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ORIGINAL TASTE

World on our plate

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Shucking oysters is no longer alien

The last decade saw a seismic shift in the way we wine and dine. We outgrew Mediterranean fare and acquainted ourselves with other international flavours. We got in sync with global trends and rediscovered our own culinary diversity. Our chefs are copycats no more and Michelin-anointed gourmands are flying in for inspiration. As our tastes mature, the Indian accent will be bold on experimentation

It is hard not to be gobsmacked by the food revolution in the Indian marketplace in the past decade. If the plethora of regional cuisines coming to the fore does not evoke enough shock and awe, the world arriving at our doorstep should do it. From vilayti gobi (broccoli) and button mushrooms to artichokes and avocados, Britannia natural cheddar and Amul Gouda to Camembert and Gorgonzola, industrial white bread to wholegrain bagels and croissants, chicken salami and bacon to chorizo and proscuitto, it's a culinary carnival.

The world is our oyster now and we aren't averse to shucking out a few clams for the best any more. So if London (the summer mecca for Indians, epicurean and otherwise) now offers us Wahaca's Mexican delicacies and "Bar Boulud has made the burger respectable" as Iqbal Wahhab of London's Roast restaurant puts it, his prediction that the "halal Pound will need a trendy home" and "Dishoom will be the new Indian middle market brand even as smart desis stick to oriental favourites China Tang and the new Hakkasan, " is significant. Add to this the fact that more and more Indian restaurants are earning culinary accolades, and it's clear that India is at the top table now. The churn in the Indian taste sphere is indeed exciting, even if it is not quite in the same direction as other culinary geographies.

We are not yet eating chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers), for instance, even if beleaguered Brit chef Gordon Ramsay showcased the ant chutney made by Bastar's Dhuruva tribe in his TV show Gordon's Great Escape this year. But despite beginning 2010 amid dire predictions of a milk shortage and ending it in tears over onions, food inflation in double digits hasn't stopped many, many Indians from salivating over new flavours.

For one set of Indians, the rating of Noma as the best restaurant in the world - pipping El Bulli and The Fat Duck - has been as prophetic as the return of Michelinstarred Vineet Bhatia to India with Ziya and Azok in Mumbai. For it has meant Indian cuisine has not only moved from the backburner, it has come back to reclaim its own food legacies. But for the aam aadmi torn between rising aspirations and rising prices, RBI-speak on the food scenario has been more significant.

In its mid-quarterly review of the monetary policy this month the RBI averred that "Among food items, the moderation in inflation for cereals and pulses has been larger than that in inflation of protein-related food items such as egg, fish, meat and milk, reflecting the structural nature of food inflation. " And its deputy governor Subir Gokarn concluded that "increasing demand for proteins appears to be an inevitable consequence of rising affluence". Too much money chasing too few onions, some might say. Calling for "the availability and affordability of proteins, " however, he mentioned the White Revolution's milk boom and the Green Revolution's boosting of carbohydrates in the Indian diet. Maybe a Bean (rajma, lentils and pulses) Revolution in the next decade is the answer, as there's hardly a dal moment these days when it comes to balancing the household food budget.

Interestingly, India appears to be right in sync with 2010's four themes as divined by the Culinary Trend Mapping Report of the US-based market research firm, Packaged Facts and the Center for Culinary Development: Back to the Basics, Artisan Upgrades, Healthful Eating, and Regional and Global Flavor Adventure. But India and the world are taking differing paths to implement what could be the cookbook for the coming decade.

The Copenhagen-based Noma's fanatically locavore Scandinavian menu - think pickled seaweed, nettles and musk ox tartare - is unlikely to appeal to the Indian palate, but its food mantra is indicative of a new western trend: the extra virgin olive oil and garlic-centric hegemony of the Mediterranean diet is being squeezed out in favour of less known regional cuisines.

India, having succumbed to the evocative appeal of the Mediterranean diet as the 21st century arrived, is not that fanatical yet about going back to local or seasonal yet. Maybe it's too soon after the shortage economy days of the pre-liberalisation to curb our exuberance about being able to eat whatever we want, whenever we want! Butterball turkeys from the US and New Zealand lamb shanks, hothouse asparagus and odoriferous brussels sprouts, we want 'em all, never mind what we eventually do with them.

Hearteningly however, India is now also rediscovering her own culinary diversity, albeit on paradoxically parallel tracks on the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century - think Suriani-style tharavu (duck) roast and Bhatia's Varqi 23-carat black-spiced chicken tikka. If one signals a move towards regional cuisines, the other bespeaks India's rising profile in international innovative dining.
Nor are Chef Hemant Oberoi's Varqi crab at Taj Mahal New Delhi's Varq, Manish Mehrotra's meetha achaar spare ribs for Indian Accent and Anjan Chatterjee's Bengali sushi at Oh Calcutta mere flashes in the pan when it comes to 'new' nouvelle cuisine. Gone are copycat attempts at molecular gastronomy and improbable fusions of flavour. In their place are genuine attempts at reinterpreting and rediscovering Indian cuisines.

