The rise of regional Indian food around the world – Forbes India

Posted: November 16, 2019 at 3:43 pm


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The Aggarwals are hardly alone in their ambition. As palates get globalised and millennial diners the world over open up to newer cuisines and experiences, Indian chefs, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are on a mission to correct stereotypes associated with our cuisines. After decades of being perceived as lowbrow, cheap, spicy curry, food from the country is being reinvented in what can be seen as the third wave of Indian gastronomy internationally: Plating up flavours that are regional and more self-confidentthe kind of food Indians in India eat and recognise as their own.

This third wave is different from earlier versions of Indian restaurant food that pandered to Western stereotypes and tastes: At curry houses, set up in the early 20th century by untrained cooks, and then in the 1990s, by professional chefs who sought to Frenchify Indian food in expensive restaurants with dishes tailored to appeal to a Western palate.

Similarly, a slew of chefs and restaurateurs born and brought up in India are serving food they recognise as their own without attempts to customise it to foreign palates or expectations. In the US this is recognisable in restaurants both on the East and West coasts. In New York, when Indian Accent opened in 2016 at the Le Parker Meridien Hotel, it broke many stereotypes. It didnt look the way Indian restaurants were expected to look, as Pete Wells The New York Times legendary food critic noted, and it didnt serve food that seemed conventional or even authentic to an American audience. Instead, this was the smart, clever, yet rooted in regional traditions kind of food that Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accents corporate chef, had already built a reputation for in New Delhi.

We, in India, were already cheering for Indian Accents doda barfi tart, duck kulchas, meetha achar pork spare ribs and kathal tacos before they made their way to the Big Apple, unleashing its trademark gastronomy in a very different kind of restaurantmore expensive and stylish than regular Indian. It was quite difficult sometimes people just didnt understand how to eat the courses, the staff had to explain even things like, we dont just mix everything, dahi with dal and so on, recalls Mehrotra.

It was beyond our wildest imagination that goat brains at Adda would be one of the biggest attractions, and people would travel across the country just to try it. Even five years ago that would not have been possible, Pandya says, talking about how Indian food and perceptions about it are rapidly evolving in the US. The restaurant group says it is following a philosophy of demystifying Indian food for Americans, in contrast to earlier restaurants that would try to Americanise their offerings to get footfalls. Spice levels have been kept intact and there are conversations around culturally unique ingredients.

Chef Sujan Sarkar, who worked at Olive Delhi, is another leader of this movement of mainstreaming Indian food. Sarkar helms a bunch of restaurants in the US, including the very successful Baar Baar in New York and Rooh in San Francisco, Chicago and Columbus, a restaurant that serves inventive food combining local ingredients with strong regional Indian underpinnings, a la salmon and Bay shrimp paturi.

One of the biggest breakthroughs that restaurants such as these, and other trendy ones such as Dosa in San Francisco, have managed to achieve is the idea of upscale gourmet Indian food, for which diners may be ready to pay more. A few restaurants such as Srijith Gopinathans Michelin-starred Campton Place at the Taj in San Francisco (serving predominantly South Indian flavours with Californian ingredients) had been able to establish themselves as fine dine, but in general Indian food has remained associated with cheap takeaways.

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Unlike the US, the cycle of evolution in London, the most sophisticated market for Indian food internationally, given the historical connect, has reached another phase: From the cheap curry-house stereotype to expensive high-quality diners, to more casual restaurants serving regional, high-quality food that will undoubtedly facilitate mainstreaming.

Though curry houses have been on the wane for a few years now (suffering from high rents among a host of other issues), the idea of more authentic Indian food has been difficult to establish in popular imagination: This despite the fact that restaurants such as those of Camellia and Namita Panjabi (Amaya, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy) have been serving classical Indian dishes in upscale, luxury restaurants for more than 15 years.

In 2001, Camellia Panjabi started a casual chain of street food-and-thali focussed restaurants, Masala Zone. There are now seven of these in London, but Panjabi recalls the resistance the idea of the thali faced from Londoners two decades ago. They said you are cheating us of our protein because there was more vegetarian food in the thali. So I had to explain to them the idea of a balanced Indian meal, she recalls.

These are casual restaurants, different from the Michelin-starred restaurants by chefs like Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar. Their rise is obviously important for regional Indian flavours to go mainstream. Todays customers are more knowledgeable and better travelled. They are aware because social media has shrunk the world and just because they are paying lower prices does not mean that they will settle for something they perceive as inauthentic, says Sameer Taneja, chef of Kanishka and Benares.

It is not just the UK and the US where a more authentic (though that is an idea always ready to be challenged) regional expression of Indian food is finding more evolved audiences. In Milan, chef Ritu Dalmias modern Indian restaurant Cittamani and her latest casual diner Spica (where the food is inspired by her travels all over the word, including in India) are drawing surprisingly discerning audiences. There were always people who wanted more authentic Indian food, and there are still those who associate it with tandoori stereotypes. But now, the latter know that we dont serve stereotypes, says Dalmia.

In Kaula Lumpur, Nadodi, a restaurant inspired by Tamil cuisine and all the other cuisines that Tamil food has inspired, is slated to be the next big global Indian restaurant after Gaggan. Some of its partners, including Kartik Kumar, the restaurants brand director, and chef Sricharan Venkatesh trained under Gaggan Anand at his Bangkok restaurant. They focus on global gastronomy themes like zero wastage, local ingredients as well as techniques like fermentation, and serve dishes like lamb chops with South Indian achar and a stunning zero wastage rasam cocktail. However, the dazzling technique and interpretations do not take away from nuanced cooking rooted in tradition. The restaurants name is a reference to our nomadic status; we are away from our homeland but still its influences inform us and our food, says Kumar.

As identity gets plated up, chefs and enthusiasts are beginning to see themselves through a prism distinctly different from how others have seen India, the not-so-wounded civilisation, in the past.

(This story appears in the 22 November, 2019 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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The rise of regional Indian food around the world - Forbes India

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November 16th, 2019 at 3:43 pm