Indian food is now firmly on the culinary landscape. From being known as a cuisine of curries and spices, it has made giant strides with restaurants helmed by Indian chefs being awarded the much-coveted recognition from Michelin. We talk to some chefs about the evolution and nuances of Indian cuisine in their adopted countries
BY RUKMA SALUJA
What is the change in the Indian palate? How has it evolved?
MM Butter chicken remains a popular dish but there is a change. Young Indians and Singaporeans are happy to try different starters. They do, however, want to finish the meal with a traditional curry and Indian desserts. They like to try new things but when the taste moves too far from the original, they don’t like it. Eg a regular chicken burger may not be too popular because it lacks punch, but one with Indian spices and marinade will fly off the counter.
SA People eat less chilli. They have not moved away from Indian food but are looking for a new evolved cuisine. This happens because of the relevance of time and the relevance of its own cooking. There has to be progressiveness in everything. Even art has gone through phases. Food, like art, should change because of the relevance of time and space but remain true to its cuisine. If I have to make a change it has to be true to its West Coast origins. New ingredients, new styles, new techniques, a new dish is good as long as it doesn’t lose its ethos, and what it stands for. Ingredients may have been new in the past but become part of the cuisine. Say a black cod made with South Indian ingredients and spices and techniques. It tastes the same but actually it has black cod which is not available in South India. This is exposure and opportunity to experience and appreciate that change. This is cuisine becoming progressive and diners appreciating that subtle difference. Some of these become part of the repertoire.
SS That’s not the case. Some days I might want the old and the familiar. You must remember there are those who came here 30- 40 years ago. They are old school. The younger lot and the millennials are willing to experiment.
Indian cuisine seems to be stuck with an impression of spices and more spices. To what extent have you managed to dispel and correct this perception?
MM The impression was that our food is oily, heavy and spicy and one would feel too full after an Indian meal. Now people eat out even twice a week, more than once in two or three months in the past, which was the case when I first came to Singapore in 2006. We use less fat and cream and butter and less spice. This has definitely worked in Singapore. Entrees are light, innovated recipes and are popular.
SA There’s no question about it. Back in the day, in America, you got Indian food which was thought of as cheap. Today, good quality restaurants are opening. Chefs have understood that it’s all up to them and that people don’t want to feel stuffed and bloated after a meal. It should not be a punishment after eating!
SS Too much spice hides a recipe they don’t know, or is undercooked. If you follow a recipe correctly, nothing is over spiced; it is subtle, balanced. Just because it has spice doesn’t mean it is Indian food. People very often don’t even know what real Indian food is. If you use spices indiscriminately, you are compromising with your dishes, your cuisine. We are slowly changing the perception.
What changes have you had to bring to your style of cooking to keep up with this change?
MM Plant based food is picking up. People don’t want to go straight to curries. Also, earlier, Indian desserts were too sweet and not popular. Now we do gulab jamun coated with nuts and less sugar. More starters, less sweet, more plant-based items, are ordered. People have moved away from kebabs for starters
SA You have to make sure the food is cooked properly, isn’t too oily or spicy. People are well travelled and exposed to world cuisine, they know what to expect. In the past people dined out only for celebration, today it is for a change, even if it is only chaat. In that sense, people are now used to Indian food.
SS Remember, you can only do new kind of food if you bring in new ingredients. For example, the tomato isn’t from India, but can you do a butter chicken without it? Daal can be cooked in a hundred different ways and everyone is going to say their version is authentic. When the cook changes, the taste is going to be slightly different, for that we have to follow recipes. Everything is recipe driven, ingredient driven, seasonal, and fresh. That I would say is the change.
Is the non Indian diner ready to experience traditional and authentic Indian food, without an element of fusion?
MM They go with recommendations, chef-oriented and signature dishes. There are many authentic places for traditional curries but they come to a place like Adda when they want to try new Indian.
SA Yes. Absolutely.
SS In England, yes. They have had a historical association with the country and know Indian food. That is not the case in America. They are too scared. Take my mom, for example, she’s never going to eat, say, Japanese food. That’s the way for many people; you know they are never going to try anything different. When they do come we offer them what they are familiar with. They know Tuna, so they might try a dish with it and discover a slight change from the familiar. We need to keep the traditional and also offer a variation.
What is the meaning of bringing nuance to the use of spices?
