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Homelifestylefood-and-drinkThe masala dabba is open!

The masala dabba is open!

The typical grinding noise of a traditional bell-metal mortar and pestle, the chik-chik-chik of a coconut grater and the assorted smells from an Indian masala box — all these can be heard, seen and experienced in the Italian kitchen headed by culinary specialist Anirban Dasgupta. Known for his innovative take on traditional dishes, especially those that are lesser known and fast disappearing, Chef Dasgupta has been among the “few good men” of the culinary world to champion not just the revival of regional cuisine but also spearhead what he describes as the “next accent of Indian cuisine.”

It is a journey that the Italian specialist began during his stint in Assam a few years ago where he reworked traditional dishes like masoor tenga for his Pan-Asian restaurant as an ode to the glorious spice route era. Since then, the culinary director of Conrad in Pune has taken every opportunity to delight modern diners by giving lesser-known gems of our cuisine a relatable yet exciting twist. And this includes the Kharvas pudding he made using colostrum milk.

Reworking classics

Chef Dasgupta isn’t alone in this full-fledged though quiet revolution that is taking place in restaurant kitchens across India today. The work started a decade or so earlier under the able aegis of the likes of Chef Vineet Bhatia, Chef Atul Kochhar, Chef Manish Mehrotra, Chef Srijith Gopinath and Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, among others. Take, for instance, Chef Garcian de Souza of The Village Bistro in Goa, who has spent nearly a decade representing his Goan-Portuguese heritage but with a European flair; Chef Dhruv Oberoi of Olive, who has been reworking classics from across different communities and with indigenous ingredients as part of his special table that he curates for diners; and Chef Sandeep Sadanandan of Byg Brewski who has been presenting classic and forgotten Kanara food in gastropub style. Or, for that matter, Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti of Calcutta Retro and self-proclaimed “chef by fate” Auroni Mookerjee of Sienna Café, who together are bringing back the glory of traditional Bengali cuisine.

While the former is a well-recognised authority on the Bangla-Ghoti food culture today, thanks to his true-to-traditional work at brands like Sonar Tori, for Chef Mookerjee, it has been more about the essence of Bengali food. More specifically, the Bangla bazaar. Here, with his creations, he pays an ode to the market culture that defines what we eat, when and how. His mentors Chef Viraf Patel and Chef Gresham Fernandes were also known for their innovative take on local legacy food.

The beauty and elusiveness of the village haat and the way they have shaped our local cuisine and culture are what enticed Chef Avinash Martins to rethink his food journey. Determined to promote Goan legacy cuisine with all its fine nuances, including its ingredients, what turned out to be groundbreaking for the chef was the use of techniques in his revival endeavour.

Techniques with flavours

Much like Chef de Souza, Chef Martin believes in keeping the flavours traditional but storyboarding a new composition that is both “intriguing, yet easy to navigate with that familiar palate play.” It is a grammar that one also finds in the revival work of Chef Vivek Rana of JW Marriott Pune and Chef Altamsh Patel of Hilton Mumbai. Chef Rana uses his Pan-Asian training and his stint as a core team member of Mehrotra’s Indian Accent to work on North-frontier cuisine and its changing topography while Chef Patel, with his training in Japanese cuisine, has been combining his skills and knowledge to popularise the Maharashtrian Khandeshi cuisine.

This marriage of traditional flavours and international techniques has been at the foundation of the culinary work taking place at Masque with Chef Varun Totlani whose research is as much on the food as it is on the ingredients and the techniques used to cook them. His most recent fascination is with “khad food, a Rajasthani cooking trick that travelled through regions inspiring many versions.”

Indeed, this is also the secret to the deliciously sustainable menudesigned by Chef Rahul Sharma of Araku Coffee, whose idea of working with Indian cuisine is also about bringing the best of ingredients from different regions and the age-old practice of stem-to-floret cooking. As a result, while on the outside, his food appears to be in sync with the growing cafe culture of Bengaluru, they score with the ingredients: be it ambemohar rice used in his composite bowl; cauliflower stem-based sauce in the vegetables or even the butter used in the croissant that is made with cream procured from Puttaparthi. This deep understanding of ingredients was, in fact, the ace, as far as chef Abhishek Gupta of The Leela Ambience, Gurugram, was concerned — it made his Epic Table memorable in more ways than one.

Borderless cuisine

Curated initially for “evolved palates”, the Epic Table was instrumental in establishing a more adventurous way of presenting Indian cuisine “where the plate could have ingredients of one region, techniques of another and flavours of yet another.”

The easy mix-and-match and the wider acceptance of the food not only encouraged Indian-trained legacy chefs like Chef Harangad Singh, Chef Ravi Tokas of Parat and Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi of Anardana to re-explore the cuisine that seemed now borderless but also inspired young chefs like Tanya Joshi and Viveq Pawar to put to effect the phrase “old wine in a new bottle” thus throwing open the canvas for newer pairings to come to the fore.

This broader approach to Indian cuisine became the key for Chef Rahul Rana’s repertoire of work at Avatara, which is considered a “gamechanger for Indian vegetarian fare”. In fact, the 16-course signature meal of the Uttarakhand-born chef debunks the long-held myth about our rich plant-based food being limited to paneer, palak and mushroom, all of which have been banned from his menu for good! But what is it about Indian cuisine that is now attracting chefs, both seasoned and young? While the answer to this can simply be the realisation of how rich our culinary tapestry is, says seasoned Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “it is also about our standing in the world food map and the need to save one of the oldest as well as forward-looking cuisine that is likely to pave the way for sustainable food practices.”

Then there is also the innate urge, says culinary specialist Chef Sharad Dewan, “to find your footing, which is in our legacy. And in today’s time, most chefs who have travelled well have come to realise that as a chef from India, you are expected to be the brand custodian of your food. Add to that the challenge of knowing such a vast ledger of techniques and dishes and our culinary culture becomes the most intriguing and exciting canvas to play in.”

Concurs Chef Hari Nayak of Sona: “Young chefs today are not just mature in their approach to Indian food but also have much better global exposure than what we had two decades ago. That unquenchable zest to explore and the confidence to present their story on board makes them better scions to create the next Indian food accent.”

Perhaps why, despite training with respected mentors, both Chef Rana and Chef Sadanandan are happy to start charting their own path when it comes to Indian cuisine without the pressure of being criticised or compared with their seniors. Also, younger chefs like Kshama Prabhu are exposed to not just international cuisine but also top chefs from across the world, which hone their understanding and help them experiment with a confidence born out of deep knowledge.

But does that mean we are ready to bring the more tricky side of our cuisine to the fore? While chefs like Dhiraj Dargan of Comorin, Kavan Kuttappa of Naru Noodle Bar, and Shahzad Hussain of Hunger Inc. have all done it in parts, in the larger scheme of things, says Chef de Souza, “there is still time before I can present an offal dish that is easily accepted. But it is surely a work in progress.”

Incidentally, the one quality that is aiding this slow change in perception is each individual chef’s talent and forte. Says Chef Rana, “This has given us a way to understand our food better without resorting to the theatrics of molecular gastronomy.”

(Published 14 October 2023, 22:49 IST)

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