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Modern Indian food: the new rage

There are a series of innovations many Indian chefs have been trying for a while in the West. Instead of oily curries and over-spiced dishes, these lighter variations focus on the quality of ingredients and redefined presentation, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Jun 06, 2014 17:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi

So suddenly, modern Indian food is the new rage. Indian Accent is the most difficult table to book for dinner in Delhi. In Bombay, you need to reserve ahead to get into Masala Library. At the Taj group, the template for fancy Indian restaurants going forward is Hemant Oberoi's massively successful Varq at the Taj Man Singh in Delhi. At the Oberoi group, Amaranta in Gurgaon is easily the best Indian restaurant the Oberois have ever opened themselves, while Ziya, the Vineet Bhatia place in Bombay, is now packing the punters in night after night despite its large size and high prices.

And abroad, the world's most celebrated Indian chef is Gaggan Anand whose eponymous Bangkok restaurant is the first Indian restaurant to make it to the top 20 in the San Pellegrino list of the world's Top 100 restaurants. (Not one restaurant from India makes the 100, which either tells you what they think of Indian restaurants or how unrepresentative the list really is - depending on your perspective.)

So why has modern Indian food suddenly taken off? My view is that "modern Indian" is less a specific cuisine than a family of trends. There have been restaurants in London serving what could be called modern Indian as far back as the 1980s. Floyd Cardoz opened Tabla, which offered an innovative take on Indian food for New Yorkers, in 1998 to great initial acclaim. (For what its worth, I was a huge fan.) And Indian chefs have been experimenting with modern dishes since the 1970s.

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To see modern Indian in perspective, you have to first recognise that unlike say, Hong Kong, let alone Europe, India has no great fine dining restaurant tradition. Till the Seventies, the Indian food served at most places patronised by the middle-class was a bogus cuisine invented by Punjabi restaurateurs who combined homestyle Punjabi food, some tandoori cooking and a few dishes vaguely recalled from pre-Partition West Punjab.

Even five star hotels reflected this trend. If you went to the Mughal Room at any Oberoi hotel, Kabab Korner at Bombay's Natraj Hotel, you got exactly the same sort of food as Kwality's, but at higher prices. This began changing only in the Seventies because of two hotel chains. The Taj put non-Punjabi food on the menu at Tanjore in Bombay and then, more significantly, at Haveli in Delhi. ITC launched Mayur at the Maurya with the Lucknowi cuisine of Imtiaz Qureshi and refined the recipes of tandoori cooking to create Bukhara.

Indian chefs in London began to break free from the curry-house culture in the Eighties. The Taj led the way with the elegant Bombay Brasserie

By the Eighties, Indian chefs were confident enough to try new things. The menu at the first Dum Pukht contained many dishes that had been invented at the restaurant (the raan came with a rum-marinade and cocktail onions in a Wellington-style puff pastry case, for instance). And at the Taj, such chefs as Satish Arora, influenced by France's nouvelle cuisine revolution, tried to create lighter dishes, plated the food and often put the gravy under the meat, nouvelle-French style.

At the same time, Indian chefs in London began to break free from the curry-house culture. The Taj led the way with the elegant Bombay Brasserie and then Namita Panjabi followed with the path-breaking Chutney Mary. As time went on and people recognised that Indian food could go upmarket, a new wave of celebrity Indian chefs, who did their own thing, followed: Cyrus Todiwala (ex-Taj), Atul Kochhar (ex-Oberoi) and most famously Vineet Bhatia (who has Michelin stars at two different restaurants). Namita Panjabi (joined by now by husband Ranjit Mathrani and sister Camellia) upped her game with Amaya, one of London's most glamorous and celebrated restaurants.

The path-breaking Chutney Mary

Was this modern Indian food? In its own way, I think it was. Chefs refined recipes, created new dishes, paid attention to the quality of ingredients (which chefs in India hardly ever did) and redefined presentation. You can argue about the quality of the cuisine - as many have - but the logic behind the food was simple enough. The chefs were appealing to well-off Londoners who were fed up of oily curries and over-spiced dishes and wanted food that seemed lighter and more elegant. Indian critics have said, with some justification, that the London chefs Frenchified the 'food and poncified' the presentation. But so what? They were adapting the food for Western sensibilities and who can deny that it worked?

For years and years, the London model has been the template for modern Indian cuisine. Floyd Cardoz's Tabla eventually closed down but such later New York successes as Junoon and Tulsi as well as Washington DC's Rasika (highly regarded by my friend Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post's critic) suggest that, with same tweaking, the London model can work in the rest of the West. This view has been confirmed by the success of Vineet Bhatia's Geneva restaurant.

What I find most interesting about the current boom in modern Indian is that we are moving away from the London model. Hemant Oberoi's Masala Art (at Delhi's Taj Palace) looked like an Indian restaurant in London but his Varq is very much in a category of its own. (When they tried the same menu in London at the Bombay Brasserie, it flopped).

Floyd Cardoz (left) opened Tabla (right), which offered an innovative take on Indian food for New Yorkers in 1998 to great initial acclaim

The new stars of Indian cuisine approach their food from different directions. Gaggan has only ever cooked in Calcutta and Bangkok so his cuisine owes nothing to the London school. His influences are global (a bit from Thomas Keller, a lot from the elBulli academy where he trained etc.) and his presentation is not particularly French or European. Manish Mehrotra (like Gaggan, ex-Taj) started out as an Oriental chef so there is nothing French about his food. There are some Thai influences but his cuisine is like nothing anybody else does: as far as I can tell, it springs entirely from Manish's own genius and his reluctance to play by the rules. Masala Library is run by two of Manish's very talented protégés so its cuisine also springs from Manish's genius, with a few nods to Gaggan's recipes. (But the chefs are very creative so, in time, they will develop their own style.)

Whenever I discuss modern Indian food with my friend Gautam Anand (who, though he works for ITC, has been an early champion of Manish and of the Oberoi's Amaranta), he always makes the point that modernisation cannot be forced on a cuisine. Gautam gives the example of the French nouvelle cuisine revolution. It was created by French chefs working in France serving French customers. Even the molecular innovations of El Bulli were Ferran Adria's own ideas for his own local customers. The global fame came much later.

The template for fancy Indian restaurants going forward is Varq at the Taj Man Singh in Delhi

Gautam's point is that no matter how successful you are in adapting your cuisine to suit foreign palates, all revolutions have to be indigenous. Unless Indian chefs start thinking for themselves and Indian customers (not just those at the very top end) start wanting to look beyond the usual dishes, there will be no real revolution. You can't force it by copying a foreign model.

So here's my question: has that stage now come? Are we now seeing the start of a real revolution that stems from within and finds acceptance among mainstream diners?

My answer is a cautions 'yes'. Last week at Vineet's Bombay outpost Ziya, I noticed three things: a) it was packed, b) the menu had been tweaked from the London original to reflect Indian tastes, and c) the guests were not foreign tourists or the sort of high-flyers who frequent Vetro, the Oberoi's swish Italian restaurant. They were (admittedly, prosperous) families, looking for a good night out. Likewise with Amaranta at the Gurgaon Oberoi. The real revolution, though, was the crowd at Masala Library. It was packed out with people from offices nearby and many of the guests were the kinds of people who would go to Punjab Grill. Masala Library is half the price of Ziya so obviously it will attract a different crowd, but of all the "modern" Indian restaurants, it has come closest to hitting the mainstream.

These are encouraging signs. For a food revolution to succeed it is important, as Gautam says, for Indian chefs to innovate for an Indian audience. But it is even more important for that audience to be ready for those innovations.

And perhaps, we are now ready.

From HT Brunch, June 8
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