Sambhar risotto, dhoklizza (Gujarati dhokla meets Italian pizza), butter chicken bunny chow (a fusion of Punjabi and South African flavours), even a vada pav salad (yes, it’s a thing): these are just some of the many mishmash dishes that have crept into restaurant menus lately. And with almost every new restaurant trying to earn its ‘modern Indian’ tag — the latest buzzword in F&B — chefs are encouraged to come up with the most bizarre combinations.
But are we taking it too far? Sure, novelty is nice, but not when it comes at the cost of taste. So, what separates the good from the bad, the lazy masquerading as modern.
At the newly opened Kala Ghoda resto-bar Hitchki, the menu lists dishes like pithla hummus and baingan tabouleh (pithla is a Maharashtrian delicacy, here served as a dip with bhakri lavash) and deconstructed missal pav. The former actually works well, perhaps because of its hummus-like texture and accompaniments such as a pomegranate-based sauce, and a yoghurt dip. But how do you deconstruct the missal pav, an already deconstructed dish?
Deconstruction or destruction?
Modern Indian is the most misunderstood cuisine of our times. Popularised by restaurants like Masala Library, Farzi Café, and Indian Accent (in Delhi), the cuisine attempts to offer an innovative take on Indian food. But did you know that the first experiments of modern Indian cuisine took place overseas?
Chefs like Floyd Cardoz (of the erstwhile Tabla in New York, The Bombay Canteen, and now Paowalla), Vineet Bhatia (of Ziya) and Atul Kochhar (of Not Really Indian and Lima) earned their chops at heritage culinary institutions like the Taj and Oberoi before moving abroad. They fused their Indian sensibilities with Western influences, combining the east and the west on their plates. This led to the emergence of modern Indian in the ’90s and early 2000.
In fact, Cardoz took the humble upma out of an Indian kitchen and turned it into a culinary delight that helped him win Top Chef Masters in 2011. Similarly, Bhatia mastered the art of fusion Indian food and set up successful restaurants such as Rasoi and Indego in London and Dubai.
Then, why are diners in India subjected to an almost degenerate version of this cuisine? “When people try to cook Indian food in a modern manner, they tend to forget the roots of the dish,” Bhatia had said in an earlier interview to HT in June this year. “For instance, if you are deconstructing a vada pav, you need to keep its core flavours, such as potato, gram flour and the garlic chutney intact,” he added.
Ray of hope
All may not be grim, though. Restaurants like The Bombay Canteen, Ziya at The Oberoi in Mumbai, Monkey Bar and Social are pushing the envelope, but with caution. “Restraint is the most important ingredient in our kitchen,” says Thomas Zacharias, executive chef, The Bombay Canteen. It’s the thin line between being too experimental and respecting flavours. Zacharias, along with culinary director Cardoz, has conceptualised innovative India-inspired dishes like Goan pork vindaloo tacos and arbi tuk.
“When a dish is good by itself, we don’t change it. For instance, dishes like Chettinad prawn ‘ali yolio’ (cooked in prawn oil) and mirchi ka salan work well in their original form,” Zacharias adds. Intelligent tweaks come in the form of replacing kathal (jackfruit) with now seasonal kantola (spiny gourd). The Bombay Canteen is in its sixth menu change since opening, and perhaps it is this respect for seasonality and local produce that has earned it praise from critics and diners alike.
At Hitchki, lotus roots (often used in Kashmiri cuisine) find place in sticky rice served with lababdar gravy; the smokiness of the roots work with the silky gravy. Bhavnagri chillies are wrapped in banana leaves for its patrani chilli poppers. Owner Manjri Agarwal’s defence is that “there is nothing gimmicky about the food. We want the food to take you back to your grandmother’s recipe.”
According to Zacharias, modern Indian food and its interpretations — palatable and otherwise — are here to stay. “Though there is a market for gimmicks, it will die down soon. Modern Indian is not like molecular gastronomy (which is on its way out). There are different ways to approach this cuisine,” he says.
However, the hope is that, for every 10 new restaurants that open, at least five will push the boundaries with their heart and head in the right place. Till then, would you care for some paneer makhani puchka?
5 modern Indian dishes still worth trying
Seafood Konkani: Grilled Chilean seabass, curry leaf prawns, dhokla-prawn pickle kokum moilee served with sagoo noodle crisp.
Where: Ziya, The Oberoi, Nariman Point
Call: 3312 6894
Arbi tuk: A simple, yet convincing showcase of seasonal ingredients; radish kachumber is served with spiced curd and imli chutney.
Where: The Bombay Canteen, ground floor, Process House, Kamala Mills, Lower Parel
Call: 4966 6666
Laal maas phulka: Succulent braised lamb served with ker sangria sabzi, mirch achaar mayo, and white radish slaw.
Where: Monkey Bar, Summerville, junction of 14th & 33rd Road, Linking Road, Bandra (W)
Call: 3015 1853
Patrani chilli poppers: Bhavnagri chillies stuffed with heady mustard sauce, wrapped in banana leaves.
Where: Hitchki, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, behind Rhythm House, Kala Ghoda
Call: 4612 9999
Pulled tandoori chicken makhni bao: Tandoori chicken tossed in makhni gravy, and served with green apple chutney.
Where: Across various Social outlets