in coconut milk, infused with fresh turmeric and curry leaves. Some of the items on these menus are also served at Masque. The ladi pav and innovations like corn mousse are a mainstay at the restaurant.

It’s an important year for India at Cannes. India will host ‘Bharat Parv’ for the first time, with a guest list featuring dignitaries and delegates from around the world. Totlani’s food will likely play a vital role in its success.

Also read: A pop-up menu for Mumbai by MasterChef Australia's Andy Allen

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