Rich and zesty as the country itself, India's cuisine blends centuries of cultural and geographic influences. Its present global ubiquity, however, belies its native diversity of flavors, ingredients and techniques. In fact, even Indians, at times, seem to forget the original medley of the food. The currently surging practice of progressive cooking may correct that.
By: Zorawar Kalra, Founder & Managing Director, Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd. & Judge, MasterChef India, 2016
Posted on: October 25, 2016
Indian cuisine reflects a 5,000-year history, encompassing an array of native regional sub-cuisines from the geographic landscape of the subcontinent. It has been impacted and influenced by various cultural interactions through trade relations and is, more importantly, a resultant effect of the numerous foreign invasions and colonisations by the British, Portuguese and Spanish regimes. This led to diverse regional cuisines and flavours that still delight today.
The 8th – 18th centuries saw the advent of some major dynasties such as the Chola Empire, the Hoysala and Vijaynagara Empires, Kakatiya Kingdom and the Reddy Kingdom in the South and the Ahom Kingdom in the East and the Sikh, Rajput and Mughal Empires in the North, to name a few. It was during this time that foreign travellers and traders introduced locals to new products, cooking techniques and methods, including the use of unique spices and tea, especially saffron – a hallmark seasoning in many dishes emerging out of North India. India’s economic ties, and later invasion by Persia, infused the country’s cuisine with many Arab approaches to meal preparation.
Refined by the whims of history and geography, Indian cuisine has spread to the rest of the world – especially the Western hemisphere. In the last 70 – 80 years since its proliferation, innumerable restaurants, cafés and dhabas (roadside eateries) have been introducing gastronomes from far and wide to India’s eclectic cuisine. Rotis, Tikkas, Tandoori and Curry became buzz words for diners across the world and Chicken Tikka Masala, a product developed by immigrants from the sub-continent in the UK, has come to be considered UK’s national dish. In those circumstances, until very recently, however, the hearty sprinkle of spices was adjusted – less chilly and tamed flavours – to suit the unaccustomed consumer’s palates.
Mostly, Indian cuisine, available outside of India, has been focused on the dishes found and served on the dining tables in North India, which do not necessarily represent the entire culinary landscape that the country has to offer. Despite its global reach, Indian cuisine – on and beyond the subcontinent – has lacked authenticity, standardisation and a sense of panache. In my view, the reasons for this shortcoming boil down to the scarcity of recipes and records. Every royal khansaama (cook) chose not to share their secret recipes with anyone, thus leading to the slow, but steady, death of many classic dishes. Another reason is the presence of numerous regional cuisines, with sub cuisines being present, each boasting their own iteration and variation to the same dish. As a unified region, we have never focused on taking pride in our cuisine and presenting it in the right manner to the rest of the world – a failure that has spawned an abundance of dish variations, most of them not even remotely authentic, found across the globe.
Over the decades, Indian cuisine became rather boring with the same meals and presentations available anywhere, whether it would be a high-end five star restaurant or a small roadside eatery. Sadly, the cuisine had not seen much innovation – the portions were large, focusing on quantity rather than quality, and on arrangements much resembling those of the early 1900s – which almost led to a stagnation of the cuisine. Having said that, over the past few years, restaurateurs and chefs, who have realized the need to revive the lost legacy, have been portraying Indian food in a different light. Many successfully tried and introduced fusion cooking to India’s food, which is now elevated to the next level through progressive cuisine.
The difference between fusion cooking and progressive cooking is thin yet vast. It is widely believed that whenever you mix two things together it is considered “fusion.” Even if that may be theoretically correct, fusion cuisine combines elements of various dining traditions while not fitting specifically into any and has been in existence for many years. Whereas, progressive cuisine, a relatively newer concept, focuses on traditional aspects of a region’s cuisine by using modern cooking techniques, global influences and presentation styles to showcase the food in a whole new avatar that, nonetheless, retains its traditional essence. Examples of progressive cooking are Bhindi Jaipuri, papad ki sabji and the Jalebi Caviar served at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.
