Progressive Indian cuisine: Avant-garde or déjà vu?

In the context of contemporary Indian cuisine, one trend subsides and the other immediately surges to allow the diners to ride the wave. The rising wave at the moment seems to be the one that is rediscovering ancient grains, foraged foods, and forgotten, almost lost family heirloom recipes recovered from regional repertoires.

It was more than a decade ago when the words “contemporary” Indian, “progressive” Indian, or “avant-garde” Indian were first heard. In the context of food, the trendsetter was Manish Malhotra, who opened the doors of his restaurant—the Indian Accent—then housed in a small boutique hotel in the Capital called The Manor. Indian Accent was promoted by Rohit Khattar, a restaurateur with innovative ideas who had trained in the US. Even earlier, he had created a buzz with his unique eatery, “Chor Bizarre,” where everything was deliberately and deliciously mismatched.
What Manish unveiled was a stunningly new concept. This was a multi-course tasting menu, far removed from the traditional Indian thali or pattal that served many dishes, dry or with gravy, on the same plate. It took some time before the idea gained traction.
Many food critics thought that Manish was trying to turn desi dining on its head. In less than a decade, Indian Accent has become a must-visit landmark dining destination. The portions were small and there was a lot of fusion of exotic and traditional ingredients.
The presentation was aesthetically pleasing, one may even say tantalizing, and the wines were lovingly paired. No one complained that after the meal, both the belly and purse felt light. Within ten years, Indian Accent had opened branches in London and in New York.
Manish never claimed that what he was offering was ‘progressive’, a much-abused word in politics, nor could anyone accuse him of borrowing from the Nouvelle French Wave.
The Indian accent in his recipes remained distinctly Indian, and the fusion was never confusing. Since then, there have been many iterations of this theme.
What’s avant-garde or contemporary for one generation doesn’t take too long to become passe for the next. This is what happened to the next big trend that hit Indian shores. This was the excursion into molecular space that some Indian chefs undertook with great haste.
Foams of all kinds, liquid nitrogen, and blow torches made those slogging in the kitchen feel that they were the peers of the scientists working in advanced laboratories at home and abroad.
This trend never really caught on because the worthies presiding over 5-star hotel chains were not setting a trend but merely following it. What created alarm was when molecular delicacies prepared without adequate care not only burned a hole in the pocket of the customer but literally a hole in the stomach. The wannabe scientists beat a hasty retreat.
However, by the time this hiccup was over, new chefs had emerged on the scene to ‘take Indian food to the next level’. Among them, the most consistent and inspiring, arguably, is Chef Vineet Bhatia, who has been awarded multiple Michelin stars during his career abroad. He has opened a string of celebrated restaurants in London, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia. His creations remain true to their Indian roots but are more than just tweaked. For instance, his square green jalebi.
There are other chefs who have been honoured with Michelin stars, like Shrijit Gopinath, who has consistently retained his two stars in a restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area at the Taj property. Vikas Khanna first hit headlines with his restaurant ‘Junoon’ in New York, which had the cream of society eating out of his hands.
What needs to be underlined is that most of these chefs appear to have “diluted” the strong flavour of regional Indian delicacies, often blending two flavours, to win over loyal patronage that goes beyond the diasporic community. It would be difficult to sustain the claim that they have accelerated the evolution of Indian food in any significant manner.
Zorawar Kalra, owner of Massive Restaurants, is one of India’s most interesting and successful businessmen. Inspired by his father, the legendary Jiggs Kalra, he has displayed an incredibly Midas touch. Over the past years, he has launched a slew of restaurants—the Punjab Grill, Farzi Cafe, Made in Punjab, Masala Library, Papaya Grill—always remaining ahead of the curve.
Zoravar is on the side of sensible, safe molecular interventions in the Indian kitchen and upgrading the skills of the cooks, equipping them with the latest gizmos and gadgets.
His different outlets cater to different clientele, from millennials on a small budget to those on unlimited expense accounts. Many of his eateries operate in India and have had a filter-down effect on emerging trends in tier two cities.
It seems that in the context of contemporary Indian cuisine, one trend subsides and the other immediately surges to allow the diners to ride the wave.
The rising wave at the moment seems to be the one that is rediscovering ancient grains, foraged foods, and forgotten, almost lost family heirloom recipes recovered from regional repertoires. Of course, the chefs have learned a lot from the pioneers who have preceded them.
They present their creations with a flourish, and the plate looks like a canvas painted by an abstract artist. They are sensitive to the health concerns of the younger generations as well as fads like veganism.
Nishant Choubey is one such chef who has wowed his guests in places as far apart as Bangkok, Dubai, Mauritius, and the US. He has showcased some very interesting dishes in the Michelin-plated Indus in Bangkok and won the prestigious Iron Chef contest there.
These achievements and accolades were a hard act to follow in Bangkok, where at one time, Gaggan reigned supreme. However, what Gaggan served was his interpretation of Pan-Asian and not necessarily Indian. His restaurant has a months-long waiting list that continues to attract fun-loving tourists with gimmickry like lick-you-plate.
It is difficult to forecast the future of Indian progressive-contemporary or avant-garde cuisine. At the moment, except for Zoravar Kalra’s and Nishant Choubey’s work, other creations are largely confined to expensive deluxe eateries.
The other difficulty is that many of the exciting creations of gifted chefs, like Manu Chandra’s Coorgi Pandi (pork) Curry with Levantine Pita or a Chocolate Bombe with dizzying Old Monk, are not likely to find a mass market and contribute to the evolution of pork dishes in the subcontinent. Food and drink taboos are hard to shatter.
The siddu stuffed with an inventive filling or pan-braised paneer with tandoori ananas, millet pulav with rista, on the other hand, may become aspirational and quickly find their way to tables in more affordable eateries.