By Pushpesh Pant It was more than a decade ago when I first heard the words ‘modern Hindi’, ‘progressive’ or ‘avant-garde’ Hindi. In the context of food, the trend setter was Manish Malhotra, who opened the doors of his restaurant – The Indian Accent – and then stayed in a small boutique hotel in the capital called The Manor. The Indian dialect was promoted by Rohit Khattar, a restaurateur with innovative ideas trained in the United States. Even earlier, he had created a stir with his unique restaurant “Chor Bizarre” where everything was deliberately mismatched and delicious.
What Manish revealed was an astonishingly new concept. This was a multi-course tasting menu, a far cry from the traditional Indian thali or patal which serves several dishes, dry or with gravy on the same plate. It took some time before the idea gained traction. Many food critics believe Manish was trying to turn food on his head. In less than a decade, the Indian accent has become a must-visit dining destination. The portions were small and there was plenty of mix of exotic and traditional ingredients. The presentation was aesthetically pleasing, one might say puzzling, and the wine was lovingly paired. No one complained that after the meal both the abdomen and the wallet felt light. Within ten years, Indian Accent opened branches in London and New York. Manish never claimed that what he was offering was “progressive” – a word that is frequently misused in politics – and no one could accuse him of borrowing from the French New Wave. The accent in his recipes has remained distinctly Indian and the fusion has never been so confusing.
Since then there have been many iterations of this topic. What is avant-garde or contemporary for one generation does not take long to become deadlocked for the next. This is what happened to the next trend that hit Indian shores. This was a journey into molecular space that some Indian chef had made in a hurry. Foams of all kinds, liquid nitrogen, and blow torches have made those running through the kitchen feel like the peers of scientists working in advanced labs at home and abroad. This trend never spread because the meritocratic people who preside over the five star hotel chains did not show a trend but were just following it. What created the alarm was when the delicious molecular foods were prepared without adequate care, burning not only a hole in the customer’s pocket but literally a hole in the stomach. Wishful scientists defeated a hasty retreat. However, by the time that hiccup was over, new chefs appeared on the scene to “take Indian food to the next level”. Of these, arguably the most consistent and inspiring is Chef Vineet Bhatia who has received several Michelin stars during his career abroad. He opened a famous chain of restaurants in London, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. His creations remain faithful to their Indian roots but are more than just an adaptation. For example, his green square.
Other chefs who have been honored with Michelin stars include Shrigit Gopinath, who has consistently kept his two stars at a San Francisco Bay Area restaurant at the Taj Hotel. Vikas Khanna first made headlines with his restaurant “Mad” in New York eating community cream from his hands. What must be emphasized is that most of these chefs seem to have ‘diluted’ the strong flavor of regional Indian dishes, often mixing two currents, to gain loyal patronage beyond the diaspora community. It would be hard to maintain the claim that they accelerated the development of Indian food in any significant way. Zorawar Kalra, owner of Massive Restaurants, is one of the most interesting and successful Indian companies. Inspired by his legendary father Giggs Kalra, he showed the incredible Midas touch. Over the past years he has launched a large number of restaurants – Punjab Grill, Farzi Cafe, Made in Punjab, Masala Library and Papaya Grill – always staying ahead of the curve. Zoravar is besides sensible safe molecular interventions in Indian cuisine and upgrading the skills of the chefs who equip them with the latest gadgets and tools. Its different outlets cater to different customers from millennials on a small budget to those with unlimited expense accounts. Many of his restaurants operate in India and have had a filtering influence on emerging trends in second-tier cities.
It seems that in the context of contemporary India, one direction recedes and the other immediately rises to allow pioneers to ride the wave. The rising tide of the moment appears to be rediscovering ancient grains, forage foods, and nearly forgotten and lost family heirloom recipes sourced from regional references. Of course, chefs learned a lot from the pioneers who came before them. They present their creations with flourishes and the painting looks like a canvas painted by an abstract artist. They are as sensitive to the health concerns of younger generations as fads as vegans are. Nishant Chobe is one such chef who has wowed his guests as far away as Bangkok, Dubai, Mauritius and the United States. He showcased some interesting dishes at the Michelin-coated Indus Restaurant in Bangkok and won the prestigious Iron Chef competition there. These accomplishments and accolades were a difficult feat to follow in Bangkok where Gagan was at one point the highest. However, what Gagan offered was his pan-Asian interpretation and not necessarily the recognizable Indian. His restaurant has had a months-long waiting list that still attracts the fun-loving tourist with lick-you-plate tricks.
The future of contemporary or avant-garde Indian food is hard to predict. Currently, with the exception of the work of Zoravar Kalra and Nishant Choubey, other creations are largely limited to expensive luxury restaurants. Another difficulty is that many of the exciting creations of talented chefs, such as Coorgi Pandi (pork) from Manu Chandra, with Levantine Pita or Chocolate Bombe with the amazing ancient monk, are unlikely to find a huge market and contribute to the development of pork dishes in the subcontinent. Indian. It is difficult to break the taboo on food and drink. Sedu stuffed with inventive stuffing or braised paneer with tandoori pineapple, and millet pulave with risa on the other hand, may become an aspiration and quickly find its way to the tables in affordable restaurants.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article above are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of ANI. (Ani)
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