How Indian chefs and restaurateurs are taking regional food to the West
More aware global audiences are discovering nuanced regional Indian food through the work of a handful of Indian chefs.
Anna Morelli, the influential publisher of Tuscany-based Cook_inc, described as one of the most avant-garde food magazines in the world, cannot understand how to eat a dosa. The cone reminds her of things to smoke or a Cornetto ice cream, but this is perplexing new food.
The idea of breaking off a bite, dipping it in sambar, scooping up coconut chutney and putting it in one’s mouth, as millions of Indians do for breakfast routinely, is alien and intimidating.
The octopus ceviche that is served just before this — fresh, bursting with citrus flavours and dressed with just a dot of kasundi — has been easily lapped up, though. “I am partly Colombian, after all, I should judge this ceviche,” she tells me, before forking it up to much appreciation. After the ceviche, it is my turn to guide Morelli on the dosa, as also the keema pao that follows.
This is a lunch at chef and restaurateur Ritu Dalmia’s Spica, her new restaurant in Milan, where cultural exchanges are taking place over food. Perhaps, this is just the way she wanted it. Here, food is inspired by her travels — from South America to Southeast Asia and from Mumbai to Brussels. She is treading new ground, breaking cultural barriers and bringing global gastronomy to Italy, otherwise a more conservative and closed market for international flavours than, say, London and New York.
Apart from Cittamani, her contemporary Indian restaurant in Milan, Dalmia also has a 20% stake in Viva, her friend Viviana Varese’s restaurant. Their collaboration continues in Spica, Dalmia’s third venture in Milan, a city where she stays half the year and knows perhaps as well as Delhi, where Diva, her restaurant that opened in 2000, is a flag-bearer of Italian culture and cuisine. The story of Dalmia, who transformed her passion for Italy into a successful restaurant business, is well-known. What she is doing in Milan is no less remarkable.
Backed by an investment made by industrialist Analjit Singh in her company Riga Foods in 2016 (Singh acquired a 51% stake), Dalmia is focusing on Europe, communicating her Indian roots through food to a culture where India seems much loved but little understood — as yet.
Cittamani opened two years ago in Milan and has been serving diverse dishes such as khasta kachori with sweet-and-sour, Marwari-style aloo-petha (potatoes and pumpkin); tuna tartare with chunki mattar, sweet green peas tempered with hing; and masala octopus with the homely gajar-methi (carrots and fenugreek leaves) of a north Indian winter.
This is Indian home-style flavours made comprehensible to an Italian audience that knows little beyond dal makhni and tikka masala. In the process, Dalmia has been able to raise the image of Indian food from being cheap, oily, chilli-laden takeaway to refined gastronomy worthy of paying €70 per person at Cittamani. Is her European audience a little more aware of the nuances of Indian regional food after two years?
“They were not ignorant even when I opened,” says Dalmia. “The difference is that in two years, the guests have got segregated. The ones who thought Indian food was spicy, oily vindaloo and those who wanted to try regional food.” The latter keeps coming to her restaurants.
Outside Big Apple
Beyond London and, to some extent, New York, more aware global audiences are discovering nuanced regional Indian food through the work of a handful of Indian chefs who are trying to beat stereotypes. Chintan Pandya, the executive chef of Rahi and Adda Indian Canteen in New York, is perhaps the most promising and talked-about Indian chef in the US right now, his food having found acclaim even in a review by the New York Times’ food critic Pete Wells, who called it a “lusty, full-throated defence of traditional cooking”.
Apart from the restaurant kitchens that Pandya heads in New York, where he serves lesser known street dishes such as bheja fry and tawa kaleji, food that he calls “unapologetically Indian”, he has been trying to take his kind of gastronomy (modern Indian, street food and regional Indian) to other cities and towns of America through pop-ups and collaborations. He was recently in Miami and is now headed to Charleston in South Carolina.
“Millennials are travelling much more than previous generations and social media has brought lesser known parts of the planet to the forefront. We see a tremendous appetite for authentic regional dishes like never before. We are at the cusp of a major breakthrough in the broader mainstream market,” says Pandya, who refuses to serve British dishes like tikka masala or tone down spices in his food to make it more acceptable to his audience.
