Fortunately for me, every restaurant in London puts up their menu in the window, the better for passers by to judge the advisability of dining there or not. One thing that puzzled me was an item on the menus of all the Indian restaurants: they all had chicken tikka flavoured with rose petals. Rose petals in an Indian dish, that too in a savoury preparation? Then the penny dropped: the big daddy of them all, Amaya, in no less an address than Belgravia, had used rose petals in its version of chicken tikka. The trickle-down effect was instantaneous.
Less than ten years ago, no Indian restaurant within the country would have dreamed of straying out of the age-old template of butter chicken, dal makhni, paneer khurchan. If a foreigner to India were to be asked to describe Indian food, he would have rattled off the names of popular North Indian restaurant dishes. Gomantak food, Moplah cuisine and Kumaoni dishes would not have entered into his scheme of things. Punjabi food was, because of the visibility of the community and their industriousness, the default cuisine of the Indian restaurant in India and outside it. It was a curious pastiche. All those dishes that were never cooked in homes in Punjab – or indeed any other state – became restaurant favourites.
Look at it this way: in the average Indian household, the highest consumption of a single spice is likely to be turmeric. Yet, Monish Gujral of Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail assures me that his chain of restaurants use barely any turmeric. “Our best selling dishes are butter chicken, dal makhni, shahi paneer and burrah kebab, chicken pakora, reshmi kebab and garlic chicken kebab. Not even one of these uses turmeric, which is more or less a homely spice, not really required in grand cooking.” I’d love to meet a household that cooks any of these dishes with any regularity in their homes.
Just before setting off for London, a friend – Chef Vivek Singh of Cinnamon Club – asked me where I planned to eat. I reeled off the names of several restaurants, all either Chinese (like Yauatcha), British, Italian or steak houses. Vivek was appalled. “You mean you are not trying out Indian food?” Now it was my turn to stare. On principle, I would not visit an Indian restaurant outside India – of all the pointless ways to use foreign exchange and waste precious time, this one takes the cake. I’m glad Vivek made me change my mind. “London has some of the finest Indian restaurants in the world. You can’t come here and not try them out.”
Cinnamon Club has taken a route to Indian food, excluding chicken tikka masala of course, that has worked well for them. First of all, the food is pre-plated. Then, the cuts of meat are nothing like the amorphous lamb botis of a traditional Indian restaurant. There is saddle of Welsh lamb, Anjou squab, Gressingham duck, Oisin deer and Wagyu beef. Those are for novelty value. But the sauces that go over them are as traditional as grandma’s own recipes. It’s the juxtaposition of completely out of the box coupled with strictly traditional, down to the last spice, that seems to be the defining feature of modern Indian food.
Similarly Amaya, run by the Panjabi sisters Namita and Camilla, has a seekh kebab made from venison, rock oysters served on the shell with moilee sauce and celeriac galauti. It’s the same formula, though it’s arrived at through slightly different means: Amaya does have traditional biryanis and dora kebabs on the menu; both cater to an overwhelming British clientele.
Back home in India, the scene is changing rapidly. The Oberoi Mumbai has tied up with its one-time employee, Chef Vineet Bhatia, to create a restaurant, Ziya, which stands Indian food on its head. It’s a three-pronged approach: pre-plated food, a pan-Indian menu and a combination of traditional flavours and unusual ingredients, but Vineet Bhatia, havng acquired a Michelin star during his years in London, has a trick or three up his sleeve.
In his Ziya menu, he has oven baked spiced pomfret, a deconstructed Kerala fish curry that uses a fillet of pomfret, coconut and cashew-nut khichdi and tomato kadhi. Taste all three components at once and it turns into a Kerala fish curry on your palate. It’s the most magical experience that I’ve had in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the world, and it’s not surprising that Ziya has become a huge hit in spite of nay-sayers predicting a dire fate for an Indian restaurant that doesn’t do sharing portions.
Indeed, the pre-plated nature of modern Indian food (also called evolved Indian food or fusion Indian food) is what confounds the Indian customer more than unfamiliar ingredients. “We still get customers hankering for bowls of dal and portions that can be shared among four diners,” rues young Ratika Sinha of Infusion in Gurgaon. The Sinha family owns Morya Hotel in Patna and ventured into uncharted territory with the opening up of Infusion, rather than go the fail-safe dal makhni-butter chicken route. “We are a family of foodies and we so wanted to be able to use mussels and Brussel sprouts in our menu,” she enthuses.
Delhi would seem to be the capital of modern Indian food within the country. Virtually every Indian restaurant that opens in the National Capital Region dishes up a never-seen-before version of grandma’s food . The company that owns the critically acclaimed Indian Accent runs a slew of restaurants in London, among them, the Indian ones are Sitaarey and Chor Bizarre, both serving traditional food.
However, there’s little doubt that it is London where the revolution actually started and is continually being played out. Perhaps it is because British food lacks strong flavours of its own: Chinese, French and Japanese cuisines, on the other hand, have strong characteristics that have made them popular throughout the world and as a corollory, the Indian restaurants in these countries are strictly of the formulaic variety.
Will the factors at play in London’s Indian restaurant work the same magic in, say, Russia? It’s an exciting thought indeed.