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A lot can happen over a chaat: How regional food will have its moment in 2017


It’s yet another crowded evening in Delhi’s Connaught Place, Lutyens’ showpiece that has changed character through every decade of its 80-year history. As a nightlife hub with perhaps the highest concentration of bars in the entire country, CP’s current avatar may be quite at odds with the stateliness of its Georgian origins but no one can accuse it of having remained frozen in time.

There’s chaos and confusion, the energy of new money transforming an old business district. There are bright-eyed women in boots and jackets, men with flashy belts, who have driven all the way from their distant West Delhi enclaves to get a drink or more. Everything is alive and bustling and parking lots spill over way past the office hours. By the time we have navigated through the chaos, we are in dire need of a reprieve. Some Goan susegad will do quite well. If life cannot always be a beach, the laidback beach shack can perhaps come to us.

Lady Baga is the latest brand of Olive Bar and Kitchen, one of India’s largest restaurant companies, that owns Olive, SodaBottleOpenerWala and Monkey Bar. The idea is to recreate a Goan beach shack experience, channel some of the flower power and easygoing spirit of a Goa that perhaps doesn’t exist today.

The first of the “shacks” is set to open middle of this week, right in CP. The signboard is still going up when we walk up the stairs for a preview, looking at old pictures that capture the liberal, multiculturalism of Goa in the 1960s and ’70s . There’s one in particular that catches one’s attention. It’s an iconic poster of the Beatles, whose visit in the swinging ’60s had put the golden beaches of Calangute (and Baga) firmly on the global map. How ironic then that Goa should now be put on a platter for the Lady Gaga generation.

Lady Baga, the name, may make you smile. Inside, a faux beach with sand and two comfortable beach beds will make you scramble and fight for the right to laze on them, Chorizo Bloody Mary in hand (quite an inspired take on the Bacon Bloody Marys trending in international bars). There’s also cashewinfused vodka shots (inspired by feni), kitschy décor, Goan thalis, fresh seafood flown in from Mumbai, sandwiches, French toast, omelettes with prawn curry poured on top, all apparently pop dishes of older shacks, a huge shower, and above all, a defining video, projected wall to wall, of the sea shot for 24 hours, real time.

“You hardly have the old-style shacks anymore. But I remember those such as 29 Coconuts at Candolim that were quite something. It had tiled floors, a tree growing in the middle and a real shower, which was a big thing,” says restaurateur AD Singh, partner and managing director of the Olive Group. It’s the memory of these experiences as well as one of Singh’s older brands, Soul Fry, a two-decadeold coastal café that still rolls on in Mumbai, that seem to have inspired this new venture that will eventually go pan-India.

However, it is not just nostalgia but also a deeper thought about where the restaurant business in India is now headed and how Indian food within restaurants is panning out that is equally behind Lady Baga’s foray, complete with its cheerful psychedelia.

Future of Indian Food Anyone even remotely acquainted with the country’s restaurantscape will recognise that Indian food as a category is driving business in bars, cafes and restaurants. However, what kind of Indian food that is is debatable.

“Modern Indian”, as it is dubbed, has been the current darling. What it encompasses is hard to tell. Anything from carbon bhaji (paos coloured black with ash, served with bhaji), molecular chaat trying in vain to imitate Gaggan’s Bangkok success to deconstructed samosas, valiantly sous vided lamb, sausage aspiring to be kebab, butter chicken in sushi rolls or worse could be termed as contemporary Indian. In short, there is an overriding emphasis on plating and “fusion” at most restaurants.

Says Singh: “Over the last few years, Indian products have come to the forefront at bars, pubs, gastropubs etc. We ourselves as a company have been at the forefront of that. Unfortunately, with a lot of people jumping into the space, now there is a khichdi.” This oversupply of mixed and mixed-up restaurants and bars has begun to bore the metro consumer. Over the last few months, there has been increasing discourse against generic Indian food that relies on plating or technique to wow customers. Restaurateurs are beginning to recognise this too.

Gee! Chaat
“We are tired of modern Indian. It does not work. I don’t believe in it,” says Ankur Bhatia, executive director of the Bird Group, who is also in the hospitality business. Bhatia is set to launch Kheer, a mega 226-cover Indian restaurant at the new Roseate hotel in Delhi’s Aerocity. Inspired by the Zuma restaurants, Kheer will be an informal diner serving backto-basics kebabs and chaats with no-fuss presentations and service. The brand may travel to London later.

