Just how Tuscan is the allegedly ‘Central Italian Cuisine’ served to us at the hot new trattoria downtown, everyone is flocking to? Is the real Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) made with shredded cabbage or noodles? Such questions raised by sceptical diners are aplenty. Many times, the answers elude them with epicures pondering over the originality and authenticity of a particular international dish or cuisine, which is thrust down their gullible throats by parvenu maestros.
In the epoch-making era of the ever-evolving F&B space, there is one pronounced truism, which has never been more apparent, and widely-accepted: “culinary veracity”. Often on the menu cards of restaurants that claim to be the real deal, are iterations, which one is expected to chow down on, without a whimper of protest. But times, they are a-changing. While Australian MasterChef Gary Mehigan is whipping up crispy dosas and fluffy medu vadas in Down Under, and food diva Nigella Lawson is cooking fish with panch phoron in the English weather, chefs from across the globe have zeroed in on India, and are crafting subtle flavours for tastebuds staunchly reared on ghee and masalas.
Recognising this trend is a whole bunch of standalone restaurants and hotels across the country that are increasingly employing expat chefs from the country of origin of the food they serve, not just to improve their positioning, but also to ensure quality and “culinary veracity”, if you please. All in a bid to bestow on their food a distinct gravitas and authority they purport to have. What does it take to ride the crest of this culinary wave and bring a portmanteau of international dining experience and authentic cultural nuance to Indian diners? We take a look.
La Vida Loca
Spanish chef Manuel Olveira Seller’s classic food word is “integrity”. The 37-year-old chef and founder of Mumbai’s top Spanish restaurant, La Loca Maria, believes it is a two-way street. “I feel that Indians are now appreciating the integrity of a dish or cuisine,” says Seller. After five years of running his restaurant, he believes that patrons in his adopted country “are not as keen on asking for extra chilli or major tweaks. It’s like they’ve developed a deeper respect for the chef’s original vision, which I truly appreciate”. He attributes this trend to a growing interest among foodies here to explore varied cuisines, and an increasing appreciation for fine dining. Born in the UNESCO heritage town of Toledo in Spain, Seller’s gastronomical exploits have taken him from Spain to Dubai. He got his first glimpse of the intricate science of cooking in his mother’s restaurant, where he was already helping out in the kitchen when he was 14 years old.
He has come a long way in his appreciation for Indian food. He recalls his experiments with making a dosa for the first time, which looked more like “modern art”. Indian food has had a profound impact on his culinary sensibility. “The ingenious use of spices, the artful balance of flavours and the emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, have all left a mark on my cooking philosophy. It’s a constant source of inspiration,” says Seller, who sometimes loves to indulge in a perfectly spiced butter chicken. “Paella is my ultimate comfort food. The aroma of simmering rice in an aromatic saffron broth, with family gathered around a big pan of the beautifully cooked dish are moments I live for—a feeling of comfort and a celebration of togetherness,” he says, his voice belying his obvious nostalgia.
“The ingenious use of spices, the artful balance of flavours, and the emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, have all left a mark on my cooking philosophy. It’s a constant source of inspiration.”
The humble coconut was Chef Nisa Yimthong’s great source of comfort during her initial years working and living in India. The ever-smiling Thai chef at Shangri-La Eros in Delhi has a great love for the coconut; a mainstay of not just in Indian cooking, but also in her home country, Thailand. She has been working in India since 2011. “The versatility of coconut oil in Indian cooking adds a delightful richness to the dishes, enhancing their depth and aroma,” says Yimthong, adding, “I also find the aromatic essence of cumin seeds and the comforting warmth of coriander powder captivating.” Her heart, however, still beats for her home country, Thailand. “My culinary inspiration has been my grandmother. Her passion for cooking, and her deep understanding of the importance of fresh ingredients, left an indelible mark on my culinary appreciation,” Yimthong reminisces, admitting that Indian cuisine, too, has profoundly shaped her cooking style, especially the meticulous use of spices as well as the artistic presentation of food. “Incorporating elements from Indian cuisine has given my cooking depth,” she admits.
In the last decade that the 40-year-old Yimthong has been living in India, she believes that there has been an evolution-of-sorts in the tastebuds of her patrons—particularly in their openness to experimenting with new flavours. “Just like how I have opened up to tastes that I did not grow up with,” she explains. A case in point is her love and appreciation for the North Indian favourite—chole bhature. “It’s a culinary masterpiece, which perfectly encapsulates the essence of Indian gastronomy,” she says.
