Once upon a time, in an Indian restaurant near you, there was a rowdy Saturday night crowd, boisterously tucking into onion bhajis, mounds of lurid red chicken tikka masala and towers of greasy papadoms to rival the one in Pisa. There was flock wallpaper and gilded flourishes galore; waiters in dickie bows and lots of corny sitar music. And the Cobra beer flowed and flowed.
But things began to change. Indian food started to go upmarket. It modernised. And now it’s being taken seriously as a sophisticated contemporary cuisine by critics and fine dining lovers, from London to New York.
At Benares, the Berkeley Square restaurant of Indian-born chef Atul Kochhar, the menu reads like a romantic fairytale of locally-sourced ingredients marrying with exotic flavours and living happily ever after. The spice-crusted hand-dived Scottish scallops with mango and turmeric dressing competes for your attention against spice-rubbed Romney Marsh lamb cannon with white aubergine puree and artichoke fritters. If you’re looking for a chicken vindaloo in London, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Kochhar was one of the first wave of Indian chefs in the UK to revolutionise the food of his homeland, and bring it in line with other respected cuisines in Europe. He melded French cooking practices and philosophies with the rich traditional flavours of India, and in 2001 he became one of the first Indian chefs in London to win a Michelin star. Five Michelin stars have now been awarded to Indian restaurants in London, whereas all city’s Japanese restaurants can only muster three.
«India as a country has grown, and it was about time we took our cuisine into the 21st century,» says Kochhar. «The (negative) stereotype of Indian food in the UK was due to a lack of training and knowledge of classical Indian cuisine. We are now breeding a new band of chefs that are trained in two strong principles: Indian and French. This will only make Indian cuisine stronger in Europe and places away from India.»
As more Indian chefs began to work overseas, it was perhaps inevitable that they would learn how to incorporate new methods and techniques into their national cuisine. Hari Nayak moved to New York from southern India to train at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He’s now a chef and consultant of international renown, with a number of cookery books and restaurants to his name.
«If a chef is knowledgeable about global cooking, cultures and techniques, it becomes fairly simple to take Indian cuisine to the next level,» says Nayak. «However the approach, I believe as long as we keep the flavours and authenticity intact and create a balance using Indian spices, it can be done successfully.»
Nayak’s Orissa restaurant at Dobbs Ferry, downtown New York, is a breezy modern bistro with colourful splashes, ambient lighting and tasteful frills. His menu takes ingredients familiar to the North American palate, and imbues them with a flash of Southern Asian inspiration. The grilled oysters with passion fruit chutney and avocado salsa hardly sounds Indian at all. Yet the green chilli and fennel infused lamb chops with wild mushroom biryani leaves diners in no doubt as to the heritage of their food. It’s Indian through and through.
«I love to create international twists on the traditional flavors of Indian food,» says Nayak. Nevertheless, the modern interpretation of subcontinental cuisine comes in for plenty of criticism. Some say it panders to western tastes at the cost of the bold flavours and fiery spices we associate with traditional Indian food. But for Nayak, there’s no right or wrong way to go about reinventing a cuisine.
«Modern Indian cooking is a concept, and each chef has a different take on it,» he says. «Some chefs take Indian cuisine and recreate it by using western techniques along with a delicious mix of non-Indian ingredients. Some bring traditional Indian cuisine to simplified levels, to fit and suite the western taste.»
One chef that’s determined to modernise Indian food without sacrificing its distinct character and provenance is Aktar Islam. He was a winner on the BBC’s Great British Menu programme, and his Birmingham restaurant Lasan was named the best local restaurant in Britain on Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word.
«The food at Lasan takes real, authentic flavours from the Indian subcontinent,» says Islam. «So we’re looking at contemporary cuisine over in India now, and we’re delving into the culinary heritage, looking at different culinary traditions from the past. We’re bringing back some of the processes that have been lost, we’re reinventing them, and we’re combining them with European methods of cooking to create the best possible dish.»
A case in point is the dalcha gosht, a Hyderabadi dish of channa dahl lentils stewed with lamb. Instead of lamb, Islam uses beef short ribs, which are stewed at 80 degrees for up to six hours before being compressed. By adding a very traditional style of sauce, he’s fusing an age-old recipe with thoroughly modern techniques and local ingredients.
«Our flavours are overtly Indian, so they’re as authentic as any Indian restaurant you can think of,» says Islam. «There are a handful of restaurants around the country that do what we do. The likes of Atul Kochhar are very European with Indian influences, whereas we are very Indian with European influences. People come to us for an Indian experience, and that’s what we offer them.»
Like the colourful panoply of subcontinental food, contemporary Indian cuisine is varied and eclectic, with myriad styles, interpretations and plot twists. But in the epic story of Indian food, it may well be a pivotal chapter.
Photo courtesy Atul Kochhar