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An appetite for foreign shores: Offering food India eats to the world

Forget the Moti Mahals and Saravana Bhawans, a new breed of Indian restaurants is sweeping the globe: from the ‘rasta sandwich’ finding fans in downtown Los Angeles to pita bread sev puri being served in Dubai. In a trend that reverses the usual brand of ‘visiting foreign chefs’ and Michelin starred restaurants coming to India, Indian restaurateurs, food consultants and chefs are taking formulas that have found favour with local diners to the world

more lifestyle Updated: Apr 04, 2016 14:39 IST

There will be crocodile and kangaroo kathi rolls to go with Kingfisher beer at the Bar Stock Exchange in New Zealand; Kerala fish moilee in New York via Indian Accent; and spinach poriyal at Farzi Cafe in Dubai.

All three restaurants have opted to go overseas before expanding beyond their homes bases in India, in an indication of how the Indian restaurant chain is going global, in truly international style, driven by a growing confidence in Indian cuisines, chefs and restaurant brands.

”I wanted to go to New York to say, we have this thing called mishti doi and it is better than any yogurt you’ve tasted,” says Manish Mehrotra, head chef at Indian Accent in NYC, which opened in February and is the restaurant’s first branch outside Delhi.

Read: Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok becomes Asia’s best restaurant

Gurgaon’s Farzi Café opened in Dubai last week, Mumbai-based Inday is offering desi cuisine with a healthy twist in New York, Imli is set to open in Los Angeles by June and the Bar Stock Exchange will have launched either branches or franchises in Dubai, Singapore, Mauritius and New Zealand by December.

One thing that sets these restaurants apart from existing Indian cuisine establishments is a total absence of generic curries, naans, dals and dosas. Instead, these restaurateurs are taking formats that have proved successful at home and offering them to the rest of the world, with only minor tweaks.

“We’re going to keep the spices and wraps Indian, but change the proteins to more familiar meats,” says Kshama Prabhu, executive chef at the Bar Stock Exchange (BSE), which has five outlets, all in Mumbai. “We’re going to keep our Indian beers too, and add local brews to the menu. There’s no point in going to a new country if we’re not going to take something local with us.”

The restaurants’ USPs will remain intact too. For BSE, its the smartphone app that tracks the prices of alcoholic drinks as they fluctuate based on the orders being placed at the bar; for Indian Accent, its fine-dine Indian food with gourmet plating; for Farzi Cafe, its modern take on traditional Indian recipes, which sees molecular gastronomy techniques being applied to traditional food.

“Until now, Indian food abroad was represented by Indian immigrants,” says Nachiket Shetye, restaurateur and co-founder of Restaurant Week. “But now there is a wave of reverse integration, with chefs, restaurateurs and food experts from India showcasing a different kind of Indian food – one that is innovative, modern, well-plated and diverse. It’s not just for the Indian diaspora looking for some comfort food; it’s tailored to the global diner.”

Food writer Mangal Dalal attributes this shift to two factors – a change in the profile of the international diner, and an increasingly ambitious Indian restaurateur.

“Over the past five years, as India’s economy, soft power and expat population have grown, its culture has caught the international imagination in a big way,” he says. “This has resulted in a growing awareness of the nuances of the cuisine. So now, there are people in other countries who want more than butter chicken – they want to maybe taste missal pav, or a Kerala beef fry. And Indian restaurateurs such as Zorawar Kalra [of Farzi Café] are noticing this gap in the market and setting out to meet the demand.”

Read: Huge boom in regional Indian restaurants, bars: Restaurateur A.D. Singh

In Auckland, for instance, Turkish businessmanJamele Brown, 32, had been cooking Indian food at home from time to time, because what he got in the two local Indian restaurants was nothing like what his Indian roommates had fed him at university in the US.

“I was very excited when news of Bar Stock Exchange showed up on a local food website,” he says. “The restaurants here serve really bad curry and naan. I’m waiting to eat good mutton curry again, and try some new things as well.” Brown says that he feels that BSE will have a leg-up over the local Indian restauants because this one is ‘probably more authentic’.

“Indian restaurants have been going abroad for years,” says Vir Sanghvi, food writer and editorial advisor to the Hindustan Times. “For example, Gaylord opened in the US in 1972. “The change is in the food being served by these exports, which is in itself a reflection of the change in India’s urban dining scenario. The food we eat while dining out has changed. We earlier emphasised old-fashioned cuisine, now we eat modern takes on the same food. So the same shift is visible now in the Indian restaurants that are going abroad.”