"What has left the most profound impression on me is the incredible warmth and hospitality of the Indian people,” says Amiel Guerin, the founder and executive chef of Amiel Gourmet, a modern French restaurant in Bengaluru. The 35-year-old Frenchman has been based in India for 13 years now, the last eight of which he has been running his eponymous restaurant. He attributes the success to the heightened awareness of his loyal patrons, who now have a deeper appreciation for his culinary offerings. “Indeed, our patrons have become increasingly conscious of our approach. We prepare French cuisine using locally sourced ingredients,” says Guerin, whose recipes often incorporate Indian vegetables and spices. “Being here, I also rely on predominantly India-made equipment. I don’t intend to challenge Indian chefs in their domain. Instead, our goal is to infuse elements of local flavours and influences into contemporary French dishes.”
Born and raised in Brittany, France, Guerin began his culinary journey when he was only 12 years old. While his fondest food memories hark back to his mother’s tomato tart and his dad’s osso buco (Lombard cuisine of cross-cut goat shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth), he admires the incredibly diverse, rich, flavourful and vibrant Indian cuisine. “India is a culinary continent. I have
a special fondness for South Indian breakfast, Kerala’s delectable fish curries and parottas, Sikkim’s thukpa and momos, Naga smoked pork, and the rich curries and naan with kebabs from North India,” says Guerin, who firmly believes that the essence of a cuisine is not confined to a specific country or location; instead, it is a reflection of the chef and the team, which bring it to life.
“I don’t intend to challenge Indian chefs in their domain. Our goal is to infuse elements of local flavours into contemporary French dishes.”
While she may be economic with words, 46-year-old Japanese-native Chef Mari Kakehi of Sakana makes sure that the food and flavours of her Japanese restaurant speak a whole lot more. Having made her home in Goa for the last 14 years, Kakehi has settled well into its laidback lifestyle and pace. She thinks it’s not very different from the life she led back in Japan. “India has had an immense influence on my cooking over the years,” says Kakehi. The experimental Sakana uses a generous sprinkling of homemade garam masala in Japanese curry, imparting a spicy touch to the mild, and somewhat sweet, dish. “Before coming to India,
I could never have imagined that a Japanese dish could also be spicy,” she exclaims. Her appreciation for her clients has grown over the years. “I am happy to see that they eat a lot more raw fish and meat (in the form of sashimi) than before. Moreover, just like how I’ve begun to understand the spicy food of India, diners have started to acknowledge the fact that food can be simply flavoured and made with less oil,” she smiles.
Kakehi’s favourite Indian dish is dal fry, which she can never get enough of. “But back home in Japan, my favourite dish is yakitori (grilled meats). In fact, as kids, my parents would take us regularly to a famous yakitori restaurant in Hiroshima where I grew up. Sadly, it shut down because the owner-chef passed away. No one else can make the (yakitori) sauce the way he did,” she rues.
“Just like how I’ve begun to understand the spicy food of India, diners have started to acknowledge the fact that food can be simply flavoured and made with less oil.”
Riding the wave of all things ‘Hallyu’ (Korean pop culture) is 49-year-old Vadim Shin. Born in Russia, the ethnic Korean chef came to India 14 years ago to seduce diners with Japanese cuisine. “In 2016, I expanded my horizons and ventured into the realm of pan-Asian food, embracing Chinese, Thai and Korean cooking,” says Shin. Over the years, he has witnessed a significant transformation in India’s culinary landscape, particularly when it comes to pan-Asian cuisine. “Today people are more informed about diverse flavours. There are, however, two sides to this evolving truth. The proliferation of pan-Asian restaurants in India has, in some cases, led to a decrease in authenticity, since chefs often adapt flavours to suit local tastes,” he rues.
Being Asian, Shin would have been expected to adapt to India easily. Recounting an incident from when he was new to India and visiting a restaurant with his co-workers, he shares how he drank the contents of a finger bowl, unaware of its use. Shin thought it was a part of the dessert course. “Imagine my embarrassment when I was told that it was for cleaning hands,” he chortles. He is unmistakably in love with typical Indian food. “At times, nothing can beat the rich flavours of mutton rogan josh, which I often enjoy with a side of fragrant jeera rice.
On the days when I crave my ultimate indulgence, a well-prepared biriyani always hits the spot,” he says. He believes it is important to cater to the preferences of local guests who have cherished certain ingredients for generations. “I find joy in crafting dishes that incorporate locally beloved products like paneer, bhindi, aubergine, and more,” says Shin, ever ready for a challenge.
“The proliferation of pan-Asian restaurants has led to a decrease in authenticity, since chefs often adapt to suit local tastes.”
