From the revival of forgotten food and spices, to artisanal and ethnic local sourcing, 2016 may just be the year of Food Knowhow. Eat.
Much of 2014 and 2015, the culinary world was abuzz with the news of chefs cooking with cannabis—weeds to be precise. While the news was extremely exciting, last year ended with no whiff on whether the spiked dishes did make it into a menu. However, that didn’t stop chefs across the world from procuring the weed and trying their luck at creating spiked desserts, soups, even starters—with memorable first tastings.
Incidentally, the cannabis incident is one of the many experiments that often come to the fore much later than it actually started—and a few that disappear without a trace.
Nimisserie, the newest member of Bengaluru’s prosperous restaurant space, is one such example of an successful experiment. Based on the concept of Aspect Dining (a more serious word for Food Fantasy), the highlight of the restaurant is the innovative use of western produce/techniques to present Indian dishes.
So the regular samosa in Nimisseri comes as Reconstructed Chilled Samosa in a Melon Wrapper, Hibiscus Dust, Fiery Nimbu Chutney, and the popular tandoori chicken is Smoked Young Chicken Breasts with Arugula, Marigold Flowers, Basil and Dehydrated Pineapple.
An engaging concept? Undoubtedly! But is it a new idea? Curiously not. Before Chef Nimish Bhatia’s dream project unveiled, many a chef has worked with similar concepts with relative success, be it with an interesting take on the spinach ravioli with bathua, or re-presenting the rasmalai as tres leche, but one has to give due credit to the former Corporate Executive Chef from the Lalit for creating an entire menu of the concept…and how!
This inspired us to look at some of the experiments that are likely to take the palate by surprise this year—and a few concepts that should be looked at with great anticipation.
Early 2013, one single Indian restaurant piqued the interest of many with its interesting use of spices: Sahib Room & Kipling Bar at St Regis, Mumbai. It was the first time that an Indian menu had dishes that included little known spices like Sher Ka Panja, Paan Ki Khad, Palash Ke Phool and Khus Ki Jad. The dishes were flavoursome with that bonus of being light. What followed made Khus Ki Jad the new Kale of the Indian food world. The domino effect was the rise of many traditional spices and herbs that had been replaced by masalas like gandharaj lemon, micro greens and edible flowers.
“For Indian food this year, the highlight will be the use of such wellness spices, not just as a flavorant but also as the hero of the dish. Some of the interesting spices that are being experimented with already are bamboo shoots and ginger leaves that add that exciting dimension to the dishes,” says ITC Corporate Chef Manjit Gill, who has introduced the rare black mustard to the menu at ITC Hotels.
ARTISANAL IS THE WAY TO GO
From pickles and spreads, to tea fusions, breads and cheese, the last one decade has seen quite a few food products slip into the category of artisanal. This year, the two biggies to join the list will be meat products—especially cold cuts and pre-prepped meats/butchery—and cocktails, with more Indian flavours. While the recent spate of meat bans due to lead and other contamination could be one of the reasons for many to look for cherry-picked products, the other, as per celebrity chef Bill Marchetti could be the evolved palates.
“Gone are the days when you could perhaps showcase an overloaded slab of bread and call it Pizza. Today, the well-travelled, conscientious eater knows exactly how beautiful a good produce/product tastes vis-a-vis one slathered with fat and spices and how healthy and easy it is to cook with a product which is good.” Marchettti has began his own line of cold cuts and butchery cuts that use locally procured condiments for flavouring.
Concurs leading mixologist Basu Shatbhi, who finds the age of Cosmopolitans, Long Island Ice Teas and Sex in the Beach running dry. “I am not saying these classics aren’t favourites any more, they are. But with a growing audience who understand alcohol at a young age, there is an inherent need for craft cocktails with that something extra—drinks that leave you wow-ed,” says Shatbhi, who is working on a new line of craft beers and Scotch-based cocktails that use a lot of pan-Asian flavours. A pioneer of such cocktails has been Yangdup Lama’s Cocktails & Dreams Speakeasy in Gurgaon. Lama has crafted cocktails not only with Indian fruits and vegetables but also spices and desi liquor like mahua and tadi.
