By Madhusree Chatterjee
World cuisine has never been more Indian than before – tempered the flavours of eastern spices and the sizzle of Indian red hot chilli peppers. Indian gastronomy which arrived in the west as contemporary gastronomy in the 1970s with the curry outlets vending hybrid “balti” fare and customized “chicken butter masala” is re-asserting its purity on the global culinary map. The slogan is “basic, back-to roots” on “contemporary ethnic chic platters” reflecting a new globalised India that is drawing from the strength from its 5,000-year old cultural heritage.
It is striving to return to the warm comfort of grandmother’s wood and iron kitchens – combining artistry in presentation with the authenticity of roots and traditional cooking methods.
Food works in cycles like cinema, art and fashion – almost like the “salwar kameez” of the yesteryears that has made a comeback on the high street in new avatars, says chef Hemant Oberoi, the corporate chef of the Taj Hospitality Group, who has been redefining traditional Indian cuisine to identify with the “GenerationText” palate at the hotel chain’s Masala Art and Craft eateries. The result is broccoli, avocado asparagus and corn cobs – fried, grilled, baked and cooked — in whole or crushed spices to resemble western style light Indian curries on the platter with “traditional bread, meat and ubiquitous ‘dal’”.
“Could you ever imagine ‘bhatti ka asparagus’ (a traditional spice based curry improvised with asparagus) on an Indian menu,” Oberoi demanded to know, placing platters of Masala Art’s “new menu” on the Chef’s Table at the Taj Palace in the national capital Dec 12, 2013.
“Slow cooking is back in fashion once again after 100 years. Traditionally, Indian food was slow cooked over charcoal and wood fire for hours for the right blend of spices and ingredients – to exact the right flavours. Our ‘Nihari’ (a meat broth of Islamic origin), ‘Halim’ (Ramadan kedgeree) and ‘khad’ (Rajasthan’s pot roast cuisine) had to be cooked for nearly 24 hours for the perfect taste and consistency. Indian gourmet cooks seem to have woken up to slow cooking after nearly a century – now that the west is talking about it,” the chef pointed out.
“Everything that we have invented makes sense to this generation when the west sends it back – after patenting it as their own,” Oberoi said.
Oberoi claims credit for bringing back the “traditional ghee roast (clarified butter roast) ” on the mainstream corporate menu of Masala Art — the Indian contemporary deli at the hotel. The ghee roast – with chicken as the base meat — is one of the most popular meat dishes of southern India, a native of the Udipi coast in Karnataka. History says it was popularized by the “Bunts” of Kundapur – a community of Nagavanshi Kashtriyas (a community of warriors equivalent of the north Indian Rajput clans).
Oberoi, who has improvised on the dish to create “greater South Indian” culinary to serve it on a platter of “bean porial” (beans cooked with coconut crush), ‘urlai roast (potato roast, southern style)’, ‘sambhar dal’ (south Indian signature fares) and north Indian lentil broth with naan (Indian bread), says “the USP of the roast is ghee”.
“No other roast meat in the world uses ghee as the lard for cooking in skewers or spits. But in southern India, it is found on the menus of almost every restaurant and in households,” he said. The traditional ghee roast, common to the Udipi region of Mangalore, uses “roughly diced chicken cubes” slow cooked in ghee and flavoured with red chilli and spice paste – garnished with lemon and curry leaves for a hot tangy flavoured chicken.
Chef Oberoi has turned the dish around a bit with “a continental style chicken steak (fleshy fillet) roasted in clarified butter (ghee) and topped with a lightly spiced sauce”.
“Cooking is an art and science. It is how you convert a science into an art,” the chef said. Oberoi’s personal journey of 40 years as a gourmet chef has been one of transformation — to keep up with the times. “I have moved ahead of the Generation Text as I call them. I brought molecular gastronomy and health food to the menu 10 years ago even before the country could think of it – at banquets in Bombay. I realized that 50 per cent of the battle is won if food is presented well,” Oberoi said.
The chef says the days of fusion are over, the chef said. Even 10 years ago, fusion was a fetish at the numerous fine dining eateries in the standalone restaurants across the Indian metros – at a time when the discerning foodies were beginning to travel overseas to international cuisines. They returned to look for variety on the platter at home.
The trend has reversed with foreign travel becoming integral to the country’s open door economy. “Molecular gastronomy has become outdated now. I have seen the generations pass through my table. This is my fourth decade in the industry. I tell the youngsters that you don’t know the basics of cooking. You have not seen your grandmothers and mothers cook — you have only made and readymade food. I remember my granny make ‘malai ka subzi’ in my childhood. I have brought it back on the menu,” Oberoi said.
The new menu at the Masala Art carries that touch of nostalgia— the delicate nuance of spices pounded at home. “I have introduced bhatti ka asparagus and avocados in light ‘chaat (spicy salads), shorbas (Indian broth) and soups,” he said.
There is a difference between spices pounded at home in the traditional mortar and pestle and those in the mixer. The process of pounding the spices may be a little painstaking — but the flavours are worth the sweat on the grindstone. “Spices lose their essential oils and taste in the mixer because of the speed with which it pounds the spices. The mixer generates excess heat — while slow pounding regulates the temperature of the spices, the chef explained.
Excess heat in spices is detrimental for digestion and heart as it results in overcooked food.
The chef’s new vegetable platter is a regional experience- with “bharwaan gucchi- (roasted and stuffed shoots and sweet plantains), “malai ka subzi” “roasted potatoes”, “beans porial” and a lentil soup (dal) with distinctive east Indian flavour. A broccoli soup (shorba) flavoured with kafir lime and served with truffle and brie bread (naan) tweaks the traditional frontier shorba and naan combination. The biriyani (spicy rice cooked in vegetable and meat stock) is served in glass “handi” (pots) instead of the usual copper and brass container to make it visual treat of layered rice, vegetables, meat and colours — more than that of taste.
“I think there is life beyond Punjabi food because there are 27 states in the country besides Punjab. Like in the south… there is life beyond ‘idli-dosa’. Over the last 10 years, I have been trying to introduce as many regional dishes on the menu. The biggest problem with Indian cuisine was that for many years it had been presented in restaurants in New York and London in a rather alien way. The challenge is to make it acceptable now in an Indian way – with authentic Indian taste,” the chef said.
The prospect becomes daunting given the fact food now has to meet the global parameters of health and cosmopolitanism. “Butter and cream are out – ghee is back in fashion because medical science says ghee is good for the heart. Deep frying and koftas are passé- because they are overcooked. Shallow fry and uncooked dumplings score over the crispy counterparts of old,” the chef said.
One cannot now keep the continent out of the menu. “At least three billion people want to eat the Asian away – India is an integral part of the picture,” he said. Therefore, the chef’s personal fondness for his seafood platter of “crab masaladar (spicy crab) in filo”, “bhatti ka jhinga” and “sea bass with red pepper and spices”- fits into the scheme of his culinary vision.