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Take a Bite: The serious business of pre-meal ‘amuse-bouche’

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Abasket of papad, a piece of gud, a small matthi with achaar or papdi chaat—these have always been part of the dining tradition in India. Munching mindlessly on these titbits in restaurants, diners, however, never really paid attention to these since they were merely ‘complimentary accompaniments’, almost taken for granted.

Today, the ‘amuse-bouche’ is serious business in the fine-dining arena in India. These unexpected small treats by the chef, meant to amuse one’s palate, have started getting big attention from both the diner and the chef. Chefs painstakingly create these and diners never cease to express their admiration.

Sample this: chicken liver mousse with diced apple in a port reduction, pea soup with buttermilk granita, smoked salmon roulade with cucumber or khandvi with olive chutney—you may well be biting into any of these amuse-bouches at a fine-dining restaurant in India today.

Indeed, in the past few years, this delectable pre-lunch or pre-dinner bite/sip, dressed up with the choicest ingredients by chefs, has gained great popularity. Attributed to France’s Nouvelle cuisine, the amuse-bouche is not entirely new to India and has always been a part of the Indian dining ethos, albeit in a different avatar. Several households welcome guests with a paan made by the lady of the house or a piece of misri or dahi bhalla before the actual meal. In some regions, a meal is started with a pinch of salt.

But now, this humble companion to an ordinary meal has taken a leap most extraordinary in restaurants, and chefs in India have taken to it with a vengeance. “The amuse-bouche has always been there in our cuisine. We used to give a small portion before the meal began. In northern India, we begin our meal with a small chaat. However, now we give more importance to it and have adopted the French name,” says chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent.

Chef Vikram Arora of Tamak, Mumbai, concurs. “In north India, eating a chaat or a small matthi with achaar before a meal is fairly common. In fact, I serve it at Tamak as an amuse-bouche sometimes and guests love it as it elevates the simple matthi,” he says, adding, “An amuse-bouche is nothing but a commercial name given to a small treat by the chef, as it not only makes the guest feel special, but also gives the chef an opportunity to showcase his creativity and buy time till the order is executed.”

Simple foods taken to new heights by combining them with luxurious ingredients is quite simply what chefs do with the amuse-bouche today. And this has become the norm rather than the exception. “The amuse-bouche arrived with the evolution of the tasting menu concept in India, but it works differently. Originally, it was served at the start of the meal to welcome guests. Since the Indian cuisine uses more spices and ingredients—different from French cuisine where the amuse-bouche originated—it acts as the perfect palate cleanser between courses. A restaurant serving progressive Indian will have a more innovative amuse-bouche than one that serves traditional Indian,” says chef Saurabh Udinia of Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.

Himanshu Saini, corporate chef, Trésind Mumbai, opines, “Indians always had papadum and chutney, which are served before you start your meal at any Indian restaurant. Due to modernisation of Indian cuisine, chefs have transformed a papad basket into unique bites.”

While most restaurants have gladly adopted this trend, chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen has a different take, “The amuse-bouche is a western concept followed only in fine-dining restaurants. Ours is a casual restaurant and our ‘chintu’ tray, although served at the beginning of the meal, is chargeable and meant to be shared by everyone at the table. So in a sense, our chintus are the antithesis of an amuse-bouche,” he feels.

The amuse-bouche is what a diner tastes first and based on it forms an impression of the chef and restaurant. Small wonder then that chefs go all out to create poetry on a plate. “The amuse-bouche is like the trailer of a movie… it has to make an impact in that one look, bite or sip. In short, it has to get the juices flowing in your mouth,” says Praveen Shetty, executive chef, Conrad Bengaluru.

Not surprisingly, it’s not just any ingredient that’s used for the tiny, complimentary bite. Chefs give it due importance and a lot of thought, as it sets the tone for diners. “It’s a small portion, but an integral aspect of how diners are going to perceive the rest of the menu and, hence, needs to be perfect in terms of taste, technique and look,” says chef Udinia.

Chefs labour over it and spend a lot of time planning something quirky and unique. Chef Saini reiterates, “An amuse-bouche isn’t just a small bite. It stimulates all the senses… Chefs dedicate a lot of time and effort to create it. The flavours should be so unique that these are not repeated in the à la carte or degustation menu.”

Talking about the importance of a thought process while creating the amuse-bouche, chef Mehrotra says, “We believe even a bite-sized portion should showcase the thought process and ideology of the brand. The amuse-bouche is the first dish presented on the table, not the last, but it surely leaves a mark on the palate. We try and play with local ingredients while creating it.”
Chefs unanimously agree that an amuse-bouche can often be a testing ground for them to try out risky concepts and elicit a response from diners. They also make it a point these days to send an Instagram-worthy treat. “From tuna tataki to beetroot macarons and dhokla micro-sponge with tamarind caviar, one can go all out,” says chef Shetty.

Street food-inspired amuse-bouche is also taking centrestage in many Indian restaurants now, as chefs try to make it exotic to appease the palates of millennials who may no longer be familiar with it. Pani puri shots, dahi vada with chutney foam, etc, have all made their way to restaurant tables. “A chef uses his prowess and knowledge to put together unique ingredients and create an amuse-bouche that will excite patrons. Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra has fake eggs—spherification of mango with tender coconut gel, served in a ceramic eggshell… Farzi Café has mishti doi spheres (with) strawberry gel… and Pa Pa Ya has compressed watermelon (with) lemongrass aire,” says chef Udinia.

Talking about their amuse-bouches, chef Mehrotra says, “While creating a new menu, we follow the ‘circle of tastes’—combining flavours (sweet, spicy, salty), which complement each other and textures (crispy, crunchy), colours and richness to complete the gastronomic experience. Thus, when we create an amuse-bouche, we keep all the above points in mind and ensure that it gels well with the overall experience for the guest.”

Then there are chefs like Saini who prefer to use seasonal ingredients for the bite-sized treat. “An amuse-bouche should preferably be made with seasonal ingredients. We also keep in mind dietary specifications like it being dairy-, gluten- and nut-free,” he says, adding, “Many chefs prefer to change it daily, but that’s not mandatory. I personally prefer to not change it too often because sometimes it becomes the signature of the restaurant and replacing it is not a good idea.”

Interestingly, an amuse-bouche can be created and served across cuisines. While Saini at Trésind Mumbai serves cucumber sushi with curd rice, missi roti focaccia and pickled lotus seeds, chef Mehrotra serves blue cheese naan with soup. “We have our signature dish—blue cheese naan with a shot of soup—from the time of inception, which is changed on a daily basis,” he says.
From an aerated burrata to a tomato consommé and a yellow pepper espuma with togarashi to a mango chilli yolk, chef Shetty of Conrad Bengaluru also loves to play around with ingredients. “Our approach towards the amuse-bouche blends with the cuisine offered at the (hotel’s different) restaurants. At Tiamo, for instance, it’s Mediterranean and at Indian Durbar, it’s more Indian,” he quips.

Call it a goodwill gesture from the chef, a display of his culinary artistry or an indication of where the meal is headed, these tiny treats are firmly in the spotlight now. “An amuse-bouche can be made with fancy ingredients or can be a concoction of common ones, but each step counts… innovation, taste, presentation all need to come together beautifully,” says chef Udinia.
Diners are not complaining!

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