Indian chefs are picking up old favourites and recasting them

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 16, 2015 20:44 IST

Most chefs these days are always trying to do something new or original. And good luck to them with that. But I find myself increasingly drawn to food that is far from original. In fact, I think nostalgia has become an important component of my search for good food.

Mangalore magic: Ananda Solomon’s best restaurant, Konkan Café (above) has some of his mother’s Mangalorean recipes.

This is not altogether surprising and nor am I the only one to feel just so. Most talented chefs try and pull out childhood memories to inspire them in the kitchen. Manish Mehrotra fills his menu with little nods to his past, from the Phantom cigarettes (sweets shaped like cigarettes) he enjoyed as a child to the Old Monk rum he drank in college. Ananda Solomon’s menu at Konkan Café (for my money, his best restaurant, better even than Thai Pavilion) draws on his mother’s recipes for Mangalorean dishes.

Abroad, the trend towards nostalgia in food is firmly established. Nearly every American chef will do an upmarket macaroni and cheese (it used to be the hamburger that was the favourite of the revivalists).

Cheesy gesture: For nostalgia’s sake, nearly every American chef has an upmarket macaroni and cheese on the menu.

In France, great chefs will take classic dishes that have dropped off menus and revive them: Alain Ducasse is proud of his Tournedos Rossini (steak medallions topped with foie gras in a Madeira truffle sauce). And in England, the standard dishes of restaurant dining in the Sixties have now been revived, slightly ironically: chicken kiev, baked alaska and prawn cocktail.

Indian chefs who try and pick up nostalgia favourites usually fall back on street food; as they do at Farzi Café. Or they recall flavours served up by caterers at family events. Gaggan Anand’s Charcoal, the star of his new menu, is inspired by the Bengali fish chop he ate while growing up in Calcutta.

And now some Indian restaurateurs and chefs are picking up old favourites and recasting them for their menus. The best example is the Bombay Canteen, one of the city’s hottest restaurants, where such club favourites as the Kejriwal Toast (from the Willingdon Club) are cooked with a mixture of sophistication and affection.

A few months ago, when it was celebrating its 50th anniversary (yes, it has been that long!) the Delhi Oberoi held a series of dinners reviving dishes from the old Taj menu. The food was remarkable (better than I remember it being in the days when the Taj was actually around!) and it brought back a flood of memories.

Most people don’t remember the Taj very well. We tend to think of the hotel chain whenever we hear the word ‘Taj’. But right from the time that the Oberoi opened in 1965, the Taj was its flagship restaurant. It had a grand buffet at lunch and an a’ la carte menu in the evenings. It wasn’t cheap and most of us could not afford it but a succession of European chefs guaranteed that it never compromised on food quality.

Making a comeback: In England, the standard dishes of restaurant dining in the Sixties have now been revived, slightly ironically: prawn cocktail (top, left) and baked alaska (top, right).

How they managed to find Chambertin for the Coq au Vin in that era I do not know. But somehow they did. (The Oberoi closed the Taj in the ’80s and replaced it with La Rochelle, at least partly because the Taj Group had opened a Delhi hotel in 1978 and the name caused confusion.)

I had dinner last week with Vijay Wanchoo, who runs Delhi’s venerable Imperial Hotel. Vijay was a chef for much of his career and he has warm memories of the old Taj from his time at the Oberoi. He took me to the Brasserie, a lovely old room next to the 1911 bar at the hotel and showed me the new menu they’ve created.

It was packed out with old favourites that have long since disappeared from our restaurants. I gave the French Onion Soup and the Lobster Thermidor a miss but an upmarket Prawn Cocktail was a delight. So was an excellent Coq au Vin. And for dessert, the maître ‘d flambéed Crepes Suzette at the table. (They were good, though the dish is more about spectacle than taste in my view!)

The Imperial attracts many rich European leisure travellers so Vijay has had no difficulty in finding takers for this kind of food. It helps that the owners have made a considerable investment in the concept, even splashing out for a Steinway piano so that the old world ambience can be faithfully recreated.