With cocktail innovation bars like Masala Bar next on the scene, the platform of artisanal cocktail is hot!
Five years ago, when the Trident at Nariman Point, Mumbai, started the blood group diet, it didn’t catch much fancy. One of the reasons could have been the lack of understanding as to how the blood group could determine what is healthy for you—the only science to have done that successfully is Ayurveda and that too with temperaments.
But that opened the window for many to work on all-friendly ingredients to create menus that went well with a wide group of palates. KalaGhoda Café in Mumbai was one of the first to start procuring organic food to design a menu to cater to those who are vegan or need gluten-free choices. Next stop was doing lesser-valued food-centric festivals like the one on pumpkin or on the varieties of tomatoes that was done in Sofitel BKC Mumbai. And while we have tackled the issue of vegan and gluten-free and fat-free to a certain extent, according to chef Vikas Seth of Cle Dubai, “2016 will see more restaurants re-tweaking popular recipes to suit these special palates.”
THE RISE OF THE FUNCTIONAL INGREDIENTS
Thanks to culinary icons like chef Manjit Gill and Hemant Oberoi, and new-age chefs like Manu Chandra and Manish Mehrotra using local produce to design a menu that is characteristically modern, European or Pan Asian has become a norm. Diners, says chef Mehrotra of Indian Accent, “approach a dish that has kundru instead of zucchini today with a sense of curiosity than disgust”.
This “acceptance”, while on one hand has given chefs the confidence to replace Holy Basil for Basil for better taste, and explore dishes that compliment the character of local produce, it has also led to the rise of functional ingredients. An excellent example of functional ingredient is Bombay Canteen that used most of the locally-produced/made ingredients to curate its menu. Early on, celebrated Spanish chef Sergi Arola did something similar when he chose locally produced tomatoes to make the salsa instead of importing it. When asked, he said, “The tomatoes here have the right sourness and acidity that makes them great for salsa. So why get it from abroad?”
Says Riyaaz Amlani, owner of Impresario, who built the menu of Social (one of his brands) on functional produce right down to the peanut butter used in its signature frappe, “Working with exotic ingredients sounds all good and exciting and has its own advantage, but when it comes to ensuring the consistency of your menu and the taste, nothing beats the advantage of having ingredients that are easy to procure, high quality and have the versatility with dishes, given the familiarity.”
One of the key takeaways of the Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM 2015) was the number of local ingredients that were introduced at the Taste Theatre—including wild ferns, beetles, smoked pork, fermented bamboo shoots, chillies, lemon, wild squash and fermented pickled ginger. The highlight of these workshops was of course that each taste session included a short guide on how to use these ingredients. Result: in the coming months, chefs began using not only fermented bamboo shoots but pickles and wild berries in their experiments, most foraged from the areas close by.
Says Zorawar Kalra, owner of eatery firm Massive Restaurants, “Accurate knowledge of ethnic ingredients and where to procure them will eventually be the key to sustenance of a restaurant.” The brain behind some of the best brands in the country (Farzi Café and Made In Punjab to name only two), Kalra’s key to keep them unique has been his idea of sourcing. Or as the culinary scion puts it, “foraging, which not only involves finding interesting ingredients, but also produces that can be used again and again to use newer things.”
The Maratha Warrior Festival at Sofitel BKC Mumbai last year was an excellent example of the interesting food foraging can lead to. And if the glimpse of the work at the new menu at Indian Accent and Made In Punjab is any indication, then foraging will be the next step to restaurant sustainability.
VEGETABLES, THE NEW MEAT
No, we are not talking about the farce called “mock meat”—where soya chaaps were sold as an alternative to the real deal. Or the effects of the famous beef ban followed by bacon ban and the rest. This is about finding ingredients that could bring in the same character to a dish that often is attributed to the meat. The beginning of this experiment began with turning the famous galouti kebab vegetarian with kidney bean and raw banana. The stake, a few years ago, went higher with the famous beetroot tikki at Made In Punjab that sold more portions than its non-vegetarian peer, and has since been a constant in the menu. Another fine example is the Mocha Puff (banana blossom) at Lavaash By Saby in New Delhi. Inspired by an Armenian classic from Kolkata, it uses the texture of mocha to give it that chewy, filling feel of mutton.
