What really makes a classic Indian dish ‘modern’?

This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.

The rulebooks are left behind, giving exceptional chefs a clear hand to imagine the food of our country in a manner never known before. Here’s an insight into India Modern.

In a recent pop-up at The Leela Palace in Delhi, Chef Deepanker Khosla put on show his creations at Haoma, his Bangkok restaurant. It was an epic experience, with homage paid to icons such as Heston Blumenthal’s legendary seafood creation. In the same breath, Haoma also offered what at its very core was a humble snack that you’ve probably never given much thought to — the Matar Kachori.

Earlier this week, the venture walked home with a Green Star under the 2023 Michelin guide for Thailand.

This probably tells you a lot about the food of modern-day India — a cuisine that is taking recipes of family heirloom, and that of the nukkads of the hinterlands, and putting them up on the world stage. There’s drama and a moment of suspense too, but at its heart stands the advent of a cuisine that is evolved, mature, ready for global palates, and essentially an evolution of everything that ‘Indian food’ has stood for in the world.

It’s not just about traditions

For long, the food of India, represented around the world by some of the greatest chefs produced by our country, has echoed soulfulness in every bite. The modern Indian culinary playbook is out to heighten this further — while the soul of the food remains, what has evolved are the ideas.

Today, modern Indian cuisine is no longer only about traditions — it is an eclectic combination of what a chef envisions his dish to be. In the process, today’s creations involve precision and art on a plate, a representation of India’s food that has never been seen before.

Take the Matar Kachori, for instance. Chef Khosla’s creation looks nothing like the messy nonchalance with which such a kachori is served, wrapped in an old newspaper — a touch of mirchi achaar served in it too. Replicating this grungy snack, Haoma’s creation looks nothing short of an emerald coral — as if it were a jewel.

This is where the boundaries of honouring traditions merge with the wings of creativity, technique, and thought.

Perhaps the first of its kind to have created this experience, based in India, was Avartana — starting off as a multi-course, pan-Indian dining experience. Born at ITC Grand Chola, Avartana’s offerings straddled the length and breadth of India, creating their own take of the humble rasam as if it was the most luxurious of soups.

Even the very rustic Butter Chicken got a mull-over, leading to Avartana’s melt-in-your-mouth, pocket-sized bite of the very same dish.

Taking India to the world

This revolution of sorts has been helmed by some of India’s greatest chefs who have brought our fare to the rest of the world. Pioneering chefs Vikas Khanna and Vineet Bhatia have played massive roles — even if their own cooking styles are possibly the greatest tributes to the traditions of our mothers and grandmothers’ Indian home kitchens.

Today, Khanna’s Culinary Icons of India list celebrates and puts the limelight on chefs taking Indian food to the world. Bhatia, on the other hand, could be heartily credited for having brought the best of India’s flavours to the UK.

What this globalisation of Indian cuisines did is prepare palates for more regional and sub-regional dishes. On the other hand, it also opened up a demand for the rustic foods of India to be savoured in epic fine dining theatrics. Thus came Indian Accent — the legendary restaurant that gave our own cuisine the packaging of Western modernism. The genius of Chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent’s popularity is so ubiquitous that even the biggest fine dining chains today speak of the establishment as a reference, a benchmark.

These veterans of the Indian culinary domain have handed over the ethos to younger chefs, too. One such instance could be seen earlier this year, when Chef Vijaya Kumar’s South Indian fine dining restaurant, Semma, bagged a Michelin Star in New York City.

Semma is perhaps also one of the best examples of what modern Indian cuisine is, taking our country to the rest of the world. While the ethos of the food that Semma serves is steeped in tradition and history, the approach and modern layout makes it a venue that attracts long queues, and even encourages patrons to call in advance to ask for their specialty dishes.

Sustainability, local sourcing, and an eye on finesse

A key philosophy rising in the modern Indian culinary industry is an eye on nature. Haoma, for instance, is a self-sustaining restaurant that grows the produce that it feeds its customers.

It’s not just sustainability that is in sight. Semma, for instance, celebrates the recipes of Tamil Nadu that no commercial eatery markets — recipes that are heirloom secrets, passed down generations in remote districts and villages in the state. What the modern ventures are thus doing is breaking down the food of India into sub-regions — a finer focus that was never seen before.

This also adds a newfound finesse to the heirloom recipes. Dishes that were cooked with all heart and served on a banana leaf for a hearty meal on a Sunday afternoon continue to be so — but with a makeover that plates them for a global, more urban audience.

When talking about his venture that took refined Indian food to the UK in the ‘90s, Chef Bhatia told TravelDine in August this year, “Instead of putting the food into a bowl or making it look like a brown stew or a red stew, I started putting it into various kinds of serviceware and making it look interesting. Now that was the precursor for what you call modern, progressive cuisine, because no one was doing it in those days, in 1992-93.”

“That snowballed into putting Indian food into various kinds of tasting menus or set up into courses, which had never been done before. Everybody said, ‘how can you have a five-course Indian meal?’ But I said, if you structure it correctly, there’s enough protein, enough starch, enough carbs, and vegetables to complete the entire meal and still feel light. The food was very refined,” Bhatia said.

It is this anecdote that shows how the origin of the well-travelled, well-groomed Indian cuisine took place over the past decades. And, it’s not just finesse, either. The modern Indian cuisine’s own rulebook means that there are no hard restrictions to the ingredients today — Haoma, for instance, prides its fare upon the produce of Thailand. Semma, too, bases its seafood on the fresh catch in the West Coast of the US.

And, they’re doing so with grace, intelligence and aplomb that is at par — or greater — than every other cuisine around the world.

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