These are interesting times for Indian chef Manish Mehrotra. His Indian Accent restaurant in New Delhi was this ranked 78th in the world, ahead of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in Melbourne. He recently announced that a third branch of Indian Accent would open in London later this year, following the successful launch of a New York outpost in 2016.
And as if the Bihar-born master of modern Indian cuisine didn’t have enough on his plate, he hosted an Indian Accent pop-up event at the Parker Palm Springs, California, from April 7-9. It all pointed to an increased global demand for progressive Indian food beyond the familiar curry and naan bread. And as the next chapter in the story of an ancient, rich and diverse cuisine unfolds, Mehrotra couldn’t be more optimistic about Indian food’s international reach.
“We have something for every palate in the world,” he says. “We have light dishes with few ingredients; we have festive dishes for indulgence, and we have dishes for cleansing. The only thing is, it has not been represented in the rest of the world outside India that well.”
The modernisation of Indian cuisine
The on-going modernisation of Indian cuisine has been, well, on-going. In 2001, London-based chefs Vineet Bhatia (Zaika) and Atul Kochhar (Tamarind) became the first Indians to win Michelin stars. Since then, though, the cuisine has struggled to claim the fine-dining kudos of, say, Scandinavian or French fare. But could that be changing?
Last February, Kolkata-born Gaggan Anand’s eponymous Bangkok restaurant was named the best in Asia for a record third year in a row. Combining big-hearted Indian street food with state-of-the-art molecular techniques, Anand’s food is pushing the boundaries with a kind of audacious self-confidence that’s been sorely missing from Indian gastronomy. And the world is taking notice.
“Until now there was still not that much respect [for Indian cuisine],” bemoans Mehrotra. “We were still considered as a cheap, greasy take-away kind of cuisine. Things are changing now, though, and in the last two years Indian cuisine is becoming more prominent and getting more respect. But still we have a long way to go.”
Traditional but global
Mehrotra says his own cuisine is difficult to describe, but can be thought of as traditional but global. All the familiar flavours and spices remain, but the execution and presentation falls in line with modern fine dining. “It’s more like inventive Indian food,” he explains. “They are the same dishes reinvented in a global manner.”
One of his most famous reinventions is a radical take on a traditional Indian street food favourite, papri chaat. The familiar wheat crisp wafers, chickpeas, spices, tamarind and mint chutneys are all present. But instead of hung yoghurt, Mehrotra uses Italian burrata (mozzarella and cream). “My Indian customers really like it, and they enjoy it even more when something traditional has a little bit of an international twist,” he says.
From New Delhi to New York, Mehotra tweaks his menu to accommodate local attitudes and customs. “In India you can’t serve beef, but in New York we had beautiful pathar beef kebabs with bone marrow nihari; we had foie gras on the menu. We also followed the seasons, so when soft-shell crab was in season we had that.”
But while a location for his London restaurant has not yet been finalised (sites in Knightsbridge and Mayfair’s Albemarle Street are under review), Mehrotra says the menu won’t be a million miles away from its New Delhi roots. London’s cultural diversity, coupled with the UK’s love affair with Indian food, means it is already in tune with the complex flavours and spice combinations of the subcontinent.
But will Mehrotra attempt to put an Indian accent on British-created dishes such as chicken tikka masala or the balti? “At the moment, no. I really appreciate the effort of the British-Indian chefs who created these dishes in the UK. Because of these dishes I think Indian food has become more popular there,” he says diplomatically. “But when we get going it will be wonderful to do my take on a chicken Madras or a Bombay aloo, which don’t exist in India.”
Whatever Manish Mehrotra does next, it’s guaranteed to be interesting.