Why Indian bars are putting prawns in their cocktails

Smoking ingredients, purées, sous vide, infusions, emulsions, fermentation — techniques bartenders are increasingly using to create cocktails in a growing collaboration between the bar and the kitchen

September 05, 2019 03:38 pm | Updated September 06, 2019 01:08 pm IST

Culinary cocktails bring elements of cooking into a drink. Fruits, roots, vegetables and spices are manipulated with techniques often seen in gourmet cooking to create a drink that you associate with food, or an ingredient you are familiar with.

Take the exotic truffle for example. Chef Vikramjit Roy of Whisky Samba, New Delhi has (T)ruffling Feathers on his cocktail menu. “Inspired by the popular Bloody Mary, this drink has Absolut Elyx, fresh cold-pressed tomato juice, celery, pickled jalapenos with a Himalayan Pink salt rim and truffle oil. It took a while for guests to relate to the potent flavour of truffle, which is why we customise its flavours according to personal preferences,” he says. Also in Delhi, you could try the Tamarind and Kaffir by Harish Chandra Chhimwal, head mixologist at Serai. His personal love for these key ingredients used in Tom Yum soups pushed him to try using them in a cocktail, which is now on the menu.

The South Indian banana fritters are the inspiration for the Deccan Daiquiri says Shikha Nath, brand director of Punkah House, Bengaluru, which has ripe bananas infused with rum, forming the base of the cocktail. She says, “When you have tasted a dish, the memory stays with you. We like to use that memory and do a spin on it.”

Reiterating the power of food memories, Syed A Kazmi, assistant manager, Venues, Aloft Cessna, Bengaluru speaks of the popular Banarasi paan and how his bar has incorporated those familiar flavours into a desi -style pouva with white rum to create a liquid paan of sorts. He says, “The philosophy behind combining food with spirits, is to provide an experience of rich and familiar flavours while uniquely modifying classic cocktails.”

Take the Mexican classic Micheladas; iconic even in its regional variations. Ashish Shetty, manager at Sancho’s, Mumbai offers the Prawn Michelada made from homemade prawn sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato juice and a few dashes of Tabasco. The glasses are rimmed with tajin (a tangy and spicy Mexican seasoning) and topped up with Mexican lager. Shetty says, “Bartenders and mixologists have been known to look into kitchen cabinets and to chefs for inspiration, exploring flavour profiles from tart, savoury, to earthy notes giving a whole new dimension to their drinks.”

A unique mix

Blending food flavour profiles into cocktails has seen some unique creations, but more importantly, has enabled the use of several kitchen techniques at the bar. Robert Hospet, beverage manager, Sanchez and Sriracha, Lounge Hospitality, Bengaluru speaks of how he has used infusions in his cocktail, the Geisha Garden. “We infuse vodka with pandan leaves that are used in making pandan cottage cheese at the restaurant. The leaves are washed and then added to the vodka in a jar and cold-infused for a week. Every day, we stir the jar for two minutes. This infusion is then mixed with red wine syrup, blueberry jam, vanilla chilli sugar and apple juice to create the drink. The cocktail is served on a bed of micro greens for that added visual appeal. Pop Up is where I add vodka to Indian masala popcorn, and use the sous vide cooking technique for four hours to extract flavour from the popcorn.” Robert is also keen to try the sophisticated Rotavapor (rotary evaporator) which is used extensively in Singapore in kitchens and bars.

Kavan Kuttappa, head of creative culinary, The Permit Room believes that when melding food into cocktails, it has to be subtle and has to blend with the spirit rather than overpower it. Working with purées, he says, “We have a coriander chutney purée rimming the glass of a Chill Pill Maadi, which is a cucumber and coriander-flavoured vodka drink. Very refreshing, comparable to the flavour from the street-side cucumber stalls in the summer.”

Using the ancient method of preservation — shrubs, is S Balakrishnan, mixologist, Brew & Barbeque, Bengaluru. He explains, “The process involves cooking with a tart-like apple cider vinegar to retain flavour for a longer time and add a new dimension to it. It increases the shelf life of ingredients too. Our Indian palate is accustomed to sour flavour profiles, from the regular use of tamarind and lime in our cuisines. This makes beetroot a difficult ingredient to work with. Our Clover Beets cocktail uses a raspberry-beetroot shrub, which combines beetroot with the tartness of lime and raspberry purée cooked in-house with a splash of apple cider vinegar. The cooking process is to combine the complex flavour profiles and bring about a harmony in the drink.”

Aeration, carbonation, dehydration, emulsification, distillation, cold pressing, compression are some of the techniques that Vikramjit uses. Additionally, home-made carbonated concoctions with herbs and spices are also made with the help of siphons and CO2 chargers. Dehydration of processed fruits and vegetables to incorporate textures is also employed extensively. All of which fosters a new camaraderie between the kitchen and the bar.

New synergies

If there is one thing that culinary cocktails have done, it is bringing in new synergies between the kitchen and bar. “There are a lot of things we learn from the kitchen,” says Garry, senior mixologist, YOUnion, Mumbai, who has used several culinary techniques in his cocktails. “As a result of this trend, we will see sustainable cocktails making an appearance. When the bar and kitchen work together, you can control a lot of wastage. For example, mushroom stocks are usually wasted in the kitchen, but we can make a cocktail of it. Aquafaba, the water from cooking legumes, can be used as an alternative for egg whites in cocktails with a single ingredient.”

Speaking of reducing kitchen waste, Ashish cites the use of cucumber, lemon and orange peels, to make syrups and in-house bitters, as well as for garnishes. Robert too believes in culinary cocktails working towards reducing kitchen waste and uses leftover coriander stems from the kitchen in bulk to create his own soda.

Another aspect Kavan points out, is that there is a much stronger bond that is formed between the bar and the kitchen. “The use of kitchen ingredients gets the chef to think and ideate about what could work in a glass. This exercise is refreshing, as well as a break from the hot kitchen. The bartenders also learn a great deal about ingredients, storage and use. It is a win-win situation for all,” he says.

A thought that Vikramjit adds to when he says, “What is important for me is that now people appreciate bartenders more because they see the hard work that goes into making a drink. The horizon has expanded. It’s a great space to be in and is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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