Forget caviar and foie gras. Check out fancy but local ingredients that are moving into trendy menus.
What is the big food trend that will govern our dining preferences through 2010? Among the more entertaining suggestions ? both legit and made up ?are: ?market-fresh mixology? (encouraging the use of things like home-made pumpkin puree in cocktails instead of usual mixers) and increased sausage consumption! It's safe to say that these fads won't hit our shores for a long, long time.
On the other hand, what 2010 is probably going to bring is more dalliance with the exotic: French-Polynesian, African, Catalonian and Vietnamese cuisines. And we can also look forward to a democratisation of luxury foods; with foie gras, New Zealand lamb chops and truffles finding their way into many menus.
But there is another ? far more sensible, less nouveau ? trend (the farm-to-plate movement) that may just catch the fancy of the Indian diner; if a growing tribe of stylish but brave young chefs has its way: the farm-to-plate movement. This champions the cause of sustainable eating out, focusing on the fresh, the local and the organic (over the expensive and the exotic) and is a couple of years old in the West. In sharp contrast to fads such as molecular gastronomy where the ?wow factor? overrides simpler matters of taste and health, this ?movement? holds up heartier and more genuine meals put together by chefs who ostensibly go to local markets every morning with shopping baskets before putting up their menu for the day. In the day of eco-chic, meals that save on precious carbon miles are undoubtedly the fashion statement to make. In India, on the other hand, despite our rich culinary heritage and emphasis on cooking everything fresh at home, restaurants operate in a very different way. For one, menus are fixed and don't usually vary with seasons (forget daily), which means that chefs have to go out of their way to procure not-the-freshest of crabmeat or imported veggies instead of relying on the best available locally. Besides, with most Indians still shaking off their Socialist ghosts, luxury foods are still precisely that ? a luxury ? and thus coveted, whether it be a portion of Waghu beef or Iberian ham. The good news is that a few young chefs and restaurateurs are seeking to buck this trend by using local ingredients in their cutting-edge preparations.
Take the case of Sabyasachi Gorai, executive chef at Delhi's Olive Bar and Restaurant, who also heads the kitchens at Ai, a contemporary Japanese restaurant in the capital. More than 6,000 km away from Tokyo, Saby, as he is known, has been instrumental in developing a new form of sushi that has even left visiting Japanese chefs impressed. Ai's version of sushi does not use imported Japanese rice. Instead, it uses sticky black rice grown in the Garo and Khasi hills of North-east India, an area that the Bengali chef has been combing to source wild berries, honey and other products from for his restaurants.
?Instead of importing exotic ingredients, we are trying to use exotic local ingredients in our food,? says Saby, who personally surveys the likes of Shillong's Bara Bazar and other local markets periodically, where ?tribal women often come to sell wild berries or mushrooms and herbs picked by them in the hills?. Some of these have no equivalent names in English ? but are similar to ingredients used in European cuisines. The berries and mushrooms, for instance, go into the exotic jams, marmalades, risottos, pies and soups at both Olive and Ai. Wild coriander (shufla) and gandraj lemons are other prized ingredients that add to French- or Japanese-inspired cooking, and the palm jaggery earlier imported from Sri Lanka is now got from Bengal.
In Bangalore, experimentation is taking another direction with local help. Chef Abhijeet Saha of Caperberry has new ideas about plating. With the help of local farmers, he is attempting to create ?micro vegetables?. ?Everything in miniature sizes? it looks great on the plate,? he explains. For those familiar with the salad buffet at Caf?, Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, and other places, the concept is easy to understand. Fresh, organically-grown ?baby carrots? (in the case of the Delhi hotel, they are grown at the owner's farm) were the rage in 2009, showcased on buffets as such with a variety of dressings on the side. that you may or may not dip into while munching on these, a la detective Karamchand! In 2010, fresh promise is also held by organically grown herbs from the Manali belt; imported oregano and thyme will be a foolish waste of money even if high-end Italian restaurants continue to fly in tomatoes for pasta and pizza sauces (Italian varieties are deemed less tart).
From the Indian seas
In 2009, heavy-duty marketing by many countries saw Indian restaurants serving more imported seafood (and meats) at fancy prices. But even as Norwegian salmon, Chilean sea bass and Beluga caviar remain on every epicurean's wish list, you may pause to think before you order these next time you are at a fancy place. ?With such a huge coastline, we should not be importing any seafood,? argues chef Bakshish Dean, executive chef at The Park, New Delhi. Last year, in Goa, Dean came across sting ray in the local market, which was like the exotic scate in an upscale European restaurant. And it is possible to substitute our rawasfor salmon in most menus as wedding caterers and sundry mid-level restaurants (who have now begun to dub it the ?Indian salmon? without the pink colour) have discovered. But even at the top end, it is possible to have a luscious, slow grilled baby octopus from Indian waters.
Some of the best octopus, squids, tiger prawns and Blue crabs (though soft-shell ones have to be imported from Canada) come from the Indian Ocean. Most are caught off the Andamans and Lakshwadeep by Japanese-run trawlers, frozen using instant quick freezing and sent to the Tokyo fish market from where, ironically enough, many of our restaurants import these at several times the cost!
With the traditional Hindu injunction against splitting milk, we are not strong in cheese-making, except paneer. But here, again, big strides are being made. In Valsad, Gujarat, a farm run by a nativised American is apparently supplying international-quality mascarpone, ricotta, blended mozzarella to top restaurants. Flanders, a popular brand available on retail shelves, has extended its range to make excellent bocconcini (baby mozzarella), ideal for salads. ?Except for matured cheese, which requires a certain quality of water, yeast, everything has become available,? notes Dean. If you forget Blue and settle for satisfying tiramisu, it is more likely to have been made from Indian cheese. Even middle-eastern halumi is made in India.
?Give me any ingredient and I can find it in India,? claims Sudha Kukreja, restaurateur and food consultant, whose forte is pan-Asian cooking. Kukreja has an amusing tale to tell. Dining at a local restaurant in Chennai, Kukreja came across greens that the cook told her was a local variety of spinach but which she recognised as a Thai ingredient restaurants often import since it is not known to grow in India.
It's an instructive tale. And chefs are increasingly recognising it, which is why adventurous ones like Dean are off to the hills to live with local farmers on their farms. The hope is to develop more local ingredients that can be customised to the needs of our growing F&B industry. But will this translate into a large scale trend?
?Not until consumer preferences change,? feels chef Mandhar Sukhantar of Italia, Bangalore. Customers are still hung up about pricey, imported ingredients when it comes to fancy dining. And while that may be true, the chefs themselves, part of a younger, better-travelled group, are keen to work with local ingredients. ?That's because a standalone restaurant works differently from a five-star, where you have centralised lists and a chef just needs to place an order,? points out Saby. At a standalone, even a stylish one, with fewer such luxuries ? and certainly less bureaucracy ? the accent can be on more creative sourcing. With stand-alone restaurants finally coming of age in India, the local exotic has a good chance of finding its way on to our plates. As I dip a crisp piece of lavash bread into a red pumpkin dip ? that my mother would have approved of? at Italia, I contemplate that.