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There’s a battle brewing over the fine dining kitchens of India. Throwing out the rule book and taking a polished, multi-morsel approach to the cuisine’s traditionally boisterous flavors and family style sharing plates, a coterie of chefs is hoping to bring Indian food into the 21st century. It’s rattled some in the country’s culinary circles. Indian cuisine’s roots date back some 5000 thousand years and together with Chinese, form the foundation and inspiration for food cultures from Cambodia to Colombo. Many believe that something so classical and influential shouldn’t be meddled with; that Indian cuisine should be served with its authenticity intact, and always as sharing plates.
The debate kicked off when Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to earn a Michelin star for now closed Zakia, in London, opened the Ziya at the Oberoi in Mumbai in 2010 and served individual Indian dishes, albeit toned down, degustation style. “The old guard want to own and protect the cuisine”, says avant garde chef Gaggan Anand, who blends Bengali cuisine with kitchen chemistry for his eponymous Indian restaurant, which is located in Bangkok and number three on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014. “They think chefs like me are damaging its integrity.”
There were many eyebrows raised when Anand, a disciple of Ferran Adrià and molecular cooking, took papdi chaat -a mash of yoghurt, potato, chick peas and tamarind- which is one of India’s most famous and much-loved street foods, and turned it into a spherical blob sitting on a wafer. The tastes were identical; the appearances like chalk and cheese. It’s what Anand sees as an ideological tug of war, where the old guard is holding onto traditions too tightly, forbidding it to evolve. “Cooking is such a vital part of everyday life in India that people are naturally suspicious of attempts to improve or alter it”.
“We say we have 5000 years of food culture, and the result is a curry house serving chicken tikka masala, which isn’t even Indian”, says Manish Mehrotra, the chef of Indian Accent in Delhi, referring to the illustrious dish thought to have been concocted in the United Kingdom. “If we really stick to tradition, then we shouldn’t use potatoes, or tomatoes, or chili”, items brought to India with the Portuguese in the 16th century and now essential parts of the Indian pantry.
Born into a strictly vegetarian family in the northern state of Bihar, Mehrotra takes key ingredients and flavours from regional Indian cuisines then gives them a contemporary twist. The results are delicate and well thought out dishes like river fish from Amritsar smothered with a masala spice mix and topped with a wafer of compounded white bait. It’s a far cry from Amritsar’s traditional roots at the heart of the Punjab, dominated by rich cream and butter laden curries and leavened breads.
Manjit Gill knows a thing or two about Punjabi cuisine. Arguably the grandfather of Indian cuisine and corporate chef of ITC Hotels, he has made it his life’s work to document and develop the old traditions once prominent in the provinces and royal capitals of Lucknow and Hyderabad to create restaurant greats like Bukhara and Dum Puhkt. “It’s not that I am against innovation”, says Gill. “But young chefs need to understand a cuisine before they start adapting it. They need to know the roots of the cuisine. And in India many of them don’t.” Gill’s real concern is the lack of regional diversity in restaurants, both in India and abroad. India as a nation is like Europe as a continent; there are literally hundreds of different styles of food throughout the country, from the mustard hued dishes of Bengal to the coconut based chutney’s of Tamil Nadu. It’s a concern many Indian chefs agree on. “People think Indian food is cheap, affordable and Punjabi”, says Anand. “The real challenge is not about how something is cooked, but how to change this perception and present Indian cuisine with all its vibrancy and diversity to the world”.