As an Indian and an avid lover of the robustness Indian food offers, I take immense pride in our cuisine and believe it is up to us Indians to make the efforts to refine it and reintroduce it to the world in its modernity, while preserving its roots. And that’s the reason we commenced our current venture, Massive Restaurants, which operates critically acclaimed Indian cuisine restaurants such as Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Farzi Café, Made in Punjab and MasalaBar.
Progressive Indian food has unique elements, which allow for the dish to be presented differently, but with familiar flavours. Your eyes might not recognise it instantly, but your palate will. This has been achieved by introducing uncommon vegetables such as Turai (Ridged Gourd), Kaddu (Pumpkin), Karela (Bitter Gourd), and similar other ingredients, which were rarely – if ever – included in the menus of commercial Indian restaurants. The use of micro greens in cooking and plating is another means – apart from the use of spices very unique to its geography – to bring about fresh, unique flavors to modern Indian food.
Among the most notable contributions to development of the cuisine has been the introduction of modernist culinary techniques, helmed by restaurants such as Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Farzi Café and MasalaBar, which have revolutionised the perception of Indian dishes, making them more relevant to today’s well-travelled and exposed diners. Among my personal favourites is the wild mushroom chai; presented like an English tea service but truly Indian in it’s flavour. The beverage comprises a mushroom consommé (similar to a tea decoction), dehydrated mushrooms (akin dried tea leaves) and truffle oil crumbs (as the creamer). A dish, which I feel is perfect for the calorie-conscious gourmands, is the Raj Kachori served with saunth (tamarind chutney), where the chutney has been converted into foam, thereby offering the guest the taste and experience of the original recipe, but with an enhanced look and just 1 percent of the calories. Along with the reinvention of Indian cuisine, we are now witness to the hues of the cuisine being recorded at regional, national as well as international level through blogs, Indian foodbased online forums as well as many culinary books being published focusing on showcasing recipes from various regions and communities of India.
Aside from the radical changes being done in the menus of many new Indian restaurants world over, the cuisine has also gained ground owing to the popularity of cable television. Successful programs such as Daawat and Zaike ka Safar, followed by newer projects like the MasterChef franchisees in India, Australia, and the US showing a different, more creative aspect of Indian food, with a fine balance between traditional and modern Indian dishes and their presentation. It is imperative, and time, for us to take our century-old culinary heritage forward by imbibing cutting edge, modernist cooking techniques, working with relatively uncommon ingredients and showcasing dishes from across the country. With the acceptance of Indian cuisine in the day-to-day life of diners across the globe, this revolution is only expected to intensify with more and more chefs and restaurateurs becoming adventurous and bold with food, preparing and presenting it in a novel manner for years to come. These are very exciting times for Indian cuisine.
Zorawar Kalra, with an entrepreneurial bent of mind and a genetic love for food, has ostensibly studied the Indian food & beverage market, introducing some of the most genre defining restaurant concepts in Indian Cuisine. Considered as the ‘Man with a Vision on a Mission’ & ‘the Prince of Indian cuisine’, he has recently been recognized amongst the 50 Most Influential Young Indians by GQ India, “Restaurateur of the Year Award, 2014”, Vir Sanghvi Awards, HT Crystals, 2014 and “Entrepreneur of the Year in Service Business - F & B Services”, Entrepreneur India Awards, 2014. Managing Director of Massive Restaurants Pvt. Ltd., the company owns and operates trendsetting, critically acclaimed, multi-award winning and iconic brands like the premium fine dining restaurant Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, Made in Punjab, Farzi Café and Pa Pa Ya. Mr Kalra is also a judge on MasterChef India – an ode to his culinary brilliance. An avid golfer, he is a technology enthusiast with interests in gadgets, likes to spend most of his leisure time with his family, exploring new destinations or on the Budh International Circuit driving his prized possession with fellow sports car enthusiasts.