As sommelier and peripatetic foodie Magandeep Singh notes, the "accent is back on Indian food - nouveau, regional, traditional, all served fine dining style. " From Zune to Ziya, some would say. And be they chefs with chutzpah or food entrepreneurs, both are putting their mouth where the money is in India: in new flavours and experimentation, taking a cue from the increasingly discerning and confident Indian palate.

If Indian Accent's subzi of water chestnuts and morels paired with a dosa pyramid can be taken as a metaphor, the forecast by Yum Yum Tree's Varun Tuli that "we will see at least a couple of true-blue hearty pan-Indian restaurants in 2011 with small menus and no division of region" may well come true. But it will still be a tricky toss up between authenticity and innovation, tradition and health fads.

Restaurateur Marut Sikka, whose upscale Indian outlet Kainoosh made an enviable debut this year, weighs in on this with his 'Diet Coke' rule. "If I can't afford the kilojoules, give me something that's zero calories at almost similar taste, " he says. "What's definitely 'out' is anything that clogs your arteries and merely tastes 'okay';what's definitely 'in' is what's healthy and tastes brilliant. " His belief that healthy eating is a matter of balance - "as long as taste is not severely compromised by lowering the unhealthy elements" - has a universal relevance as western chefs on the revival trail have taken the same tack. But more relevantly, it has become the guiding principle for the new crop of restaurants in India, as well as some established ones who have done a rethink on their raison'etre.

So even an iconic 'institution' like Dum Pukht at the ITC Maurya hotel in Delhi has added a fresh lot of vegetarian dishes to its famed repertoire of galoutis and kakoris (a genre that Varun Tuli predicts will be supplanted by robust Andhra mutton tikkas soon!) and Oh Calcutta has bravely debuted steamed versions of fried Bengali favourites. As Chatterjee puts it, "Cuisines are always developing and reflect the times. What was once the norm can always evolve later as habits and lifestyles change. "

The now-ubiquitous presence of 'near organic eggs' at even neighbourhood stores is solid evidence of slowly changing mores. So Olive Bar & Ai executive chef Sabyasachi Gorai is not jumping the gun by predicting a rise in the demand for "natural and organic produce" at least among his clientele, and a focus on "simple recipes with more importance given to quality of ingredients" in the true tradition of the slow food movement - a phenomenon, it must be said, that is still to find wider traction in India!

Befittingly, 2010 was brimming with cookbooks that showcased India's awesome culinary range - from the definitive India: the Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant, Lathika George's The Suriani Kitchen, Street Food of India by Sephi Bergerson, to Mallika Basu's Miss Masala and Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Easy.

Not that all Indians are eating Indian, though eating desi is about as locavore as we get, minus the geographical caveats the West puts on the word. A significant number are still going international, carbon footprints and credit crunches be damned. Little wonder then that Michelin-starred chefs and premier cru French winemakers are becoming regular travellers to Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and stores there are stocking up on such "staples" as maple syrup and whole grain mustard, even if these may find their way into rather unconventional settings, such as atop parathas or Amritsari fish!

It's a fine time in particular for Japanese cuisine, though it's a genre that has little time for local substitutes. Gorai sees Japanese kobachi (call it a sort of tapas) as the star turn of 2011, but the flurry of ersatz Japanese offerings, be it smoked salmon maki rolls in Gurgaon or pungent wasabi prawns at Chennai's Fusion 9, does underline the need for more authentic casual Japanese places!
Anyway, that Indians are eating (and drinking) out with a vengeance cannot be denied. And being seen in the right places is as important as the degustation. That would explain the eyecatching ambience of some of the newer places. Singh points to the 'garage-chic of Pali Village Cafê in Mumbai, for instance, and the 'Japanese Kindergarten' look of Mamagoto and the stunning setting of Circa with Qutub Minar as the backdrop, both in Delhi.

Given his nose for fine wines, Singh also draws attention to the fact that "with a new licence allowing restaurants to serve light alcoholic beverages, beer and wine became easier to find in 2010". If beer from micro-breweries has become the toast of the malltrawlers, at the upper end the "what you drink is who you are" axiom has come to the fore with champagnes like Dom Perignon adding fizz to the wedding and party scene, according to luxury brand Moet-Hennessy's Gaurav Bhatia.

Not that all this wine drinking led to flagging spirits in 2010. Fine whisky ambassador Sandeep Arora, while affirming that as India emerged from the downturn, high-end spirits retail took off again led by vodka, gave a thumbs up to single malts though he saw an increasing loyalty for established labels. "Brands new to India will need to invest more, " was his forecast. The advent in India of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society notwithstanding, will Indians get their tongues around Bruidladdich or Auchentoshan any time soon? As India looks beyond the Noughties, there is no doubt we will have plenty of food - for thought and enjoyment.

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