MM Some spices are not popular with the Singaporeans. Cumin for instance is a dense spice, chilli levels, garam masala. They find these spices heavy, so we avoid them, or use them sparingly.
SA When you put too much, it overpowers the taste of the actual dish. Even though we do traditional Indian food at the Bombay Brasserie, we don’t overdo the oil and spices. As I always say, if you look at everyday home cooked food made by your mom or grandmom, do you find tons of garam masala or oil? Nobody does it. How did this happen in commercial food. It was to show the richness of the food, perhaps. Chefs have
understood that this is not true.
SS How differently and how much we use, how long it is grilled or roasted. It’s about balance. If you mix spices, you get something. Should you use the same spices in everything? These are the subtle differences.
What is the secret of good spices?
MM A combination. I avoid some spices like cumin, nutmeg, caraway, kalonji, etc. In Singapore, they love coriander, ginger, garlic, black and white pepper. I use what they enjoy.
SA Buy the right quality. For example, the best peppercorns are from Malabar in Kerala. The best cinnamon is from Sri Lanka. You must know in which season to buy, the origin, how you store your spices. Know the look of cardamom, coriander seeds. Do you need to extract the flavour by tempering in oil or by roasting? Dry roasting removes the moisture for long storage and enhances a strong fresh flavour. Indian moms have done this forever. Once you understand the chemistry, then comes the cooking, the skills. Know the strong and mild spices and how to handle them. For example, too much cinnamon or star anise will subsume the other flavours.
SS How differently and how many we use spices are used, how long you cook or roast should you use the same spices? If you mix spices, you get a certain result. It’s about the balance.
In what way have you redefined Indian cuisine?
MM I make sauce in a westernised way. I strain all gravies and make them smooth. I use ingredients that are not used in Indian cuisine but cook them with Indian spices and in the Indian way. The perception is that Indian mithai is too sweet. I use local ingredients, like berries and figs that are familiar to the locals.
SA At the Bombay Brasserie we do traditional Indian food, and progressive Indian at Quilon with roots in the Indian West Coast. Because we have a mix of diners from around the world, we keep spice levels medium to allow even those who are not used to high spice levels to enjoy our meals. We don’t compromise with the flavours. I believe, you should not mess around with traditional food unnecessarily. For example, we make fish moily from Kerala with clams and serve it as soup. The sauce remains moily.
SS Redefining a cuisine is a big thing. What I do is bring a different perspective. Back in the day a guy did jalebi or biryani for 40 years. Now it is different. I am trying to reach a larger audience.
Would you say Indian food is complex and complicated? Or is it one or the other?
MM You might think it is complicated. This is because there is no standardisation which is essential but not easy because of a lack of consistency in the ingredients. You could cook your meat by the sous vide technique and use that for several dishes. That would bring an element of consistency, and make smooth sauces. This is how you can make Indian food less complicated.
SA Very complex. The number of ingredients, spices, layers and steps – it’s almost like a philharmonic orchestra. If done correctly, ours is among the most sophisticated cuisines, with so much nuance, which we take for granted because this is how we cook, we need to respect our own cuisine more.
SS Not complicated, it is complex because you need to understand the dish. Define your cuisine, get into it more, understand your ingredients and spices.
Indian food still remains low down on the list of priorities when ordering takeaway or eating out. What still needs to be done to improve this?
MM I’ve found that we ourselves have sold our food at low prices. So the perception is that Indian food is cheap. You can’t find good pasta or sushi below a certain price. They have kept the value at a certain minimum therefore the perception is that these are superior cuisines. Chefs of our generation are paying the price for this. When we try to raise prices, it is hard to break the perception that good quality Indian food can be priced higher. There has to be a concerted revolutionary approach to dispel this old perception and create a new one. Each chef is trying this at
an individual level but there has to be a common mass approach. For example, I made Indian food for 3000 people in China once and it flew off the counter. Similarly, once at a Chef’s conference in Greece, 80 chefs ate my food. So, both times I was able to showcase Indian food in a different way. This is what I mean. Together, we have to show the world that Indian cuisine is more than spices and curries.
SA This is not true in the UK. In the past, sometimes, you didn’t get proper Indian food even with Indian names. The menu might have jaalfrezi or vindaloo, but it wasn’t, really. So there was a misconception in the past. Chefs are now talking about being inspired by Indian food and spices. There’s nothing like a touch of spice to enhance flavours and this is what (non Indian) chefs have understood very well.
