NEW DELHI— After sating palates with a range of kebabs and curries for decades, Indian chefs are giving traditional Indian food a makeover, stuffing blue cheese in “naans,” serving kebabs with pesto sauce and drizzling truffle oil on quintessentially Indian dishes.
Having met with success at home, the restaurateurs are taking these experiments overseas in hopes of winning global customers for Indian food, long defined by the popular curry and butter chicken.
‘Progressive’ Indian food
Zorawar Kalra, Managing Director of Massive Restaurants, serves “progressive” Indian cuisine in his restaurants “Masala Library” and “Farzi Cafe” in New Delhi and Mumbai.
Dishes here arrive in a whole new avatar. For example, a popular snack, “pakoras”, or savories made with gram flour and onions, is coated with carbon powder and infused with cinnamon and clove smoke.
“People are eating something that tastes exactly how they were expecting it to, but looks like nothing they have seen before,” Kalra said. And that has been a hit. “It’s now the number one trending restaurant cuisine or concept is modern Indian. It’s suddenly taken over.”
Innovation and creativity
Food critics say creativity and innovation have become the buzzwords as the fusion Indian cuisine blends the varying traditions and flavors of the country’s different regions and throws in the odd element from foreign cuisines. It tones down the spices. It experiments with new pairings. “It won’t be like your grandmother used to make it”, said restaurant critic Marryam H Reshii. Although chefs have now become more adventurous, she says “the original premise was to lighten it and make it more interesting for a wider audience.”
A young country, which often considered heading out to a traditional Indian restaurant passé, seems to be enjoying the experience. Khushboo Gutt who dines out frequently said, “When you go out, you want (something) a little different.”
And her friend Richa Sharma nods in complete agreement. “It’s something new, unique to your taste buds, so we like it.”
Goal: Make Indian cuisine a worldwide favorite
But home is not where Indian restaurateurs want to stop. Kalra’s mission is to put modern Indian food on the global palate and have it recognized as one of the world’s top cuisines.
“If you want to take something global, you need to modernize it, you need to evolve it. You need to make it look like it is from the 2020’s, or at least get it ready for the 2020’s. We are almost at the cusp of 2020, and we cannot have food being served to us that looks like it is from 1980,” said Kalra.
He is not the only one. Manish Mehrotra, one of the first chefs to put a twist in Indian food, came to New Delhi after working in London for several years, where he was disappointed to see that Indian cuisine was not among those sought after by food connoisseurs.
“People used to think Indian food as a cheap, greasy takeaway. It did not have a good reputation. It was not fine dine, you cannot do it with wine. Indian food is very spicy, Indian food is very oily”, said Mehrotra.
In a quiet, leafy lane in a South Delhi neighborhood, he set out to demolish these myths in the “Indian Accent” restaurant. And after counting droves of Indians living overseas among its steady stream of upmarket customers, the restaurant opened a location in New York this year.
Indian food is healthy and offers many choices
He hopes it will convey to the world that Indian cuisine is wide ranging. “We have healthy food which is inspired by Ayurveda, we have festive food which is nice and rich, we have home food which is not spicy, not oily, we have an extensive repertoire of vegetable and vegetarian dishes which no other country has,” said Mehrotra.
Critic Reshii says modern Indian food will work as long as the chefs take care not to move too far away from the core of the centuries-old cuisine. “The only thing is how successful will all these people be in keeping abreast of tradition, and will it only be about foam and molecular and presentation?” she questioned.
Many of these restaurateurs are now eyeing the world, hoping that modern Indian food will carve a global niche. After opening a restaurant serving modern Indian food “Farzi Café” in Dubai in April, Kalra is exploring options in other cities in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.
Pointing out that besides London and New York, few cities have fine dining Indian restaurants he outlines the goal: “We want you to go to any major city in the world and one of your top three destinations should be an Indian restaurant,” said Kalra.