Modernity Rules

Posted on Analysis Dec 2011 - by Tandoori Editor
Modernity Rules

Pulling in a discerning clientele and wowing the critics, modern Indian food is some of the most revered cooking going on in the UK today. But what exactly is it? Humayun Hussain finds out.

 
Modernity comes in different guises. More often than not, it’s a case of perception and interpretation. On the Indian restaurant scene, the term “contemporary” is used relatively freely. Yet it could mean anything.
 
If modernity starts with the cooking, too many restaurants up and down the high street make the common mistake of thinking that putting the emphasis on new decor, some changes in the crockery and cutlery, and minor alterations in their menu will somehow make them “modern”.
 
Yes, it’s always nice to give your restaurant a makeover, but that isn’t unique enough. What you also need is passion and know-how, not to mention being inquisitive and receptive enough to understand how you too can be at the forefront of what modern Indian food is all about.
 
Restaurants which have blazed the modernity trail – and continue to do so – include Benares, Vatika, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, The Cinnamon Club, Amaya, Zaika and Mint Leaf Lounge. With the exception of Vatika though these are all London based, there are chefs dotted all over the country, some even working in hotel kitchens, who are today producing the kind of Indian cooking which is far from traditional and easily rivals the best of modern Indian cooking.
 
The seeds of how it all began can be traced back to the 1990s, where there were not only visionary restaurateurs willing to invest and launch upmarket restaurants, their ambition coincided with the British public’s love of Indian food, greater availability of ingredients and more than anything, the arrival from India of well-trained and highly talented chefs who subsequently went on to open their own restaurants.
 
Renowned names – the majority heading up the aforementioned top-end restaurants – include Atul Kochhar, Vineet Bhatia, Vivek Singh, Jitin Joshi and several others. Collectively, these masterchefs have taken Indian restaurant cooking to cutting edge heights. But what exactly is modern Indian food? 
 
“It’s about ingredients, it’s about understanding seasonality and sustainability, and it’s about how you can source quality produce,” says Vivek Singh, executive chef of the Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen.
 
“What it is also about,” he adds, “is about being curious and about constantly adapting and innovating. But modern Indian food isn’t just about cooking, it’s almost a way of thinking. You have to explore and find out what new elements you can bring to your tried and tested dishes and evolving your recipes. The icing on the cake to this process is presentation which also forms an important part of the equation.”
 
When Singh and the founder of the Cinnamon Club Iqbal Wahhab wrote their recipe book The Cinnamon Club Cookbook back in 2003, they used a term which has been quoted widely since – “deconstruction”.
 
This meant that in order to understand ingredients and they interact with spices, herbs and oils, everything had to be broken down to basics and then “re-assembled to create something new and desirable”. So how do you deconstruct a traditional dish?
 
“You draw inspiration from tradition,” states Singh. “You take note of the flavours that are in that dish, but then use techniques that will enhance the main ingredients. It’s about bringing an element of freshness and vibrancy to traditional recipes, it’s not about being critical of them.
 
If you are running a restaurant business in a climate where there is so much competition and the economic conditions are so harsh, you must be ready to change. It’s quite safe and steady to give your customers the same dishes over and over again, but it’s also repetitive.
 
It doesn’t evolve your cooking and it stops the chefs and the restaurant from being experimental and exciting, ultimately denying the customers from trying anything new on the menu. Offering the same dishes demonstrates no element of surprise or vitality whereas the experience of dining out for the customer should be about fun and exploration.”
 
Often, what restaurants forget is that ingredients that have not always previously been associated with Indian cooking have a huge part to play in offering customers something just that little bit different. Seafood for instance, which is available in great abundance in the UK, should form a noticeable part of the modern Indian menu. Game meat, when in season, should be another addition.
 
“That immediately puts your menu,” says Singh, “at the forefront of your customer’s perception of your restaurant and makes you stand out. Methods of cooking can vary too.
 
You could sear off a piece of meat and serve it pink or medium as opposed to cooking it completely. A fillet of fish can be given a crust of spice yet remain soft and moist on the inside resulting in a variety of flavours and textures."
 
“Indian cuisine has such a diverse and versatile repertoire,” says Jitin Joshi, executive chef of the Michelin starred Benares and Vatika, “that the need for it to change or for chefs to even think out of the ordinary, had never arisen.
 
But with produce from all over the world available to you plus the competition you are facing, not just from other Indian restaurants, but also highly skilled European chefs and restaurateurs, encourages you to be on par with them or even better.
 