SS It’s never going to be number one. Can Italian be number one in India? But, slowly, eating habits are changing, it’s improving.
What is the difference between Indian and non Indian diners in terms of food preference and what they order?
MM Non Indian diners like variety. They’ll order multiple starters and are largely meat eaters. Indians are more calculating and order a mix of veg and non veg items. They order more balanced meals.
SA There is no difference. Those who are new to it are willing to experiment and ask for recommendations. We help them to order in the right combinations. Our tasting menus allow them to taste a variety.
SS Non Indians ask questions, details of ingredients and flavours, where it is sourced, and if the fish is in season. They are willing to try both traditional and experimental but will stick to ingredients with which they are familiar. Indians will always try new and experimental dishes.
Artful plating is a huge part of gourmet dining. Indian cuisine with its gravies and curries doesn’t lend itself well to this. Chefs have innovated to keep up with it. Is it possible to serve Indian food as artfully as western food without making it fusion?
MM I have redefined sauces. Chicken roulade which looks like a heart but the sauce is Indian. We should not copy western presentation but do it our own way: with edible flowers and garnishes, refined sauces, change the look and shape of the meat. All this can change the way you present it.
SA Some dishes play well on a plate. A curry can only be served in a pot. We are not driven to make it the most beautiful plate but to serve a dish true to what it is. We may change a cut but won’t compromise with a flavour or a texture just to make it look beautiful on a plate. There may be limitations to what you can do, but so be it.
SS It is possible but not with all dishes. Indian food is better when it is mixed well. French and other cuisines lend themselves better to plating. They don’t mix too much and keep things separate. You can take some dishes really far, others you can’t, without compromising the recipe.
How would you define modern Indian food?
MM One is Michelin-style like Chef Gaggan’s, which is less Indian and more Western, French inspired and with a little Indian touch. The other is when you don’t play with the basics of Indian cooking, spices, sauces, preparation, use modern ingredients, but present it differently. That gives it a modern spin.
SA I don’t understand this like I don’t understand modern art. What is contemporary? These terms are used when they don’t know how to put it in a particular box or when they have not seen it before or to show they are different from the pack. They want to be hatke.
SS Each cuisine is progressive. What we ate as children is different from we eat today. In that sense all Indian food is progressive. Broccoli and coloured peppers were not used frequently, now they are. That’s progressive, and adapted to old recipes, makes it modern. Fusion is different. We only thought of taste and flavour in Indian food. Now we look at the appearance and presentation as well. That’s modern. It’s important to understand each part of the recipe, its ingredients, cooking techniques, presentation. The story is important; it’s all about memory, how you ate it and what it meant to you.
Restaurants open and close; food trends come and go. And yet there are the old favourites that have stood the test of time. What’s the key to longevity in the world of gastronomy?
MM The key is memory. When I go to Mumbai, I want to eat biryani from Delhi Darbar. I don’t want that to change. I want to taste that same biryani that I had as a child. The second generation is eating both the old and the new. Both palates are necessary. It is respect, it is memory.
SA When someone eats at a restaurant there is a simple test. How was the meal? Oh it was a great experience. Will you go there again? No, now we’ve experienced this, perhaps after six months or so. When it is an experience you go for the thrill. It remains with you when can connect it to something. In food that is the taste and texture. You may have enjoyed the evening or the experience but if you wonder what you will go back for that is about the experience and not the food. That’s like going to a park or a circus. This experience must also connect with a much loved
dish. If you ask the five-star hotels, they will tell you the dishes that sell the most remain the classics.
SS We went to different places for bun maska or biryani. What was previously skill driven is now ingredient driven. It has to be quick, it has to be healthy, it has to look good. Look at the pictures on Instagram. Also, how you style the restaurant, service, hygiene—if you manage that day in day out, you can stay in the business. You have to evolve, you cannot stand still. Earlier it was possible.
What are the new styles and benchmarks of modern international cuisine and the way forward?
MM Chefs are experimenting with plant-based meat and chicken. Sustainability is a hot topic after climate change. I have a sustainable sauce made with stems of cauliflower and chillies. When you are a chef away from your own country you want to keep experimenting and pushing the envelope to showcase the cuisine of your country. You keep track of what other chefs are doing and see what you can also do. That is how you evolve.
