By Madhusree Chatterjee
Contemporary gastronomy is a cross-cultural journey that combines food as much as the cultures to which the fare belongs— and the cultures from which they have assimilated. The new global food is so diverse and interesting, says food impresario Anand Kapoor, who has compiled and edited a new anthology of international cuisines, “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity Chefs”.
“Food has a global approach today because it is changing and assimilating. India ranks high in this process of culinary transformation because the traditional gastronomy of this culturally-rich nation has acquired a world appeal,” Kapoor says. Indian chefs – and even the lay domestic foodie and the intrepid householder — are using European techniques to cook traditional fare. “The influence of other food is becoming important to the basic Indian gastronomic psyche- it is almost ingrained,” Kapoor points out to this writer in an interview.
The volume which brings together a blend of old and new recipes from Australia, India, UK and US by seven Michelin chefs features four Indian culinary whizkids — Vikas Khanna, Vineet Bhatia, Anjum Anand and Anand Kapoor— whose culinary repertoires reflect the spirit of a global India and its transforming palate. “Food has been never been more experimental in India,” editor Kapoor says.
Vikas Khanna, who manages Junoon, an upscale Indian eatery in New York, recommends a rather eclectic signature dish in the book — “Octopus Chaat”— a curious improvisation on the traditional Indian vegetarian snack, “Chaat”.
The snack – of north Indian origin — in the indigenous context is a mish-mash of crushed aloo (potato) patti, dough flour crispies, ginger juliennes, apple and pomegranate seeds tossed in a sauce of iced yogurt, mint and sweet tamarind. But chef Khanna’s “chaat (licks)” sports a strange hybrid cast of ingredients. The essentially Indian cumin, coriander, whole red chilli, black cardamom, garlic garam masala (four aromatic spice mix) and deghi mirch (a local variety of pepper) jostles for attention with eight medium size octopus.
The cooking technique is essentially Indian despite the fact that the presence of octopus on the platter of chaat . The octopus appears in a jelly form flavoured with tamarind chutney (dip) – and served with heirloom baby tomatoes, Persian cucumber and red onions and sprinkling chaat masala (a spice powder). The dish will probably evoke extreme reactions from even the most “adventurous” of Indian gourmands. “Octopus in Chaat ….. My goodness. Never. Its madness!”.
But the offbeat is delectable in international food world over— transformational cuisine is becoming almost bizarre, if not outlandish.
“It has all to do with globalization and the proliferation of the Internet and television,” Kapoor says. Television capsules like the “Masterchef Australia” beamed in millions of home around the world has turned serious spotlight on food. Even children discuss the kind of food that they would like on their menu – and what goes into it. “The cookery shows on television has set gastronomy on a new course. It is in every home,” Kapoor says.
Michelin chef Vineet Bhatia, who owns and manages London-based “Rasoi”, spreads out what can be best described as the “essence of the fusion Indo-European contemporary soul” with a combo-platter of Aubergine (baigan) Chutney (dip), Uttapam Lasagne with Sambhar Peas and Tomato-Coconut Chutney (in the book). The dish is served with the “aubergine chutney sandwiched between three uttapams (rice pancakes), sambhar (south Indian lentil broth) with peas, aubergine-sesame chutney and a tomato-coconut dip.
He adds to the menu with “grilled cheesy lamb chops” served with south Indian curry lead tossed potatoes sauted (or stire fried) with sea salt and spiced lamb jus — a soup of complex Indian spices, trimmings and stock of lamb.
The globalization of cuisine is leading to a funny local phenomenon on the ground — in the chef’s kitchen. The sourcing of content has become localized, almost micro unlike the macro processes. “All the ingredients are being sourced locally,” editor of the volume Anand Kapoor says.
If India falls behind the west in the quality of red meat poultry like pork, beef and ham, the country still figures on the top of the list of the finest quality of spices, vegetables, mutton and fishes. And in the sheer variety of cuisines on its gastronomy roster, Kapoor says.
