Chefs are experimenting in the kitchen and are plating up more evolved versions of molecular gastronomy
“Maltodextrin. That’s the secret,” declares Chef Vikramjit Roy. He leans forward to stage whisper the details. “See. On a molecular level, Maltodextrin is a dextrose polysaccharide.” I sneakily hit Google on my iPhone, craftily hidden under a table napkin. Apparently “polysaccharides are long carbohydrates made of monosaccharides.” Great. That really clears things up. (Eye roll.)
We look at Chef Roy hopefully. Maybe it will all make sense soon. He’s finishing his speech with a happy flourish. Don’t quote me on this, but I think the story ends with polysaccharides entrapping oil droplets and thus “stabilising the emulsification.” Then they live happily ever after. Or not. I’m still a little resentful about chemistry creeping up on me in a restaurant. Though, to be honest, I should have resigned myself to it long ago – what with Molecular Gastronomy trend revolutionising restaurants right from the 1990s, with menus involving emulsification and spherification, foam and powders, deconstruction and reconstruction.
Take a deep breath. It’s not that frightening. In fact most chefs hate the blanket term ‘molecular gastronomy,’ saying it makes their food sound difficult and pretentious, when all they are really aiming to do is make meals fun.
Which brings us back to Chef Roy, an interesting poster boy for India’s foray into ‘Modernist Cuisine’ – the more evolved (and chef approved) version of molecular gastronomy. Roy’s creating a style of cuisine that’s daring and unfamiliar, yet rooted in comfort food. In Bangalore, Chef Abhijit Saha of Caperberry is on a similar mission. Working with what he describes as ‘Avant Garde European Gastronomy,’ he aims at integrating culinary arts, culinary science and culinary artistry in his food, using traditional as well as modern cooking techniques. An imitation Carpaccio, for instance, with compressed watermelon, mint caviar, chrysanthemum and microgreens. Or Sous vide poached asparagus. But also hearty, familiar dishes such as a smoked pork belly with apple-onion relish.
At Chef Roy’s restaurant, Pan Asian at the ITC Grand Chola Hotel, the focus is on reinventing Japanese food. This is a world away from India’s first wave of sushi, filled with mayonnaise, cream cheese and pickled cucumbers. But it’s also a world away from contemporary Pan Asian cooking. And it’s strongly individual food like this, created with imagination and experimentation that will influence the next wave of restaurants in this country. That’s what makes Pan Asian’s 15 course tasting menu so intriguing. And that is why I’m getting this crash course on kitchen chemistry.
We begin with a duet of homemade tofu, set with agar agar, and are served with truffle powder, created using maltodextrin, a derivative of tapioca. (Remember every “chemical” is actually food based. Xanthan gum, for instance, used as a thickener or stabilizer, is similar to yeast.)
“For me having food is also about having fun,” says Chef Roy.
“I want to expose my diners to something that is nicer, more evolved, unique… I want to leave an indelible impression. The truth is, no matter how great a chef you are, there’s only so much you can so with a potato and an onion.
So we eat Asahi beer battered oysters with soy emulsion. Cheese croquets filled with gooey gruyere and set on a fluffy puffed rice salad interspersed with roasted pine nuts and betel leaf. Warm buttery Lobster wasabi puffs, served with a pipette, so diners can squeeze sweet chilli jelly into their puffs. Tuna Carpaccio with tart, crisp freeze dried tomatoes. Scallop stuffed morels, glazed pork ribs and salmon tartar topped with dehydrated potato crumble.
While the menu does sound intimidatingly alien, it’s designed to subtly replicate comfort food. The oysters are a version of beer-battered fish and chips. The croquets are reminiscent of deep fried cheese. The lobster’s in a familiar puff pastry. “If you really look at it, every dish has something people can relate to,” says Chef Roy. “As much as I love Heston Blumenthal, the truth is full fledged molecular gastronomy just cannot work in India. If I serve you a thin sheet of pork hanging on an edible wire, will you come back to me? This will become a ‘once in a lifetime’, or ‘once a year’ restaurant. This is what I understood long ago.”
The central idea is to create food around people’s memory banks. To take a dish, deconstruct it, change the texture and temperature, but still preserve its essence. It has to be familiar, but still radically different from the original. Like our dessert. Powdered Nutella, served with tender coconut crumbs and Nitrogen infused chocolate mud. So, yes. Ultimately, we eat mud. Literally and figuratively.