SA Ingredients and the source of the produce will become even more paramount. Eg how is a chicken raised, is the variety suitable for the dish I want to make? Cuisines learn from other cuisines. Vegetarianism is more prevalent. Once Indian food is put more on the map, the world will understand how well Indian food lends itself to both vegetarian and vegan. Food will get lighter and simpler, people will understand nuances better. People are more aware of what they eat because there is less movement. Eating out is not going away. People want to socialise.
SS Farm to fork. There are so many small farmer’s market. New limited menus, super seasonal, ingredient based, alternative ingredients to meat, plant based meat, wood fired cooking, less cooked, more raw food in the menu, mainly sea food, if its super fresh. Vegan.
What is the essence of fine dining?
MM I’m not sure fine dining is entirely about the food. It is the experience more than anything else—ambience, boneless meat, service, wine selection, a good selection of liquor, the number of servers. The most important is the butler service, crumbing after every course.
SA It’s all about the experience, enjoy the food, the ambience, the cultural ethos of a cuisine. At Quilon, our food has a story: the West Coast of India. When you tell a story you go and research that story and find a connect. But when you research modern or contemporary, what would you get? That’s the importance of the story.
SS It is fine food with a limited menu and extra care with service. Earlier there were multiple people looking after you, someone was pouring your water and wine. Now there’s less staff. You may not be particular if the water is being poured from your left or your right, or about the angle of your fork. You may expect different things. You eat out more and want different but good food, not necessarily a fine dining experience. Going forward, it will be less, not go away, but will be more about good food and less about the other aspects of fine dining.
How different is Indian fine dining from western fine dining?
MM Western fine dining is usually chef oriented with a limited menu. There will be just about 20 dishes where the chefs often focus on signature dishes. Indians will have a huge menu. From the service perspective, there is no difference. We work hard on the plating. Usually wide bowls are used, and there are lots of garnishes in Indian fine dining.
SA The approach is different. We have multiple layers. But there’s a tendency to borrow and try to make it interesting. French and Italian are true to their cuisine.
Can fine dining and sustainable co-exist? (Eg. some ingredients have to be flown across oceans, which adds to the carbon footprint)
MM Singapore imports everything. So the best we can do here is avoid wastage. In the proper sense of sustainable, you use what the local farmers grow, and you dispose of it as manure. A good example is Bali in Indonesia. The government does not allow imports so the chefs are forced to use local sea food and meat and the menu changes according to the season and what is available locally.
SA Part of this is about being stuck up. People are becoming conscious. Local is the mantra. There are chefs who refuse to use imported produce. They insist on local and fresh and are hugely successful. You may not opt for Wagyu beef but you will source the best locally. And if a producer knows he will earn from producing the best, that he will get a return on his investment, he will do his best produce the best.
SS That is happening. Restaurants are placed close to farms. It’s all about local, sustainable, limited, quality, manpower.
Vegan, sustainable, detox…there’s a new vocabulary out there. We’ve had lockdowns, and takeaways became the norm. If you were to gaze into your crystal ball, what would you see ahead?
MM My observation is that vegan is followed by only certain types of people, largely those who want to show themselves as different from the rest. This is the sum total of demand at the restaurant (so far). My suspicion, and I can’t say this with any certainty, is that it will remain in this percentage. In any case, it is not a new concept for Indians. But for the sake of building a narrative around it is a must – that we offer vegan options.
SA Life will go back to normal. Takeaways will remain but things will go back to normal.
SS More plant based food and away from red meat. New things will keep coming.
MANJUNATH MURAL is from a family of doctors. Working at the Renaissance in Mumbai fuelled his desire to rise in the hospitality industry. He
became Director of Cuisine at the Song of India in Singapore that got the Michelin star for four years from 2016 – 2019. He started Adda in 2020 and received the Michelin Plate in eight months.
SUJAN SARKAR made a mark for himself at Automat, Almada, Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows in London and TRESIND in Dubai. He is
chef and co-founder of ROOH, Indian restaurant brands that serve modern Indian food in a blend of east and west, at six locations in the United States and in New Delhi. He has an Indian gastro bar called BAAR BAAR in New York.
SRIRAM AYLUR, originally a native of Kerala started his journey at the Gateway Hotel in Bengaluru, and in just two years, became the executive chef. He opened Karavali in 1990, a South Indian restaurant that specialises in authentic seafood from Kerala and Goa that became among the top five restaurants in India. In 1999 he opened Quilon in London which from 2008 onwards went on to get 14 Michelin stars.