Home run: Chef Atul Kochhar is bringing back Indian food that went international
Do you know what Roti Canai from Malaysia, Katsu curry from Japan and Bunny Chow from South Africa have in common? All three dishes were born in India but now belong to the cuisine of their adopted countries. With NRI (Not Really Indian), twice Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar hopes to bring back some of these culinary treasures, albeit with a modern reinterpretation. Slated to open by the third week of November in Bandra-Kurla Complex, NRI is Kochhar’s first project in India, followed by a tapas-style bar, Lima (slated to open in January, 2016) in the same premises.
“NRI is about Indian food that has travelled out of the country. Because people didn’t have access to the same ingredients, thus it had to adapt to and adopt a new environment,” says Kochhar of his inspiration. Today, not only the diaspora, but the locals have also embraced this food, he says.
For Kochhar, the idea started out as a recipe book. Whenever he travelled for work, Kochhar made it a point to eat Indian food and borrow recipes of dishes he loved. So, when he was in Kuala Lumpur, he tasted the Malay Korma at one of the many Mamak stalls. “Theirs is quintessentially Indian cuisine, but with the use of ingredients like galangal, lime leaf and lemongrass,” he says.
Similarly, more than a century ago, when some English officers travelled to Japan from India, they took curry powder with them and that’s how the Katsu curry was born. Today, some of the curry powder is made using mixed seaweed and local Japanese pepper, and served with steak and chicken. “There is a massive repertoire of Indian food outside, which we don’t know about. I want to bring it home and share it,” he adds.
Journey to the stars
With NRI and Lima, 45-year-old Kochhar will return to India after 22 years. Born in Jamshedpur, he grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, which guaranteed a fair share of regional influences. Kochhar was surrounded by food since childhood; his grandfather was a baker, and his father ran a catering business. So, enrolling in the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Chennai seemed like a natural choice. “I lived among Gujaratis, Marathis, Tamilians, Andhraiites and Parsis. For me, that was India, until I left home to study in Chennai,” says Kochhar.
Living in Chennai and studying culinary arts there opened up a whole new world of flavours and textures. “Vegetables like snake gourd, which I had never seen while living in the east, were part of everyday food in the mess,” says Kochhar, who learnt to enjoy traditional south Indian meals. But he was still a Punjabi boy at heart, and no one could mess with his rajma. “If anybody adds grated coconut and curry leaves to my rajma, he is my enemy” laughs Kochhar, reminiscing his hostel days.
Soon after college, Kochhar joined The Oberoi Group of Hotels as part of its management course, and travelled across its properties in the country. Within a few years, he found himself moving to London and working with the likes of Marco Pierre White and the Roux brothers. However, it was his stint at Tamarind that earned him his first Michelin star, making him the first Indian chef to win the acclaimed honour.
At Tamarind, and later at Benaras — which he opened in 2003 — Kochhar’s food found fame for his use of subtle Indian spices and for marrying Indian techniques with British ingredients. For instance, his Bhatti ka Junglee Khargosh (tandoor-roasted rabbit) is served with plum chutney. Benares managed to change the perception of Indian food in London; it was not just about chicken tikka masala, but chicken tikka masala pies. Some of this food will make its way to NRI as well.
At NRI, wrought iron benches and Victorian lamps will add a vintage touch to quirky dishes like Pepper Crab and West Indies Goat Curry, both reminiscent of the 1920s. “That was the era when the most migration happened,” says Kochhar who has a deep interest in human migration across cultures.
Desserts like jaggery and coconut-layered cake, flans, and the quintessentially Indian kheer will be served on hand-pulled carts. “Our concept revolves around two people — the rediwala (cart puller) and the storyteller, who will tell you where the food comes from and how it got there in the first place,” says Kochhar.
Lima, on the other hand, will offer no drama. “It is mainly a bar with tapas food from South America focusing on Peru, Mexico and Brazil,” he says. So don’t expect a full-fledged menu, though there will be ceviche, croquetas and enchiladas, while you sip on Caipirinha and Sangrias.
Kochhar plans to use ingredients that have been sourced locally. “I intend to get my hands dirty. We have about five acres outside Ganeshpuri (near Ulwe, Navi Mumbai) where we will be growing our vegetables,” he adds.
Make in India
While a growing number of Indian chefs, who have found fame abroad, are returning to Mumbai, Kochhar merely calls it a “good opportunity”. “The person who offered me the space is a friend and he had always said that ‘I plan to have your restaurant in Mumbai sooner or later’. At the same time, I heard Floyd (Cardoz) is opening The Bombay Canteen; he is a great mate of mine,” says Kochhar, who joins the likes of Gaggan Anand, Manoj Vasaikar (of Veeraswamy and Chutney Mary fame) and Vineet Bhatia. “The reason all of us are looking at India is because Indians have become global. I left India so that I can come back rich but every time I come back, I feel poorer. So this is my way of coming back and making some money now,” he says cheekily.