It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.
At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.
But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.
Slick and stylish
Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.
Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.
Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”
Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.
Raising the bar
Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.
Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”
With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”
Not just simplistic fusion
“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”
“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”
All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.
“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”