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Growing taste for local exotica
So far, chefs travelled beyond the Indian Ocean in search of exotic foods, from foie gras sourced from Paris to fish flown in from Tsukiji. But now smart chefs are realising that there's a world of equally unfamiliar cuisine to be found within India's borders. Which is why local exotica is definitely emerging as one of the major culinary trends.
At Machan, the popular coffee shop at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, food from Bundelkhand has taken centrestage. The cuisine bears close affinity to Jain and Rajasthani food and the menu includes the cooking of various tribes. It was the royal cuisine of the region between the 10th and 16th centuries but was upstaged when the Mughals came to power. Now, you can sample Murar kebabs that are made from lotus stems, kunde ka bhatta, a sort of spiced-up baingan ka bharta, fresh-water fish curries and lamb.
At Ai, a contemporary Japanese restaurant in New Delhi, chef Saby is experimenting with a variety of black sticky rice grown in the tribal hills of the Garo and Khasi region to make sushi. No, it doesn't have purists up in arms. "Even the Japanese who visit the restaurant are amazed, " says the chef.
Other locally grown exotica include 'micro-greens'. These are specially-grown green vegetables â€” baby arugula, petite spinach, lettuce, fennel and other herbs that are used to style food. Abhijeet Saha, the chef at Bangalore's Caperberry, who is famous for dishing out molecular gastronomy at buffets for incredible, sub-Rs 400 prices, has been experimenting with miniature greens when he's not caught up with the newly launched middle-eastern restaurant, Fava.
Black lava stones, the kind you may have spotted at spas, are the hottest accessories these days in restaurant kitchens across the country. Even in Chennai, which has finally shed its tag of being a culinary backwater. At the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers in Chennai, a new restaurant called On the Rocks is a stylish grill that's known for its international cuisines and flambÃ©ed desserts. The lava stone is really a piece of volcanic rock heated to 400 degrees centigrade, a temperature at which meat and vegetables are quickly seared. It's a healthy way of cooking as the food cooks in its own juices and doesn't require additional oil. Chef Nikhil Nagpal's table de hote menu features cooking on volcanic rocks right at your table. The rocks are preheated, placed on the table so that you can watch the choicest, marinated cuts of meat and fish and vegetables sizzle deliciously. As a result, the food is soft, luscious and flavourful, and the experience can be wonderfully interactive â€” particularly since the waiters are no ordinary waiters, but 'gentlemen guides'.
Similarly, at Souk in Kolkata's Taj Bengal, you can grill a piece of salty, brittle haloumi to satisfaction. It's a wonderful way of eating cheese. In Delhi, 400, a pan-Asian 'stonegrilllounge' at Tabula Rasa, offers hot volcanic rocks on which guests are invited to grill their fare.
These days, chefs have been combining strange and diverse flavours quite successfully. For instance, the MBD Radisson hotel in Noida, serves onion truffle chocolates. You heard right. The pastry chef cooks the onions till they are sweet and pink. In this condition, they blend in well with the chocolate. The restaurant also serves Oriental style pork ribs done in coffee sauce. The meat is marinated with Oriental spices and then cooked in a sauce that is wonderfully aromatic.
If you're really adventurous, head to San-Qi, the Asian restaurant at the Four Seasons in Mumbai. It's the only restaurant in India to serve fugu, the deadly Japanese blowfish that can be fatal if not cut properly. That is why fugu chefs in Japan need specialised training that reputedly lasts for seven years. Chef Toshikazu Kato in Mumbai is licensed to serve it. So raise a toast to new, exotic flavours. But while you are at it, remember, the wine for the toast may have come not from a bar or cellar but a 'library'. In what is the latest trend in the country, wine libraries have labels arranged according to vintage and region in a classification pattern that follows book libraries. But that's another story.
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