It is a dark and stormy night. Traffic on Delhi’s pot-holed roads has been crawling for hours. In the quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood of Friend’s Colony, however, 35-odd diners at boutique hotel The Manor are getting ready for a treat: a 10-course menu featuring some of the bravest, most avant garde Indian cooking yet.
Inside, chef Prateek Sadhu, 34, is readying to roll it all out. This is the first day of a three-day pop-up of Masque, his Mumbai restaurant. Tickets sold out within 48 hours of announcement. Pop-ups in four other cities are to follow — Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Leh, where Sadhu will keep adding elements to the dishes, building newer ones as he finds inspiration in local cuisines and ingredients.
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Unique and universal
Before the pandemic hit, Sadhu had been doing precisely this at Masque — a restaurant sans a menu, where guests are encouraged to sit inside a ‘lab’ and experience how he puts together thoughts and flavours after trips to different regions and farms across the country. The restaurant, which turns five this September, recently made it to number 32 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list of 2021 — the only Indian entry apart from Indian Accent in New Delhi (at number 18).
But this is the first time that many gourmands in other Indian cities are getting to experience Sadhu’s distinctive cooking because even within our competitive, growing restaurantscape, Masque is more niche than popular, more experimental than mass. Which is a shame because it is perhaps the only one in the country that prizes pure experimentation over commerce. If Masque was cinema, it would have been Satyajit Ray’s.
Like art house cinema, there is both the unique and the universal in Sadhu’s oeuvre. Take, for example, some of his dishes from the Delhi pop-up: course one was ‘Carrot kanji , bhekti ’ — brined and cured fish, pickled Kashmiri cherry, pickled lime, gongura greens, aam papad , and carrot kanji . Sour is perhaps the least accepted of tastes with the Indian palate. But Sadhu pushes that boundary with this study in sour. Fermented traditions from across India have been layered — northern Indian kanji , eastern aam papad , southern gongura , the pickled lime of the numerous pan-Indian achars , and the elusive Kashmiri cherry.
In course two, Sadhu puts out ‘Corn pani puri , kalari kulcha , ghevar and chok charwan with tomato rasam ’. What could be the thread of thought running through his mind while putting together such disparate regional influences? A study in textures: of crusts and breads from several Indian regions. The Marwari ‘pure veg’ ghevar serves as a base for Kashmiri lamb liver, startling purists, but look closely and you’ll find a redefining of the idea of Indian bread.
Food that doesn’t pander
Sadhu seems to use his individual experiences — his Kashmiri roots, travels, and the innate internationalism that comes from his stints at top global restaurants such as Alinea, Le Bernardin and Noma — as the lens to look at more universal Indian culinary traditions. Kashmiri lamb neck yakhni meets morels miso in what turns out to be his most popular dish that evening; rogan josh sausage and katlam , the Jammu bread, masquerade with NYC casual-chic; and Pondicherry chocolate gets combined with indigenous central Indian flower liqueur mahua that not many urban Indians have tasted before.
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“In a way what he does is the opposite of what I do because I do not mix different regional cuisines,” chef Manish Mehrotra, one of Sadhu’s guests that evening, who came with his teenage daughter Adah, tells The Hindu Weekend . Mehrotra, widely regarded as the father of modern Indian cuisine, whose signature Indian Accent dishes continue to be copied and regurgitated by chefs in even small towns, finds Sadhu’s voice to be among the most unique in Indian kitchens. “He mixes cuisines and is not afraid to experiment even if diners here do not accept certain tastes or the importance of things like acidity, something that all Michelin-level dining pays attention to internationally,” he points out.
- Influenced by zero wastage, techniques like fermentation, and local ingredients sourced directly from farms, the philosophy behind Masque has remained the same since it launched. Even as Sadhu sharpened his focus to researching diverse subregional cuisines. So what is his ambition in the next five years? “It is always to survive,” he says candidly, about the difficulty of balancing commercial success with cutting-edge experimentation. The pandemic has made this tougher. “The next few years will definitely have to be about healing from our current difficult scenario. But, personally, my ambition is to dig deeper into Indian cuisines. I feel I have only scratched the surface. I want to look at home recipes, bring them into the restaurant after R&D, understand different regions and subregions, castes and sub-castes, and how food has changed so many things in the country,” he says.
Sadhu’s signature style is neither purist nor populist, and it is definitely not derivative. In fact, his individualistic experimentation is one of the ways forward for modern Indian food. ITC’s Manisha Bhasin concurs. “There are two schools of thought when it comes to Indian food, one is purist and other is inventive. But what I like about Prateek’s food is that it is not about presentations; the food talks to me, there is a purity in that,” says Bhasin. ITC hotels will be the venues for Sadhu’s pop-ups in Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.
Younger chefs like Dhruv Oberoi of Olive, who was also a guest at the pop-up, add that this is perhaps the boldest experimentation in Indian gastronomy yet — with a sense of internationalism in the dishes. “While a few of the courses like the lamb yakhni were comfort, there were bold combinations like chocolate and mahua that I had never experienced before,” says Oberoi.
What is authentic?
I remember the first meal I had at Masque, in the first week of its opening in Mumbai in 2016 in a mill compound that had fallen into disuse. There was Himalayan rye bread and sea buckthorn berries from Leh, there were textures of potato using techniques like dehydration, cooking in an earthen pit, and sous vide , there was olive oil specially pressed from Rajasthan. The whole approach was described as “botanical bistronomy” — what appeared to be a mix of international styles of cooking using carefully-sourced (and often unheard of) regional ingredients. Over the last five years, that focus has sharpened.
Sadhu now uses Indian ingredients as well as cooking styles and techniques and refashions them. But the sense of internationalism still binds all these. Does he see his food as Indian? “Indian food as we know it today is a result of constant evolution. What is authentic? Is my mother’s rogan josh more authentic than what my aunt cooks? Authentic is subjective; food is the result of migration and is constantly evolving. So while tradition is important, innovation is critical,” he says. His Indian food, he points out, is not about returning to regional recipes and simply plating them with new tweaks. “It demands revisiting ingredients in altogether new ways that can build cross-cultural bridges,” he adds.
As you eat a bhetki with clam rogan with a puri flavoured with Goan sausage, thinking cross-cultural bridges is inevitable. The pop-up menu will continue to evolve over all its stops — much like the journey of food itself.
The upcoming pop-ups will be priced ₹5,500 plus taxes. Bengaluru on August 20-21 and Chennai on August 27-28.
Sadhu’s innovative cooking and internationalism (that comes from study at the Culinary Institute of America plus work at top global restaurants) have been winning him recognition ever since Masque launched. In its first year, it was ranked among the top 10 on Food Tank’s 2016 list of restaurant innovators in the world. In 2020, the restaurant received the Miele One To Watch award in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list before debuting this year on the main list. Sadhu has been the first Indian chef to be a brand ambassador for Champagne brand Krug and, more recently, he contributed a simple but inventive beets with peach chunda recipe for the #Amexforfoodies cookbook featuring recipes by top global chefs. Before the pandemic, Masque had also been collaborating with leading chefs across the world to host pop-ups, including with Matt Orlando who helms Copenhagen’s Amass, in 2017.