Read: Punjabi woman popularises Indian cuisine in Ghana

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Dal-chawal rice balls in Dubai

Farzi Café, a modern Indian bistro, opened in Gurgaon in August 2014 with a menu full of Indian classics with a molecular gastronomy twist. Like the Dal Chawal Arancini that served up the Indian classic as stuffed Italian-style rice balls, flavoured with pickle, rolled in breadcrumbs and pan-fried.

The #Farzified Biryani being served at Farzi Cafe, Dubai.

In January, they opened in Delhi. And on Wednesday the restaurant opened its third outlet, in Dubai. On the menu are favourites from the Indian menus, such as spinach poriyal and charmoula-crusted paneer tikka, and a few twists with an Arabic influence, such as pita golgappas, spiked beef toasties, and smoked beef patthar ke kebab.

“Indian food has had a perception problem overseas,” says owner Zorawar Kalra. “It is not in the top ten options while dining out because it hasn’t been packaged well, plated well. And the days of butter chicken with a pool of cream on top passing muster are long gone.”

To find out exactly what would work, head chef Saurabh Udinia spent eight months doing research and food trails in Dubai. “Dubai diners love the global experience,” he says, “and our research shows that competition for the kind of thing we do is negligible.”

The exteriors of the Farzi Cafe in Dubai.

Dubai was chosen because of its multicultural expat population. “We think this is the right time to we got the kind of response in Gurgoan that we hadn’t expected,” Kalra says. “The willingness to experiment showed us that diners are hungry for something new. And we were tempted to try Dubai because of its similarities with Gurgaon -- a young population excited about food innovation and willing to spend on a dining experience.”

Farzi is in an up-and-coming neighbourhood where a new cinema is set to open amid plenty of offices. “I had been planning to be first at Farzi,” says Clarence Lobo, a 25-year-old web designer and Muscat native who has been living in Dubai for five years. “Muscat has a very large Indian population, so I grew up with a lot of the food I ate at Farzi. The golgappas, for instance, were a familiar concept, though the taste of Farzi’s was really new and different. The interiors are also so beautifully done up. I always thought of Indian as very ‘home delivery’ food, but this was a new approach.”

Solkadi, walnut halwa in LA

When Mumbai boy Nikhil Merchant, 34, decided to open a restaurant after nine years as a food consultant, he says he never considered locating it in Mumbai -- or Delhi or Bangalore. “The markets here are very saturated,” he says.

Seeking opportunities overseas, he narrowed it down to the US -- mainly because of the diverse palate , exposure to Indian food and large Indian expat population.

The Imli pop-up in Los Angeles saw Merchant selling the Bombay rasta sandwich, a Goan prawn curry, a walnut halwa and cutting chai.

“But New York was too crowded,” says Merchant. “In Los Angeles, I realised Indian food is very underrepresented. It seems like a great opportunity.”

Merchant plans to launch Imli in downtown LA this June.

“There are cities in the world -- like New York and London -- that are known as cultural melting pots,” he says. “And then there are cities such as Los Angeles and Pittsburgh that are just now making that transition because of a diverse student population, cheaper rents, and so on. These are really rich markets for us as chefs.”

To test his theory, Merchant ran a pilot of sorts in February, with a day-long Imli pop-up. It served four dishes -- the Bombay rasta sandwich, a Goan prawn curry, a walnut halwa and cutting chai.

The Bombay Rasta sandwich served at the Imli pop-up in Los Angeles.

“The reception was very encouraging,” he says. “There were 10 people waiting by the time the food was ready. We served the curry with solkadi, which I think caught people off-guard, but the attitude was very welcoming and interested. It got the sense that they weren’t intimidated because while it was new, it was also familiar. A tea is a tea at the end of the day, and a sandwich is a sandwich.”

For the restaurant menu too, Merchant plans to focus on Indian street food, “which is easy to eat, quick and delicious”and can be priced reasonably. “We will also incorporateregional specialtiessuch as undhiyo,” he says.

One of the customers at the Imli pop-up was local teacher Enchante Samuels.

“I thought I had eaten Indian food,” says the 24-year-old. “But I realised I haven’t even skimmed the surface. I had never had solkadi, and I loved the green chutney in the rasta sandwich. I’d never tasted anything like that before. I would totally come back, especially for the tea, which was so strong. I would love to make that a part of my morning routine.”

