Adding desi tadka
Ahead of World Food Day on October 16, Debarati Palit Singh finds out the popular global cuisines that have been adapted to suit the Indian palate, and how far chefs can go
For years, we have relished Veg Pizza, Bombay Toast, Veg Shawarma, Chicken Lollipop and numerous such lip-smacking items, without realising that they do not originate from India. Taking cue from global cuisines, chefs here have reinvented these dishes by tweaking the recipes to suit the Indian palate. But even within India, the taste of fusion can vary from region to region, city to city and even from one restaurant to another. This is because our culinary experts bring to the table their own learnings and experiences, and they also have to keep in mind the local taste and who they are catering to.
Anuraag Narsingani, executive chef, JW Marriott Pune, says, “Apart from a few regions, the kind of food that is served in China is mostly bland even though it is flavourful. Japanese and Italian cuisines are no different. A good Italian dish will be made of eggplant, basil and cheese. That’s it. In order to introduce Indians to international cuisines, chefs have been using flavours which people here have been exposed to since childhood. For example, restaurants use red chilli powder instead of paprika. That said, chefs are also educating people about ingredients and cuisines, so that they can eventually try the authentic ones.”
Sidney Dcunha, executive chef, Conrad Pune, says that not just standalone restaurants but popular food chains too had to change the flavours of their items to cater to Indian taste buds. Citing an example, he says, “In the early ’90s, when McDonald’s entered India, the taste of their burgers was same as the ones they served in the USA. But instead of beef, they used chicken. Gradually, they realised that they need to change the taste and they did. Not just McDonald’s, other global brands like KFC also introduced Indian, and healthier versions. Their items have Indian flavours and they did so because India is the largest population they cater to. If they don’t serve what people want here, they cannot survive.”
In terms of business, Sandy Singh, partner, Iceberg Hospitality, which owns Prem’s, Swig Bar and Eatery, Euriska and Kinki Modern Asian Kitchen & Molecular Bar, says that restaurants serving authentic cuisines have a challenging time compared to the ones serving Indianised version. “People will visit the restaurant a couple of times for its novelty factor and uniqueness but if customers do not like the taste, they will not come back. They will choose a relatable restaurant. We have a handful of restaurants serving pure, authentic global cuisines in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. You have to serve what the customer wants,” he says.
Indian food has had several influences from different regions and continents. As people of other countries came to India for trade, discovery, conquest or colonisation, they shared their cooking secrets with us. Later, the recipes were reintroduced by Indian chefs, albeit with a few twists and turns. And thus began our tryst with Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Arabian and Thai food.
Dcunha says, “Chinese is the popular one. The Indianisation of Chinese food began in China Town, Kolkata. That’s where all the Chinese people landed up. Later, a popular chef in Mumbai carried it forward.” Sharing how Manchurian may have come into existence, he says, “Chefs added chopped onion, garlic, coriander and instead of garam masala, added soy sauce. This gave birth to Manchurian.”
When Dcunha was working with other hotel chains, he found that visiting Italian chefs were not aware of pink sauce. “Many of our patrons wanted spicy pink sauce, which the Italian chefs found offensive. Another, Indianisation is the pizza made of thepla, which takes the healthier Gujarati base and adds pizza toppings,” he adds.
Narsingani says that after Chinese, Thai is very popular, followed by Italian and Japanese. “Earlier, Mexican was Indianised to a great extent but now we do not see too many Mexican restaurants, either they have folded up or are a small part of multi-cuisine restaurants,” he adds.
Tweaking it right
Tweaking the dish requires some artistry, and of course, the expectations of the guests have to be kept in mind. Chef John, Monks and Blues, Baner, says that Indians want a lot of spice in their food. “So even when we are preparing European dishes, we have to add spice. Along with that, we have to make a different kind of presentation,” he says, adding, “However, we add spices in lesser quantity. We try to balance between two cuisines, for example, Goan with European. We create the menu accordingly so that patrons get two things in one dish — European presentation and Indian flavours.”
While tweaking the recipe, John points out that one should not miss out on the taste. “It is the first and foremost thing while preparing a food item. Everything else is secondary,” he says.
Narsingani brings up some interesting factors that decide what you serve. “Any action has to be based on the geography of the place, but a lot also depends on the philosophy you follow. If you believe that you have opened an Italian restaurant and want to serve only authentic food, you can stick to it. But on the other hand, you may think, ‘Do I want to go with some dishes which are Indianised and some which will remain true to its originality’. The deciding factors will be your target clientele and pricing. You have to live up to the expectations of the guests. If they expect an authentic fine dining place, you cannot serve them Indianised versions. Finally what matters is the concept that you want to bring in. The marketing has to be done in a way that the guests are educated accordingly. It all boils down to how the restaurant has been promoted,” he adds.
Like everybody else, Aakash Sachdev, executive chef, Four Points by Sheraton Hotel and Serviced Apartments, Pune, says that things have to be a bit ‘localised’. “Local is the new mantra. We have to promote what is indigenous. When we work with world cuisine, we not only have to pick the best from across the globe but also ensure that Indian flavours can be infused into it and the local palate enjoys it. No one would like to have under done shell crab or rare scallops,” he says.
Where to draw the line
There is no denying that Indian cuisine has borrowed influences from different parts of the world, either unabashedly or in a conventional manner. But how far can one go? “If I have a speciality restaurant, I will not play around with the cuisine, and will keep the identity of the restaurant intact. That said, we only play around in the coffee shop, and buffets and brunches, where we can take the liberty of having a theme and working around it. In terms of authenticity, we dilute it a bit but maintain the flavours,” says Dcunha, adding, “Indian Accent in Delhi, which serves modern Indian cuisine, keeps the flavours of the dishes intact.”
It largely depends on guests’ feedback, points out Narsingani. “We try to understand if guests are actually trying to experiment with the cuisine or happy with the original or authentic version. We also see the number of portions which are sold and if certain dishes are selling high,” he says adding that in case of a new restaurant where the concept is Indian fusion or Italian fusion, they have to educate the guests on what they can expect. “They should be prepared to accept Pasta in Makhani Gravy or Piccata topped with Chicken or Paneer Tikka. The name of the restaurant also plays a big role,” says Narsingani and continues, “Everything goes hand-in-hand because it’s no longer just food. It’s a meal experience, which means from the first stage of Facebook and Instagram, to service, arrival, food, exit — everything is important because guests are well travelled.”
The main ingredients can be from different parts of the world but spices must be local. “However, the ingredients should not overpower the spices. If we understand the history of Amerasian cuisine, they have nothing of their own. They bring the best of both worlds and fuse it according to the palate. Chicken Tikka Masala used to be the national dish of the UK, to which they added their own spices. That’s how everybody approaches global cuisine. They pick the best ingredients and the best way of creating food,” says Sachdev adding that once he had Tandoori Dhokla and simply loved the dish.