Progressive Indian cuisine is turning desi dining on its head

Summer veggies with a roasted sesame salan at Indian Accent

To misquote Jim Morrison, “Let me tell you a story of bellies, breadsticks and men.” There was an Indian restaurant in Delhi, about six-and-a-half years ago, which had a problem: a lot of its guests would just walk out, stomachs empty and wallets full; at times, one or two tables a day. The problem wasn’t the service, the ambience or even the food; its flavour as Indian as those brilliant streaks of vermillion under a “Do Not Spit” sign. Maybe, it was the surrealist presentation or the fact that the sacrosanct trinity of papad, achaar and pyaaz wasn’t available. In any case, the chef persevered; he went around the tables explaining his concept and vision of Indian food to the guests. The staff was trained to provide menu suggestions which would provide cohesion to a meal, because, the thing is, all those elements of an Indian meal were there (including those sexy, sexy onions) but just in an avant-garde manner. Last month, that restaurant went on to become India’s first entry in Restaurant magazine’s 100 World’s Best List, a coveted honour, generally regarded as the definitive list of the world’s 100 best restaurants. The name of that “faddist” Indian restaurant (as it was known for its first year or so) and its persevering chef? Indian Accent and Manish Mehrotra.

In many ways, the rise of Indian Accent can serve as an analogy to the evolving definition of Indian food, both globally and back home. Progressive Indian is a culinary term increasingly on the lips of everyone, from gourmands to chefs to restaurateurs to the general eating public, comprising you and me, dear reader.

Oh and that hipster dude lurking in the corner. And here’s why that’s awesome and relevant. “It’s what is needed to put Indian food on the global map. We can’t keep holding on to our steel katoris filled with dal and a dollop of ghee and expect to demand the world’s attention,” says Zorawar Kalra, founder-MD of Massive Restaurants, which owns popular brands such as Masala Library (Mumbai), Made In Punjab (Gurgaon and Mumbai) and Farzi cafe (Gurgaon).

While Indian Accent gave the world a ravioli made of traditional khandavi, bacon and hoisin duck stuffed kulchas, Canadian pork ribs marinated in achaar, Masala Library and Farzi introduced scientific cooking (or molecular gastronomy) to Indian food with spherified chaats, sous-vide cooked curries and nitrogen-frozen Indian desserts among other things. “We took a huge risk opening Masala Library. No one was doing scientific cooking with Indian food in India. But its success made us realise that Progressive Indian isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay and it’s the future,” says Kalra, adding that the menus at Made in Punjab are undergoing an overhaul, to cater to the rising demand for “hip Indian food”. “The DNA and the flavour of the food will remain the same, but it will be in brand new creative packaging. The only way forward for Indian food is innovation,” he says.

In a more informal setting, players like Monkey Bar and Impressario Restaurants’ Social (both present in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore) began to tinker with the time-space continuum of desi dining. If Chef Manu Chandra of Monkey Bar delightedly demolished culinary borders by pairing Coorgi Pandi Curry with Levantine Pita or a Chocolate Bombe with dizzying amounts of good Old Monk and dished out avuncular anomalies such as butter chicken khichdi, the Socials did much the same by stuffing sliders with tandoori chicken and adding Goan prawn pickle to the Thai Thali, not to forget a butter chicken biryani.

Butter chicken biryani at SocialButter chicken biryani at Social

Mehrotra defines “Progressive Indian” as “traditional flavous in new combinations and presentations for a global audience”. And that’s certainly the audience it’s garnering. While Farzi is opening in Dubai, New York is set to get an Indian Accent. “New York and London are two cities which belong to the world rather than the US and the UK, in the sense that they’re such a melting pot of cultures. And while New York has some truly beautiful Indian restaurants, we feel there can be a much larger desi presence and the market wants that,” says Mehrotra, adding that the restaurant (operated by Rohit Khattar’s Old World Hospitality) will field an outpost in London as well.

It’s not just abroad, but the market in India is seeing what Kalra refers to as a “gold rush.” “The success of a few brands has made everyone jump on to the Progressive Indian bandwagon,” says Kalra. Chandra, though, has a word of caution: “Just because you can do ‘Modern Indian’ doesn’t mean you should. It requires a lot of trial-and-error to find the right balance, and while things can go right, they can also go abysmally wrong.”

Chandraji’s mutton curry at Monkey Bar and pork  ribs at Farzi Chandraji’s mutton curry at Monkey Bar and pork
ribs at Farzi

Still, they all agree there’s more than enough room in the market, both in the metros and the smaller cities for chefs to play around with the trend. There are Progressive Indian restaurants in the offing later this year from Indore to Ahmedabad. “It doesn’t matter which city they’re from, diners will want their Indian food to evolve. While they’ll want the flavour to remain unchanged, they will definitely be looking for new dining formats and presentations. That’s the thing: Indian food can’t just grow in one direction, be it scientific cooking or an emphasis on regional foods. It will all grow together,” says Kalra. Mehrotra agrees. “With so many players coming in, there’ll be more restaurants leading to more dishes, leading to new concepts. This is the best possible thing that could happen to Indian food to get on a global stage.”

He’s still not going to give you papad as chakna though.