Rohit Aggarwal, director Lite Bite Foods, that has 12 restaurant brands across India, including the popular Punjab Grill, says any “modern Indian” food should keeps its classical underpinnings in place. “Indian food needs to be relevant to a younger audience. It can be made lighter and perhaps given a fun presentation if that truly works. But classical flavours and research is important. The way to go forward is to bring classical regional cuisines but in a younger way,” he adds. His company is looking to open its first “modern Indian” restaurant at Delhi’s Malcha Marg this year. It has also just come up with Punjab Grill Tappa, a modern format of Punjab Grill but with the parent DNA in place.

Every year, in fact, Punjab Grill conducts a “Rangla Punjab” promotion that is a culmination of travel and research undertaken by chefs and Aggarwal. They visit towns, farms and villages, sampling rustic food for inspiration. “We went to a village where the whole tradition of langar started,” says Aggarwal. Some of these travels have translated into dishes on the menu like the Kotkapur Da Atta Chicken, covered with dough and roasted in a tandoor, thought to have originated from Kotkapur in Faridkot.

Regional Goes Modern
If 2017 is ushering in a trend, it seems to be one revolving around these wholesome, researched regional flavours, presented in nofuss, “modern” ways. Not that there aren’t examples of this style of food in restaurants. The Bombay Canteen, which has had such a spectacular run in Mumbai, recreates everything from a classic nargisi kofta to the Keralastyle meen pollichathu. Its chefs are known to travel across the country, visiting gourmet cities like Kolkata, Lucknow or Kochi, every few months for inspiration.

Even Indian Accent, that ushered in the entire contemporary revolution eight years ago, relies on locally inspired flavours rather than technique even if it plays up presentation. Its sibling Chor Bizarre, Delhi’s biggest launch of last year, has remained firmly oldfashioned. The wazwan, its core strength, is now being offered authentically and beauteously at its new address — the spectacular Bikaner House.

Restaurants such as the Delhi Club House owned by Marut Sikka toe a similar line of “modern” Indian, where well researched, regional flavours are at the fore. Internationally, the acclaim of Paowalla in New York and even the success of Dishoom (whatever you may think of its food) are built on this definition of modern, regional Indian food. SodaBottleOpenerWala has reacquainted an entire generation of Indians with the idea of Irani cafes, broadening their appeal with Mumbai-style food that may not always be “Irani”.

Clearly, that is a role model for Lady Baga, which seeks to broaden the beach experience. While keeping its pop credentials in place, the restaurant serves up quality Goan food. To find fish such as bangda and bombil on a Delhi menu is an exception. The Goan curry uses rawas, all flown in from Mumbai. I haven’t tasted a fresher fish cafreal even in Goa, the xacuti with its roasted masalas is spot on, as is the vindaloo with its pork and vinegar. It’s top-class regional cooking, never mind if the format is modern and chain.

Question of Technique
Any student of cuisine and culinary traditions knows how difficult it is to navigate the ideas of historicity and “authenticity” in food. What exactly is traditional or classical? It’s a question that has no clear answers. A corollary to it is the question of technique. When cuisines evolve as a response to social and scientific changes, the techniques of cooking change too. But is pressure-cooked dal (subsequently smoked with a gun) any less than dal cooked overnight on a wood-fired chulha?

If modern Indian food is attempting to retain the soul of traditional regional cooking even as it lightens up and finds a younger, fickle audience, it is also trying to navigate the question of technique. Mindless presentations and techniques brandished as theatrics without focusing on flavours and details may have given us a contemporary Indian that we don’t quite like but that doesn’t mean that experimentation stops. The new wave of food will necessarily have to adapt — judiciously.

One of the most interesting openings of this quarter will be ITC Hotels’ modern south Indian brand in Chennai. The yet-to-benamed brand seeks to use all the expertise of Dakshin, which turned food from peninsular home kitchens into a restaurant format. While the new brand will have these underpinnings, its menu will not go the regional route. Dishes will be spice-led and restaurant-created, sometimes using modern techniques like sous vide. For a hotel group identified with its “classical” Indian food, be it the Avadhi-style Dum Pukht or Dakshin, this seems a new path.

What we deem as classic today was modern in another context. Bukhara, one of India’s most successful restaurant brands that has been running for 40 years, brought the tandoor to the fore when traditional cooks used the bhatti. It was a restaurant innovation. So was the Dum Pukht biryani that borrowed from Lucknow’s pulao tradition.

The litmus test must be whether any attempt at modernising keeps the integrity of the parent cuisine. Like Singh says, “When Avatar came, people started copying its technology without any basic storyline… If you can do both, it’s great. But if you only do only the theatrics without the substance, the soul, then obviously it doesn’t work.” Here’s looking to a 2017, when the soul comes back into modern (regional) India food.

Source: Economic times

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