Others have had the same sort of idea. My old pal Gautam Anand has been discussing his plans for a restaurant called The India Room with me for years. And this year, he’s finally pulled it off.

The menu can be misleading (it is not an Indian restaurant) but I gather that it is packing them in at the booming Grand Bharat resort just outside Delhi. Gautam’s idea was to recreate the food that India adopted from the many Europeans who came here both as colonisers and as traders.

A room with a view: The India Room at ITC Grand Bharat was planned with a specific view, to serve food adopted from European traders and colonisers.

What he had ended up doing is creating a grand, old-style restaurant of the kind they don’t build any longer. There are cheese soufflés, devilled prawns, roast chickens and other such classic dishes.

It works because of the attention to detail. A roast mutton was so tender and juicy that I had to ask where they sourced the meat from. It turned out that the chef had gone to the supplier, had checked out the cuts on display and selected a particularly outstanding piece.

In an era when chefs sit at home and wait for supplies to be delivered to their kitchen doors, it was heartening to know that not only was the menu old-fashioned but that the chefs also harked back to that bygone era when the quality of ingredients was not taken for granted.

Older hotels have an advantage when it comes to nostalgia. Most Indian hotels, however, pay little attention to the heritage of the menus. I have warm memories of sitting by the poolside of Bangalore’s West End and eating delicious kebabs.

A year later, the Taj Group took over the property and eventually the kababchis left and were replaced by catering college types. Likewise, the Connemara Hotel in Madras had a legendary buffet with great Raj-era dishes in the Seventies. Then, the Taj took over (the Connemara and West End were both owned by Spencer’s), closed down the buffet and opened an America-style coffee shop. I still love the Connemara but I miss the old food.

Fortunately, the original Taj in Bombay has held on to its culinary legacy. I don’t remember the legendary Chef Maskie (before my time) but I’ll never forget the old Rendezvous, which was the best restaurant in Bombay for years.

The food was better than anyone remembers (some of Taj’s best chefs worked in that kitchen: Arvind Saraswat, Subash Basrur, Maria Vaz, ‘Nat’ Natarajan, etc) and there was steady stream of great foreign chefs who visited (the Bise family, Paul Bocuse, Albert Roux etc) but I always liked it for the ambience rather than the food.

The maître ‘d (Uncle Louis, we called him) made snake coffee and flambéed Crepes Suzette and a Goan cook in the kitchen made fantastic lobster curry for regulars, under the nose of the chef who wanted to serve his French menu.

The Rendezvous has gone but many of its best servers can still be found at the Taj (at the Zodiac Grill and Wasabi) and remain the backbone of that hotel’s F&B service.

Each time I talk about the old days, so many people chip in with memories of their own that I often wonder why we don’t just do a nostalgia restaurant.

We could find Calcutta favourites from the old Sky Room menu (Chicken Tetrazzini or a kebab and paratha), keema samosas from Bombay’s MG Café, the mutton cutlet from Gaylords, the old hot dog (with sliced chilli) from Bombellis, the Dal Meat from Delhi’s Embassy, the channa-bhatura from Kwality’s (Delhi), the Keema Mutter from Kwality’s (at Kemp’s Corner in Bombay; it no longer exists, alas) or even the Masala Mutton Burger and the Room Service Special (the world’s first Chicken Tikka sandwich) from the old Taj menu (two of Chef Satish Arora’s greatest creations for which he is rarely credited).

Would it work, in this era of molecular gastronomy and sushi rolls? I think it would. If the Grand Bharat can take the risk with The India Room and Vijay Wanchoo can invest so much care and money into the Imperial’s Brasserie, then I think the risk is worth taking.

So far, chefs have done well in rejecting catering college recipes and cashew-paste and cream orthodoxies in favour of original home cuisines. But I think we have ignored India’s restaurant heritage and avoided the dishes that so many of us used to enjoy when we went out to dinner.

It’s time to dig out every great restaurant dish of the last five decades and see if we can introduce it to a new audience.

If we don’t learn how to celebrate the past, then we are ill-equipped to go into the future.

From HT Brunch, May 17
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