Pandya feels that while earlier chefs and restaurateurs would Americanise their cuisine to get more footfalls, today that approach is fading and “a fresh new breed of chefs are questioning the status quo”. America now seems to be at the beginning of a wave of a new kind of Indian cuisine by Indian chefs who have been brought up or worked in India and are increasingly partnering with US-based entrepreneurs of Indian origin, who are keen to bring “real” Indian food to the table.
Nikhil Merchant, writer and consultant who travels between Mumbai and Los Angeles, is in the process of opening his restaurant Imli in LA with entrepreneurs Nishit and Ashwini Jhaveri, who grew up on the American West Coast but got acquainted with Mumbai-Goan food during their travels to India. They want to bring these flavours to their city now. “There are at least 30-40 Indian restaurants in the Bay Area but if you see their menus, they are all copy-and-paste with samosa and tikka masala. We are sun-drying our spices and grinding them, and there will be simple home-style dishes on the menu such as kombdi rassa (chicken curry with Maharashtrian spices) that we eat at home,” says Merchant.
In San Francisco, restaurants like the Bib Gourmand-listed Dosa, which serves stylish south Indian flavours (like Ambur almond gravy where cashew is replaced by Californian almonds in a mango rassa); chef Srijith Gopinathan’s luxurious restaurant at the Taj Campton Place that recently won two Michelin stars; and chef Sujan Sarkar’s Rooh serve Indian gastronomy that is high end and very different from its ethnic, cheap food image.
Some of these restaurants are going to new destinations that are not so acquainted with Indian food. After San Francisco, Rooh has now opened in Chicago and is set to go to Columbus, Ohio, later this month. Sarkar says he is also working on a new concept in Palo Alto that will open early next year. “Yes, a new Indian food movement has started in the US and I am fortunate to be part of that. More and more regional Indian restaurants are opening and people are getting introduced to flavours that were rarely available before,” says Sarkar, who serves inventive yet rooted-in-tradition dishes such as kadambuttu (steamed rice balls from Coorg) with Alleppey-style fish curry flavoured with rhubarb instead of tamarind.
Audiences for this kind of authentic dining may be niche but growing. In Vancouver in Canada, chef and restaurateur Vikram Vij, who opened the eponymous Vij’s 25 years ago, now has three other restaurants in British Columbia and says the audience is evolving and asking more questions because they travel more. “We never served mainstream dishes like butter chicken or chicken tikka masala but traditional food cooked at Punjabi homes. We roast our own spices so that people can taste the difference. It has been a 25-year journey and we are celebrating it with pride,” he says.
Vij’s wife Meeru supervises the cooking, while he comes to the floor every evening to talk to the customers and educate them.
Customers may be evolving and chefs may be trying to serve their identity through food, but it is a slow process of mainstreaming. James Beard Award-winning food critic Hanna Raskin says that although most diners in the US are beginning to “grasp that northern and southern Indian cuisines — to simplify the case greatly — aren’t precisely the same, I’d bet 73% of Americans assume families across India eat vindaloo every night!”
Still, this new wave of restaurants and chefs serving regional food are encouraging more players and expanding the market.
Bengaluru-based microbrewery Windmills Craftworks is all set to go to Dallas, Texas, early next year. On the menu will be not just craft beers that the Indian owners have developed — remarkable to market them in a mature market such as the US — but also food from Karnataka.
Windmills’ sister restaurant Oota in Whitefield, Bengaluru, is perhaps the most phenomenally researched regional Indian restaurant to have come up in the country in the last two years. Three-hundred dishes from all over Karnataka, from different communities and micro regions, have been researched, recorded and recreated. Now, some of these will travel to Dallas, according to executive chef Mandaar Sukhtankar, who is finalising the menu.
Clearly, there is more than steak at stake in the American Midwest and other hitherto culturally insular markets for regional Indian gastronomy.
(The writer looks at cuisines and food cultures)