Chef Jose Augusto ‘Guto’ Souza tasted his first “proper Indian meal” when he was 18 years old. Little did the Brazilian teenager, who grew up in Juiz de Fora, know then that Indian food would not only become one of his most favourite cuisines ever, but also the raison d’etre for him to one day move to India to launch a number of restaurants. These, over the last 18 years, have been in places like Baga in North Goa, Pune, Mumbai. The latest opened in Bengaluru. Today, the 61-year-old maestro—who started taking cooking lessons from his mother at age six—shuttles between Pune and Bengaluru, where the branches of his authentic Brazilian cuisine restaurant Boteco are currently located. In fact, when Boteco opened its doors in Pune, it was the first-ever Brazilian restaurant in the country. Its signature dish is churrasqueira (inspired by the Brazilian BBQ), and the Linguiça com Mandioca, made of seasoned pork sausages, with cassava fries.
“I have been living and running restaurants in India since 2004, starting with Fusion in Goa, followed by Go with the Flow. I am in love with spices like jeera, elaichi and garam masala, and often incorporate them in my cooking. I make sure to add just a bit more heat and amp up the flavours of my Brazilian dishes to suit the Indian diner’s palate,” confesses Souza. In fact, it was his friendship with the late great Goan artist Mario Miranda that enhanced his culinary prowess. “Both Mario and his late wife, Habiba, taught me so much about India and its rich, diverse food. Habiba, who was from Rajasthan, even taught me to make my beloved biriyani,” he remembers. He looks forward to opening his next outpost in Mumbai; it will marry his love for his home country’s fare with his unbridled passion for his adopted home.
“I like jeera, elaichi and garam masala, and often incorporate them in my cooking. I make sure to add just a bit more heat and amp up the flavours of my Brazilian dishes.” Jose Augusto ‘Guto’ Souza
India teaches you a lot of patience,” believe Dayini Feraud and Leo Michaud. The two French nationals and partner-chefs are the heart and soul of Baba Au Rhum. A popular French bakery and cafe with two branches, both in Anjuna, North Goa, the brand has been attracting scores of fans, both locals and tourists alike, for almost two decades. The 48-year-old Feraud is a self-proclaimed yogini with roots in India’s French colonial settlement, Puducherry. Before zeroing in on Goa in 2005 for good, the two ran a pizza truck in Germany, where they made everything, from the dough to toppings, from scratch. While neither is professionally trained, the 45-year-old Michaud’s parents back home are chefs, making him the natural choice to helm the kitchen in Goa.
For the business partners who were a couple once and parted amicably, patience is the key to success. And why not? They were forced to move the location of Baba Au Rhum twice over the last 18 years, thanks to overbearing landlords. “Patience is needed when trying to implement one’s food philosophy and business ethos, just the way one envisions it. That, in our case, is being sustainable and minimal waste-oriented,” say the two. Almost everything on the menu—French breads and pastries like baguettes, croissants and the eponymous, rum-saturated baba au rhums—are made in-house, and supplied by the central kitchen in nearby Mapusa. It also means getting hard-to-please diners in sync with sustainable practices like serving free RO water in place of bottled water and using biodegradable packaging materials and crockery and cutlery. Applause has been coming their way. “A diner paid us the ultimate compliment when he said that at the eatery, he felt transported to Auroville, due to its relaxed vibe,” recalls Feraud while digging into her comfort food—idli-chutney.
“Patience is needed when trying to implement one’s food philosophy and business ethos. That, in our case is being sustainable.”
The Zen Way
The master at the helm of the iconic restaurant Wasabi By Morimoto, Mumbai, the 49-year-old Japanese chef Shimomura Kazayu, is all zen. He is, like most aspects of Japanese culture, calm, cool and collected; a trifecta that forms the very basis of all things needed to be a master chef. Having lived and worked in India for the last seven years, Kazayu is all praise for his adopted country, particularly, its cooking ingredients. “I find them extraordinarily diverse in texture, flavour and nutritional value. My initial encounter with the cuisine left me in awe of the seasonings that grace every dish. Spices here have the versatility to enhance appetisers, main courses and event desserts,” he reveals.
Given his penchant for fusion, Kazayu, who has mastered the skill of tempura and gained expertise in creating kaiseki—a sequence of delicate meals featuring traditional Japanese ingredients—loves to innovate with the traditional sushi to push gastronomic boundaries. “Our patrons have a fondness for our blend of authentic Japanese cuisine infused with a contemporary flair. My immersion in Indian cuisine has taught me the art of creating truly flavourful dishes. This influence has significantly shaped my own style,” admits Kazuya; a style that has been heavily influenced by the iconic Chef Okuna from Unkai in Tokyo. While he loves to fuse flavours, his go-to Japanese dish, and all-time comfort food, is carpaccio. “I consider it a work of art. The meticulousness required in slicing the delicate fish is equal to creating a masterpiece,” he says as he returns to deftly slicing his fish, which he hopes will thrill his diners at the next meal.