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Beyond biryanis, rogan joshes and tandoori kebabs

What do you look for when you go to a relatively fancy restaurant for an Indian meal? My guess: Tasty food, good service, a pleasing ambience and price that is not exorbitant.

But if you think about it, you may realise that had my question been; ‘what do you look for when you go to an unfancy restaurant’ you would probably have given me the same answers.


If we are talking about an Indian restaurant, then — let’s be honest — the food will probably be much the same whether you go to a moderately priced restaurant or an expensive one. (It might even be better if you shunned both of these and went to a dhaba or a cheaper restaurant).


   The truth is that at the overwhelming majority of North Indian restaurants, they serve the same sort of food. There will be mutton and chicken curries, the usual kebabs, biryanis, some restaurant-type vegetables (at restaurants, the most popular ‘vegetable’ is paneer).


   So why do people pay more money to eat at expensive restaurants?


   If they are eating Indian food, then the answer has very little to do with the quality of the food. It is almost always the ambience they are paying for. The food in a dhaba may be better but you don’t feel you have gone out for a celebratory evening unless the restaurant is decorated to a certain standard and the waiters have clean uniforms.


   This is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon. It is true of much of Asia. Until relatively recently, I used to say about Thailand that whether you went to a really expensive Thai restaurant or an inexpensive one, you had as much chance of getting a good or a bad meal at either place. Some years ago, I ate my way through Cheng Du in China in an effort to understand Sichuan food and it was the same. Ditto for Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and many other Asian countries I have eaten in.


   In Japan there is a significant difference in food between the cheap places and the expensive ones. But that is because everything about Japanese food requires skill and experience. Just making rice is an art in itself. Chefs work as apprentices for a decade before they are allowed to make rice at a top restaurant. Only a very skilled and experienced chef will know when a piece of tuna is ready to be served as sushi or sashimi. (The Japanese do not subscribe to the notion that all fish is at its best when it is fresh). The higher prices reflect the skill and training of the chef.


   But I always feel that even the Japanese lack the one quality that has made French the great cuisine: Imagination.


   There have always been two kinds of French food. There is the kind of cuisine that people make it home all over France (say, pot au feu, coq au vin, a roast chicken and boeuf bourguignon) which, by itself, is delicious. But even a very talented home cook will tell you that his or her cuisine is very different from the cuisine cooked at the great restaurants of France.


"Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have more Michelin stars than any other chef’s on the planet, recognises that one man cannot do the imagining for so many restaurants."

   While most cuisines are collections of recipes, French haute cuisine is a collection of techniques. The test of a dish is not just how good it tastes (though, of course, that is paramount); it must also show imagination. It must be something that the chef has created himself or herself. Michelin will not give a restaurant three stars for cooking the best coq au vin. To be rated at the highest level, a dish must demonstrate creativity and imagination.


   I have been talking over the last few months to many chefs at three Michelin star restaurants and all of them are united in emphasising the role that imagination plays in their food. Without imagination, they all say, there is no creativity in cuisine.


   Björn Frantzén, who runs three Michelin starred restaurants in both Singapore and Stockholm, says that the greatest challenge he faces is to think of new dishes every season. He locks himself in his development kitchen and tries to create dishes that use seasonal ingredients and yet are different or surprising.


   Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants have more Michelin stars than any other chef’s on the planet, recognises that one man cannot do the imagining for so many restaurants. So, he relies on his chefs, many of whom have worked under him for decades, to use their imaginations.


   Daniel Humm of the three Michelin star Eleven Madison Park, has a simple four-point rule for evaluating any dish before it goes on the menu: Is it delicious, does it look good, does it have its roots in something like seasonality, culture, the local environment and, most important, is it a movement forward? Does it represent something he has not tried before? Is it a triumph of the imagination?


   Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Spain emphasises creativity over crowd-pleasing deliciousness. When he cooked in India some years ago, he flew in, looked at our ingredients and invented a new menu out of nothing. The Suhring twins whose restaurant has two Michelin stars in Bangkok use German as their base cuisine but have created dishes that no German chef had ever dreamt of.


   Chefs can be imaginative with techniques as well. Ferran and Albert Adria at El Bulli invented revolutionary techniques. And from those techniques came dishes that nobody had ever imagined before. At Noma, Rene Redzepi (who had worked at El Bulli) created an influential new style of cuisine by imagining his own rules. Massimo Bottura got tired of Italian chefs trying to Frenchify their food and created a cuisine that celebrated Italy’s heritage by applying his imagination to the dishes.


   But no chef in history has been as obsessed with the imagination as Heston Blumenthal. Along with Albert Adria, he invented many of the new techniques that dominate cooking today. But for Blumenthal, that was just a starting point. I had lunch at his The Fat Duck last week and what struck me was that there was not a single dish you could have eaten anywhere else (unless the chef had nicked it from Heston). That the food was outstanding was a given, but what took me by surprise was how the food was packed with flavours that you rarely saw together on a plate. This was food from another dimension.


   Bottura broke through the orthodoxy that Italian food was about recipes rather than creativity. In India, two chefs have done something similar with our food. The pioneer is Gaggan Anand whose food uses global techniques to create new dishes but who never loses respect for Indian flavours. And Manish Mehrotra has invented a new Indian menu. Both have been constantly ripped off but I don’t think either minds: It is always good to change the paradigm.


   What we need now is a new generation of Indian chefs who follow in the footsteps of Gaggan and Manish. Because at this level of cooking, skill is not enough. For Indian food to reach the next level, we need to go beyond the biryanis, the rogan joshes and the tandoori kebabs.


   Our chefs must not just recreate the classic dishes. They must create new ones. Because when a cuisine has to reach the next level, imagination is everything.



Posted On: 29 Nov 2022 07:45 PM
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