Banarasi aloo papad
Any guesses what these ingredients could be doing in Chef Manish Mehrotra’s diminutive office at Indian Accent? They’re getting ready to be shipped to Tel Aviv where Mehrotra is getting set to participate in a food festival. As festivals go, this one seems to have been a match made in heaven; in this case, the match-maker being American Express, who organizes guest chefs from around the world, for a slew of Tel Aviv’s top restaurants every October.
Taizu, the Asian restaurant to which Manish Mehrotra is headed, has a menu that spans Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian, but each cuisine has head chef Yuval Ben Neriah’s unique spin, so that no preparation is traditional, after it has been given the Neriah spin, famous for its Mediterranean overtones. Ben Neriah, who visited Delhi with his sous chef was delighted at the interaction with Mehrotra: their cooking styles are extremely compatible, thanks to the precision of the match-maker! And both gentlemen have the same mix of irreverence and humility: not once during my interaction with Ben Neriah did he refer to the popularity of Taizu, but when Chef Mehrotra went to the Israel Embassy for his visa, the Ambassador and the visa officer came rushing out excitedly to felicitate Mehrotra on being invited to “the most famous restaurant in Tel Aviv.” And with Mehrotra’s exalted status in the ranks of Top Chefs of India, he still fetches tumblers for us and pours us water: his colleagues aren’t unduly perturbed either; it is obviously a sight that they’re so used to that they don’t stampede to wrest the bottle out of Mehrotra’s hands.
Yuval Ben Neriah wanted to make sure that nothing was left to chance, hence the hasty trip to Delhi and to the kitchens of Indian Accent, where he went through the proposed menu for the festival, to make sure that there was plenty that would be consonant with the palate of his diners. More importantly, he wanted to make sure that all the ingredients for the menu would be available in Israel, or else some substitutes would have to be worked out.
Restaurants in Tel Aviv, I was thunderstruck to learn, were not very big on kosher compliance. In fact, there is a whole layered structure of kosher food, from meat (from animals that chew the cud) that have been slaughtered ritually so that the blood is drained out, to avoiding shellfish and fish with no scales to not consuming meat and dairy products within six hours of each other, to not eating pork. While many people who observe kosher laws would not consume pork, most ignore the strictures on dairy and meat.
Oh, and I almost forgot to add the last item on Ben Neriah’s shopping list: two tandoors – his old one is in urgent need of replacement! Imagine: a tandoor in a restaurant in Israel that serves the food of four Asian countries, owned by a chef who is not an Indian national. Now, how delicious is that!