Maska Maarke with Kunal Vijayakar: Going nuts over chocolate
In English we say chocolate, in French it’s chocolat, in Italy, cioccolata, and in India it was just called ‘Cadbury’. That’s because that’s all there was. The younger millennials may not believe it, but mine really was a generation of the generic. There were no choices. There was Cadbury, maybe Dr Writer’s, and then there were the chocolates your uncle smuggled back from his trips abroad.
To receive a bar of Kit Kat, a Toblerone or a Lindt & Sprüngli meant you locked it up in the fridge, and nibbled at it with great constraint, making the chocolate last as long as possible.
Amul did launch their chocolates in the ’90s, but by then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao, who must have really liked chocolate, had opened up the country, and with the foreign cars, banks, clothes and other brands came foreign chocolate.
Look, there’s no ideology on earth like chocolate. Chocolate does things to you. Happy things. The sweetness, the luxury and sensuality of chocolate transport, tantalise and titillate. And I must say I feel titillated every night, and one piece of chocolate is all I need. Today I even have the luxury of asking, “Which chocolate should I treat myself to this evening?”
Right from the days when we had no access to foreign chocolate, making chocolate at home was a big thing. Housewives and masterly home chefs would roll out big chocolate balls full of rum, nutty rocks coated in dark chocolate and chocolate-covered candied fruit, each piece wrapped in its own cellophane paper. (That’s all we had in those days, by way of packaging).
And the queen of home-made chocolates was Meher Pinto. You can identify her chocolates anywhere. Large gold boxes filled with generous chunks, in flavours of rum, cherry brandy, apricot brandy, marzipan, orange and dark bitter. That’s Choc Affaires. My favourite are her Almond Rocks (large chunky pieces of nougat-almond coarsely bound together with the most delicious chocolate) and her Rum Chocolates, which you honestly need a permit to eat, because they explode with dark rum as soon as you bite into them.
Another woman whose name is synonymous with chocolate is Zeba Kohli. Her brand Fantasie was started by her grandfather Ahmed Fazulbhoy, out of a small workshop at Marine Lines, 70 years ago. She’s transformed it into aa world-class chocolaterie. Her chocolates come in all shapes, sizes and flavours and nobody’s quite understood gifting and children like she has. But for me her ultimate chocolate is a flavour called Blonde, a rich, light brown, creamy, single-origin bar that is so smooth and luxurious that it can turn day into night.
While Meher Pinto and Zeba Kohli still hold their own, the hand-crafted and artisanal chocolate pod in India has split wide open. It’s mind-boggling to imagine that this art so mightily dominated by the Swiss and Belgians, is being challenged by our young chocolatiers.
As if by premonition, a box all wrapped in black paper and black ribbon arrived at my door this week. Neatly arranged inside in rows were black chocolate hearts, with one white chocolate heart placed strategically in the middle. I picked up one black chocolate heart and popped it into my mouth. There was an explosion of rich caramel with a powerful aftermath of black pepper. It was a mouthful of fine bean, sensuality and luxury.
I turned to the box; it said Ether Atelier Chocolat. On further research, I discovered this was the handiwork of 24-year-old pastry chef Prateek Bakhtiani. A self-proclaimed chemistry geek with an extreme soft corner for fruit, he’s magnificently overhauled the dessert menu at Café Zoe and Blue Tokai in Mumbai, and has now delved into chocolate.
In his own words, his chocolates will be developed around such ‘intentions’: Sakura (based on the subtlety of Japanese art and flavours), Rococo (on tropical living) and Cafe Nico (on drinking coffee in the retro chic bars of old-town Florence). I then proceeded to try the Black Truffle and Raspberry, Black Sesame and Yuzu, and his Black Stout and Caramel. His artistry and his training under famous Irish celebrity chef Rachel Allen just bursts through, and his carnality of flavours had me quite unhinged.
Then there’s Toshin Chocolatier Patissier. I first met Toshin Shetty outside Ankur, his family’s Mangalorean restaurant at Fort and got chatting. But it took me three years to find my way to his studio in Chembur. From an avant garde workshop and bakery there, he creates the most visually stunning confections and handcrafted chocolates. His secret is his ingredients. Honey and coconut from Mangalore, coulis and fruit from Paris, butter and cream from France, and chocolate from Belgium. With these ingredients he creates masterpieces.
His repertoire includes handcrafted pralines made using a variety of ganache recipes and caramels. Like his devastating golden caramel ganachè enrobed with dark chocolate. A tarty bite of raspberries infused in white chocolate ganache, and a dense and dusky 75% Tanzanian single-origin dark chocolate with flavours of currants, chestnut and hints of honey with long-lasting finish on the palate.
What is most exciting, though, are the Indian chocolatiers experimenting with traditional Indian flavours, combinations and recipes, like Chockriti Chocolates. Founder and chef Pragati Sawhney uses whole teas, flowers, spices, herbs and dry fruit from India and elsewhere to create a menu that sounds straight out of a mithai shop. Gajjak (55%), Thandai (55%), Kaju Kulfi, Rose and Betel Nut (Banarasi Paan), Kashmiri Kahwa, and a range of Bon Bons and regular flavours. I tasted some and I have to admit, the familiarity of tastes is quite warming.
And finally there is Fabelle Exquisite Chocolates by ITC. I’d like to end with these chocolates because they are the most dramatic Indian-made ones I’ve come across. They are gentle, velvety, a mouthful of extravagance and bloody expensive. I’m guessing it’s because they source their cocoa from places like Ghana, Madagascar, Cote D’Ivoire, and Sao Tome, and exotic ingredients like Ancho chili, acacia nectar, French sea salt, cinnamon and vanilla from all over the world. They do a range of handcrafted pralines, ganaches, single-origin cacaos and Gianduja (a milk chocolate paste flavoured with hazelnut).
I cannot stop talking about or loving chocolate. As they say, “Chocolate conjures up feelings of love, pleasure and reward, and fills deep needs and reaches dark corners.”