Finally, food that thrives on local produce
It is funny how food trends change every decade or so. In the ’70s, the nouvelle cuisine movement was at its height in Europe and chefs were throwing out their flour-thickened sauces and focusing on fresh flavours. In those days, the chef was supposed to go to the market every day, buy whatever was fresh and seasonal and then come back to the kitchen to find interesting ways of cooking the produce.
By the late ’80s, improvements in transportation and the slow advent of globalisation began to change all that. Chefs stopped going to markets and worried less and less about local ingredients. They dealt instead with vast networks of global suppliers who were able to make any ingredient available at any time of year.
Did the chef feel like asparagus in November when the season was over? No worries. The supplier knew somebody in Peru who grew large (if mostly tasteless) asparagus spears and would happily fly them thousands of miles across the world. Scallops in warm-water countries? Sure. Frozen North Atlantic scallops that looked right (even if they tasted all wrong) were available all year round.
For us in the Third World, globalisation came as a boom and a curse. I remember Indian chefs, in the ’80s, struggling to adapt local ingredients for Western dishes. At the Mumbai Taj, they had trouble importing mozzarella. So they found an expat at the Rajneesh ashram in Pune who made his own. Because there were no fish imports, enterprising chefs would trek to the nearby Sassoon Docks to see what the fishermen had caught.
Then, with the advent of liberalisation, chefs turned their backs on local products. The only two fish they seemed to have heard of were the Chilean sea bass (which is not a sea bass at all, but is the fancy name for the Patagonian toothfish) and Norwegian salmon, which is often a flabby, flavourless, industrially-farmed hunk of fish meat which is artificially coloured pink. And the mainstay of the kitchen became farmed basa, a fish which every chef will tell you has no taste but is cheap. (It comes from industrial farms in South East Asia.)
Ironically, while Indian chefs were ordering this rubbish from suppliers, the global fashion changed again. Now, we were back to local produce, to sustainability and to counting carbon miles.
There are some signs that Indian chefs are plugging into global trends and finally getting over their childlike fascination with imported produce. The first reason for hope is Masque, a hip new restaurant in Worli in Mumbai owned by Aditi Dugar, one of the city’s better-known caterers. This is the dream project of chef Prateek Sadhu, whom I have known since his years with the Leela. Prateek has worked all over the world, but among his most transformative experiences was a stage at Noma in Copenhagen. He came back to India determined to open a restaurant that threw out all the Patagonian toothfish and focused on local produce.
Others have had the same idea (one of the joys of the Bombay Canteen is that it celebrates local ingredients), but Prateek’s menu is stark, severe and takes no prisoners. There are virtually no spices and the ingredients speak for themselves.
A cornet of three different kinds of carrot brought out the contrasting flavours of the carrot varieties. Home-made plantain chips (with no Malayali masalas) were delicious and crisp. A tomato from a farm owned by the restaurant (in Pune) sang of the garden. Pork is sourced from a producer in Coorg and Prateek cooks it two different ways. One is a tender pork belly with fermented mushrooms and the other has the skin dried out to make an upmarket crunchy pork scratching.
Cheese comes from an Italian Sai Baba devotee in Puttaparthi and is delicious and different. Local lamb is paired with baingan and the pasta comes with a sort of rillette of local duck.
The simplest dishes are often the most difficult and I was particularly impressed by the bread (made with local flour and Masque’s own starter culture) and a perfectly balanced broth of root vegetables.
The menu changes every 10 days or so. It’s possible that there will be entirely new dishes by the time you go, but rest assured that no Norwegian salmon will enter Prateek’s kitchen. This is about fresh ingredients, locally sourced and cooked with precision.
Masque is a labour of love. But I was even more surprised by AnnaMaya, the restaurant at Delhi’s new Andaz hotel. Andaz is Hyatt’s ‘lifestyle brand’, so I expected a hot, trendy kind of place. Instead, the Andaz has chosen to open a European-style food hall with retail and dining and a world class chef in Alex Moser.
And though the concept is European, much of the food is Indian and ingredient focused. The gnocchi pasta is made with jowar, the paneer is made with goat milk, the upmarket vegetables (asparagus, morels, etc.) are local, the eggs are free-range, the honey is Himalayan, the smoked fish is domestic and smoked in-house, the burrata is from an Indian cheesemaker and you can buy rice, dal and preserves from tiny producers who would not otherwise find a market.
What is extraordinary is that these ingredients are used to create dishes with mass appeal – from kadai paneer to butter chicken to duck keema samosas to fish and chips with mushy peas. The pink salt of the Himalayas, justly celebrated abroad, but largely unknown in India (most of it is exported from Pakistan, alas), finds pride of place and Timur, the Nepali variant of Sichuan pepper, goes into a few dishes.
By any standards, the restaurant is a breakthrough. But as a hotel restaurant (with non-hotel pricing, by the way), this is an astonishing achievement.
My guess is that AnnaMaya is part of a larger trend. Next door at Pluck at The Pullman New Delhi Aerocity, the chefs are also growing their own salad leaves and vegetables in the garden and turning out menus that are more ingredient-focused and locally sourced. The old formula of standard hotel menus and the usual suppliers is finally being broken.
Which leads us, inevitably to Manu Chandra. As you probably know (and he does too!) Manu is the brightest chef of his generation, cooking great European food at the Bengaluru Olive Beach and inventing successful restaurant concepts such as Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao.
But Toast & Tonic, his newest Bengaluru restaurant, strikes me as being the project closest to his heart. This is Manu’s two-fingered goodbye to the tyranny of the usual suppliers with a concept that comes straight from the heart. Ancient Indian grains (like millet) are used in many of the dishes. The sourdough bread gets its flavour from an amazing starter culture. The meats are aged in-house. The sausages are made in his kitchen. The fish is all local; even the soft-shell crab comes from an Indian fishing operation.
Why would a chef, at the top of his game, want to do everything the hard way? Why would he open a restaurant where everything is made on the premises from scratch?
I suspect that Manu is just tired of cooking with the same ingredients as everyone else and fed up of having to use fish and animals that were killed weeks ago and transported for miles in blocks of ice.
Like the best French chefs, he wants to see what’s fresh in the markets, to use what’s part of our tradition and create his own semi-cooked ingredients (cured meats, aged steaks, cultured dough) to make food that expresses his own vision.
What is most encouraging is that Toast & Tonic is packed out, that AnnaMaya is doing well, that Pluck is being talked about and that Masque is Mumbai’s hot new restaurant. So it is not just chefs. Even guests are getting tired of frozen scallops and farmed basa.
We want real food, sourced from our own environment. And at last, we are getting it.
From HT Brunch, February 19, 2017
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch