A melting pot of different cultures.
Arecipe is only a roadmap to your own individual food journey. Follow your instincts.” As Vaibhav Malik and Barkha Bora enter Indian Accent, a restaurant in New Delhi’s Hotel Manor, pungent aromas of red, yellow and green spices greet them. The menu, too, is full of their favourite shorbas, kebabs, bread baskets and biryanis. But when the kulcha is served as a mini version of the traditional size, topped with treacle bacon, and a bite of the galouti kebab frees the burst of French foie de gras at the centre, the food critics raise their eyebrows in happy surprise.
Indians have had a history of welcoming other cultures with warmth. Food is a significant aspect of any culture and here we are with some global dishes that have found their way in the Indian palate. But yes, they have a different form and a flavour – fusion food as we call them. So what is fusion food? Explains food critic and writer Barkha Bora, “Because of the past, it has got a negative connotation, but it literally means to infuse distinct flavours or techniques from more than one cuisine in a measured manner, into a new dish. Years ago, the mighty Italians did not have access to spices. But after some of their explorers travelled to India and China, they embraced spices into their age-old recipes, without recognising the act of fusion,” she adds, explaining that however scary or vague the term, the results of fusion can bring landmark changes in food history.
The “bad name” that the term fusion got, was chiefly due to the demand of inward-looking palates of Indian diners in the past, who forced chefs to play it safe, as they wanted their patrons to return to their restaurants. As a result, they infused every cuisine with a hint of “Indianness”. Today, much like the Indian tourist, even the chefs are
well travelled and many of them have degrees from Europe and the US. They take the time out to recce regions across the world to update their knowledge. Some, in fact, argue that the term ‘fusion’ needs to die a natural death now. “Fusion doesn’t mean anything,” argues Rahul Akerkar, celebrity chef and restaurateur.
“It is all part of good evolution, as with time, different ingredients are coming into local markets, people are open to exploring their palate preferences and the chefs are confident to follow their culinary passions.”
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor explains, “Fusion food is all about bringing together the best of two cuisines to create a dish that is in the true sense – A new world cuisine! It not only caters to a brand new generation of food choices, but also gives you a chance to push the envelope on creativity a bit further with each recipe you try. The best part though is that when it comes to fusion cooking there are no rules to be followed!”
Finally free of customers demanding every cuisine be ‘Indianised’ to suit their taste buds, chefs and restaurateurs across India are letting loose their creative side. The result: a brand new culture of fusion cuisine that is delightfully international in nature.
It hopes to change the way we perceive, eat and relish Indian food. Indian food has come to a dead end, and there is nowhere else to go with the traditional recipes. That is why it’s time to pave way for version 2.0 of progressive Indian food.
THE METROS’ TASKS
Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru are predictably the first cities to have stepped up to the plate. “There will always be patrons, who swear by the authentic kebab, tikka or burrah kabobs, but there’s openmindedness and willingness to try new flavours that one didn’t see as much before. It’s superb because it means that eating out has become interesting again,” says Vaibhav Malik, a food blogger. “Food is perhaps the most basic and understandable component of the fusion world. After all, the palate is a palace of culture. The topography of the tongue alone travels the vast geographies of taste – sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter – each its own domain in the taste buds. Different cultures get contracted to specific alliances across these geographies, which is why Chinese food does not taste like Mexican, nor French like
Egyptian. Each nation of taste cultivates a distinct gustatory coalition of foods and their preparations that affects consciousness in very real ways, making for significant differences in people. At its best, fusion cuisine is a roadmap to the cellular memory of our species – a virtual tarot of food.” he elucidates.
All these items have acquired an Indian touch, authentic Indian flavours and even presentation.
Earlier the Indian gastronomes were purists who sought out the most exquisite steak, the fieriest Chettinad cuisine, the ne plus ultra of sushi. They thought of fusion as ‘lego cookery’, a term coined by food historian Felipe FernandezArmesto to describe an approach that combines components without care. After all, just throwing a bunch of fancy things from different places in a pot does not an inventive (or good) dish make.
After choking through a series of poorly conceived, badly executed abominations like birizza, chamosa and lemongrass chicken tikka, Indians sought solace in the classics, distancing themselves from the trend by sticking to regional cuisines that were distinctly separate and authentic.
In its broadest sense, fusion has always been there. We were eating it long before the term was coined or hip (or blacklisted) and long before there was such a thing as butter chicken pizza. Many of the taken-for-granted ‘Indian’ vegetables — potatoes, chillies and tomatoes — are imports that India made its own.
The Global Culinary Exchange organised by Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA) recently served as a platform to discuss new perspectives and trends in the culinary space. The conference was a feeding ground for Indian chefs to gather nectar from outstanding global resources and indulge in cross-pollination to widen their culinary skills and capabilities. The speakers deliberated on a wide spectrum of topics including fusion cuisine and where Indian food stands globally.
Chef Manjit Singh Gill, president of IFCA tells you that while Indian cuisine’s popularity globally is still at a nascent stage, it will definitely be a chartbuster in the next five years. “The good thing is that Indian cuisine is receiving global acceptance and chefs from India are in demand. Hence, there is need for them to master Indian cuisines and make a mark for themselves in the culinary landscape,” Gill explains.
He attributes this acceptance of Indian cuisine to globalization. “Today, people from India are travelling to other countries and we have a lot of foreigners who are coming to India. Our spices have always been in the news from the time trade started. People were already aware of items like black pepper, coriander seeds, fenugreek, etc. They were using them in certain foods back home. When they came here, they saw the different ways these spices were being used and how each dish was cooked with different spices changing its flavour and taste. This is what makes our food so popular,” Gill says.
In the 1990s and 2000s when Indian chefs began combining ‘look at me’ approaches to food that had amounted to culinary crimes. Bad Indian fusion dishes began flooding restaurants and roadside eateries faster than you could say ‘yuck’. Many of these ideas were plain bizarre and so forced, they ought to have been banned. Fusion came to mean the contrived, heavy-handed use of lemongrass. To explain the evolution of what is also being called Mash-up cuisine, Chef Nilesh Limaye from Auriga, a month-old South East Asian restaurant at Mahalaxmi, goes back to 1999 when the city saw a first burst of restaurants serving Chinese, Italian
and Mexican cuisine. “This was the time restaurants such as Olive, Mainland China and Indigo brought authentic delicacies from all over the world on a platter. A decade later, the way people eat has changed, as many more citizens, having travelled the world and watched culinary shows on TV, have developed a palate that is curious enough to go beyond the ordinary,” says Limaye.
FLAVOURS TO FULFIL
Indian food is hot on the global table. It’s omnipresent and is slowly conquering world kitchens. There are restaurants from Dubai to New York dedicated to desi fare but there’s more to it than chicken tikka and masala dosa. Indian cuisine is complex and mature still there is a lot of room for intuition.
International influences mixed with Indian flavors is something that is becoming big in India, say experts. “I feel there are a lot of things happening in the food and beverage business in India. I would say that international influences mixed with Indian flavours is something that will always be there," Chef Partho Mitra said. Apart from the international influence to the Indian gastronomical story, chef Partho feels many people like to go back to the roots of Indian cuisine.
An interesting factor that has further developed the new trend is the relatively sudden rise in the number of converted-vegetarians, vegans and those who want organic or gluten-free foods. “Indian cuisine is vast with its regional flavours, textures and ingredients. People understand that an ingredient such as coriander can do wonders to a dish, but an overdose could play spoilsport. The new-age chef only takes inspiration from cuisines, and creates a dish, which is measured for taste and texture. The Indian Chinese was a byproduct of rigid taste buds. This is a ‘mash up’, the result of matured palates wanting something new, says Chef Partho.
Adding to it, renowned pastry chef Shikha Naunihal said: "Small and sharing plates, menus are smaller and more concise, specialised dessert stores. As far as food trends are concerned, a lot of restaurants are going back to its roots... There is so much about Indian food that has thus far remained unexplored. That being said, as important as food is, the new drinking culture has set in in a big way. Fabulous craft beers, spaces with good vibes are an integral part of any new offering today. Some restaurants are getting innovative with cocktails. Besides newer, fresher ingredients, an element of drama is always close at hand, be it dry ice or nitrogen infusions."
Naunihal also pointed out that people have become "more experimental and are willing to try new things.”
The fun part though, is that even as the Indian palate gravitates towards uncharted flavours, there is a renewed reverence for desi veggies and ingredients, till recently considered poor cousins of their exotic Latin or European counterparts. So, be it pumpkin, pointed gourd ( parwal) or bitter gourd ( karela), chefs say customers do not question what an item available in the kitchen garden is doing in an exotic dish. They trust the chef to create something tasty.
Some of India's best recognised faces in the culinary world and masters of their trade are reinventing classic dishes and combining them with global cuisines to capture newer audiences. Some of its most deft practitioners and purveyors of fusion food in India and abroad are Manish Mehrotra (Indian Accent), Manu Chandra (Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao), Sujan Sarkar (Tasting Lab and Ek Bar), Floyd Cardoz, Thomas Zacharias and Sameer Seth (The Bombay Canteen), Abhijit Saha (Caperberry and Fava), Zorawar
Kalra (Masala Library and Pa Pa Ya), Chef Kunal Kapoor ( Patiala in Dubai), Chef Sanjeev Kapoor (Signature in Dubai) and Atul Kochhar (Benaras).
The rise of modern Indian cooking is a reflection of a change in this scenario. Indian chefs are now demonstrating their imaginative blends of cuisines, instilling the philosophy of Indian cuisine into familiar ingredients and incorporating new methods to create an appetite for something more adventurous.
Manu Chandra recalls that he has nightmares of a meal he was served a decade ago of chicken tikka mousse with dal makhni sauce and Szechwan chutney. “It was a classic example of people trying way too hard.” He isn’t the only one. Show me one self-respecting chef who openly says, “Yeah, I do fusion.” Instead, the culinary world prefers terms like ‘cross-cultural’, ‘globally inspired’, ‘chef-inspired’, and so on.