Says owner-chef Sabyasachi Gorai, who has pioneered the art of giving vegetables that wonder edge of playing palates, “The interesting part about cooking with vegetables, fruits, herbs and wild greens is that you can use different techniques to give the dish a complete new character. While this has made diners—even staunch meat eaters—happily opt for a new vegetarian dish. It has also encouraged chefs to go beyond the usual and source produce that work well at finding a new dimension. Like the jackfruit, the stem of banana tree, elephant foot or even arbi that, when done well, can taste like fish—down to its textures.”
An excellent example of this is the mushroom custard that the chef did a few weeks ago that looked, tasted and was as filling as a good meat dish—only it wasn’t. The jackfruit version of the mutton sukkhe, a traditional Maratha delicacy at Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, and the beetroot chops with “bhaja moshla” cream cheese at Cafe Lota in New Delhi, are a couple of more instances of how vegetable is taking over a meaty chunk of the menu.
Thanks to Indian Accent, the upcoming NRI, Gaggan, Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra, Varq and Ziya, the perception of Indian food being laden with oil and covered in masala has changed. But if the recent array of food festivals and ethnic pop-ups are any sign of where the food space is headed, then subtlety is the path forward. By this, we no way mean that the galouti kebab would be made with just five ingredients or the dum biryani would not have the traditional dum, but with layers that can be seen and tasted. What will change, says Nishant Choubey, executive chef of Delhi luxury resort Dusit Devrana, “will be the way it would be cooked and plated, which will not only be a treat for the visual but also for the other senses. In other words, Indian food will have a Peruvian touch—more colour, flavours, twists but minus that unnecessary masala overload and fat!”
Papad Ki Sabzi, Hand Pounded Churma and Jaipuri Bhindi and Stuffed Guchchi (Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra), Baked Fish with Amritsari Masala Butter and Whitebait Papad and Chicken Stuffed Morels, Mushroom Pate, Homemade Walnut Papdi (Indian Accent) have been perfect examples of food uncoated.
Last year, when chef Gorai unveiled his pet project Lavaash By Saby, a restaurant based on his interpretation of Armenian food he grew up in Kolkata with, it was a definition-changer. Till then Forgotten Food were often garbed as Lost Cuisine with an interesting, somewhat plausible, connect with the Mughals and Nawabs, and erstwhile North West Frontier region. Of course, there were interesting spurts in the form of pop-ups where one could sample home-style Assamese, North Eastern and Mappila fare. And the capital’s first Bihari cuisine-based restaurant, Potbelly Rooftop Café. Though these little events did not cover as much ground as North West Frontier cuisine, it did sway chefs to explore cuisines that were little known, and could be a part of an interesting menu.
Result, the zeal to explore hereditary cuisines and those nearby. And while temple cuisine remained the all-time favourite for the sheer challenge to replicate it with meagre success rate, lesser known food culture began holding attention like the Maratha warrior cuisine, Naga cuisine, Kshatriya cuisine, Dak Bangla cuisine, Anglo Indian cuisine of the South, Iyer cuisine, Kondava cuisine, to name a few.
In fact, some of the ethnic cuisines that chef Arun Kumar of Zambar, Gurgaon, fame has been working on and plans to present includes the food culture of the Syrian Christians of Kerala and of the Gujarati Patidar and Varli communities.
Discovering, adds chef Manish Mehrotra, “such lost (or going to get lost) food culture is not only important to stay relevant to today’s diner whose attention span is extremely short, but also a way of sustainability. Every time you explore an old food culture, you discover a new set of ingredients, culinary techniques and philosophy that helps you innovate better.”
An example of this is Indian Accent New York’s new menu which has a blend of the chef’s signature dishes and a few new ones that have been inspired from such forgotten food, like his smoked papad chaat, which has revived the Marwari style of roasting.