The training that I received in India plus the fact that I had already been working in the kitchens of some renowned European restaurants before I joined Benares, helped me to bring all the skills I had learnt and apply them to Indian cooking.”
 
As an example of how classic Indian dishes such as rogan josh might be given a modern twist, Joshi offers the following explanation, “I would keep the same sauce as any rogan josh, but I would do something quite different with the meat.
 
So rather than having diced lamb as one would in a curry, I will use a cannon or a rack of lamb. That will naturally make the dish applicable to a plated presentation than a bowl. Then I will use some nice herbs to bring in colour contrast, have streaks of oil along with also using micro herbs.
 
What this interpretation ultimately boils down to is the knowledge and creativity of a chef. After that, it’s consistency that matters.”
 
The approach which Joshi brings to cooking at Benares starts off with him determining what is the main protein ingredient.
 
“I decide whether it’s lamb, fish or chicken, or any other meat,” adds Joshi. “Then I’ll decide on the cut of the meat which in turn will determine the method of cooking. Traditionally in Indian cooking, the cut of the meat has never been as significant or demarcated as it has been in European cooking.
 
If you are using a breast of chicken you need to ensure that you cook it in a way which keeps it moist and not dried out. If it’s a leg you are cooking, which needs to cook for a considerable time, you can cook it in a sealed bag or a steamer and braise it off in a reduced sauce.
 
After that, it’s the spicing that matters so you need to decide what type of sauce will best go with your meat – whether south Indian, north Indian and so on. I will then consider the accompaniment which may be a seasonal vegetable. Once I have determined the cooking style of that, the main components of my dish are done.”
 
When it comes to desserts, modern Indian ones take quite the opposite turn to traditional associations of being overly sweet, dense and heavy on the stomach.
 
“At the Cinnamon Club,” states Singh, “the notion was always to have accessible desserts that would sit well with customers who had a very refined palate.
 
We did this in two ways: you can either have popular European desserts and give them an Indian twist by introducing a spice or some kind of ‘Indian’ fragrance or you take well established desserts from the subcontinent and turn them into a mousse or a cheesecake-type recipe. The results we achieved offer a dynamic mix.”
 
Paul Dhayalan, head chef of Mint Leaf Lounge, personifies modern Indian cooking as one which gives your cooking an “individuality”.
 
He adds: “When I cook, I want to put my signature on the dishes. But I also want to educate the public about what Indian food is in a classical sense and also with a twist so that I confront any pre-conceptions that they may have.
 
I want to use seasonal ingredients, different cooking methods, different spices, and then put everything on a plate, giving the customer a ‘wow’ factor.
 
Joshi sums up what modernity should be about in Indian cooking, but warns that it isn’t just about changing your menu, your interior or giving your staff slick new uniforms.
 
“It’s really about how you perceive Indian cooking,” he says. “We are very lucky to be in the UK, particularly London which is such a melting pot of different cuisines and styles, which any chef or restaurant owner should be receptive to and be inspired.
 
Don’t have parameters to what Indian food should or shouldn’t be. You should expose yourself to new ideas and techniques in both coking and presentation, and implement them in your restaurant in as much as possible. Challenge yourself and be creative!” 
 
 
Sample Menus
 
The Cinnamon Club
Starters
Roasted plaice with Bengali spiced crab
Stir-fried asparagus with ‘kadhai’ spices, yoghurt gnocchi
 
Mains
Roast saddle of ‘Oisin’ red deer with sesame tamarind sauce
Plantain kofta with yoghurt and coconut sauce, beetroot chutney
 
Desserts
Warm chocolate mousse with white chocolate ice cream
Coriander and corn cake with coconut parfait, spice ice cream
Seasonal fruits with lemon grass jelly
 
 
Benares
Starters
Bhinni macchi - Goan spiced mackerel, gooseberry chutney, pickled pear slivers
Khasta murgh - Chicken tikka pie, wild berry chutney
 
Mains
Limbu jhinga - kafir lime marinated tandoori prawns, lemon rice, prawn pickle
Jal murghi - seared Gressingham duck breast, apple-cucumber salad, spiced jus
 
 
Mint Leaf Lounge
Starters
Garlic and thyme marinated chicken tikka, pickled chicken chutney
Pan seared scallops
Marinated cucumber and chilli mango
 
Mains
Pan seared sea bass tomato lemon sauce, sautéed beans 
and shrimp kedgeree
Grilled beef fore rib tomato mustard relish and sautéed potatoes
 
Desserts
Carrot Halva served with cardamom ice cream
Steamed date pudding served with vanilla ice cream and Baileys sauce
Dark chocolate mousse  served with glazed oranges
 
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