A new Indian accent in New York

After opening in Delhi in 2009, Indian Accent opened its second outlet in New York in February -- even before its launch in Mumbai, which is stillin the works.

Owner Rohit Khattar says the timing felt perfect because “New York is the food capital of the world and Indian cuisine is being talked about around the world.”

The mishti doi cannoli served at Indian Accent, New York.

“It was a matter of conquering one of the world’s most difficult -- and rewarding -- food cities,” adds head chef Manish Mehrotra. “Plus, there aren’t that many fine-dine Indian restaurants here. It’s a gap in the market.”

Their menu in NYC features old favourites such as Kashmiri morel masala withroasted walnut and parmesan papad, and a pork belly vindaloo served with traditional Goanred rice. Additions include a pastrami naan, a black carrot halwa topped with salted chikki and milk cake ice-cream, and curries that, instead of being served in bowls, have been incorporated into naans and breads.

“We have retained a lot of what made Indian Accent successful in Delhi,” says Mehrotra. “And we’re using Indian salt and imported ingredients for our masalas to retain the flavours of the original recipes.”

Still, Mehrotra admits, it was a challenge for the first couple of weeks. “There are a lot of good restaurants in NY, and what we wanted to do was nail that balance between fine dining and authentic Indian food but obtaining ingredients was a bit of a challenge,” he says. “For example, we don’t have any mutton dishes because it was so difficult to source the meat. We also had a hard time training the front-of-the-house staff. We actually sat with them with a map of India, to the point that my head waiter can now tell you the capital of Chhattisgarh.”

The New York outpost of Indian Accent sees 130 diners daily for their dinner service.

Mehrotra says it was also a challenge to acclimatise diners to this new sort of Indian food. “We had people asking us, why don’t you have biryani on the menu? Why no chicken tikka?” he says. “But people have come around. We are sold out almost every day. With a 65-seat capacity, we have about 130 people in for our dinner service every night.”

Jeanine Lafferty, 42, an environment officer in the Flat Iron district where the restaurant is located. “I was walking around with my partner last week and saw crowds inside,” she says. “We decided to walk in because we love Indian food. But what we ate was not what we expected.”

The couple ordered the dal gosht, mushroom shorba and blue cheese naan, ending with the besan ladoo cheesecake for dessert. “It felt like a new cuisine altogether,” Lafferty says. “I especially loved the cheesecake; the taste was so new but the format so familiar.”

Aviation executive Azim Khan, 42, has been a New Yorker for 22 years but still misses the food he grew up on in Dehradun. “New York has a lot of food, but when firm partners are visiting from the UK or Canada and I take them out to dinner, I’ve always wished I could give them a fine-dining experience of Indian food,” he says. “Two weeks ago, I took a group to Indian Accent and it was a massive hit. The food was beautiful, elegant and delicious. We ordered five portions of the lamb dal gosht.”

Garam masala steaks on Broadway

Pilates instructor Susan Rotega, 34, has breakfast at 1133 Broadway every day. This is where Mumbai-bornfood consultant Abhishek Honawar set up his first restaurant, Inday, a year ago.

Rotega likes the food because it’s healthy, unusual and flavourful. One day she opts for cauliflower flavoured with mustard seeds and turmeric, the next a waffle iron dosa with chutneys or pan-searedsalmon flavoured with grated coconut and kokum.

The dosa waffle at Inday at Broadway, New York, is served with Indian chutneys.

She also alternates between the eatery’s two most popular salad dressings -- a quintessentially Indian green mint-cilantro chutney, and an orange-coconut one. Sometimes she’ll have the cardamom-flavoured yogurt.

“I always associated Indian food with being oily and heavy. But it completely the opposite at Inday,” she says.

That’s exactly the reaction Honawar was going for when he set up the fast food-cum-make your own salad bowl outfit.

“Our cuisine has so much heritage,” he says. “I wanted to showcase a different side of it, offer a taste of India without the accompanying guilt. New York is an interesting and profitable market, and having already worked in Mumbai, I wanted to diversify.”

So there’s quinoa cooked with mustard seeds; cacao chai, a twist on masala tea; and steak marinated in house-blend red spices that are a twist on garam masala. “About 95% of our diners are American, and the rest Indian,” says Honawar. “We see about 600 people a day and we initially underestimated how prepared they’d be for spicy food, so we kept spice levels low. We have since tweaked them up on the request of some diners.”