His restaurant is the only Indian name in the World’s Best 50 this year. What takes Manish Mehrotra flavour hunting in the streets of Old Delhi?
SATURDAY MORNING, 9.30 am. The rest of the city may still be snoozing from the aftermath of a late Friday night. But Old Delhi is already abuzz. A scooter carrying its rider, his wife and three kids, zips in from the wrong direction, brushing past us by inches. A tuk tuk bursting at the seams with passengers honks maliciously, as if to say that we’re trespassing on its territory. “Damn! No rules apply here, no?” says chef Manish Mehrotra, 42, sidestepping a cycle rickshaw-wallah, whose stunts can rival even Rajinikant’s.
Mehrotra is, as Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi put it, “the most exciting modern Indian chef in the world today”. His Delhi-based restaurant Indian Accent has become the only Indian restaurant to feature in the prestigious The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. “It’s a relief to see at least one name from India
among the world’s best... especially, when we have such a rich food culture,” Mehrotra says. “But it’s not just another feather in my cap, it’s also another weight on my shoulder. Your level of expectation from me goes up one more notch now. To satisfy that expectation day after day is a very tough job.”
The recently-opened New York outlet of his restaurant is also raking in the ratings and rave reviews already. But when you’re trying to zig zag your way through the meandering lanes of Old Delhi, even the greatest chef in India can get just a little baffled – and very amused!
When we finally arrive at the famed and overhyped Paranthe Wali Gali, Mehrotra pauses for a moment to peep into one of the large frying pans. A stuffed round parantha is swiftly dropped into the piping oil, and as it sizzles, we make our way deeper into the lane, past the stack of little parantha joints. The other shops here are yet to pull up their shutters, but street vendors selling vegetables, spices, tea and kachoris have begun to swiftly occupy their favourite spots on the lane.
At one such vendor, Mehrotra halts and picks up a handful of tiny, unusual seeds. “What is this, boss?” he asks. “Yeh lehsun hai babuji, ek kali ka lehsun.” Mehrotra peels one of the single pod garlic and takes a sniff, reeling back almost immediately. “Whoa! This is super strong,” he exclaims, looking excited. “It’s going to make some brilliant garlic-infused oil. Sau gram dena bhaisaab.” From another vendor down the lane, he picks up a bunch of colocasia or arbi leaves. “Maharashtrians and Gujaratis make a dish with this, sort of a leaf roulade,” he says, giving me a quick recipe of the dish.
ALL IN THE ROOTS
Mehrotra’s extensive knowledge of vegetables and their myriad uses comes from his upbringing in a shuddh vegetarian household. He was born and brought up in Patna in a big joint family; his father owned a petrol pump, mother was a homemaker. But his grandmother ruled the kitchen. “There were a lot of rituals during her time,” he says. “Before cooking dinner, she’d bathe, wear a special saree that she’d have made in Banaras, do puja and then start making dinner. Nobody was allowed in the kitchen. It was only when she passed away that my mother and aunts took over.”
Onion and garlic were strict no-nos, but “we had the freedom to eat anything outside, including non-veg”. Growing up in a vegetarian household instilled in him the appreciation of the fact that vegetables can be delicious too and can be made into a variety of dishes.
“We Indians have such pre-conceived stereotypes about our own food,” he says. “For instance, we think Bengalis eat only fish. But you can’t imagine how well they do vegetables and such a huge variety of them too! We’re quite ignorant when it comes to our own cuisines.” He asserts that as a chef, you don’t even need to invent dishes – you just need to travel across India to explore them.
During one such trip through Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, Mehrotra came across Dal Muradabadi – sold as a snack by hawkers on cycles, and often served with chutney and papdi or jalebi. He loved it so much that he put it in his menu, with a little twist – by adding some crisp moong dal and serving it with flaky bread with parmesan cheese. “The good thing is that the Indian palate is evolving and our cuisine is moving forward. So a lot of traditional dishes which were lost or are in the process of being lost, are being revived now in modern avatars,” he says. But he also believes that you can’t arrive at modern Indian cuisine without having your roots in tradition intact.
“We think Bengalis eat only fish. But you can’t imagine how well they do vegetables and such a huge variety of them too! We’re quite ignorant when it comes to our own cuisines”