Celebrity chef Anjum Anand, popular figure on US television and a health chef, picks on the niche of “desi greens” to offer a combination platter of “warm char grilled mushroom salad with roasted butternut squash, crispy potato galette, crème fraiche and green peppercorns”. She uses a tandoori marinade for the mushrooms and serves with radish florets, cashews and red onions. She has many such dishes in her kitty.
It is not difficult to rustle it up in the Indian kitchen — provided “the chef has a world outlook to food”. “My daughter loves Italian food. It is because of us. Parents influence Gen Next gastronomic flavours… I personally like comfort food, anything that brings back memories of childhood,” Kapoor says.
Fun fusion fare is the order of the table. For example, gems of imagination like Pumpkin cinnamon phirni, Choco rabdi, watermelon shorba and masaledar (spicy) lamb chops grace the haute menus across the world — lending Indian gastronomy a new globalised edge away from the raucousness of the predictable “naan, daal, butter chicken” associated with the traditional colours of a prosperous India – from the Mughals to the British and the hip Punjabi Indi-pop.
The homegrown foodies of yesterday have moved to the toney fine-dining haunts in America and Europe to sample “lasooni gobi”, “Yorkshire beef”, “Tea Infused Chickpeas” and “Pickled Artichokes” at fashionable prices.
Food has been reinventing its facade and price tags with the “lazes faire” in economy and cultures. There is health as well, says Scottish Michelin chef Marcello Tully, the power house of the kitchen at Kinloch Hotel at the edge of Loch in the Isle of Arran (on Scottish island coast). The hotel is a boutique gastronomic destination, “where people come primarily to savour the menu and halt overnight”.
“ Food is now very fashionable – gastronomy as a trend goes through certain cycles. It is currently more healthy and light, which is not really my style. I have trained in classical French cuisine. But I have been forced to lighten my food for my diners,” says Tully, one of the contributors to the volume, “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity Chefs”.
His food is international with a variety of flavours. “I have a unique style. I was born in Brazil- and hence have Brazilian influence in my food. I use a broad spectrum of ingredients like spices, herbs, Thai curry and Indian curry – it is very diverse. I work in the northwest of Scotland on an island. It is remote but has the most wonderful ingredients - fantastic sea food, ham, beef, pork, vegetables. I source my ingredients locally,” Tully tells this writer.
Tully loves the facet of mixing herb and spices in Indian food — something that he often uses in his cooking. The Scots unlike the British love their food fried, the chef says.
Tully’s dishes, which try to retain the original flavor of the ingredients, shows his fascination with India. “I love Indian food,” he says. One of his recipes Aubergine gateau – a Scottish version of the popular Indian “Baigan ka Bharta (aubergine mash curry)”- is treated with couscous, red pepper, coriander, garlic, ginger and lime juice. Almost Indian, but European at heart, the chef says.
The focus of food now is on ingredients, says Michelin chef Frances Atkins, another contributor to the volume. “The nature of ingredients changes products. A dish tastes different in each kitchen because of the quality of ingredients use,” the Briton says. Her food is rich flavours of her English countryside and the Moors – with ingredients like rose petals, jasmine mist, watermelons, mango, poppy seeds and enormous amounts of fresh meat.
A section of foodies in India argue that “international food is yet to come of age in India” given the fact there are no Michelin-starred eatery in the country unlike a smaller nation like Scotland which has 15 Michelin restaurants. But “an amazing lot is happening on the Indian plate,” the seven star chefs concur, dispelling doubts about “the state of contemporary Indian gastronomy”. More people are eating out and new eateries are mushrooming around every bend – virtually every day.
It is wrong to think that India has fallen behind in the race for “culinary excellence and experimentation”. The country is backed by nearly three millennia of culinary heritage and any evolution of the palate will have to take the “history of Indian food” into account and “look for compatible global techniques”.
The volume serves its purpose — of taking the Indian gourmet on a journey of the continents, their sources of food and kitchens with pictures of places, cuisine and texts.
Book: “Taste: 7 Michelin Stars and Celebrity Chefs”. Published by Om Books International, Priced Rs 1,500