Though culinary borrowings from other cultures are on the rise, Indian fusion 2.0 is more subtle and intelligent and is coming from the right place – an understanding of ingredients and cuisines. The new wave is dishing up a gutsy mash-up of street fare and haute cuisine, deep-rooted Indian flavours and avant-garde cooking techniques. Prime examples: the now-on-theirway-to-becoming-classics such as the maple and kokum lamb chops from Masala Library, Chandra’s mutton curry from Monkey Bar and the gulab nut from The Bombay Canteen.
Chef Kunal Kapoor believes that we need to revolutionise Indian food to represent its accomplishments and diversity on foreign shores, “To be able to innovate you have to go back to tradition. It's about adapting your food to local cultures and palates and at the same time reviving old forgotten Indian dishes by giving them a modern makeover to attract the attention it deserves."simple classics like the bhuna pyaaz, dal taka, and ajwain naan compete for your attention against creative dishes like the Chilean sea bass wrapped in kasundi mustard, strawberry-balsamic chutney or the mango lassi ice-cream.
Atul Kochhar, an inspiration in the culinary world and the first Indian chef to win a Michelin Star, runs three Indian restaurants in London – Benaras, Indian Essence and Sindhu. Says Atul, “I realised that Indian food is not perceived in the same way by the British as it is by Indians. I wanted to present Indian food abroad in a way that people will appreciate it. Each one of my restaurants has a different character and style. At Benaras you can enjoy a Scottish crab kofta while at Indian Essence the chicken tikka pie served with spiced prune compote is everyone’s favourite.”
The menu at Signature, Dubai, showcases a medley of quintessential Indian ingredients and cooking techniques. “The idea is not to alter the ‘Indianness’ of the dishes but give them a little twist to suit the western palate,“says Chef Sanjeev Kapoor. Be it the blue lobster biryani, the tangy mango murgh makhani or the stone-flamed lamb chops with haleem, all reveal the heritage of our national cuisine.
To innovate and personalise a dish without totally stripping a recipe of its originality is a masterful craft. Zorawar Kalra’s Farzi Cafe offers global cuisine with a combination of Arabic and Indian influences.
One of their most ordered Arabic influenced dish on the Dubai menu is Farzified shawarma biryani, crusted layered rice biryani with grilled chicken served along with fried egg, green chili curry and labneh raita. The influence of Indian food is strong with dishes like okra salad in semolina shell, dal chawal arancini and pita golgappas on the tapas menu and in the mains, there's Charmoula crusted paneer
tikka and crab and spinach poriyal while some dishes have been given plot twists with local ingredients like dates, zatar spice and sumac powder.
Those who dare to cross genre lines are deeply aware that the sum, that is the final dish, must be greater than its parts. As Saha says, it is less about gimmickry, more about cleverly assimilating, mastering and revolutionising food traditions
Indian food has always been synonymous with home comfort, but now may be the time to move away from the mainstream to a more contemporary setting. This new embrace allows people to dream. It’s a challenge these Indian chefs have happily taken on to introduce niche Indian dishes to a larger and more curious audience. Let’s raise a toast to this pivotal chapter in the epic story of Indian cuisine! A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions.
CHEF SANJEEV KAPOOR EXPLAINS, “FUSION FOOD IS ALL ABOUT BRINGING TOGETHER THE BEST OF TWO CUISINES TO CREATE A DISH THAT IS IN THE TRUE SENSE – A NEW WORLD CUISINE! IT NOT ONLY CATERS TO A BRAND NEW GENERATION OF FOOD CHOICES, BUT ALSO GIVES YOU A CHANCE TO PUSH THE ENVELOPE ON CREATIVITY A BIT FURTHER WITH EACH RECIPE YOU TRY. THE BEST PART THOUGH IS THAT WHEN IT COMES TO FUSION COOKING THERE ARE NO RULES TO BE FOLLOWED!”
Lemongrass chicken tikka
CHEF MANJIT SINGH GILL, PRESIDENT OF IFCA TELLS YOU THAT WHILE INDIAN CUISINE’S POPULARITY GLOBALLY IS STILL AT A NASCENT STAGE, IT WILL DEFINITELY BE A CHARTBUSTER IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS. “THE GOOD THING IS THAT INDIAN CUISINE IS RECEIVING GLOBAL ACCEPTANCE AND CHEFS FROM INDIA ARE IN DEMAND. HENCE, THERE IS NEED FOR THEM TO MASTER INDIAN CUISINES AND MAKE A MARK FOR THEMSELVES IN THE CULINARY LANDSCAPE,” GILL EXPLAINS.
CHEF KUNAL KAPOOR BELIEVES THAT WE NEED TO REVOLUTIONISE INDIAN FOOD TO REPRESENT ITS ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND DIVERSITY ON FOREIGN SHORES, “TO BE ABLE TO INNOVATE YOU HAVE TO GO BACK TO TRADITION. IT'S ABOUT ADAPTING YOUR FOOD TO LOCAL CULTURES AND PALATES AND AT THE SAME TIME REVIVING OLD FORGOTTEN INDIAN DISHES BY GIVING THEM A MODERN MAKEOVER TO ATTRACT THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES.
Chicken tikka pie
Mango murgh makhan
Mango lassi ice-cream